Inside the archives: The screen siren and the scholar
In actress Joan Crawford, Brandeis found an unlikely patron
Joan Crawford’s legacy has long been debated. She was an Oscar-winning actress and the undisputed queen of camp. Her tough as nails demeanor, notorious perfectionism and unbridled ambition both metastasized her failures and inoculated her against obsolescence. She was a famously loyal friend and an infamous mother.
But among Crawford’s many titles — actress, Pepsi-Cola executive, philanthropist — one is often overlooked: Brandeis University patron.
Crawford, who would have been 110 this month, became involved in the university in the mid-1960s, thanks to her friendship with Nathan and Frances Spingold — early supporters of the arts at Brandeis. She began exchanging letters with Brandeis’ founding president Abram Sachar, marking the beginning of an unlikely friendship. Over the years, Crawford became more involved in the university, underwriting a dance studio in the newly constructed Spingold Theater Center, becoming a fellow and eventually donating many of her awards to Brandeis, including a certificate of her Academy Award.
Crawford and Sachar’s friendship plays out in a series of letters exchanged over the years, today housed in the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections. At first formal, then friendly, these letters are small but interesting artifacts of Brandeis’ early history and illustrates that this young university found support in the most unlikely places.
Here are some excerpts from those letters, beginning with Sachar and Crawford's first meeting at a dinner Crawford hosted in honor of Brandeis supporter and movie mogul Leo Jaffe.
I have just returned to campus and I am still in the euphoria created by that superb meeting that you chaired for us, as a testimonial to Leo Jaffe. ... You were a joy as the toastmaster — gracious, witty and natural. ... I am delighted that the generosity of your friends at Pepsi-Cola will link your name in perpetuity with the Dance Studio in Spingold Theater Arts Centers. It should be a satisfaction to you to know that generations of youngsters will have their introduction to the exiting experience of choreography in a facility that bears the name of one who has been loved by millions this country and abroad.
My Dear Mr. Sachar,
I do hope you will forgive me for embracing you when we met Monday evening but I had heard so much about you in the past two months from your associates and friends — and then your charming letter to me — all made me feel that we, too, are friends. Bless you. You made a fine, fine speech and made the evening complete for everyone...
|From left: Leo Jaffe. Abram Sachar and Joan Crawford, 1964|
When one creates, as you have, a facility in a school, one takes at terrific gamble on the future in the form of young people, some of whom are not yet born. How many young muscles will be stretched and pulled in that studio? … What we cannot know, but what we can hope and provide for is that somewhere, sometime, there will be an indomitable young one who will meet all the challenges of a liberal arts education and of the tremendous discipline demanded of a great dancer. … So, you see, you have not merely dedicated a room, you have dared to meddle with the future. I call it courageous philanthropy. … We shall never allow you to drop out of Brandeis, indeed you must promise to “drop in” as often as your busy life allows you to.
I have the happy responsibility of telling you of your unanimous election as a Fellow of the University at the last meeting of the board of trustees. Quite apart from the strength that will come to the University as a result of your induction into its official family is the personal pleasure that I derive from your involvement. I shall look forward to an early opportunity when I may place the Fellow Hood around your lovely shoulders. There is nothing like a dame, but when she is a fellow, we really have atomic power.
|Sachar, Crawford, Frances Spingold and Norman S. Rabb, chair of the Brandeis Board of Trustees, at the dedication of the Spingold Theater Center, 1965|
Don’t know of anyone I would rather have place that hood on my shoulders than your own charming self. Until I see you and Thelma in April, 16th, my dearest love to you both.
I am just sick that you have asked to be relieved as President of Brandeis because there isn’t anyone who could ever replace you. Your wit, your humor, your brilliant mind are a combination no other man has. … You will always not only be a chancellor in my mind — but a champion.
Bless you and my dearest love to you and Thelma,
|Sachar, far left, and Crawford at the dedication of the Crawford Dance Studio, 1965|