Debunking The Death of Joan Crawford

How did Joan Crawford die? The answer is: Cardiac arrest while suffering from pancreatic cancer

     Joan Crawford passed away on the morning of May 10th, 1977. Joan's death was due to heart failure attributed to cancer.

On Joan's death certificate, the medical examiner listed the official cause of death as cardiac arrest. Based upon the symptoms she experienced in the year prior to her death, which included weight loss, back pain, ascites of the stomach and death relatively soon after the initial onset of the physical symptoms, Joan's cancer was most probably pancreatic. 

     In the summer of 1975, Joan dismissed her regular physician and personal friend, Dr. Nicholas Pace, in lieu of her strong renewed interest in Christian Science, which focuses upon prayer as a means of healing the physical body and spirit. Joan had been a Christian Scientist for several decades, but was not always in strict practice.

     Based upon this Webmaster's 2019 interview with Dr. Pace, it is highly likely that Joan did receive an actual medical diagnosis of cancer prior to her dismissal of Dr. Pace and she knew the prognosis of her illness. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is extremely small in modern day, and the mortality rate was even higher in the mid 1970s. Joan would have know that she would not live much longer, and she elected to spend the remainder of her life focusing on her spirituality in the comforts of her own home.

     According to Darinka Papich, Joan's caregiver, and the woman with Joan when she passed away, Joan died from natural causes. This was also stated by Joan's Christian Science practitioner, Marque Campbell, in an unpublished 1977 interview. 

     This Webmaster interviewed Joan's dog groomer, Terry, in 2019. Terry told me that she last saw Joan on May 5th, when she came to the apartment to give Joan's pet Shih Tzu, Princess Lotus Blossom, her weekly bath and grooming. After Terry had groomed Princess, she went to Joan's bedroom, where Joan was in bed, to let her know she was finished and that she would see her next week. Joan told her, "No, you won't be coming next week." According to Terry, she asked Joan why, and Joan became emotional and abruptly asked her to leave. The next day, Joan gave Princess to Darinka's sister, Zora.

     According to those close to Joan, she had become too weak to pick up the small dog and she was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that she was not going to live much longer. Joan wanted to ensure Princess would be taken care of by a responsible person, therefore, she arraigned it while she still alive, rather than allow it to be left open-ended after her death.

     It has been commonly cited that Joan was "alone" during the final years of her life, and that she died "alone." Neither of these claims are accurate.

Through this Webmaster's research and interviews with those who were in Joan's apartment during the last year of her life, I can confirm that Joan had an very strong support system of people who assisted her throughout her illness. A lady named Donna Helma, who was the owner of one of Joan's favorite restaurants, Casa Brazil, visited Joan on a near-daily basis. Donna Helma brought Joan her favorite dishes from the restaurant and walked Princess.

     By March 1977, Donna Helma's sister, Frieda, began working as an assistant for Joan, and was also in Joan's apartment on a near-daily basis to help Joan with her personal needs, walk Princess, do errands and clean the apartment.

     Aside from Frieda, Bernice O'Shatz (an original member of the Joan Crawford Fan Club) and Darinka Papich were assistants to Joan during this time, and helped her with anything she may need.

     In addition to these women, Marque Campbell visited Joan regularly throughout the week, offering Joan prayer sessions and conversations whenever needed. When Joan became very ill during her final days, Mrs. Campbell arraigned for Christian Scientist nurses to come to Joan's apartment to assist her with anything she may need.

     All of these people came together to be fully supportive of Joan during her illness, and to do everything they could to make Joan happy and comfortable within her own home - a luxury that many do not have in their final stage of life. Joan did pay these women for their time, but they were also friends to Joan, who truly cared about her and her wellbeing.

    Because Joan did not want the world to know of her illness, and therefore be bombarded during her final days with letters, telephone calls and visits of pity, Joan kept her illness private, even to many of her close friends. Due to this element, many people, particularly those who have written about her, incorrectly though Joan must have died unhappy and alone. This was a baseless, incorrect, conclusion.

     Following Joan's death, a rumor emerged in the press that she had possibly committed suicide. This rumor had a singular point of origin: Gossip columnist, and Imperial House resident, Doris Lilly.

