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"This month's obits of Joan Crawford chronicled her tough, traumatic youth, her 81 movies and her driving second career as the director of Pepsi-Cola Company. But there was no accounting for the eerie last 18 months of her 70-odd years. One of the few who knew was showbiz correspondent Doris Lilly, a close confidante and neighbor in the Manhattan apartment building where Crawford lived since 1967. Lilly is the author of the best-selling How to Marry a Millionaire; the forthcoming book Glamour Girl; and, for PEOPLE, of this highly personal account of the movie queen's last months and curious death.
Did Joan Crawford take her own life? As an experienced reporter and Joan's friend, I can only conclude that she did. She was cremated, according to her wishes, and no autopsy was performed to see if she might have taken an overdose of pills. Yet there is much evidence that she was preparing to die.
Among the many "coincidences": Her death occurred on May 10, the 22nd anniversary of her marriage to her fourth and last husband, the late Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele -- the only man, she said, she really loved. (Years after his death in 1959, she still set a place for him at the dinner table.) Starting in February, she began "cleaning out," sending me and a few other friends household items that she said she would no longer need. Just two days prior to her death, on Mother's Day, she told me she spent the day alone; none of her four adopted children came to call. The next day Joan sent her beloved pet Shih Tzu, Princess, away to be taken care of by friends in the country. In fact, Princess had not been outside the building for over a year, much less separated from her adoring mistress.
The coroner's office said this great star died of heart failure, and in a way they were right. Her heart had been broken, and she died from a lethal dose of loneliness -- and fear. Unbeknownst to even some of her closest friends, Joan had received an anonymous phone call in the winter of 1975. "I will kill you," the caller said. "You won't know where or when, but I will get you." Terrified, she called in the police and the FBI. For months her 22nd-floor five-room apartment was under guard. A variety of exotic locks, latches and alarms were installed. For the last 18 months she had refused to set foot outside her apartment. To reach her, I was given a number to call, leave a message and wait for her to call back. When she slept, it was behind bolts in her bedroom, with a pale pink night-light burning.
During those months of self-imposed exile, I saw a great deal of Joan Crawford. Along with her psychiatrist and perhaps a few dozen others, I was one of the few. Joan had her meals delivered in and busied herself writing thousands of notes, for which she had become famous over the years.
But what she loved most was cleaning. "There's a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us," she once told me, referring to the meticulous housecleaner she portrayed in one of her films. A visit to Joan's apartment was like a visit to a hospital operating room. A houseboy waxed the parquet floors every other day. "I gave up carpets years ago," she explained, "when I realized I couldn't keep them clean all the time." The draperies were cleaned once a month; plastic liners were installed on the windowsills. Some live by the sword, but Joan Crawford lived by the mop. The maid, Frieda, was always scouring in the kitchen, and Joan would often join in. Just three weeks before her death she had strained her back scrubbing the floor.
Each and every piece of furniture - and the walls - had been treated with a vinylizing process that could not be penetrated by dirt. There were no fresh flowers or plants. In the film Harriet Craig Harriet finally loses her crackerjack maid by demanding that the tree outside the back window be washed and waxed. Joan, too, filled her apartment with yellow wax flowers and plastic plants -- ones that could be swabbed with soap and water.
Although there have been stories that this once great beauty had gone to ruin, nothing could have been further from the truth. There was a time when she carried a flask of 100-proof vodka to parties, but that was long ago. She stopped drinking completely six months ago and quit chain-smoking cold turkey. Her figure was slim and taut, and she let her hair go salt-and-pepper gray. She didn't wear or need makeup. Thanks to expert plastic surgery and a superb bone structure, she could have passed for 55.
Still, Joan was desperately unhappy. After the death of Alfred Steele, she played a major role as Pepsi's spokeswoman for more than a decade. But PepsiCo's current chairman, Donald Kendall, had frozen her out completely over the past two years. She still wanted to act, but now the scripts weren't coming in. Last March 21 the American Film Institute honored her archrival Bette Davis with a nationally televised tribute. No one approached Joan, and it hurt. Nonetheless, Joan, an avid TV watcher, told me that she thought the event was a glamorous tribute to a great star. For this performance alone, Joan Crawford could have earned another Oscar."