Over 25 years after their deaths, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are once again dominating magazine headlines. Tonight, FX premieres Ryan Murphy's latest true-life series, Feud: Bette and Joan, about the stars' infamous rivalry on the set of the horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? As Murphy's last drama, American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson, transformed Marcia Clark into a feminist hero, Feud aims to give some context to their their catfight with their motivation. They were elderly actresses dueling over the few roles—and awards—the film industry gives to old women.
Along the way, the program also depicts the women's relationships with their daughters. Crawford despises her eldest adopted child, Christina Crawford, even refusing to write her a birthday card because she's an inadequate television actress; Davis forces her daughter B.D. Hyman to take a bit part in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? against her will. Both daughters fail as actresses, and both watch their mothers drink to excess. Because, you know, Hollywood heydays.
What the show doesn't reveal is how both Christina and Hyman later published memoirs that salvaged their mothers' reputations—and changed pop culture forever.
The celebrity scions' parallel lives go back to the 1960s. After Christina failed as a soap opera actress (while she was having surgery, Crawford infamously took her place on The Secret Storm), she went to college. Christina began writing a memoir about their hostile relationship in the mid-1970s. Her manuscript shows a side of Crawford missing from celebrity fan magazines. She describes her mother slapping her, forcing her to eat steak cooked well done, and banning wire hangers from her mansion.
Before her death Crawford learned about the book, according to a Vanity Fair excerpt of Charlotte Chandler's Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography. "I think this book will be full of lies and twisted truths," Crawford told the author. "I don't think my adopted daughter is writing this book just to hurt me. If her purpose were to hurt me, she has already accomplished it without going to the trouble of writing a book." In her will, Crawford wrote that Christina and her brother would not receive a penny "for reasons which are well known to them."
She wouldn't need the money. Christina's 700-page tome came into the possession of William Morrow editor Judy Feiffer, who was famous for pushing Maya Angelou to write the memoir that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Feiffer gave Christina a six-figure book advance. After cutting down the book's length, Feiffer changed the title to Mommie Dearest.
Published in 1978, only 18 months after Crawford's death, the memoir eventually reached number one on the bestseller charts. Some people questioned the validity of the accusations. Christina's younger adopted siblings, Cathy and Cindy, have challenged their sister's account. (A phone call to Christina went unanswered.) In a New York Times review, Clyde Haberman wrote, "This book is Gretel's revenge against the ugly old witch… Still, there's something about Mommie Dearest that leaves a bad taste in the mouth." Many of the book's most memorable scenes—the wire hangers, the screaming while cutting grass—are so strange, they seem too weird for Christina to have made up.
Christina's mission to take control of her life—and narrative—worked. Joan Crawford is no longer a national treasure. She has been "flattened… down into an image" as America's most famous alleged child abuser, as the critic Kristina Longworth writes in Slate. Christina got the literal last word on her mother.
The 1981 film adaptation, starring Faye Dunaway, only furthered the damage. In what Dunaway later called a "Kabuki performance," she slathered her face in white powder and hurled lines like "No more wire hangers!" and "Don't fuck with me, fellas! This isn't my first time at the rodeo!" Both Dunaway and Crawford would forever be remembered as camp icons instead of as Academy Award-winning actresses. Mommie Dearest's camp appeal was odd—alleged child abuse rendered as ridiculous movie scenes—but it's difficult to imagine a version of Mommie Dearest that wouldn't come across as strange. As king of camp John Waters told the Chicago Tribune, "I get why people think it's campy, because Joan Crawford's life was over the top."
Before Christina went public, Americans stayed away from discussions about child abuse. (This was eight years before the premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which helped make child abuse a dinner table topic.) "It was the first time people had a role model to talk about a subject that was taboo before," Christina said in a 2013 interview with Joy Behar.
Perhaps Mommie Dearest's real legacy, though, is how it revolutionized the publishing industry. Celebrities like Billie Holiday released memoirs in the 1950s, but before Feiffer discovered Christina, they were typically glorified press releases written by A-listers. Christina's success made minor celebrities' autobiographies and gossipy pop culture books a hallmark of the best seller's list.
"There have always been biographies and autobiographies filled with criticism," Corlies M. Smith, then the editor in chief of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, told the New York Times in 1991. "But Mommie Dearest sort of opened the floodgates, so that now trashing people in print is good business."
Bless God, we have our Holy Ghost Flu Shots.
Today, nearly every major publisher has an imprint dedicated to books by and about celebrities, and publishers released a slew of difficult mother memoirs from celebrity offspring in the 1980s, like the memoir of Lana Turner's only daughter, Cheryl Crane. The most successful Mommie Dearest rip-off was B.D. Hyman's My Mother's Keeper.