     A self-proclaimed "outrageous gossip," Lilly had received notoriety over the years as the author of several sensationalist books, the brief former girlfriend to Ronald Reagan, and a columnist for "Playgirl" magazine. Early in life, Lilly had attempted to be an actress, and, at one time, was reportedly under contract to Cecil B. DeMille, however, no actual acting credits have ever been attributed to Lilly.

     In early 1976, Lilly moved into apartment "8M" on the 8th floor of Imperial House. Lilly immediately sought out a friendship with Joan, and they had a brief acquaintanceship for a period of time, which had dissolved by the time of Joan's death. However, this did not stop Lilly from attempting to intrude into Joan's life once she suspected Joan may have been ill.

     According to Selma Mertz, Joan's close friend and her neighbor across the hall, Lilly came to Joan's apartment throughout 1977. When Lilly knocked on Joan's door, Joan would answer and tell Lilly that she was busy and could not receive visitors. Suspecting Joan was ill, Lilly continued to come to the 22nd floor and knock on Joan's door asking if there was anything she needed. Lilly used this merely as a pretense in an attempt to get into Joan's apartment.

Joan told Selma Mertz, "There's a vicious bitch in house." Joan did not trust Lilly, and resented her disturbing her peace.

     When Joan passed away, Lilly, in classic gossip columnist fashion, decided to tell the press that she believed Joan committed suicide, and that Joan planned it in advance. Lilly based this claim solely upon two aspects of Joan's death. The date of Joan's death coincided with the anniversary of Joan's 1955 marriage to Alfred Steele, and that Joan had given away Princess Lotus Blossom shortly before her death.

Lilly quickly took her claim to "People" magazine, who commissioned her to write an article on sensationalist article on Joan's final days and death.

     On May 30th, 1977, "People" magazine published a gossip article written by Doris Lilly entitled "Joan Crawford's Eerie Last Months."

Within the article, Lilly blatantly lied, claiming Joan had undergone plastic surgery (which she hadn't. Click here to visit the debunking page regarding that false claim), and that she had seen "a great deal of Joan" during Joan's final months, which was also not true. In fact, this was the time period when Joan was avoiding Lilly when Lilly was attempting to push her way into Joan's apartment.

     The majority of the information Lilly provided in the "People" magazine article was information she had obtained from questioning Joan's unsuspecting friends after Joan's death.

     According to a May 28th, 1977 article in The New York Post, Dr. Lawrence Greenman, the New York County medical examiner who arrived to Joan's apartment on the day of her death, there was no suspicion that Joan committed suicide. Based upon his discussions with Joan's attorney, Edward Cowan, Darinka Papich and Bernice O'Shatz, Dr. Greenman was satisfied that Joan passed away due to natural causes.

     On June 2nd, 1977, Doris Lilly appeared on "The Today Show," to promote her "People" magazine article. NBC correspondent Linda Ellerbee questioned Lilly's claims, asking her what evidence she had that Joan committed suicide. As within her article, Lilly attempted to present Joan as a clean-aholic recluse who planned her own death. In her attempts to appear to be Joan's "close friend," Lilly cited events in Joan's life were mentioned in various articles when Joan died; namely in regard to Joan attending the Rainbow Room party in 1974, which Lilly had also attended.

     Lilly's baseless claims were sold to other magazines, including "Photoplay Film Monthy" in July 1977, "Movie Stars" magazine in September 1977 and "The National Enquirer" in October 1979.

     Within "The National Enquirer" article, Lilly further embellished her story by now claiming Joan had actually called her on the telephone the day before her death crying and saying, "I'm so unhappy, I can't go on living." I deem this claim by Lilly to be erroneous. As documented by Darinka Papich and Selma Mertz's recollections of Joan's final days and death, Joan was in very bad physical condition on May 9th, and would more than likely would not have made such calls, and most definitely would not have called Lilly, whom Joan had been avoiding for several months.

     Interestingly, Doris Lilly's own final years and death were to mirror the persona she falsely attach onto Joan. Lilly, who never married, died from cancer on October 9th, 1991 at age 69, the age Joan claimed to have been at the time of her death in 1977. Lilly's final article, written for "Avenue" magazine, was, coincidentally, a rehash of her claim to have known Joan "well."

Doris Lilly in 1990: