Robert Taylor is an oft misunderstood figure, not only within Hollywood history, but most particularly in reference to Stanwyck’s history. Who was this man? How did he capture Barbara’s heart after her traumatic marriage with Fay? In life, and especially in his early career, he was known for being “little more” than THE Handsomest Man on Screen. Was there more to him than his good looks or was he really, as one of his early film titles implies, a Cardboard Lover? There is a definite mystique lying behind the handsome façade of the man Barbara Stanwyck loved, as some claim, until the day she died. And so, to better understand Barbara, we set out to solve the riddle of her second husband, Robert Taylor.
We recently had the privilege to exclusively interview Linda Alexander, author of Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood & Communism, published by Bear Manor Media. Currently, there are only two serious Robert Taylor biographies, and Linda’s book is one of them– making it a highly recommended read for every Robert Taylor and Stanwyck fan. Not only was it the first serious attempt at an honest and truthful Robert Taylor biography, but Linda also shines a light, and thus a much-needed new perspective, onto one of Taylor’s most controversial moments: the HUAC hearings. And so, without further ado…
Tell us about yourself! (Your background, what made you write a biography about Robert Taylor?
I’ve been writing since I was a child. Literally. Of course, that wasn’t professional writing. I’d hole up somewhere back then and write out my juvenile frustrations. It was how I worked out all my issues. When I was a young married woman, with two little kids, I was still writing, though I had nothing published. Yet. I became fascinated with musical performers who’d play at local venues and talked the area newspaper into letting me interview band members. These stories were published over and over. Then a soap star came to town, and I was able to interview her. It was published. After this happened a few times, I decided to go for national credits. From there, I wanted to try a book. Robert Taylor had always fascinated me. He’d reminded me of my dad since my childhood. My dad was arrestingly handsome and they resembled in some ways. I wasn’t raised by my dad and in some sort of psycho-babble sense, I had the idea that they were similar in personality, as well. I wanted to prove that to myself. Ended up being fairly true.
Did you know a lot about Robert Taylor before writing the book?
Not really. Just what I’d read, what was already out there about him and most of that was slanted in one direction or another. That’s always to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. I had to find out things for myself.
What where your main sources– the ones that helped you the most in understanding Robert Taylor? Which served you best in the early years? The later years?
There was only one bio out at that time about Robert Taylor, written by Jane Ellen Wayne. It was full of factual information—things I could use as jumping-off points to dig deeper into his background. For that, I was grateful. Yet a lot of it was surface detail and I didn’t take it too far without my own research. There were books on Barbara Stanwyck. I used them in the same way. A biography written about someone else is, after all, about another person. Taylor in Stanwyck’s story is ancillary. As he should be in that context. My sources, in any biography, are people who knew the subject—family, friends, associates. Also news pieces that allow me to do follow-up research. Court records. Deep digging. My main, direct sources are listed in the back of my book. I talked to a number of his friends and, of course, family.
Tell us about your writing process. (How long did it take you to write the book; how long was the research period; how many people did you interview?
I always write and research at the same time. New material shows up as I write. I’ll add something and that would lead to something else, requiring me to do more investigation. I don’t work fast. In fact, I’m slow when I write a bio. A solid year is an average. Sometimes more if other things are going on in my life. I’m writing the story of someone’s life. I want it to be as accurate as humanly possible since that individual is not available to tell his story to me.
What were you most surprised to discover about Robert Taylor while researching his life? Any big “aha” moments?
There weren’t a whole lot of surprises, really. He was what he appeared to me to be. He was a solid, decent man. If I had to pinpoint anything that took me offguard, it would’ve been the period later in his life, after his second marriage and when he had two young children. He wasn’t all that interested anymore in his career. He worked simply to keep his family in good standing. He’d had enough of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Tell us about the title. Why that title? (Robert Taylor’s memory and legacy has been unfortunately tarnished by the events described in your title, yet the book is so much more than his testimony at the HUAC hearings…).
Yes, this book is about much more that Robert Taylor’s testimony at the HUAC hearings of the mid-1940s in which he was involved, not of his own doing. However, his entire career, and the remainder of his life after that, was tainted and in some ways directed by that period. Most people who follow classic movies seem to have little awareness of the early HUAC period. They’ve little knowledge that it started before McCarthy ever entered the picture. In fact, Taylor’s name is often associated with McCarthy; that’s an even bigger shame. The HUAC period is the elephant in the corner of the room of Robert Taylor’s life and career. It had to be addressed in a big way, an obvious way, a way in which it would be noticed. It had never before been looked into fairly and I wanted people to understand that while he was an actor during Hollywood’s studio system era, that wasn’t his only contribution to the business, and to the era. Yet, while people will complain—and they have—that I titled this book as I did—they will then turn around and nail Robert Taylor to the wall for what he did during the HUAC period, while almost completely ignoring him for what he gave to the movie industry before, during, and after … particularly after. This is what has always bothered me most, and what I felt required the need to address this part of his life head-on. He was an important figure during Hollywood’s changing political climate. Period. Whether or not one agrees with his stance, he had one, and he played his hand, just as many others did for their personal beliefs. They weren’t ostracized for what they believed. He was, and in many ways, for the rest of his life. It was time for Robert Taylor to have his side of this story told. Fairly. Readers can make their own judgments from that point on.
Tell us about your current project.
My last biography is about Steve Ihnat, one of the most popular up-and-coming TV guest stars in the 60s and early 70s. I usually do a cradle to grave biography. When I finished his biography, I realized there were far too many questions surrounding his death. I had devoted the last 100 pages of the book to those questions. I listed how it happened, along with all the questions, and left it open to the reader. At this point, nobody can come up with the answers … and so I will set out to learn the truth about how and why he died in my next book. The last year of his life is literally another story, another book.
