Hand color tinted photo of Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress, a star of film and television, known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional with a strong screen presence, and a favorite of directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. After a short stint as a stage actress, she made more than 80 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before turning to television.
Stanwyck was nominated for the Academy Award four times, and won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. She was the recipient of honorary lifetime awards from the Motion Picture Academy, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Golden Globes, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Screen Actors Guild, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is ranked as the eleventh greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.
Early life and career
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Katherine Stevens in Brooklyn, New York on July 16, 1907. She was the fifth and last child of Byron and Catherine McGee Stevens; the couple were working-class natives of Chelsea, Massachusetts and were of English and Irish extraction, respectively. When Ruby was four, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving streetcar. Two weeks after the funeral, Byron Stevens joined a work crew digging the Panama canal; and was never seen again. Ruby and her brother Byron were raised by their sister Mildred, who was five years older than Ruby. When Mildred got a job as a John Cort showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four in a year), from which Ruby often ran away. Ruby attended various public schools in Brooklyn, where she received uniformly poor grades and routinely picked fights with the other students.
During the summers of 1916 and 1917, when Ruby was nine and 10 years old, she toured with her sister Mildred, and practiced Mildred’s routines backstage. Another influence toward performing was watching the movies of Pearl White, who Ruby idolized. At age 14, she dropped out of school to take a job wrapping packages at a Brooklyn department store. Soon after she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for a salary of $14 a week, a salary that allowed her to become financially independent. Ruby disliked both jobs; she was interested in show business, but her sister Mildred discouraged the idea, so Ruby next took a job cutting dress patterns for Vogue; customers complained of her poor work and Ruby was fired. Ruby’s next job was as a typist for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company, a job she enjoyed; her true interest, however, was still show business, and her sister gave up dissuading her. In 1923, a few months short of her 16th birthday, Ruby auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a night club over the Strand Theatre in Times Square. A few months thereafter she obtained a small part in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies. For the next several years, Ruby worked as a chorus girl, performing from midnight to seven a.m. at various nightclubs owned by Tex Guinan; she also occasionally served as a dance instructor at a speakeasy for gays and lesbians owned by Guinan.
In 1926, Ruby was introduced to Willard Mack by Billy LaHiff, who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople. Mack was casting his play The Noose; LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl could be played by a real chorus girl, and Mack agreed to let Ruby audition. Ruby obtained the part, but the play was not a success. In a bid to add pathos to the drama, Ruby’s part was expanded. At the suggestion of either Mack or David Belasco, Ruby adopted the stage name of Barbara Stanwyck; the “Barbara” came from Barbara Frietchie and the “Stanwyck” from English actor Jane Stanwyck. The Noose re-opened on October 20, 1926, became one of the most successful of the season, running for nine months and 197 performances. Stanwyck co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. Cherryman and Stanwyck began a romantic relationship.
Her performance in The Noose earned rave reviews, and she was summoned by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights where she won a minor part of a fan dancer after losing out the lead role, because she couldn’t cry during the screen test. This marked Stanwyck’s first film appearance. She also played her first lead part on stage that year in Burlesque; the play was critically panned, but Stanwyck’s performance netted her rave reviews. While playing in Burlesque, Stanwyck was introduced to actor Frank Fay by Oscar Levant; Stanwyck and Fay both later claimed they had hated each other immediately, but they became close after the sudden death of Rex Cherryman at the age of 30. Cherryman had become ill early in 1928, and his doctor had advised a sea voyage; while on a ship to Paris, where he and Stanwyck had arranged to meet, Cherryman died of septic poisoning. Stanwyck and Fay married in August of that year and moved to Hollywood.
Stanwyck starred in almost 100 films during her career and received four nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her roles in Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Stanwyck’s first sound film was The Locked Door (1928), followed by Mexicali Rose in 1929. Neither film was successful; nonetheless, Frank Capra chose Stanwyck for his film Ladies of Leisure (1930). In 1954, she appeared opposite Ronald Reagan in the western Cattle Queen of Montana. Perhaps her most famous role was in the 1941 film The Lady Eve, in which she starred with Henry Fonda. Stanwyck was also one of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939), although she wasn’t given a screen test for the part. That year she appeared with Joel McCrea and Anthony Quinn in Cecil B. DeMille’s, Union Pacific (1939). So successful was Stanwyck that in 1944 she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.
