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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 Review

July 16, 2015

In honor of Barbara Stanwyck's birthday today, here are my thoughts on Victoria Wilson's massive biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940. Yes, it's only volume one out of ??? (guessing 2 or 3).


Sadly, I don't find myself reading as much on my own time as I'd like, since I go through a good amount of treatments and scrips at workSo, attempting to devour a 1056 page biography was no small undertaking for me. In fact, it took me a few months to actually pick up and open A Life of Barbara Stanwyck. For a while, it sat on my desk, Stanwyck's eyes - and the word count - completely intimidating me. 

One of my favorite photos of Barbara Stanwyck, taken by the enormously talented George Hurrell.

Stanwyck has always represented a mysterious creature in my mind. For the most part, I've always enjoyed her performances; she brought a unique mixture of hardened womanhood and realistic, nuanced emotion to her work. I always felt each character she played possessed a fascinating background, partly because some stories called for extremely complex, layered characters, while Stanwyck simply radiated intricacy with others. With that being said, I was particularly excited to immerse myself in the story of the woman behind the scenes. 



The Life (So Far)

What did I learn? Well, at least as Wilson laid the star's tale out, Stanwyck seemed just as curiously enigmatic as many of the characters she portrayed. The tragedy of her childhood is well documented: her pregnant mother died when Ruby Stevens (Stanwyck's birth name), the baby of the family, was four, and her father took off for Panama not long after, leaving young Ruby and her brother Byron by themselves. Though they had three sisters, all were older and had lives - and in some cases families - of their own. Seemingly, (this gets hazy), Ruby and Byron bounced back and forth between their sisters and a variety of foster homes.


Despite, or perhaps due to, her childhood, Ruby proved to be a fighter and a feisty one at that. She learned the ropes on her own, personally and professionally; finished schooling at 14, determined to land a full time job; and lied to land positions ranging from switchboard operator to hostess at the Vogue Pattern Center to chorus girl, all before she turned 15. Ruby soon moved out on her own with friends and worked hard to support herself as she danced at nightclubs in the evenings. Her dedication paid off, and Ruby made her Broadway debut in 1927's The Noose at 19 years old. Soon after, she was rechristened Barbara Stanwyck and set to take the Broadway world by storm.

Stanwyck with co-star Rex Cherryman in The Noose.

Stanwyck's first marriage was to Broadway's Golden Boy during the 20s, vaudevillian Frank Fay. Though the couple vowed to stay in New York, eventually they gave in to the beckoning of Hollywood. A refusal to assimilate to their surroundings and the fact that Stanwyck found it difficult to break into the movies (and only did so with the help of her husband) put a strain on the union. Foreshadowing 1937's A Star is Born, which some say was based on the couple's relationship, quickly Stanwyck's star rose as Fay's crashed, and Fay's insanely possessive nature soon turned physically abusive. The adoption of a son, Dion, in 1932 did nothing to aid the situation, and eventually Stanwyck found the strength to leave with the help of those closest to her.


Free at last, Stanwyck focused on her work and her friends, and she was finally able to relax a bit. Her single period didn't last long, however, as young Robert Taylor, the opposite of Frank Fay in so many ways, stepped in to her life in the mid 30s. Though Stanwyck vowed not to get married again, pressure from MGM eventually pushed the couple to wed after a few years together. Stanwyck and Taylor shared a relatively easy-going life despite the fact that they were a power couple. The stars were still together when the book ends in 1940, but the marriage would not remain a happy one for long.

Volume 1 ends in 1940, right before the filming of Meet John Doe (1941) with Gary Cooper. Many of Stanwyck's greatest performances, including The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Clash by Night (1952), and all her TV work from the 60s-80s are still to come!

The Lady

Intrigued as I was by Stanwyck's character before, I was even more taken with the star as I flipped through the pages of Wilson's book. As tough as so many of her alter egos acted on screen, in real life Stanwyck seemingly bounced back and forth between being painfully shy and reserved, generally in her personal life, and open, supportive, strong, and bullheaded in her work and professional life. Wilson noted that it was not uncommon for Stanwyck to know the name of every crew member on set, but at the same time, the actress found it particularly difficult to make and keep good friends; for example, though she would grow close to co-stars on set, it was not uncommon for Stanwyck to change her phone number after working on a film. 

Stanwyck looking tough in 1937's Breakfast for Two.

Another personal move that bewildered me involved the close bond Stanwyck shared with one-time roommate Mae Clarke (then Violet Klotz) when both were still struggling chorus girls in NYC. Stanwyck and Clarke, along with Walda Mansfield, not only shared a living space at one point but also helped each other out and apparently did everything together. After reading about how close Stanwyck and Clarke were, and considering Stanwyck was a woman who had a hard time letting people in, it was interesting to note how Stanwyck repeatedly brushed Clarke off when the New York transplant reached out to her former confidant a few times after she moved to Hollywood. Without much context, it's weird to think that Stanwyck would treat such a dear friend that way, but her actions probably had a lot to do with the fact that she was fully under Fay's control in the late 20s and early 30s. In fact, it wasn't until Stanwyck finally broke free of Fay’s wrath - taking refuge in Zeppo and Marion Marx's home the last time she left him - that she eventually formed close friendships with the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, the Fred MacMurrays, and the Ray Millands. 