PART 2 – ROBERT TAYLOR ACTOR
What is your favorite Robert Taylor (RT) movie(s) and why?
I have two favorites. Party Girl would probably rate as Number One. I’m partial to “Old Bob,” as I like to call him. When he had matured and had lines in his face, when age showed on him not only physically but emotionally. Party Girl allowed Bob Taylor to show character weaknesses, vulnerability, to play someone who wasn’t perfect. His character, Tommy Farrell, was disabled, not only, literally physically, but in so many ways, emotionally. The role gave him the chance to show emotion which, in so many of his parts, had never really been required of him. Often, his movies just wanted him to stand in front of the camera and look pretty. This story had meat to it and the character was a real person. My other favorite was The Last Hunt. This movie was so out of character for Taylor. Charlie Gilson was a real SOB, in the truest sense of the term. A mean, nasty man. Actually lower than low. This was likely the only time he ever played such a person. Robert Taylor most often played good guys or, at least, characters with some redeeming qualities. Some of his fans didn’t like this movie for this very reason. I, on the other hand, loved it BECAUSE of this. It gave Taylor the chance to stretch, to prove he could be more than what he’d been typecast as all of his career. By the shocking end of that movie—heck, way before the end—viewers both hated and felt very sorry for Charlie Gilson and that spoke volumes for Taylor’s acting skills.
Do you have a least favorite RT movie(s)?
I wouldn’t say it’s a least favorite but Where Angels Go Trouble Follows was fluff. By that time in his career, Taylor was just phoning it in. He died a year or so later and he’d been slowly getting ill so it wasn’t his best work. He was done by then, really.
What do you like the most about Robert Taylor, both the actor and the person?
He was truly an honest man. What you saw was what you got with Robert Taylor. He wasn’t deceptive.
Since we are a Stanwyck website, what do you think of the three films they made together?
When they were together, Taylor and Stanwyck were dynamite. I loved The Night Walker. Again, I was a big fan of “Old Bob” and I have to say the same thing about her. I just think she got better with age. Put the two of them together, in their maturity, and especially after they had divorced, and it was a great performance between them. Such professionals and “the magic” was still there.
Any Director/Actor/Actress you would have liked RT to work with? Any particular movie he passed on that he later regretted?
He worked with most everyone in Hollywood in his heyday. I can’t really call to mind anyone, particularly women that I’d have like to have seen him with beyond those he played next to. I know what I’d have liked to have seen him do more more of … comedy. I do wish he would have taken on some comedic roles. He was a very funny man in his personal life. Rather a dry, offhanded humor.
RT was never nominated for an Oscar. Why do you think that is?
Robert Taylor was never taken seriously as a young actor. A lot of that, in my opinion, was colored by how Louis B. Mayer had him under his thumb. One must understand Taylor’s personality, how he’d been raised, to get any sort of an idea how this came to be. As he got older and, again, with his involvement in the HUAC period, an Oscar became something that was simply out of the question. Even then, Hollywood was political. Robert Taylor was simply on the wrong side of the argument at that point.
Which RT performance(s) do you think deserved an Oscar nomination, if any?
I think his performance as Charlie Gilson in The Last Hunt could’ve been nominated. It was a striking performance. Others have said the same thing over the years.
Who was his favorite and least favorite director to work with and why?
Bob Taylor wasn’t known to air his dirty laundry. This held true for who he didn’t like in the business, for the most part. If he didn’t care for a professional, it might be known but he didn’t make any great bones about it. Dore Schary wasn’t a director. In fact, he eventually became to head of MGM, but he and Taylor never really hit it off well. That was no big secret, however, and Taylor simply took it in stride. He was polite, respectful, and gave Schary his due. As far as who he liked, one in particular was Sam Wood, a director who was of the same mindset as Taylor in most every way. They understood each other professionally and personally.
What was RT’s personal favorite of all the movies he made?
He was quite fond of Waterloo Bridge and publicly said that it was probably the best work he ever did. Again, Taylor wasn‘t one to toot his own horn. He didn’t have an overly high opinion of himself as an actor. He was something of a workhorse in a profession which catered to people who felt they should be treated as if they were very special. He went in and got the job done. He felt that was what he was paid to do. When it came to Waterloo Bridge, he was surprised with his own work when he was faced with the finished product.
The studio system was very adamant about developing and presenting their Stars with an almost assigned persona. How would you define the specific “image” the Studio portrayed of Bob?
Bob Taylor was expected to be a non-thinking pretty boy. That was Louis B. Mayer’s sole intent for him. He wanted him to keep his mouth shut except to smile at the camera and say, “Yes, sir,” and “Thank you.” Taylor was never intended to rock the boat in any way. In his early days, the young Taylor believed his elders were to be obeyed, almost at all costs. That’s how he was strictly brought up. Mayer was something of a father figure to him since his dad had died almost concurrently to his move to Hollywood so he wasn’t going to go against him. Not at first, anyway.
How close was the Studio-crafted image to RT’s true personality? How on board was Bob with his Studio image? Was this manipulation/storytelling a perk for its stars, or do you think they would have been more successful just being themselves?
It’s hard to project any ideas as to whether or not these people would’ve been more successful if they’d have been in charge of their own destiny at that point in history. I don’t think we can even guess at that. As I stated in the earlier question, Taylor was a strict by-the-book good boy, and this was for real, not for show. He had been brought up to follow his parents in whatever they told him to do. Many may not understand such a person, especially if they weren’t brought up in the simple times of the 1930s Midwest but that was who and what he was. Honest and rule-abiding through and through. The image Louis B. Mayer crafter for Bob Taylor—and it was Mayer, no one else, who decided what Taylor would show to the public—was Taylor, the young man, to a large degree. However, only to a degree. Robert Taylor was highly intelligent. College educated, with opinions on all sorts of things of the world. When he was questioned by the press on this or that, he would try to answer, and Mayer would get angry. He wanted Taylor to keep his mouth shut, simply act as if he knew nothing. To be the pretty boy. Nothing more. The less Taylor said, the less trouble the studio might have with him. The more they could, as you say, manipulate him. And that’s what gave Robert Taylor the most heartburn as time moved on. He got tired of being a puppet.