Stanwyck was known for her accessibility and kindness to the backstage crew on any film set. She knew the names of their wives and children, and always asked after them by name. Frank Capra said she was “destined to be beloved by all directors, actors, crews and extras. In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down.” She received an Academy Honorary Award “for superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting” in 1982. Long time film critic Pauline Kael described Stanwyck’s acting as “she seems to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera” and in reference to her early 1930s film work “…early talkies sentimentality …only emphasizes Stanwyck’s remarkable modernism.”
When Stanwyck’s film career declined in 1957, she moved to television. Her 1961–1962 series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success but earned the star her first Emmy Award. The 1965–1969 Western series The Big Valley on ABC made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy. She was billed as “Miss Barbara Stanwyck,” and her role as head of a frontier family was likened to that of Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene in series Bonanza. Stanwyck’s costars included Richard Long (who had been in Stanwyck’s 1953 film All I Desire), Peter Breck, Linda Evans, and Lee Majors.
Years later, Stanwyck earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. In 1985, she made three guest appearances on the hit primetime soap opera Dynasty prior to the launch of its ill-fated spin-off series The Colbys in which she starred alongside Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beacham and Katharine Ross. Disappointed with the experience, Stanwyck remained with the series for only one season (it lasted for two), and her role as Constance Colby Patterson would prove to be her last. Earl Hamner Jr. (producer of The Waltons) had initially wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing on the successful 1980s soap opera, Falcon Crest, but she turned it down. The role ultimately went to Jane Wyman.
William Holden always credited her with saving his career when they co-starred in Golden Boy. They remained lifelong friends. When Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar, Holden paused to pay a special tribute to Stanwyck. Shortly after Holden’s death, Stanwyck returned the favor at an awards ceremony, with an emotional reference to “her golden boy.”
In 1973, she was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1987 the American Film Institute awarded her a televised AFI Life Achievement Award. Stanwyck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.
Her first husband was actor Frank Fay. They were married on August 26, 1928. On December 5, 1932, they adopted a son, Dion Anthony “Tony” Fay, who was one month old. (He and Stanwyck eventually became estranged.) The marriage was a troubled one; Fay’s successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom, after a short bumpy start. Also, Fay reportedly did not shy away from physical confrontations with his young wife, especially when he was inebriated. Some film historians claim that the marriage was the basis for A Star is Born. The couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Rumors of Stanwyck’s sexuality have lingered for decades, with it being said that she was in fact lesbian or bisexual, and that she’d had an affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead, during the same time frame that Bankhead was having her affair with actress Patsy Kelly. While such rumors were never confirmed by Stanwyck, similar stories about her are featured in books about lesbians in Hollywood.
Stanwyck and actor Robert Taylor began living together. Their 1939 marriage was arranged with the help of the studio, a common practice in Hollywood’s golden age. She and Taylor enjoyed their time together outdoors during the early years of their marriage, and were the proud owners of many acres of prime West Los Angeles property. Their large ranch and home in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood in Los Angeles is to this day referred to by locals as the old “Robert Taylor ranch”.
Taylor would have several affairs during the marriage, including one with Ava Gardner. Stanwyck was rumored to have attempted suicide when she learned of Taylor’s fling with Lana Turner. She ultimately filed for divorce in 1950 when a starlet made her romance with Taylor public. The decree was granted on February 21, 1951. Even after the divorce, they still acted together in Stanwyck’s last feature film The Night Walker (1964). Stanwyck was reportedly devastated when many of his old letters and photos were lost in a house fire. She never remarried, collecting alimony of 15 percent of Taylor’s salary until his death in 1969.
Stanwyck had an affair with actor Robert Wagner, whom she met on the set of Titanic. Wagner, who was 22 years old, and Stanwyck, who was 45 at the beginning of the affair, enjoyed a four-year romance, as described in Wagner’s 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart. Stanwyck eventually broke off the relationship.
Later years and death
Stanwyck’s retirement years were active, with charity work done completely out of the limelight. Her decline started following a robbery and beating at her Beverly Hills home in 1981.
She died of congestive heart failure, emphysema and chronic obstructive lung disease at St. John’s Hospital, in Santa Monica, California in 1990.