Joan Crawford had a career that spanned silent films and talkies, lasting from 1925 to 1970. She appeared in at least 100 films (including made-for-TV movies) in her life. However, despite the impact she left on cinema, much of her lasting image in pop culture has been determined by a role she played off-screen: mother. Or, as she supposedly made her children call her, Mommie Dearest. Crawford's relationship with her kids has received tons of attention in the years since her death, with conflicting reports on whether or not she was abusive towards them. But how many children did Joan Crawford have?
Crawford adopted five children, though she was only able to raise four of them: Christina, Christopher, Cathy, and Cynthia (called Cindy). She adopted Christina first in 1940 as a single mother, originally naming her Joan Crawford Jr. before changing her mind. Her next child was adopted alongside her husband at the time, Phillip Terry, but that adoption didn't end up working out. The son they adopted (named Christopher) was taken back by his birth mother after a year in Crawford's care, so she and Terry adopted another son. While their second boy was named after Terry at first, Crawford decided to change his name when the marriage dissolved and named him Christopher, too. Why waste a good name, right? Identical twins Cindy and Cathy were adopted by Crawford in 1947, again as a single mother.
Though the twins appeared to have had a good relationship with Crawford, the same could not be said for her oldest children. Things were contentious between Crawford, Christina, and Christopher from early on in their childhood and by the time their mother died, both had cut off contact with her. Crawford also disinherited them both. Though their lives may have looked picture-perfect from the outside, the reality was quite different, at least according to Christina in her explosive memoir, Mommie Dearest.
The publication of Mommie Dearest after Crawford's death challenged everything the public thought they knew about her and permanently damaged Crawford's legacy. Christina alleged that her mother was an alcoholic who physically and verbally abused her and Christopher, as well as neglected Christina by sending her off to boarding school at the age of 10 and leaving her there even over the summer. When the book was adapted into the movie of the same name, the shrieking, unhinged image of Crawford it presented became impossible to forget.
Many of Crawford's friends expressed doubt and disbelief over Christina's accounts, as did her daughters Cindy and Cathy. In an interview with Charlotte Chandler for a biography about Crawford, Cathy said, "We lived in the same house as Christina, but we didn't live in the same home, because she had her own reality. Cindy and I had a different reality — the opposite. I don't know where she got her ideas. Our Mommie was the best mother anyone ever had."
However, it is not uncommon for only one or two children to be targeted by an abusive parent. With so many conflicting reports, there is no definitive way to know the truth, but the fact that both Christina and her brother have told similar stories does bear noting. Whatever really happened, Crawford's image will forever be linked to the picture painted of her by her children.