What kind of “actor” was Robert Taylor? Did he love to rehearse; was he a perfectionist; or was he more relaxed/instinctual? What was his preparation like? He had great admiration for Stanwyck. Did he seek help/advice from her regarding his acting?
Robert Taylor was a studious actor. He went at it as he did his college studies. When he was under tutelage at MGM in the early days, he would take his lessons to heart and literally study until he got it right, as he would with his school books. When he was young, he may have been somewhat methodical but as he aged, he became more comfortable in his own skin, and in his profession. He learned from those who were more experienced. For example, he took a lot from Garbo when he worked with her. And yes, he did respect and admire Stanwyck his entire life. She was more experienced in the business than he when he got there and he never lost his admiration for her in that regard.
What was Taylor’s general routine during a typical Studio day? Did he have a say in the roles he was assigned?
In his early days? No, he had no say. He was given a role, and he took it. This was the studio system, however, and it was how it worked. The actor was under contract. They took the work that was assigned to them. However, after Taylor became such a big box office draw, he acquired leverage, and with that, he was able to begin to pick and choose. Mayer, and the studio, knew that they had to start to cater to him if they wanted to keep their star happy and, in doing so, bring in the revenue. He was, after all, at that point, a product for them.
What kind of person was Robert Taylor during filming?
I did an interview with Chad Everett who had worked with him in two films. He said Bob was very organized. If he needed something, he would not expect anyone else to do it for him. He would take care it himself. He came to the set with his own coffee, cigarettes, whatever he required for that day. Also, he was not a gregarious personality, not even in his marriages or on the set.
How did RT view himself as an actor/artist? Was he proud of his body of work? He always seemed to be very critical of himself…
He was very critical of himself and his body of work throughout his career. This, however, was his way all throughout his life, about every facet of his life. He was critical of everything he did, and he simply didn’t have much of an ego. He was always certain he could do better, no matter what it was he did.
JH Follow-up: Where would that insecurity come from? That extreme self-criticism.
LA Response: He was an insecure man, a silent, deep-rooted insecurity. Yet, why would he have to be so insecure about? He was intelligent, handsome and capable. The origin of those insecurities started with his younger years, the way his mother treated him. He was an only child and his mother expected so much out of him; he never thought he was good enough. Also, and I’ve heard this about Brad Pitt – whom you mention in another question below – that when you are as good looking as that, people don’t expect you be able to act. They just want to be able to look at you.
JH: What about Gable? He was also presented as a “looker” but he was very comfortable in his shoes.
LA Response: Taylor was of a different makeup than Gable. Gable was all bravado, and Taylor was very, very sensitive. He took everything to heart. So it was a combination of those two things that made him so critical of himself.
PART 3 – ROBERT TAYLOR BIOGRAPHY
Who was Robert Taylor? (What was most important to him? What was his “compass” in life)?
Family was the single most important thing in Robert Taylor’s life, throughout his life. This is the point people must understand if they have any interest in trying to understand him and what motivated him to do what he did throughout his life. He had a high moral compass based on what he’d been taught by his parents and his elders, and it simply was not in his nature to ever argue against that … and he never did argue against that moral compass until the day he died. He expected no less from the people around him, especially his children.
What drove him to be an actor? The cliché is that actors are either narcissists or lost souls, clearly, Robert Taylor was not a narcissistic person, so why was he drawn to acting/performance?
Robert Taylor was likely one of the least narcissistic actors to ever live. Again, I harken back to family. When Hollywood came calling, he had just lost his father. His mother, and grandmother, had no visible means of support, and he was their only possible lifeline. His dad had been an osteopathic doctor, not wealthy but not poor, so his family wasn’t going to be out on the streets but neither would his son allow them to be in any questionable state. He was at a crossroads. His mother wanted him to go back to school but that would require him to leave her, and it would cost money. He had all but decided to quit college and find a job to support her and his grandmother when Hollywood gave him a seemingly better answer. His looks, frankly, became the family’s ticket to financial independence. His mother had always teetered on bad health, and so to ensure he could take care of her and keep her in a lifestyle which would make her comfortable and happy, he went with what he felt was the quickest path to security.
As I read your account of his childhood, I could see why he became the man he did. His father is typified as gentlemanly and his mother as “high-maintenance”, his father was completely devoted to his mother. What would you say were the positive and negative aspects he inherited/learned from both?
Bob, or as he was named at birth, Arlington aka Arly—a name that really hung an anchor around his neck from the get-go—learned his heavy sense of responsibility from his father. That was both a blessing and a curse. It served him well throughout his life in the sense that he was never seen as a troublemaker or one to hit below the belt in any difficulties he encountered. He also learned how to be that gentleman his father was, and Bob Taylor was definitely a gentleman throughout his life. He also learned from his father how to treat a woman. Good and bad. He felt they were to be put upon a pedestal, for the most part. He had a very old-school way of treating them. Not necessarily a bad thing, considering the times in which he lived. Many men thought that way then. However, and this is my opinion, it was at war with the type of woman he selected in his life … which came to be because of his mother. His mother was a very strong lady, personality-wise and, surprisingly, physically despite her ill health most of her adult life. He seemed to both adore, and resent, his mother. Once he became her caretaker, he put her on a pedestal and did everything for her, something which she encouraged. This translated into his personal relationships with women and that worked with some, and didn’t with others. He both wanted to take care of them, but also wanted to have distance from them when he needed breathing room.
