Feud: Why the Real Fight Between Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe Was Even Nastier and Juicier

Iconcocting his larger-than-life, technicolor re-telling of the infamous Hollywood conflict between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Feud creator Ryan Murphy, understandably, took some creative liberties. Though in many places, the new FX series is meticulously, slavishly accurate, we’re not watching a documentary. Murphy is dishing up something much sudsier—and that relaxed approach to the truth is on display within its first few moments, when the show’s premiere depicts a slightly skewed version of Crawford very publicly dragging Marilyn Monroe in the press. The fact, believe it or not, is even nastier than the fiction.

In Feud’s version, the clash between these two on-screen titans has its genesis at the 1961 Golden Globes. That makes sense; it fits in with the timeline that Murphy is working with; and, after all, Monroe v. Crawford isn’t the main attraction of the series: it’s just the opening act. In actuality, Crawford’s sour response to Monroe came much earlier, in 1953, when the younger actress won Photoplay magazine’s Rising Star award. (Think of it as the 50s version of the People’s Choice Awards.) Here’s rare outtake footage of Monroe, in a tight, low-cut gold lamé gown William Travilla had designed for her to wear in the upcoming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, graciously accepting her award. (Can you imagine an actress now wearing a costume from an upcoming film to an awards show?) You’d never know it from the video, but Monroe had just made a career-changing fashion decision.

Travilla also designed Monroe’s most famous costume: the white pleated halter dress from The Seven-Year Itch. But it was this gold number that won Monroe a standing ovation in 1953. According to Ted Schwarz’s 2009 biography, Marilyn Revealed: The Ambition Life of an American Icon, Marilyn’s gown was so impossibly tight it had to be sewn on to her body. She was told by Travilla that “the nature of the material would make her appear to be naked, her body covered with paint.” Monroe’s then-husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio, flat-out refused to accompany her to the ceremony in that scandalous dress.

Because the gown was so precariously situated on her figure, Monroe opted to skip the dinner and dancing portion of the evening—she was warned the dress might rip or fall to pieces. So the actress arrived very late—two hours late, in fact—just in time to get her award. According to gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, Monroe “wriggled in, wearing the tightest of tight gold dresses. While everyone watched, the blonde swayed sinuously down the long room to her place on the dais. She had stopped the show cold.”

Emcee Jerry Lewis jumped on a table and “began howling” at her approach, while Associated Press reporter Jim Bacon crudely described his rear view of Monroe’s assent to the stage as looking like “two puppies fighting under a silk sheet.” Though most of the gold dress scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would wind up on the cutting room floor—perhaps for modesty reasons—some seconds of footage of a swaying Monroe remain proving Bacon’s description—though crude—wasn’t far off the mark.

The morning after the Photoplay Awards, gossip columnist Florabel Muir did precisely the thing Feud captures so perfectly: pit “yesterday’s ‘It girl’ against today’s.” In her Daily Mirror column, she wrote:

With one little twist of her derriere, Marilyn Monroe stole the show… The assembled guests broke into wild applause, [while] two other screen stars, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, got only casual attention. After Marilyn every other girl appeared dull by contrast.

Crawford—not one to take a blow like that lying down—struck out via her own favorite gossip columnist (and eventual biographer) Bob Thomas. (Sorry, Feud fans: Hedda Hopper was not involved in this particular published skirmish.)

Thomas quoted Crawford as saying: “With one little twist of her derriere, Marilyn Monroe stole the show… The assembled guests broke into wild applause, [while] two other screen stars, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, got only casual attention. After Marilyn every other girl appeared dull by contrast. “

Crawford—not one to take a blow like that lying down—struck out via her own favorite gossip columnist (and eventual biographer) Bob Thomas. (Sorry, Feud fans: Hedda Hopper was not involved in this particular published skirmish.)

Thomas quoted Crawford as saying: It was like a burlesque show. The audience yelled and shouted, and Jerry Lewis got up on the table and whistled. But those of us in the industry just shuddered. . .Sex plays a tremendously important part in every person’s life. People are interested in it, intrigued with it. But they don’t like to see it flaunted in their faces. . . The publicity has gone too far. She is making the mistake of believing her publicity. Someone should make her see the light. She should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.

It was basically a verbal version of Sophia Loren’s infamous side-eye glance at Jayne Mansfield.

Before we get to Marilyn’s published response to Joan, it’s worth pausing to note how much the earlier date—1953 vs. Feud’s 1961—changes the tenor of Crawford’s catty remarks. In 1953, Monroe was on the rise but had still just barely moved into leading lady territory. Her biggest hits—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop—were all still in her future. Crawford, meanwhile, was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe that same year for Sudden Fear—and, though she’s a quasi-grieving widow when she strikes out at Monroe in Feud, in reality she had yet to meet her fourth husband, Al Steele, when she dragged Monroe in the press. In 1953, Crawford was a woman at one of the peaks of her rather tumultuous career, viciously punching down at the new kid on the block.

And Monroe—or at least Monroe’s team—took full advantage of those optics. In a statement to Hedda Hopper’s bitter rival, Louella Parsons, Monroe said:  Although I don’t know Miss Crawford very well, she was a symbol to me of kindness and understanding to those who need help. At first, all I could think of was why should she select me to blast? She is a great star. I’m just starting. And then, when the first hurt began to die down, I told myself she must have spoken to Mr. Thomas impulsively, without thinking. . .

That bit about Crawford being a symbol wasn’t just lip service. Crawford had previously invited Monroe to her home and given the younger actress some early career advice. According to Charlotte Chandler’s 2009 Joan Crawford biography Not the Girl Next Door, Monroe would later tell her Prince and the Showgirl (1957) co-star, Laurence Olivier, how much she admired Crawford for adopting children. According to Chandler, Monroe, a foster child herself, “couldn’t say enough about what Joan had done, and Marilyn was impressed that she didn’t just depend on a man to support her economically or emotionally. Marilyn admired that kind of courage, though she didn’t feel she had it herself . . . She thought she was a saint. Saint Joan. Saint Joan Crawford!” All that “Saint Joan” rhetoric aside, according to Schwarz, Crawford was conspicuously not invited to a star-studded 1954 dinner celebrating Monroe’s blockbuster year. This was a feud that lasted.

So what, if anything, of the 1961 Golden Globes does Feud paint accurately? Well, for one thing, Monroe actually won her Globe the year before. She took home the 1960 award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for 1959’s Some Like It Hot. You can see some rare footage of Monroe—comparatively more modestly attired—attending the ceremony here long before these things were televised.

Crawford wasn’t nominated for a Globe in 1960, and neither actress was nominated in 1961. But there is one thing Feud likely got very right about that specifics awards ceremony: Crawford’s level of intoxication. Enduring Golden Globes power player Judy Solomon recalls that the 1961 Globes were a particularly well-lubricated night. Speaking to the official Globes site, she said: “We had a Swedish journalist as president, and she had too much to drink and when she gave her speech. Instead of talking into the microphone, she was talking into the lamp.” According to Solomon, Monroe was also tipsy that evening. And Crawford? “Oh, she was so drunk, she couldn’t even speak. Or walk.” In other words, Feud nailed it.

Source: vanityfair.com