Jonathan D Moreno Ph.D
The First Couples Therapy, Starring Joan Crawford
The 1937 psychodrama of the Queen of Hollywood and the King of New York
Posted Oct 09, 2014
Put the Queen of Hollywood together with the King of New York and what do you get? An intensely troubled marriage. Add an innovative psychiatrist and the result is what seems to be the first recorded case of couples therapy.
That was the challenge my dad, the psychodrama founder J.L. Moreno, was given in 1937. Hardly any psychiatrists would tackle such a problem in those days. Couples therapy was unheard of. Yet no one was better prepared to treat a celebrity couple than he was. J.L. was the only psychiatrist who had been actively involved in training actors, first in Vienna in his Theater of Spontaneity in the 1920s and then in New York at his Impromptu Theater and with the famous Group Theater in Carnegie Hall. His action methods -- which included role playing, role reversal and the “empty chair,” – have long been compared to the Russian Stanslavski’s “method acting,” and Stanislavski’s English translator was even on J.L.’s staff in the 1930s. Also in Vienna, J.L. had experimented with couples therapy and, unlike his sometime medical school lecturer Sigmund Freud, he did not see human relationships as based on neurotic complexes. He thought that love and caring were possible and even common, and that with the right support human beings could work on and improve their relationships. All this was, of course, decades before modern humanistic therapies.
But how did Joan Crawford and her actor husband Franchot Tone happen to ask J.L. for counseling? I tell the whole story in my book, Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network (Bellevue Literary Press). The story begins with Tone’s mother, Gertrude, the wife of a wealthy Niagara Falls industrialist. Gertrude was a brilliant woman with an alcohol problem. Her husband arranged for her to meet my father at his Hudson Valley sanitarium on the pretext that she become his student. Her treatment was so successful that in 1936 she paid for the construction of the first psychodrama theater in the United States, followed by a theater built by the U.S. government at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Aware of the psychiatrist Moreno through his work with Tone’s mother and his reputation in the New York theater crowd (Tone had been a member of the Group Theater), the unhappy Joan and Franchot asked for J.L.’s help. Together the couple dramatized their conflicts on the psychodrama stage, one of which was the fact that Tone was not considered handsome enough to be leading man material in the movies, while the camera loved Crawford’s memorable features. There was also alcohol abuse, Tone’s philandering, and Crawford’s subsequent affair with Spencer Tracy. In 1939 they broke up in what J.L. called a “divorce catharsis.”
J.L. retained his interest in helping unhappy couples find their way using psychodramatic techniques to promote understanding and empathy. Perhaps thinking of his famous patients, in a 1937 Associated Press article he said that “the air is fairly filled with the unhappy feelings and emotions of people, almost everyone desiring love or friendship – the mutual kind – and being unable to get it.”
How little things have changed.