At age 16, Hyman had married 29-year-old Jeremy Hyman, who remains her husband. In the early 1980s, Hyman decided to write about the devil in her life, her mother Bette Davis. She called it My Mother's Keeper. The book is now out of print (it's not even available at the Los Angeles County Public Library, an institution that revers celebrity memoirs like they're Shakespearean plays), but according to the Hook, a Christian magazine, the memoir describes Davis battling alcoholism and pretending to commit suicide to teach a young Hyman a lesson.
While editing the book, Hyman claims she converted to Evangelical Christianity. She told the Hook that God encouraged her to publish her memoir: "He made it very clear to me, the Lord did, that this was part of His plan and that this book was to go right ahead." In 1984, William Morrow, Christina's publisher, released Hyman's memoir.
A Los Angeles Times report describes a massive backlash to Hyman's accusations about Bette's lack of parenting skills. Davis's lawyer mailed William Morrow and several newspapers letters, describing the book as "clearly libelous." Her fourth husband, Gary Merrill, even protested outside a bookshop. (In an email, Hyman declined to comment.) At the time, she told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not worried about there being anything libelous in the book. Morrow's lawyers went through it with a fine tooth comb. Second, this is not another Mommie, Dearest. I wrote this book while my mother is still alive and able to say what she likes about it. And I don't claim she abused me. She did not." She claims she wrote the book "to understand [Davis]."
Hyman may argue that she wrote the book to "understand" her mother, but the memoir neither changed nor tarnished her reputation. Unlike Crawford, Davis was alive to defend herself. In 1987, she published her own version of events, This 'N That, that ends with a letter to Hyman: "Many of the scenes in your book I have played in the screen," she explains. "It could be you have confused the 'me' on the screen with 'me' who is your mother… this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the privileged life I feel you have been given." To strengthen her defence, Davis agreed to a televised interview to Barbara Walters after years of refusing to speak to the journalist. "She was answering back her daughter," Walters later explained. "She was happy to be known as a difficult woman, to the very end." In the interview, Davis begs Hyman to let her play herself if she ever sells the TV rights.
When she died in 1989, Davis followed in the footsteps of her archenemy Joan Crawford: She left her daughter nothing. Hyman found herself in a precarious financial situation. After the book's publication, she had moved with her husband to Virginia. According to the Hook, the they lost their fortune in 1987's stock market crash. "Satan stole all of our money," she explained to the magazine. She says that she worked on odd jobs like sewing wedding dresses, until she began earning a living as a painter.
By the late 1990s, she had turned to selling tapes of her preaching and hosting Teaching Ministry of B.D. Hyman on the Christian network Angel One. In one of several YouTube videos of her TV sermons, the blonde points at the Bible with her silver French press nails. She's surrounded by religious texts and statues of fish and swans. Her preaching served as the basis for her 2002 self-published book The Rapture, The Tribulation, and Beyond. The Hook reports it describes how the Antichrist promotes "his agenda of homosexuality" and Harry Potter introduces kids to witchcraft. "I don't care if there are biological weapons," Hyman told the magazine. "I don't care if one lands on my roof because I am protected by the blood of Jesus. And so is my family, and so are our partners. Bless God, we have our Holy Ghost Flu Shots." She goes on to claim her Christian tapes can cure AIDS: "We have partners in the ministry who were in the final stage of AIDS when… we began standing with them against this thing and praying for their healing. And they listened to tapes and got themselves built up in the Word, and they no longer have AIDS. They don't even have HIV! They have pure blood."
Christina took a different route to support herself. According to a 2013 New Yorker profile, she has owned a bed and breakfast, worked as an entertainment manager at the Coeur D'Alene Casino in Idaho, and served as the Commissioner of Benewah County. She told reporter Michael Schulman that she detested her writing's campy reputation: "It's because the movie became a melodrama and it lost a sense of reality. But that doesn't change the fact that it makes me sad that it turned out that way." She has, though, exploited her campy reputation for money. In 2013, she performed A Conversation with Christina Crawford: Live and Onstage in Surviving Mommie Dearest in Time Square's Snapple Theatre Center.
Hyman has made less pointed attempts to associate herself with the public perception of her, but she comes across as even campier in her telecasts because she's not trying. In one sermon available on YouTube, for instance, she accuses her mother of witchcraft. "When I would not do what she wanted with my life, when I would not leave my husband, be at her beck and call, she vowed to get even with me," she explains. "She couldn't hurt me, because she and I had faced off, but she vowed to destroy my sons… I thought it was a bad, B-grade movie script she was inventing… but a few years later, my oldest son was totally overtaken with mental illness—bipolar personality. He was homicidal; he was suicidal."
Hyman and Christina both wrote their memoirs to control their stories and take center stage after years deferring to their mothers. But because of their attempts, they ended up linking themselves to their family heritage forever. Over 20 years after the publication of their memoirs, it turns out that it's impossible to escape a famous mommie dearest.