Count Lee William Carnette shares his recollection of meeting Joan Crawford during the Seattle Seafair in 1968, followed by his continued correspondence with Crawford until her death in 1977. Special thanks to Count Carnette for sharing his memories with this website.
In the summer of 1968, I learned through a news report that my favorite film actress would be arriving in my city to take part in our annual Seattle Seafair celebrations. She would crown our new Seafair Queen and be the Grand Marshall of our Seafair Parade.
I wasted no time in trying to secure an interview with her. I was very early into my career as a pianist and vocalist, and I wanted to speak with Miss Crawford about the entertainment field and ask if she had any advice for a young person pursuing a career in this field.
I typed a note---and even enclosed a framed autographed glossy 8" x 10" photo! (Only a 16-year old was have done that!) I included my address and phone number in my note. It took a bit of detective work to discover which hotel Miss Crawford was residing at.
Once my guess was confirmed, I dropped off my package and waited to see if I'd be lucky enough to receive a response.
I was not disappointed. At 9:30 pm, my phone rang. It was Joan Crawford!
I recall covering up only the mouthpiece of the phone, leaving the earpiece uncovered, and yelling to my mother: "Mom! It's JOAN CRAWFORD!!" I'm sure she must have heard my excitement, although when I quickly returned to the conversation I said in a very calm voice, "Why, Miss Crawford, what a pleasant surprise." I'm sure she was amused at this 16-year-old trying to act so grown up.
In her cool modulated voice, she thanked me for the note and the photograph, and asked me if I had in my young career ever held a press conference. I answered that I had not. She said that I would someday soon, and asked if I would be interested in accompanying her to her press conference the following day. Of course I was interested! "We'll chat in the car and you can ask me your questions. Can you meet me at 10:30 am in the hotel lobby?"
Needless to say, I got no sleep that night. This was great excitement for a 16-year-old to process, but I was going to make the most of this unique experience.
I was to meet Joan Crawford at 10:30 am, but was at the hotel at 9:00! When she stepped out of the elevator with the others in her party, I jumped to my feet and introduced myself. I handed her a gift of an antique book from my library: "Lucille" by Owen Meredith. (This was an odd coincidence because Miss Crawford's birth name was Lucille.)
"I hope you enjoy antique books, Miss Crawford," I said.
"I do," she replied.
She smiled and took me by the arm, introducing me to everyone as her "adopted son." She had the gift of knowing what to say to make a young person feel important. After all, she was a mother.
We settled into the shiny black limousine. Miss Crawford sat in the front seat next to the driver, and I shared the seat behind with another young guest. From my angle, I had a perfect view of Joan Crawford as she responded to my many questions. We arrived at the Seattle bottling plant for Pepsi-Cola, where the press conference would be held. I learned much about Joan's career, how she viewed the motion picture industry, and her views on life in general.
It was extremely hot that day, so she asked that chilled bottles of Pepsi be given out to refresh us. Once the conference was over, she had her chauffeur drive me to my next destination.
My thank you note to Joan Crawford was immediately answered. In fact, this is how our 9-year correspondence began.
Each year brought friendly notes and letters typed on her pale blue stationery, signed at first "Joan Crawford" and later, simply "Joan."
She would occasionally send me a personally inscribed photo with her note. A functional friendship developed.
I would share my comments about a new or classic film of hers which I had just seen, and she seemed to be grateful for these shared impressions. All publicity relating to my musical performances was sent to her and she, in return, continued to encourage me.
Joan always sent appropriate holiday wishes---including birthdays. While I was ill and in the hospital, there arrived an inspirational note.
In 1970, when I made my debut performance at the Seattle Opera House, a letter of congratulations arrived. She offered advice in 1971 as I was planning my first concert tour. Joan seemed genuinely interested in my activities and followed my auditions and performances with keen enthusiasm. Her mail even followed me to Rochester, New York (where I lived for 6 months) and then back to Seattle.
Through our correspondence I discovered Joan to be a lover of all things of beauty---especially nature. Having learned this, I sent her exotic butterfly wings, pressed flowers, recordings of Bach harpsichord music, and postcards of art I gathered from museums I visited during my travels. She seemed to like the comments I wrote for her on the back, as to why I thought she might like that specific work of art.
One year before her death, I prepared a special recording for her birthday: a collection of some Bach and Mozart keyboard compositions, and a few of my own. Following the music, I just spoke to her as if she were sitting nearby sharing a cup of coffee.
Her written reply, so warm and genuine, is the note I treasure the most: "Finally I heard your tape and I adore it. The gift of your talent---including the research involved and the loving thoughtfulness you put into your choice of musical joy for me---is indeed a treasured gift. You made my birthday very special. . . . Thank you again for being my friend. Affectionately, Joan."
Upon hearing the news of Joan Crawford's death in 1977, I felt devastated.
I was sitting near a decorative basket which contained seashells and sand dollars. As I looked at the lines impressed on a sand dollar I held, I was somehow comforted. I began to think of how, like the impressions I saw, Joan Crawford had made so many impressions on so many through her art and through her many friendships.
I wrote the following poem in memory of Joan, and I sent copies to her family and secretary in 1977.
This poem speaks of Joan's love of nature and beauty. It's how I will always remember her.
Consolation For A Death (for Joan Crawford)
I feel a stirring, maybe
the haunting of my dead friend.
Her twenty-six letters, pages
I wept into, realize the bond:
our devotion to nature.
African butterfly, green
folding a black tip, silken
petals from Japanese money plant:
these my offerings, resound
There is a wisdom taught by oceans
returning starfish and pebble
with the tide.
Seaweed pattern lined on a stone
tells the deed:
Each Thing Returns Transformed
It is the secret of departure.
Count Lee William Carnette
August 31, 2014