Hollywood lore recalls Bob’s mother as essentially hampering his maturation/masculinity, yet from what I understood, she doesn’t seem to have been overly dominant or deeply involved in his life– other than to have been a bit of an annoyance. How much of a negative impact do you think she truly had on her son?
I think you may have missed the point in my book if you didn’t read into what I wrote that his mother hampered his masculinity in any way. Indeed she did. Any mother who dressed her son in the clothes in which she dressed him, forced him to interact—or not interact, depending on how you’d like to view it—with his friends as a child, forcibly inserted herself into his life insistently as he got older, and into his relationships … this is a mother who doesn’t want her son to leave her apron strings, and who is looking to have him be hers forever.
The issue of being perceived as a “pretty-boy” really starts at an early age. The anecdote of his mom not letting him play with other kids for fear he’d get dirty or hurt is quite heartbreaking. How, if so, did this isolation mark him for life?
He wasn’t a man who surrounded himself with hordes of friends. He selected his friends cautiously and with an eye to a genuine interest in each other. He was something of a loner all his life and, yes, that likely was a product of his childhood. Also it was his nature. He was a quiet man.
Do you think his focus on outdoor hobbies later in life was overcompensation for his enforced childhood delicacy? (His very refined, sophisticated musical youth stands in such contrast to his later, rugged lifestyle).
No, I don’t think his hobbies later in life were in any way overcompensation. If you’ll recall, he was quite interested in such things as a child—riding his horse, shooting with his cousins, chasing animals, etc. It was simply that he wasn’t often allowed to do these things when he was young. As a teen, and in college, still under the thumb of his parents—and his mother’s directions—he pursued the sort of things a cultured young man would pursue. He was a doctor’s son, and for the most part, everyone expected him to become a doctor, as well. He was a smalltown boy but an educated one who had gone away to school and learned the refinements of college life to bring back to his community. Still, he loved all those more boyish activities he’d tried to enjoy when he was younger. He’d always had the outdoors in his blood, however, from his earliest years. Once he became a star, when he finally had the power and the freedom, he pursued outdoor activities more and more because that’s what he had always yearned to do since his childhood.
How do you think being so handsome affected him? He did not seem to relish it… He could be compared to Brad Pitt today, yet Brad seems to be very at ease with his looks in comparison…
I think his looks became an embarrassment to him not so much because he was that good-looking, but because he was always singled out for it, and not usually in a good way. He was often ridiculed for being a “pretty boy,” and it was the words, variations on those words, which bothered him greatly. His looks were used against him when he was a child, again, in the ways his mother dressed him and kept him away from other children. Then, in college, his classmates often gave him hell for his looks, seemingly out of jealousy but, in Bob’s eyes, it became a negative because all he wanted was to be a part of the crowd. And then when he got to MGM, Louis B. Mayer used his looks to make money. Mayer saw dollar signs the minute he first set eyes on the man who became Robert Taylor. That would’ve been fine if he’d allowed it to be part of a package but Mayer wanted nothing else out of him. Mayer wanted his looks to be the entire package. He not only discouraged Taylor from using his brain—and he was a highly intelligent man—and his mouth, but he downright told him to just stand around and look pretty. This began to weigh on him as time went on and he started to resent his looks. It affected the roles he was given, stopping him from getting parts which would allow him much more than the opportunity to look good.
One of the things that surprised me the most about him is that he was a gifted Cello player and studied Cello in College. Do you know if he continued playing in his Hollywood years? Did he know how to play any other instruments?
He was an accomplished pianist and passable on a few other instruments. Yes, he had the opportunity to become a professional cellist with symphony orchestras of great merit. He chose, instead, to become an actor.
In L.B. Mayer Taylor found a father figure when he most needed it, right after losing his father and when his career was getting started…but…Was the relationship with Mayer always in such good terms?
Again, Taylor’s refusal to be anything but respectful to his elders stopped him from reacting in any way that would show his true feelings as his frustrations grew. In the early days, he was grateful for Mayer’s tutelage, and the way in which the older man took him under his wing. Mayer definitely shaped him into the man who became Robert Taylor, and Taylor knew he had Mayer to thank for that. He wasn’t one to be ungrateful. Yet, with any “parent/child” relationship, there were difficulties and with this one, there were many troubles. Mayer used Bob Taylor, and he used him hard. Taylor didn’t realize this was going to happen in the beginning and he had a difficult time as the years wore on trying to figure out how to keep the peace with his “mentor.”
What do you think RTs strengths and weaknesses were, both as an actor and person?
I believe one of his greatest strengths was his loyalty to his family and friends. If you were in his circle, whether you’d known him since he was young, or just met him, and he felt you were genuine, he remained fiercely loyal. He had friends when he died that he’d known since he was a young man. His fame didn’t change him much. He used it only as a means to a more comfortable life … for his family and, when it was of benefit, to himself. His weakness—he was stubborn. As he got older and fame allowed him a certain lifestyle, he was able to pick and choose what he wanted to do. He rarely gave in to pressure anymore to do anything he didn’t want to do whether it was professional, or often, personal. For example, he cherished alone time or, at least, quiet time with only a few friends. If he wanted to go off on a hunting trip, he went off on a hunting trip. This got in the way of his relationship with Stanwyck. With Ursula, she learned to deal with it yet that’s not to say she always liked it.
What is Robert Taylor’s dark side?
I wouldn’t say he had a true dark side. He was a bit sarcastic, if you’d like to call that dark. In his early years, he was something of a womanizer. For a while he had a hard time marrying Arly Brugh, the boy from Nebraska, with the super movie star of Hollywood that became Robert Taylor. That caused him some mental anguish. In his middle years, he was able to find peace with who he was, and what he’d made of himself.
