Robert Dance presents Joan Crawford biography and film series at the Norfolk Library
Joan Crawford, left, with Genie Chester Photo submitted

Robert Dance presents Joan Crawford biography and film series at the Norfolk Library

Norfolk resident and author Robert Dance is presenting his new biography “Ferocious Ambition: Joan Crawford’s March to Stardom” and a film series featuring Crawford at the Norfolk Library. 

Norfolk Library director Ann Havemeyer said: “The first film screening was great.  Lots of people came, even those who had seen "Mildred Pierce" several times, and everyone agreed it was just wonderful to watch the film on the big screen. All his books were sold, and he has ordered more for the next screening on Nov. 10 of "Sudden Fear."

Crawford became the potential subject of a biography during a conversation with Dance’s publisher soon after he delivered the manuscript of his previous book, “The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood.”

“Craig Gill of the University Press of Mississippi told me that he had his best successes with “lives.” Jokingly I responded, ‘You’re not going to make me write a book on Joan Crawford.’ ‘If you do,’ he said, ‘I’ll publish it.’”

Dance had read “Mommie Dearest,” written by Crawford’s daughter Christina, which was a bestseller in the late ‘70s and chronicles her mother’s meteoric rise as well as her abusive parenting. 

“Christina’s remarkable story was the first in what has now become an industry of survivor stories told from the point of view of the victim. She suffered terribly at the hands of her mother, as did her younger brother. How to reconcile this story with Crawford’s brilliant career as possibly the greatest actress to come from the golden age of Hollywood became my quest,” Dance said. 

Although Dance had written many books about classic Hollywood, he did not consider himself an authority on Crawford. To immerse himself in his subject, he watched her films, from her first silent films from 1925 through the 1970s. He also researched her life and career using primary resources to describe her upward trajectory in the world of cinema. 

“It took four years for her to become a star. When she did, Crawford became the epitome of cool, elegant sophistication and chic, and was Hollywood’s first ‘influencer.’ When she wore a dress on screen, it was copied by the tens of thousands days after the film was released. She was the most imitated woman in America,” he said. 

“When she arrived at MGM, the studio that would nurture her career, and where she would stay for 18 years (1925-1943), she was untrained, gauche, overweight, pretty, but hardly movie-star attractive. Through her amazing will and ferocious ambition, she transformed Lucille LeSueur (Crawford’s birth name) from Kansas City into the ‘queen of the movies.’ Not only was her assent improbable, but so too was her staying power. Perhaps most striking was her ability to reinvent herself with the passing of years. She reimagined her career at the age of 40 when she moved to Warner Bros. and became a brilliant dramatic actress,” he added. 

The film series at The Norfolk Library began on Friday, Oct. 27, with Crawford’s first Warner Bros. film “Mildred Pierce.” Based on a novel by James M. Cain, the film tells the tragic story of a single mother with two children and her struggles to achieve financial and personal success. The movie contains sharp social observations and intense emotional violence. 

“Crawford won the Academy Award for her performance and proved, even back in 1945, that life could ‘begin’ even for a woman who had just turned 40,” Dance said. 

“Sudden Fear” (1952), which garnered another Academy Award nomination for Crawford — to be shown at the Norfolk Library on  Nov. 10 —will be followed by “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) on Friday, Dec. 1. Both films come from the later part of Crawford’s career and show her continued relevance throughout the decades.  

Throughout his research, Dance was surprised to learn that virtually every one of Crawford’s 80 films was a box-office success. Another revelation was that though she was known as being extraordinarily generous to her inner circle, Crawford privately maintained four rooms at Hollywood Hospital for folks who were unable to pay and covered doctor’s bills.

Crawford even had a connection to Litchfield County. “Crawford was a close friend of Lakeville resident Genie Chester [daughter of Colby Chester, head of General Foods]. They met when Crawford was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., her first husband, and remained lifelong friends. Chester was one of many friends with whom she maintained an active correspondence,” Dance said. 

The legacy of Crawford still resonates today. Though many of Hollywood’s female stars like Garbo, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn have faded, Crawford remains a vital presence. 

Dance said, “Crawford reads contemporary and unmannered, and the age-old story of the woman from the wrong side of the tracks who, through grit and determination, succeeds spectacularly, has staying power.”

Reservations for the next two screenings of Joan Crawford films followed by Dance’s book talk are recommended and can be made through the Norfolk Library website at

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