The Men

To me, Stanwyck's most fascinating relationships were those she shared with her two husbands, Frank Fay and Robert Taylor. Though she possessed a clear independent streak, when it came to her marriages it seemed that Stanwyck was more likely to bend to the influences around her. She was so intent on keeping her personal life as private as possible and maintaining lasting relationships with her husbands that for better or for worse (definitely the latter for Fay), the star remained loyal and devoted to both men, qualities which were never fully reciprocated, at least in a healthy or normal way, by either.

Stanwyck with first husband Frank Fay.

Fay, the sole star of the duo when they married in New York City in 1928, turned into a physically and emotionally abusive husband when he found the bottle, an issue further exacerbated by his wife's increasing popularity and his own professional downfall. I was astonished at how long Stanwyck stayed with him despite his actions, which included Fay pushing her down a flight of stairs; before reading this I would never have pictured her as someone who would withstand such treatment. However, the facts Wilson laid out put Stanwyck's fierce dedication to Fay into reluctant perspective for me, particularly his constant support of her career in both New York and LA. For a woman who clearly experienced little of that reinforcement in her life, it's relatively easy to see why Stanwyck would so breathlessly defend her husband's horrific actions time after time.  Luckily, with the assistance of close friends she garnered the strength to get out of the relationship before she was seriously hurt.


While Fay, a good deal older than Stanwyck, stood as sort of a father figure and mentor to his wife, the roles reversed with Taylor: Stanwyck acted almost as a mother to the personally and professionally inexperienced young man, who was only 24 when they met (she was 28). Though Wilson highlighted a few of the couple's early squabbles, particularly the fact that Taylor's overbearing mother and Stanwyck were not fans of each other, their union seemed much happier than her marriage to Fay, at least as it ran through the end of this volume. 

So many cute photos of Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (above and below).

Another intriguing relationship in Stanwyck's life was the one she had - or more accurately didn't have - with her adopted son Dion, which definitely provided another curious perspective of her. The subject wasn't touched upon often in Wilson's work, but when it was, particularly in the beginning, Dion's adoption sounded more like an attempt to bolster her floundering union with Fay. In fact, Dion's place in Stanwyck's life during her marriage with Fay played out more through incidents she had with her husband, such as the one time Fay drunkenly threw the baby in the pool and later when he tried to orchestrate Dion's kidnapping.  


Though Wilson noted that Stanwyck expressed interest in having a child, her parenting didn't exactly mirror that sentiment; as a mother, the star was one extremely tough cookie and seemingly without much compassion or love for her son. For instance, when Dion didn't turn out perfect, as few people do, the child seemed to frustrate Stanwyck. This prompted her to lose interest and send him off to a variety of boarding schools and summer camps, effectively ending her daily involvement in his life, though Dion's name popped up in a few pages describing family events and holidays. This volume ends when Dion was eight years old, so I'm sure there will be more mention of him in Wilson's next installment, though I've read elsewhere that mother and son not surprisingly became estranged during his later teenage years (which made it all the more interesting to see many of the photos included read "Courtesy of Tony Fay" - Tony was the name he assumed in later years). 

Taylor and an attentive looking Stanwyck with her son Dion in the late 30s or early 40s.

The Work

Considering Wilson's book only represents 33 years in the life of Barbara Stanwyck, the page count is remarkable; I wondered just how the author could gleam so much more information about Stanwyck than previous biographers did.


Well, that question was solved when I began to read. Wilson plowed through the first 20 years of Stanwyck's life in about 100 pages, leaving the remaining 13 years for the rest of the 750 pages or so of writing. Naturally, the first two decades of Stanwyck's life, lived as Ruby Stevens, represents the time before she became a household name, so I'm guessing reliable information - or any at all - was surely harder to come by in some instances.


I quickly came to realize that what made the work so long was the fact that Wilson thoroughly examined the world around Stanwyck to paint a well-rounded picture of her life within the first part of the 20th century. The author went into depth, when possible, on most of the people who surrounded Stanwyck during her childhood and adult life; additionally, if the actress worked with a notable director, cinematographer, co-star, or anyone else on set who influenced her, the occasion was ripe for Wilson to provide a brief background - or a few pages worth - on that particular person. Furthermore, historical events such as the Great Depression, sometimes not just in the context of Stanwyck's career and life, were also explored and discussed. 

Playing around with this book. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

While I greatly admire Wilson's incredible research skills, at first I was put off by this style. Admittedly, I haven't read many biographies, but I'm pretty sure this isn't exactly a normal approach to the genre, or else every biography would be well over a thousand pages! Initially, I found the format kept leading my mind astray; for instance, I would plow through pages on Frank Capra and then remember that I was in fact reading a book about Barbara Stanwyck. As I continued on, however, I learned to appreciate this method somewhat: instead of taking me out of the subject at hand, I began to realize that Wilson was actually creating the world around Stanwyck to give the reader a better sense of her personal and professional lives, especially regarding certain decisions and events that occurred in her life during those first 33 years. While I still found myself mentally veering off at times while reading, it's hard not to appreciate the exhaustive research, organization, and writing that went into this impressive volume.


Though Stanwyck's actions and relationships still retain some cryptic qualities to me even after finishing the book, I think Wilson's work is as close a look as one can get into the life of such a guarded star. With that said, I look forward to the next installment, whenever that comes out. Hopefully it's sometime in the next 10 years, and I wouldn't even complain if it were only half the size!


To personally spend the next few months with this behemoth work, or for a glance inside before you make a commitment, check out the book's page on

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