Playing Georgia Tann the baby thief

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Corruption, abuse, death, abduction and saving children... what more can be said about the mother of "social work" within the adoption industry?


Quest led Joan Crawford twins, others to Tenn.

by Shirley Downing,
The Memphis Commercial Appeal,
September 11, 1995

Actress Joan Crawford brought the dark-haired infants she'd adopted from Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis home to her sprawling Brentwood, Calif., mansion, in the summer of 1947. She named the twins Cathy and Cynthia. For the girls, childhood was a composite of flashbulbs, gawking tourists, boarding schools and trips to Europe. As adults, they wondered about their heritage in the South. In 1991, Cathy and Cynthia - or Cindy, as she is called - returned to Tennessee. They learned their biological mother died seven days after their birth. They found their father living in an old white farmhouse on the edge of a West Tennessee cotton patch.

"He was so happy that we'd found him," Cindy recalled. "He was tickled pink. He knew he had two kids but he didn't know the circumstances or where we were."

Finding her Tennessee family was one of the most important events of her life, said Cindy, an accounts clerk who moved to Memphis in 1991 to be near her father and other relatives. The Crawford twins have not been alone in their quest for the past. Memphis has become a mecca for people adopted in the 1920s, '30s and '40s from TCHS. The agency was closed by the state 45 years ago this month after the Memphis director, Georgia Tann, was accused of running a baby-selling operation that sent children to all corners of the country. Many children went to big names in the California movie industry or the well-to-do in New York City.

Doors have opened slowly for many of these adult adoptees. Some have tried to find relatives using limited public records. Others have gained court orders to see their adoption files. Some, like the Crawford twins, found a warm welcome from biological relatives. Many have forged friendships and family ties. Some have been disappointed. For others, lingering questions should be answered shortly as the state unseals pre-1951 adoption records. The records should show the names and last-known addresses of birth parents, their background and history; and the place of birth and where adoptions took place. Correspondence between the child-placement agency and adoptive parents may also be in the files.

Those viewing records for the first time may also be puzzled, said Denny Glad, president of Tennessee - The Right to Know, a search group that has helped almost 3,000 adoptees trace biological relatives. She noted that Tann sometimes falsified records of children she placed for adoption. Still, Glad said, "Everybody I've ever worked with was glad they searched. They may not be pleased with everything they found, but they have answered the questions that haunted them all their life. They are glad to know the truth, good, bad or indifferent."

Among those who have traced relatives are:

  • Linda Myers of Camarillo, Calif., the first of four TCHS children adopted by the late actor Smiley Burnette and his wife Dallas, found her birth mother's family in 1979 in Memphis, and her birth father's family several years later in Alabama. She was disappointed both were dead, but she has developed relationships with half-siblings. Myers is glad she searched. "It is a vast hole that never seems to get filled until you find out," she said.
  •  When Sondra Fagin's adoption records were opened by court order in 1991, she learned her birth parents were an unmarried Nashville secretary and a World War II Army veteran, both Protestants. But TCHS had told her Brooklyn, N.Y., adoptive parents she was Jewish. Religious questions have been troubling for Fagin and her children, but she still practices the Jewish faith of her adoptive home. Fagin, of Westchester, N.Y., learned her biological mother died the day after she was born; her birth father died in 1951 in a boating accident. She was disappointed to find no brothers or sisters, but keeps in contact with aunts, uncles and cousins in her birth family. "I'm very glad I searched for them," she said. "No matter what you find, it answers questions of who you are and what you look like. You are part of two families, your adopted and birth families. It made me feel whole once I got all that information that was missing all those years."
  • Shirley Frankel, 64, of Huntington Beach, Calif., was adopted in 1932 from TCHS, but her search reached a dead end when her records were opened by court order in 1992. In her file were the birth records of a Nashville woman who claims no knowledge of Frankel or TCHS.


Glad said one question she is often asked is what happened to Joan Crawford's children. Only the youngest two of Crawford's four children came from TCHS, she said. The twins were born to a young widow on Jan. 13, 1947, in a Dyersburg hospital, but the mother knew she could not care for them. She gave them to TCHS, and died seven days later from kidney failure. Crawford adopted them that summer, a year after she'd won an Academy Award for her role in Mildred Pierce. She was between marriages. Crawford, fearful the birth parents might seek to regain custody, often told people the girls were not twins, Cindy said. Crawford's death in 1977 left her adoptive children with conflicting memories about life in the shadow of celebrity.

