Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, the youngest and third child of Anna Bell (Johnson) and Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer. She was of English, French Huguenot, Swedish, and Irish ancestry. Joan Crawford’s elder siblings were sister Daisy LeSueur, who died before Lucille’s birth, and brother Hal LeSueur.
Crawford’s father abandoned the family a few months before her birth, reappearing later in 1930 in Abilene, Texas, reportedly working as a construction laborer. Following LeSueur’s departure from the family home, Crawford’s mother married Henry J. Cassin. The marriage is listed in the census as Crawford’s mother’s first marriage.
Crawford lived with her mother, stepfather, and siblings in Lawton, Oklahoma. There, Cassin, a minor impresario, ran the Ramsey Opera House; he managed to book diverse and noted performers such as Anna Pavlova and Eva Tanguay. At that time, Crawford was reportedly unaware that Cassin, whom she called “daddy”, was not her biological father until her brother Hal told her the truth. Cassin allegedly began sexually abusing her when she was eleven years old; the abuse continued until she went away to St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic girls school. Crawford preferred the nickname “Billie” as a child and enjoyed watching vaudeville acts perform on the stage of her stepfather’s theatre. Her family’s instability negatively affected Crawford and her schooling never formally progressed beyond primary education.
Beginning in childhood, Crawford’s ambition was to be a dancer. One day, however, in an attempt to escape piano lessons so she could play with friends, she leapt from the front porch of her home and cut her foot severely on a broken milk bottle. As a result, she underwent three surgeries to repair the damage. She was unable to attend elementary school or continue with dancing lessons for 18 months.
While still residing in Lawton, Crawford’s stepfather was accused of embezzlement. Although he was acquitted in court, he was blacklisted in Lawton, and the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, around 1916. Following their relocation, Cassin, a Catholic, placed Crawford at St. Agnes Academy in Kansas City. When her mother and stepfather separated, she remained at St. Agnes as a working student, where she spent far more time working, primarily cooking and cleaning, than studying. She later attended Rockingham Academy, also as a working student. While attending there, she began dating and had her first serious relationship, with a trumpet player named Ray Sterling. Sterling reportedly inspired her to begin challenging herself academically.
In 1922, she registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, giving her year of birth as 1906. She attended Stephens for only a few months before withdrawing after she realized she was not prepared for college.