What led Hollywood star Barbara Stanwyck to exchange her glamorous Hollywood life for the tranquility of the custom-built Marwyck ranch in the then-barely-populated Northridge, and to build the most important thoroughbred horse breeding business in the West? We visited Marwyck, the place that was the most out-of-character decision of Barbara Stanwyck’s life to see for ourselves what was so special about this place that made the Queen of Film Noir move there.
A Visit to Barbara Stanwyck’s “Paradise”

Barbara Stanwyck was most happy at Marwyck, a ranch in Northridge, CA, commissioned by Stanwyck herself to celebrity architect Paul Williams and built in 1937. A quick glance at Barbara Stanwyck’s biography will show a tumultuous and often-troubled path with scarce moments of happiness. Hers is a tale of great highs and crushing lows, filled with hard work, abuse, abandonment and sheer grit and determination. Yet during her time at the ranch, it seems that Stanwyck found true contentment, both personally and professionally.

Following her divorce from the abusive and controlling Frank Fay and before the outbreak of WWII, Stanwyck forged ahead with new friendships which enriched her world, including a new agent Zeppo Marx, and his wife Marion. She started a high profile romance and married the highly sought-after Robert Taylor. In Marwyck, Stanwyck built herself a haven for the simple pleasures of life, free from the darkness and complications which had previously haunted her. It is safe to assume that Barbara Stanwyck found ephemeral happiness at Marwyck.

“I never learned to play when I was a kid. Was always too busy trying to stay alive. I grew up that way – I grew up without friends, without toys, without fun. Now I am trying to capture the things that I need. To Bob I owe an eternal debt, for he has taught me how to find fun in life”

– Barbara Stanwyck, Screen Book, April 1938.

 

Marwyck in Full Glory

Marwyck and The Friends of Oakridge

A few years back, I learned that Stanwyck’s Marwyck residence had, by some miraculous stroke of destiny, survived, grounds and all, the brutal development of the San Fernando Valley and that it was open for visitors thanks to the generous dedication of The Friends of Oakridge,  – a non profit 501(c)3 organization. When I found out I had to travel to Los Angeles for work, I knew it was a sign. I had to see for myself what was so special about Marwyck that made Stany, the queen of drama and self-possession, happy.

Driving from my rented Hollywood apartment to the Marwyck Ranch (now known as Oakridge Estate), I was struck by the sprawling highways and sea of houses as far as the eye can see. Development reaches all the way to the mountains, quite unlike the vistas which would have greeted Stanwyck during her time at the ranch.  I knew Oakridge Estate today was supposed to be this unique oasis of quietness in the midst of suburban LA, but I never thought I would be so impacted by it. One really appreciates the impact of development when you visit the Estate and see for your own eyes. 

Oakridge Estate in Barbara Stanwyck’s time vs Oakridge Estate in 2018.

Northridge Then, Northridge Now

In 1937, Northridge had only 40 mail boxes. A sea of grass surrounded the 120 acre Marwyck complex, which included the Marxes and Stanwyck residences, a race track and state of the art horse breeding facilities. The sea of grass was only interrupted by the majestic mountains in the background. Today, only the 9.5 acres of the Stanwyck residence survive, completely surrounded by shopping malls and single family residences. From 40 mailboxes in 1937, Northridge now boast 40,000 hoseholds. The ranch has an incredibly peaceful atmosphere now, even with a giant shopping mall looming at the front of the Estate; I can only imagine how relaxing it must have felt during Stanwyck’s era.

The large shopping mall across Marwyck is barely noticeable at the entrance.

Aerial view of Marwyck in the late 30s, with a visible training track. To the right, in purple, former Marwyck Complex boundaries today.

Understanding Marwyck

In 1935, Stanwyck was at a low ebb. She had just divorced her first husband Frank Fay. In the latter years of the relationship, her marriage had become abusive – and almost ended the career she had worked so hard to build. Enter Zeppo Marx, the youngest of the famed Marx Brothers. As her new agent, Marx, alongside his wife Marion, swiftly became firm friends with Stanwyck. Their friendship was crucial in helping Barbara break free from the cycle of abuse, and they even introduced her to future husband Robert Taylor the following year. Within a few months, the Marxes and Stanwyck became a formidable team – and in 1936, they joined forces to purchase a 120 acre property in the San Fernando Valley, with the intention of moving there and building adjacent homes – and a state of the art thoroughbred horse breeding business – the best of the West.

The Fantastic Four: Zeppo, Marion, Stanwyck and Taylor

Marx and Stanwyck…A Beautiful Friendship.