Eldest daughter Christina painted a harsh portrait of the actress in her 1978 book, Mommie Dearest. But Cindy and Cathy said they loved the actress.

"She was our mother," Cathy LaLonde said from her home in Pennsylvania, where she is a teacher's aide.

"She was very good to us," Cindy said. "I think she was good to all four of us, really. She cared for us. We grew up knowing what was right and what was wrong."

But as a teenager, Cindy Crawford Jordan wondered what life might have been like growing up in Tennessee. She said she was always more "country than city-slicker." Crawford "always told us we were adopted," said Cindy, 48. "One night she said she was going to take us back to the little red brick building (in Memphis) for a visit."

Crawford never made that trip. She married for the fourth time in 1955, to Pepsi-Cola Co. board chairman Alfred Steele. The twins, then 8, went to boarding school, but visited on weekends and during vacation. The twins moved to New York with Crawford in 1960, a year after Steele died. They finished high school and attended junior college on the East Coast.

Cindy married in 1967 and moved with her new husband into a trailer in Dubuque, Iowa. Cathy married and moved to Pennsylvania. Cindy's marriage unraveled after nine years and two children. She earned $150 a week working in a shoe store, and lived on her $ 77,000 inheritance from Crawford's estate. A job offer lured Cindy to Jackson, Miss., in 1984, but the work played out after six months, leaving her on welfare and without a place to live. The Salvation Army and friends helped. She worked and saved until she had enough money for an apartment. "I just survived," she said. She also became a Christian.

In June 1990, Cathy saw a television program about TCHS. With Glad's help, the twins began an 18-month search that eventually ended with a court order to open Cathy's adoption records. They learned their birth father was alive in Friendship, Tenn., and wanted to meet them. "I called him," said Cathy. "It took me three weeks to call. I was nervous and I was afraid of being rejected. I finally did it but with Denny's help. I'd call her and she'd say, 'Just do it.' " So I did it. I think he was dumbfounded, really."

Cindy then called from her home in Brandon, Miss. "Are you sitting down?" she asked J. W. Jordan. "I'm your other daughter." Cindy was amazed at the coincidence in names: She'd married an unrelated Iowa man more than 24 years before with the same last name as that of her birth father. A friend drove Cindy to Friendship for her first meeting with her father. She was fishing on a small pond when Jordan approached.  "I didn't believe it was my dad," she recalled.

"He said, 'What do we do?'

"'I didn't know - what do you do?

"And he said, 'Why don't you give me some sugar?' So I kissed him.

"We talked and the rest of my family came to visit and we got to know them and then I went out to my dad's for a couple of nights." Jordan, a former state road worker, said he'd panicked when he learned his former girlfriend was pregnant. After the twins' birth, he asked about them, but they were gone. Jordan later married and divorced but had no other children.

Cindy Jordan, who moved to Memphis in 1991 shortly after meeting her family, often visited her father in the old white farmhouse where he lived. "It's a really neat house, old-fashioned," she said of the four-room dwelling with its uneven floors and wrap-around porch. "I always went up on weekends and borrowed his car. I'd say, 'Hi dad. Borrow your car?'

"We went out to dinner and I stayed with him and met some of his old pals." He was "a cool dude,"  Cindy said.

In 1992, Jordan learned he had stomach cancer. He died the next year. The house is now vacant. It looks out toward a fence row draped with kudzu and orange trumpet vines. A single dirt lane at the yard's edge leads to a cemetery where Jordan is buried.

In East Memphis, the walls of Cindy Jordan's small apartment are covered with pictures of Crawford and her Tennessee relatives. Her job with an annuity and investment company is the best she's ever had. She said her birth mother's family, who did not want to be identified, helped her relocate to Memphis. An aunt gave her a job in the family business.

Cindy said she has lost touch with her adoptive siblings Christina and Christopher. The only family she has left are her sons, both in graduate school in Mississippi, and aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of her Tennessee family. She is grateful to her relatives, and visits or talks with them often. She said her life has gone from "riches to rags to riches," then paused to explain. "Riches isn't money," she said. "It's what your heart believes. It is the people around you. I love them all."

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