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Joan Crawford Bought Her Children From a ‘Baby Broker’

Photo Credit: George Rinhart / Corbis / Getty Images / Cropped and Colored
Photo Credit: George Rinhart / Corbis / Getty Images / Cropped and Colored

Hollywood is notorious for its many dark histories that get swept under the rug. The story of Georgia Tann, the “baby broker,” is one of them. She facilitated the ‘adoption’ of children who were stolen from their biological parents. Many of these children were purchased by Hollywood superstars. Joan Crawford was one of them, adopting her daughters Cindy and Cathy from the infamous ‘baby broker.’

Georgia Tann

Georgia Tann once had a good reputation, working at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society to expedite the adoptions of numerous babies who had been given up by their parents. Yet it came to light years later that she actually managed the sale of, essentially, black-market children. Many of them had been stolen from their parents with the help of Tann’s extensive network of accomplices.

Georgia Tann wearing glasses and an embroidered shirt.
Georgia Tann, known for selling children as part of her unlawful adoption scheme, 1947. (Photo Credit: Commercial Appeal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

She regularly took babies from patients at mental hospitals, stole children from the street, and even paid doctors and nurses to give her newborns and tell the parents they had died. Tann would then change their names so that they were hard for biological parents to track down. This was no small operation; between 1924 and 1950 Tann stole over 5,000 children, 500 of whom died while in her care.

Tann even took out newspaper ads featuring beautiful children, with captions such as “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” – as if they were merely playthings.

Celebrity clients

For most of her scheme, no one was the wiser about where the children came from, despite the odd whisper. Some of her best clients were the wealthy – specifically, well-known actors and actresses. They could afford to pay the large fees associated with obtaining a child – $5,000 at the time. Additionally, they didn’t have to go through waiting periods at legitimate adoption agencies, and they didn’t need to take time away from work due to pregnancy.

June Allyson and Dick Powell stand holding hands with their daughter Pamela in front of a house.
Hollywood power couple June Allyson and Richard Powell with their daughter Pamela who was adopted through Georgia Tann, July 12, 1951. (Photo Credit: Bob Beerman/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images)

Among those who used the Tennessee Children’s Home were celebrities Mary Pickford, Smiley Burnette, Lana Turner, Pearl S. Buck, and former New York Governor Herbert Lehman. June Allyson and her husband also adopted their daughter, Pamela, from the agency. Interestingly, many photos from the time list her as being Powell’s daughter from his first marriage, and not an adopted child.

Joan Crawford’s adoptions

The most famous celebrity to use Tann’s service, however, was Joan Crawford. She was unable to have children herself, instead turning to adoption to build her family. She didn’t want to go through agencies with rigorous restrictions, as they would have turned down her application. Crawford was considered too old, too promiscuous, and she’d been divorced.

Joan Crawford in a white dress walking in a line holding hands with her four children.
Joan Crawford and four children, (left) Christopher, Cathy, Cynthia, and Christina, romp on the lawn following a party, n.d. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

This is exactly how she ended up at the Tennessee Children’s Home, as they had no such restrictions. Although she had already adopted two children from other agencies, in 1947 she paid Tann for her twins Cindy and Cathy. The other siblings, Christina and Christopher, had been adopted in 1939 and 1943, respectively. Despite many of Tann’s children being unable to track down their biological families later in life, Cathy and Cindy were able to.

Joan as a mother

The experiences of the Crawford children couldn’t have been more different. According to Christina’s tell-all book, Mommie Dearest, her mother had been an abusive alcoholic throughout her childhood. She also claimed that she had been hurtful toward her brother Christopher, who agreed with his sister. Yet Crawford claimed before she died that “[Christoper’s] goal seemed to be to punish me by being a bad boy.”

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in a white dress with poofed sleeves and a large white hat, and Mara Hobel in a matching outfit.
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in a publicity still for Mommie Dearest, based on Christina Crawford’s memoire of the same name. (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / MoviePics1001 / MovieStillsDB)

The twins had a completely different experience from their older siblings. They remember Crawford as “the best mother anyone ever had.” Cathy said she wasn’t just an excellent mother, but an excellent grandmother as well. The strained relationship among the family was clear, as Crawford left a substantial trust fund to Cindy and Cathy, while disinheriting Christopher and Christina.

More from us: The Heartbreaking Reality of Judy Garland’s Five Marriages

Joan Crawford died of a heart attack in her New York apartment on May 10, 1977.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.