This is where the name of the ranch stems from – the combined names of Stanwyck and Marx – ‘Marwyck’. It is testament to the strength of their friendship that they chose this name for their new joint venture. The project was a particular passion project for Marion Marx, who explained the benefits of it to Stanwyck. Stany’s young adopted son, Dion, had been traumatised by his alcoholic father, and yet here was an opportunity to grow up amongst nature, enjoying a simple childhood in the country – so far removed from the cramped spaces Stanwyck had herself endured during her tough Brooklyn upbringing. It was to be a new beginning for her, and Dion – so Stanwyck gleefully shared her friend’s passion for the development. This hardened city girl had tired of big city life and was ready to give country living a try.

I had a farm in Northridge…

“I’ve bought a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Marion Marx and I have bought 120 acres together. We’re raising horses. Thoroughbreds. We’re going to breed horses, besides caring for our own, we’re going to breed and train and board horses for other people. I’m building a ranch house out there and will live there most of the time. It’s peaceful and quiet. I can have gardens, and it will be wonderful for Dion. It will be home.”

-Barbara Stanwyck. Radio Stars, March 1937

Best friends Barbara Stanwyck and Marion Marx built adjacent houses in Marwyck Complex. Barbara Stanwyck’s house (second picture, now Oakridge Estate) still stands today. Marion’s house is now a car dealership.

Marwyck Ranch complex was built in 1937. The Stanwyck and Taylor romance blossomed while Stanwyck supervised its construction, and it wasn’t long before Taylor decided to buy property nearby and build his own ranch.  Stanwyck’s biographer, Victoria Wilson, unearthed the cutest photograph of Stanwyck, Taylor and the Marxes celebrating Thanksgiving in the slopes of Marwyck with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Thanksgiving 1936: Stanwyck & Taylor, Zeppo & Marion and Lombard & Gable. Would have LOVED to be the lady on the left of the picture!

A Look at Marwyck Ranch Today – The Oakridge Estate.

What is known now as The Oakridge Estate was Stanwyck’s residence within the Marwyck complex. The house was designed by celebrity architect Paul Williams, known to incorporate into his designs input from his famous clients. So more than any other house she lived in, Marwyck ranch has Stanwyck’s personality in it. The house itself is surprisingly cosy at 6,000 square feet.

Not your Typical Movie-Star Ranch

When one enters the house, one begins to realize this is not your typical ‘movie star’ home. It’s somehow both cosy and grand. Larger rooms mingle with smaller, more compact spaces. There are luxuries as you might expect of the newly rich in this era; a telephone closet, butler buttons, a service ‘wing’ and an enormous dressing room, as well as a plush marble bathtub. However, these more ostentatious elements are toned down by the low ceilings and homely touches. The grounds of Oakridge still include the original (albeit dilapidated) swimming pool and tennis court. The tennis Court was added later in 1938 and was a present from Bob Taylor to Barbara when they were dating.

Barbara Stanwyck’s Tennis Court and Pool in Marwyck.

Downstairs, visitors are greeted by a deceptively humble entrance hall. To the left, they can find the compact living room, and a guest bedroom, which was once likely occupied by Stanwyck’s friend, guy Friday and Dion’s caregiver, ‘Uncle Buck’ – who had been Stanwyck’s sister dance partner during  the vaudeville years. To the right of the entrance hall, one door leads to a large space known as the “playroom”, which now features an array of impressive hunting murals added by the ranch’s second owner, comedian Jack Oakie. The second door leads to the dining room, and butler’s pantry. The kitchen is directly connected to the westerly section of the house, the “service wing”, which originally had two rooms for staff and a pool changing room.

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Upstairs, the house has only two large rooms. One was Dion’s, right opposite Stanwyck’s own sprawling bedroom. This room marks the only clear indication of Hollywood stardom. It is truly a room fit for a Queen, offering a gorgeous view of the Estate she had taken such pride in building, a movie-star dressing room and a modest bathroom with a luxurious (in the 30s) marble  bathtub. In Stanwyck’s own words, “When I can have a marble bathtub, I’ll know I’ve made it.”

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Exactly As in Stanwyck’s Time

The house’s front Irish limestone facade is in immaculate condition, it looks exactly as it looked in Stanwyck’s years; the half-timbered rear facade and the interior, however, need rehabilitation.

Marwyck Now vs Marwyck During Construction

The house has been vacant for nearly 20 years, and it shows. Rehabilitation plans are underway. Surprisingly, despite the lack of furniture and fixtures, and the torn wallpaper, the house feels warm and inviting. Each room has its own fireplace, and all downstairs rooms have access to the outside porch. This is truly a property which demonstrates the search for open spaces and peace.

At the time of my visit, the grounds had long since been devastated by drought.  However in its prime, I was struck by what an incredible sight this must have been. Only 9.5 acres of the original 120 acre Marwyck complex survive today.

The effects of the drought can be seen in these two shots. One taken in 2013, the last one taken during out visit in November 2017. First photo Credit to Marcie Heacox.