Did you have access to a lot of Robert Taylor correspondence to get a sense of the internal person? (All the excerpts from his letters I’ve seen, including one you mention in your book, are very forthcoming and interesting. Wish I could read more)!
I had access to a decent amount of his letters, copies of some of them. He was a very folksy writer, entertaining. He wrote like he spoke, from what I’ve been told. His Nebraska upbringing came out in his writings. There are many, many more letters which never made it into the book. They’re in the possession of his family.
Any juicy tidbits that you chose to omit from the book? Why so? You don’t have to be specific, but how difficult is it to weight what information to give in order to both honor the man and portray him honestly?
There were a few things I chose not to include. I don’t write a sensationalistic biography. About anyone. Not my style. These were real human, breathing, bleeding people. I won’t gloss over faults. If someone had “skeletons” which affected the direction in which they went on their life’s path—and don’t we all?!—I covered those issues. However, there is always a cause-and-effect for anything and everything. There have been too many biographies done on celebrities which are simply sensational, “juicy” details there only to sell books. If this book were about you or me, or your parent or mine, wouldn’t we want the reasons for how their lives were lived to be honestly portrayed … as honestly as possible since they weren’t there to explain themselves?
If Robert Taylor had not been an actor, what do you think he would have dedicated his time to?
Robert Taylor would’ve remained Arlington “Arly” Brugh. He would’ve become a smalltown doctor, like his dad, and opened a practice alongside his father. Or he would’ve become a celebrated cellist, likely a music teacher later in life. These are the two paths he had to choose from before Hollywood came into his life.
The freedom he found in the air and the purpose he felt in serving his country really seemed to bring him happiness and a sense of fulfillment. Prior to this, do you think MGM’s handling of his public persona contributed to his identity issues i.e. his dutiful son tendencies? Did acting and performing in different roles inhibit his maturation or do you think acting assisted him in some ways?
First, I don’t think Taylor’s maturation process was ever in any way inhibited. He matured as a man without issue. He was inhibited insofar as not being one to speak up for himself easily, at least in his early years. Was this a result of how Louis B. Mayer handled him? It was a combination of that, and of his upbringing. The “perfect storm.” Acting did help him come out of his shell as he aged. He learned through acting how to be his own man, how to stand up for himself while always remaining a gentleman as he did so. That was a character he never stepped out of.
Other MGM stars like James Stewart and Gable were allowed to serve overseas, but RT was forced to stay on US soil, serving as a pilot instructor despite his desire to fight. Was MGM’s focus on keeping their star asset safe successful due to obedient acquiescence on RT’s part or was he truly choiceless in the matter?
Please remember how Louis B. Mayer always wanted to keep Taylor “spotless” and unmarred. It was that pretty face problem all over again. This was Mayer’s sole purpose for Robert Taylor. The product. This was MGM’s box office draw in the form of Robert Taylor. James Stewart wasn’t a pretty face. Gable, while sexy, he was a manly man, and wasn’t in the same sort of category. He could get dirty. He could look a bit messed up and it wouldn’t mar his box office draw. Taylor desperately wanted to go into the service, and he wanted to see action. There were a number of behind-the-scenes issues at play, not the least of which were the political ramifications of the movie, Song of Russia. He was told he’d do that movie, or he’d not be able to stay in the Navy. All this is in the book.
In Bob’s movies, even the early ones, I always pick up on a distant, melancholic quality. His character in Party Girl reflects this a lot, coming off very jaded. Is this just the camera or was that a part of the real man also?
As I’ve mentioned, he was somewhat sarcastic and understated in real life. I wouldn’t say he was jaded. His later roles were selected based on what he needed at the time—financially, usually and, sometimes, if the script really peaked his interest. Taylor almost always thought he needed to pad his bank account for his family’s sake, even when he was in no way in need of money. That probably also harkened back to his concern for taking care of his mother. This time, he was taking care of his wife and children. He selected Party Girl because it was a challenge, a good paycheck, and it allowed him to stretch his acting muscle. It was a role he’d never have been allowed to touch a few years earlier. He’d gotten older, with more lines in his face. The part of Tommy Farrell was harder, darker, and a man most viewers would not associate with the likes of Robert Taylor. At that point in his life, he was looking for that kind of work.
If you had to summarize RT’s life, what do you think are the events and the people that most marked him? Why, and in which ways, did they influence him?
The death of his father marked the biggest change in his personality. It wasn’t overnight but it was a bit sudden. He became a man then and there. He was forced to become the decision-maker, the man of the house. He had been coddled by his mother, and his father had been the one male stabilization in his world. Suddenly, that was gone. His mother now saw him as her surrogate supporter more than a son. This one situation affected how he made decisions, how he selected the women in his life and the relations he had with them, his priorities, his beliefs … all the rest of his days.
PART 4 – STANWYCK AND TAYLOR
The Stanwyck-Taylor relationship is such a fascinating subject. They were a huge power couple, yet they were both so guarded, neither leaving an autobiography nor confiding in others about their personal lives. As such, it is very hard to “crack” that relationship and marriage.
On the Stanwyck-Taylor romance-marriage-divorce, what were your main sources to put together the pieces of the puzzle to their 16-year relationship?
In the very early days of my research, as a jumping-off point, I read two books—Jane Ellen Wayne’s Robert Taylor, and Axel Madsen’s Stanwyck. Keep in mind, I don’t simply take anything I read as gospel. I used these as references and then did my own research into what I found there. I was fortunate to have personal letters from some of Taylor’s family members, his mother for example. Also, Ivy Pearson Mooring, his best friend from his earliest days in Hollywood. He met her through David Niven, and from the day they met, until his death, they remained the closest of confidantes. Ivy lived with him and his mother for quite some time, and if anyone shared his innermost thoughts, it was Ivy. She gave me hours and hours of interviews covering different stages of Bob’s life from her inside perspective, and personal awareness. She knew his relationship with Barbara firsthand. I also interviewed many Hollywood friends, well-known types, who knew the couple.
Robert Taylor entered into Stanwyck’s life at a low point for her (after a traumatic marriage and divorce)—serving as the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. What drew Stanwyck to Taylor? Equally, what do you think attracted Taylor to Stanwyck? What do you think they found most “surprising” about each other?
I do not begin to claim to be an expert on Barbara Stanwyck. I’ll leave that to you and your readers. My OPINION on what drew her to Bob Taylor was what I perceive to be an inner softness she seemed to have. I felt she had an exterior which portrayed a strong woman—which she clearly was—but there was a vulnerability inside her. I know I keep using this word but it always fits … she needed a real gentleman, someone who’d accept her as she was, and appreciate that. She could be who she was. Taylor had no pretensions and expected none from her. He wanted to protect his woman, and she seemed to want to be protected. Taylor wanted a woman who could be a “pal,” a woman who, again, expected no pretentions from him. He could be that guy from Nebraska with her. He didn’t have to put on a face with her, someone he wasn’t. They enjoyed nightlife together but, when they went home, they enjoyed horses, and riding, and quiet time. They did have similar interests in the beginning. What surprised them about each other? Frankly, I think they were surprised that they were emotionally attracted to each other because they were so different. They were good for each other, what they each needed at that particular time in their lives.
I really like your literary piece on Stanwyck and Taylor’s first meeting: There is very little info on what followed, other than fan magazines. Was it love at first sight or was it a slow-burning romance? Who do you think made the first move to seriously pursue a relationship?
It did not seem like love at first sight. Definitely strong “like at first sight.” Great respect on Bob’s part for Barbara. I believe he was even a bit in awe of her. As time went on, they became “pals,” something he really wanted in a woman. They simply got along well. They clicked. Their relationship worked. They didn’t feel the need to put on airs with each other and they both needed that with a partner. Their romance snuck up on them and, before they knew it, they were finding it was more than they’d expected it to become.
Their childhoods were complete opposites– Stanwyck grew up an orphan and basically raised herself, while Taylor’s parents were a constant presence and, for the most part, loving and supportive. How do you think these contrasting backgrounds affected the couple’s dynamics?
Again, I can only surmise about Stanwyck but she seemed to gravitate toward Taylor, at least in the beginning, because he needed what she could give him—direction, the benefit of her experience in the business, general life experience he simply didn’t have. Yet also understand that he knew how to treat a woman in an old-school fashion. He was a gentleman, not a Hollywood type but a man devoid of any pretenses. He wanted a woman who’d let him take care of her, and she seemed to want just that. That was novel to her since she’d taken care of herself her entire life. As he became more savvy in the ways of the Hollywood community and the movie business, his general persona didn’t change but he became totally comfortable in his own skin. One could say he became a man’s man and he found other interests which may not—and this is my perception—have set well with her. She was no longer his only world. He had a mind of his own and didn’t need her heavy direction anymore.
Despite such opposite backgrounds, the lovers had a lot in common– they both were down to earth and hated pretense (in a town full of it). What other qualities did they have in common – besides politics? What kept them together for so many years?
I think they were a truly great match in their early years, and I outlined that above. As they aged, they grew apart which, sadly, happens often in relationships. Bob Taylor was an ingénue when he came to Hollywood. He was something of a boy in a man’s world, and Barbara Stanwyck was there to teach him the ropes, which she did well, to her credit, and with great care. What he became, insofar as his awareness of how the business worked, could have been credited to her tutelage. Yet he was a smart man, a quick study. I believe she was needy. That’s my impression of her. She came into his life at the exact time when he needed someone like her. Yet he came into her life when she needed someone like him—a man who was sensitive, caring about a woman’s feelings, not just her position in a business that cared little for the person, a very hometown man who simply didn’t have a conceited or pompous bone in his body. He was that proverbial breath of fresh air for her. What kept them together for so long? Bob believed in the institution of marriage. He wasn’t one to deny that convention. He wanted it to work. That may seem odd considering how they ended up, but it was true at that point. It was true all his life … just so happened that circumstances created a situation which changed the dynamics.
Most people/biographers, including yourself at certain instances in your book, seem to indicate that the marriage was little more than one of convenience. I find this so hard to believe… Can you elaborate on that?
Again, unfortunately it seems that you may have misread some things. I never indicated that their marriage was, or felt that it was, one of convenience. In the beginning, I do believe the actual marriage ceremony was foisted upon them by the studio. That’s not to say they wouldn’t have gotten married on their own. I do believe they would’ve, just not necessarily at that exact time, or in that exact way. They seemed happy, and comfortable, living as they were living. Yet once they were married, I know from the sources I directly interviewed that Bob Taylor wanted it to work and he, in his own way, tried to make Barbara happy.
How much of their decision to marry was merely a result of pressure from the studio and how much developed from a place of sincere passion and love?
Bob was totally frustrated with how his marriage ceremony to Barbara was arranged for him, and how it was executed in total, from beginning to end. One must fully understand how the studio system owned these people, and how their careers literally lived and died based on how they did what they were told to do by their “handlers.” Bob, particularly Bob, and Barbara were “in trouble” because of how they’d been publicly living. Yes, he would’ve married her but it would’ve been on his—and her—terms, not on Louis B. Mayer’s terms and timeframe. I think he would have liked a more romantic wedding and on their terms.
It has been argued that in many ways Barbara Stanwyck was like her mother-in-law in certain ways, however– other than having a strong personality– I cannot imagine someone more different from Taylor’s mother than Stanwyck. Do you agree or disagree?
