What really happened to Joan Crawford? Three weeks after her death, the mystery lingers like something from one of her old movies. There are questions not only about the circumstances of her death, but also about the last months of her life. Did she die on the morning of May 10 peacefully in her bedroom at 150 East 69th Street from "an acute coronary occlusion" as the death certificate says? Or is it possible that the woman who had no history of heart trouble might have wanted to die?
Could she, as suggested by a writer and "friend" in this week's People magazine, have "taken an overdose of sleeping pills"? Why was there no autopsy?
Was she, as her best friends suggest, "busy, busy, busy" right up until the end with activities like redecorating her huge five-room apartment and writing thank-you notes? Or was she lonely and disgusted that after 81 movies and circling the globe for Pepsi-Cola, her late husband's company, there was nothing else?
Her friends say she loved TV, the soaps in the afternoon and Home Box Office at night. She also wrote to stars she liked. She enjoyed mopping up the bathroom, just like "Harriet Craig," she would say. For the past 18 months or so she rarely left the apartment, Once she indicated it was a chore putting herself together. But the phone constantly rang and her friends visited.
Four days before her death she gave away her beloved dog, Princess. Princess Lotus Blossom Crawford, a shih-tzu, who slept in a custom-made bed and whose very name was linked with hers in all those thank-you notes. Giving the dog away was more puzzling to her friends than the fact that she cut out two of her four adopted children from her will.
Her friends, who shun the very thought of suicide, can't account for that - except to say that months before her death, Crawford hurt her back and perhaps felt she couldn't care for Princess as she would have liked.
Crawford's age is a mystery, too. By her own account she was born March 23, 1908, making her 69, but certain reference works indicate she might have been two or four years older.
According to Dr. Lawrence Greenman, a one-day-a-week assistant medical examiner with the New York County office, no autopsy was performed, because "I didn't think the circumstances called for one. There was nothing in my evaluation to suspect suicide in any way."
He said that when he got to Crawford's apartment at noon on May 10, her longtime lawyer, Edward S. Cowen, was there with two women. Neither was a relative of the dead woman.
Greenman was told the circumstances of death - which he does not choose to divulge because it would be "an invasion of privacy" and found found nothing to question. He placed the time of death, as told to him, at about 10 a.m.
While Greenman allows that only a blood sample could really show whether barbiturates were taken, he points out that there were no vials or pills in the apartment, and there was no note.
"I do know the location of the body, in her own bed, and she appeared to be well looked after. There was no disarray, no disorder. Sometimes a suicide body is found in certain ways, which was not the case here."
Greenman was also told that the actress was a Christian Scientist, that she had not been taking any medication, and that she did not even have a private doctor.
On Friday, May 13, there was a brief Christian service for Crawford. As stipulated in her will, she was cremated - as was her forth and last husband, Alfred N. Steele when he died in 1959. He was the one she always said she loved best. Steele had been Pepsi's board chairman.
"The replies to all questions I asked made me feel the cause of death was natural," says Greenman, whose specialty is psychiatry. He has been an assistant medical examiner for six months. Cowan, Crawford's lawyer, refused to say anything beyond what he has told the papers already - that "death was sudden," that "she wasn't feeling great, she was a little tired," and that she had no previous history of heart trouble. He will not say who else was with her when she died.
Asked whether or not she had been lonely or depressed, Cowan replied, "You're talking about areas which I believe are personal, and subject to misconstruction.
According to publicist Michael Sean O'Shea, who had been Crawford's friend for 37 years, the actress "wasn't depressed at all. She was just in agony with her back." Apparently, she had injured her back moving a table last fall. On Mother's Day weekend just before her death, she was bedridden.
On the morning of her death, says O'Shea, the two women with her included a friend and a member of the household staff. He last spoke to the actress on Mother's Day, two days before she died. He scoffs at the People magazine report that she was sad because she was "alone" on Mother's Day.
"Sheer nonsense," he said, "Christina sent flowers." Cynthia Crawford Jordan of Newton, Iowa told The Post she spoke with her mother that day, too. "I just called to ask how she was, and to say I love her. No, I did not see her. I wrote her letters and things like that."
A manager in a K-mart store, Cynthia Jordan said she had not seen her mother in six years because Iowa was too far away. Neither she nor any of Crawford's friends would say why two of the four adopted children did not receive any bequets.
What particularly offends some of Crawford's friends about the People magazine piece is the insinuation by writer Doris Lilly that the actress was "preparing to die." They say she always "gave things away," that she had a fetish for cleanliness, and that while she was concerned about personal security - "just like the rest of us," says one - she never had locks on her bedroom door.