Several years ago I was walking on West 15th Street in Chelsea when I saw a bunch of workers hauling out bags of trash and heaving them into a huge green dumpster. I knew they had to be throwing out something good, since there were already several people in the dumpster rooting around, and even more had gathered on the sidewalk to sort through what those inside were handing out to them.
It quickly became apparent that an elderly woman, until recently living in a nearby building, had either died or been sent to a nursing home, and now the workers were clearing out her apartment. Obviously the woman must have been a serious packrat, on the order of the Collyer brothers (though wealthy and literate), because the dumpster was about a third full with papers and various junk, and more was being added by the minute. Unable to resist, I jumped inside, found an old suitcase, and commenced to fill it up.
It turned out that the people standing around were paying homeless people to climb in there and find stuff for them, so I had a lot of competition. What people were mainly after turned out to be the letters (they wanted the stamps, actually), and the albums (the woman had compiled very neat albums of little paper mementoes from all over the world, such as holy cards and wine labels, etc.), but I found her and her husband’s passports (they had traveled extensively, to put it mildly), her high school yearbook from 1927, old photos of her ancestors(including a tiny album of miniscule tintypes), and, most bizarrely, a little box containing a carefully wrapped slice of mummified wedding cake.
And the letters. There were so many letters that, even with all the competition, I managed to scoop up hundreds of them, some dating as far back to the early years of the 20th century. I glanced at a couple from the 1950s: in one, the woman’s mother bitches about a relative who won’t get a job; in another, the woman’s son, away at boarding school, warns his little brother to stay out of his room or he’ll throw out all of the little brother’s toy’s—including his train set!—when he returns. I found out that the woman had once been an aspiring actress, and that her husband was an executive for PepsiCo. I figured it would be a worthwhile project to read through the letters and attempt to reconstruct the lives of the old woman and her family.
And that’s as far as it went. I put the suitcase in the back of a closet and left it there for four or five years, until recently, cleaning up the apartment, I came across it. I still didn’t have the patience to read all the letters as I had planned, but I went through and tidied them up, and in doing so, a blue envelope caught my attention due to it’s color. Printed with the name JOAN CRAWFORD at the top in all capital letters, and dated January 8, 1959, the typewritten letter reads:
Darlings, R. . . and T. . .,
Bless you, and thank you so much for your good New Year wishes and your thoughtfulness in sending the cablegram to us. This is the way the cable turned out, and we are sending it back to you for you to see.
Incidentally, it was the greatest “Jew Year jet” we ever had, and we hope you are having the same.
We adored Puerto Rico, and stayed an extra week, coming back here today – all tanned and rested. The Dorado Beach Hotel has the most magnificent stretch of beach I have ever seen, and it’s so peaceful and quiet.
God bless – and all of us send our love to you.
Joan and Alfred
As promised, the cablegram was included with the letter; though the date is illegible, it reads:
MR AND MRS ALFRED N STEELE HOTEL DORADO PUERTORICO WE WISH YOU FOR YOU THE FULLEST AND MOST FRUITFUL JEW YEAR JET
R. . . AND T. . . M. . .
Naw, it couldn’t be that Joan Crawford, I thought. But, thanks to the internet, it didn’t take long to determine that the famous actress had indeed been married to Alfred Steele, at the time Chairman of PepsiCo, and that furthermore, Joan had served on the board of PepsiCo after his death. Several of Joan’s letters were reproduced online as well, all on the blue stationary that she used throughout her life.
I had got myself all dirty and sweaty rooting around in that dumpster in the heat of summer, had myself mistaken for a homeless man by the more respectable members of our community, endured the opprobrium of my girlfriend for bringing home trash, and sacrificed valuable closet space to a dubious project, but this weird little insight into the life of a great actress whom we’ve all admired from afar for so long, and which had been buried for 48 years (and which by all rights should have been lost for eternity) somehow made it all worth it.
Which still leaves one question unresolved: was the misspelling an honest typo, or was a rogue telegraph operator attempting to send Joan Crawford an obscure anti-Semitic slur? At this late date it’s probably impossible to determine with any degree of certainty. -- Ed Hamilton