The story of Marwyck, post-Stanwyck

Stanwyck sold her ranch house and her 10 acres to comedian Jack Oakie in 1941, who renamed it Oakridge Estate after himself. She sold her ranch shares to the Marxes who managed the complex until 1943, when it was sold to J. H. and Annette Ryan and became Northridge Farms. The equine facility was used, on and off, for horse breeding and training. In the 1960s, Northridge Farms was sold, rezoned and residential and commercial development took over. Only Stanwyck’s home on its nearly 10 acres survived.

How it is that Stanwyck’s home has survived, largely intact, to this day?

Stanwyck wasn’t the only movie star to build a ranch in the San Fernando Valley in the 1930s and 40s; but somehow her Estate is the only one left standing. Credit must go to Jack Oakie’s second wife, Victoria, who lived at the ranch until the late 90s. She is largely responsible for its current state of preservation, alongside a passionate city of Los Angeles councilman. Both determined to save the Estate from re-development. The establishment of an all-volunteer non-profit group known as the Friends of Oakridde has also played a key role in keeping Marwyck’s legacy alive.

Marwyck’s Front Irish Limestone Facade

The Estate is now owned by the City of Los Angeles and managed by the Department of Recreation and Parks. Budget constraints mean the necessary interior rehabilitation is moving slowly – but the possibilities once they’re put in place are almost limitless. Weddings, community events, private events, a living museum; all of these options may lie ahead in Marwyck’s future. Rehabilitation plans for the grounds are already underway, as is the construction of a park open to the community.

The magic of Marwyck

Marwyck is a time capsule of Los Angeles movie-making history. Standing in this magnificent house, if I closed my eyes, I could almost transport myself to the 1930s.  I can see myself curled up by the fireplace, sipping a warm cup of coffee, reading a book and enjoying that sweeping landscape which Stanwyck herself once gazed on. She was an avid reader, enjoying the escape of storytelling.

I had a farm in Northridge…. Barbara Stanwyck once looked through these windows. Perhaps she studied Remember the Night script in this very same bedroom.

Yes, I can imagine Stanwyck, Queen of Hard Knocks, being finally happy here; horseback riding with Dion and Taylor, grilling in the open air, playing tennis, visiting the stables and training grounds with pal Marion; retreating inside to read books, study scripts and enjoy the opulence which fame and fortune had afforded her.

Yet, why did Stanwyck sell the property in 1941?

The answer is simple: her true passion. Her career literally skyrocketed, and for a woman so dedicated to her work, the opportunity was unmissable. This was the year she made 4 movies and became a megastar, with three of her biggest films – including Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve and Meet John Doe. The daily commute from Northridge to Hollywood had begun to take its toll. The outbreak of WWII impacted the demand for racehorses, and the Marwyck dream soon became a fairy-tale.

“My pal Barbara, she was very happy at Marwyck, but the drive to and from work every day began to lose its luster. Especially when the rains came. After every rain, there would be flash floods, necessitating all  kinds of unexpected detours between Northridge and Hollywood. Many a time I would hear Barbara drive out at 4 am, because it was raining. Even in fair weather, she had to leave at 6 am and wouldn’t get home until 8 pm. That was pretty wearing. And after she and Bob married, and picture work kept them apart from having a honeymoon right away, they got thinking about how much more time they could spend together if they didn’t live so far from work. So they moved back to Beverly Hills.” 

-Marion Marx, Motion Picture, April 1942

A personal connection to the real Stanwyck

I completed my “Stany” tour of LA with a visit to the Taylor and Stanwyck hand prints at Graunmann’s Theatre, Stanwyck’s Walk of Fame Star, and the Double Indemnity house. I also visited a few of her former residences in Beverly Hills. Nothing beats Marwyck to get a real connection to Stanwyck. It was the only house she ever built for her own needs. Stany’s prior custom-built property was with former husband Fay; it was HIS house, built to fit his needs and his ego. Subsequent houses she lived in were built by others. She was only ever personally involved – and seemingly only ever personally invested – in Marwyck. It is a snapshot in her life, and a point in time.

A Must-See Visit for Any Stanwyck Admirer

Marwyck today is a superb testament to what it once was, and what it could yet be. Barbara Stanwyck left behind no grave; her ashes were scattered in Lone Pine, CA. All she left us is her incredible legacy of films…and Marwyck. For any dedicated Stanwyck or classic Hollywood fan, Marwyck is worth the ticket to Los Angeles.

The appeal of the Marwyck Ranch and its leading lady still retains enough magic to sustain it. By supporting the Friends of Oakridge with their restoration efforts, you can help keep that magic alive for future generations.   

The Magic of Marwyck, Present, Past and Future. A open door to the unkown, Marwyck’s Future lays in your hands.

Barbara Stanwyck’s Marwyck

Next in the Marwyck post Series, stay tuned for a Visual Tour of Marwyck (yes, there are more pictures and videos!), and an interview with the marvelous Friends of Oakridge Organization. We will talk Stanwyck, Marwyck and the future of the Oakridge Estate.   

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