I believe there were many similarities insofar was the strength of personality and how both women seemed to want to direct Bob’s life, each in their own way. Probably on the part of both of them, to their credit, they came to that desire from a place of love. He, to his unintentional discredit in a way, was initially attracted to that quality in both of them because, initially, he needed that direction when he was young and rather innocent in the ways of the world. Personally, as women, not as women who were part of Bob’s life, were they alike? They were both determined to get what they wanted. They were both creatively-intelligent in how to get to where they wanted to be, and get what they needed, when they needed it. They were both survivors.
JH Follow-up: Yet Stanwyck was someone who literally raised herself and had a career, ambitions…Taylor’s mother was nurtured by parents, husband and child and had no career, so they don’t seem similar to me.
LA Response: They were alike in how they related to him. Not everything else, of course.
Laid back, youthful, and somewhat naïve Taylor was probably the polar opposite of Stanwyck’s first husband, Frank Fay, who was controlling, complex, and deeply troubled. How much do you think that first difficult marriage affected her second and in what ways?
Again, anything I say about Barbara Stanwyck is thoroughly supposition on my part. In life, we often gravitate toward the opposite in a second relationship, after the first hasn’t worked, and that first relationship was particularly ugly. I’d think that had a lot to do with why Bob Taylor appealed to her. He was gentle, kind, and easy-going. He would never have treated her in the ways Frank Fay treated her. He was, in many ways, outwardly not all that literally emotional though, inwardly, his emotions ran deep.
In Fay, Stanwyck had tried to find a father figure. The argument could be that, in Taylor, she took on the mother role. Is this fair, or were they equal partners? Could RT potentially have been more of a father figure to her in certain ways than people realize?
I don’t believe she saw a father figure in Bob Taylor. She likely saw a protector in him. That was what he wanted to be with and for women. His father had been exactly that for his mother. Despite his mother’s strong personality, she portrayed herself as needing to be taken care of all her life and, to be fair to her, she had been in ill health some of her life. So there was a dichotomy there. She did need to be taken care of and, in some ways, protected. This was what a man was in Taylor’s view of life—the breadwinner, the caretaker, the protector. He was comfortable in that role, and it was what he expected to do when it came to the women in his life. I believe that’s what Barbara was looking for. She’d not had that before. She’d taken care of herself for the most part and, with Frank Fay, it hadn’t worked out in any fashion. Bob Taylor came along, and he wanted to do all that for her.
Through your narrative, it appears that the more RT found himself, the more the marriage began to fail. Why do you think that is? Were mutual shortcomings the cause of their inability to adjust to each other/changes in each other over time? Do you see one partner as being more at fault?
When Bob came to Hollywood, he was, by his own account, a very innocent young man from the Midwest. People need to understand how much different such an upbringing was from what he encountered when he got to Tinseltown. He was “green” in the ways of sophisticated life. He fell into a career which allowed him a lifestyle most young men could only dream of living. I believe finding someone like Barbara Stanwyck early in all that stabilized him but it also confused him in some ways. It was good for him but it was a perspective that wasn’t to last. He wasn’t the sort to go crazy. Still, she was looking for stability, and she got it in him. They were good for each other for quite some time. As he became more secure in the “new” person he had been turned into—not only was his name changed but his physique was refined, he was told what he could and couldn’t say, basically who he could and couldn’t associate with—he found he had to balance all that with the person he’d always been, who still lived inside this new man. He both welcomed it, and rebelled against it. Human nature’s a funny thing, the old “watch what you ask for, you may get it,” syndrome. Happens to most all of us at some time. Just because he became famous, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to him, as well. Stanwyck, on the other hand, saw him changing in intimate ways, ways the outside world didn’t see. She saw him trying to adjust to the new man he was while at the same time wanting to hold onto the man he’d always been—who he still wanted to be—and that was the man she’d essentially fallen in love with. She was changing, too. I don’t believe she wanted a self-sufficient Bob. She wanted to have him continue to be reliant on her, for the most part, even though she wanted him to continue to be her protector. This is where, in my opinion—and as I’ve said all through this interview—I’m no expert on her so it’s just an opinion—she resembled Bob’s mother. His mother wanted a protector as well as a man she could help mold. So, yes, there were—as there ALWAYS are in a union—mutual shortcomings. It happens as a long-term relationship evolves, and such unions either weather the storms, or they don’t. I don’t really see either one more at fault. They grew apart. Period.
I found some excerpts from Robert Taylor’s letters which make him very personable. In one of them, he says to his (and Barbara’s) publicists Helen Ferguson, “Barbara and I will never make it Helen–we haven’t a Chinaman’s chance–and it’s all my fault, believe me! A couple of those ‘ingredients’ I was talking about are missing and they’re important to her–and I ain’t got it!” What ‘ingredients’ is he talking about?
Bob Taylor was a voracious letter-writer, and reader. He loved letters, sending them and receiving them. He was entertaining in his letters, colloquial in how he worded them, basically how he spoke when he talked with family and close friends. He had one way of talking when he was in Hollywood, and another way when he was back home. His best letters reflected his hometown personality. He knew what he was lacking insofar as what Barbara needed, and wanted, out of him, especially as their relationship aged. It saddened him yet he felt it was as it was. I truly believe he was hurt and, yes, sad, over the demise of their union. He wanted it to work. He wasn’t an emotionally open sort of man. I believe that may have been, for the most part, what he alluded to in the passage you quote. If she was looking for a “Camille” sort of lover, he could be that onscreen but it wasn’t going to play out in their personal life. She’d just have to know how he felt by how he treated her as a woman, how he cared for her, etc. And the more she may have pushed him, the more he would have pulled back from her. That was his nature. There was a great amount of evidence that this happened.
Most people remember Stanwyck for her tough-gal persona, yet she was someone who excelled on-screen as a potent combination of strength and vulnerability. Based on your research, did that combination mirror the real person?
One thing I found interesting as I have interviewed many actors is that an actor may be type casted, and you meet them and they are nothing like that typecast, but there is a nucleus of that in that person; otherwise they would not be able to play it so well. And this is something that applies to Stanwyck. Again, this is just my personal opinion. She was able to play that vulnerability so well because it was part of her nucleus. My belief is that RT appealed to her so much because he played to her need to show her vulnerability. Everyone wanted her to be tough and she had not been able to give in to that vulnerability. Taylor was a nurturer. He knew how to and wanted to take care of her.
What was the happiest moment/period for Stanwyck and Taylor in their marriage? What was the point of no return?
They seemed happiest in their early years, when they were discovering each other, and together, they were really discovering themselves, for the first time, or so it appeared. What was the point of no return? Again, you and your readers must understand that all my research was done from the point of view of Robert Taylor’s life, not Barbara Stanwyck’s. This will color any perspectives I may have, and life is always a matter of the old saying, “There’s my side, your side … and then there’s the truth.” There is a considerable amount of evidence that she attempted to force her desires for a certain lifestyle on him. She didn’t appreciate his desire to have time to himself, to go off on hunting and fishing trips with his friends, to fly—all pursuits he dearly loved. To her credit, he may, or may not, have wanted to do so more than was healthy in a relationship. I can’t say for certain. I can say, however, that how she handled him pushed him away from her, more and more. He wasn’t one to force the issue, however. His way of showing his displeasure was to simply close himself off more. Eventually, their issues came to that “point of no return.”
On those perennial lavender marriage rumors… Any truth to them? Why are they so persistent? Based on your book, it seems RT was unfaithful to Stanwyck. Do you think Stanwyck was ever unfaithful to RT?
I’m sorry to beat that poor dead horse but I won’t speak directly to Barbara Stanwyck’s sexuality. I don’t know, other than how it related to her marriage to Bob, and won’t speculate. As for him, I had far too many people avow that the man was heterosexual. Period. The most pointed interview I did, personally, was with Mr. Harry Hay, an early leader of the gay rights movement in America, as well as a bigshot with Gilmore Brown’s Pasadena Playhouse. He did his darnedest to tell the world, back in the day, that the outrageously handsome Robert Taylor was gay. Yet when I managed to get an interview out of him, I asked him point blank if these rumors were true. He sheepishly admitted he had no proof and had always just wanted the rumors to be true. Taylor had been a part of the Playhouse for one year, 1933 – 1934, then still just “Arlington,” one of Harry’s “favorites.” He said rumors had become “the rumors to repeat” in the gay community.” This is where it all started for Bob, and never left him for the rest of his career. As for his being unfaithful to Barbara, that, sadly, was true. As I mentioned earlier, he felt pushed to do what he didn’t want to do with his life as he became more secure in his career, and Hollywood life. He felt he couldn’t get her to understand him. She harped on him and emotionally berated him—and I was told this by multiple reputable, well-known sources, so I’m not just guessing. Rather than respond in kind, which wasn’t his style, he’d just retreat. Maybe seeking solace with other women wasn’t the best solution but it was how he handled it. I got firsthand information from more than one of those women—Lia DiLeo being one of them—that he was every bit a red-blooded man a woman would want to be with. And by the way, I also had sources which stated Barbara cheated on him. With at least one man. This is one bit of information I didn’t share in the book.
In 1947, there was a note in a magazine about the Taylors wanting to adopt twins. What do you know about this? Did they ever consider starting a family together?
I believe this was just a fleeting thought. She proved to be not the most motherly sort, and Bob wasn’t the fatherly type until later in life.
On fatherhood. In your previous response, you mention he was not the fatherly type until later in life… Yet, family was the most important thing to him, why did he hesitate about having children. Why do you think that is?
He just was not very comfortable with little children. Why? I couldn’t tell you. He just wasn’t good with little children. He and Dion (Barbara’s adopted son) never met the mark, and frankly, neither did Barbara from what I understand. He tried very hard and did well by Ursula’s children from a previous marriage. His own children, he had them later in life and he was more comfortable with himself later in life. He was not trying to be a movie star anymore at that point, he was just trying to be a husband and a father.
I run a Facebook page associated with this website, and when I post about Stanwyck and Taylor, a lot of casual fans comment they didn’t even remember they were even a couple. Yet, they were one of THE power-couples of the Classic Era! Why do you think that is? Were their careers bigger than their marriage? Or is there something else at work?
She was, and still is, quite the Classic Film icon. Nothing she has ever done, even her politics—even though she was rather quiet about that in the day—has thrown a shadow on her or her work. Bob Taylor, on the other hand, had quite a number of other issues at play and I believe that may have been what marred their union, historically-speaking … though I can tell you that most folks I interact with definitely do know that they were a couple. It may simply be that those on your website are Stanwyck fans, and not so much Taylor fans. His part in her life is overshadowed by that in some cases.
Most people point at flying as the source of the Stanwyck-Taylor parting. I am married and I find that a healthy separation and having different hobbies can work wonders for keeping a union healthy. Was flying such a big problem, or is this just an oversimplification? Is it really true that Bob was forced by MGM to go to therapy to conquer his flying “addiction?”
It is true that he was forced to go to therapy but, as it so happened in much of his time with the studio, there was always an underlying issue at work. The idea that he, and excuse my way of putting this, but he was, over time, “growing a set of cojones,” and this tended to worry MGM and Louis B. Mayer. The plane, and Taylor’s determination to fly, when he wanted to fly, was counter-indicative to the man he was supposed to be insofar as what the studio wanted out of him. A plane eventually became part of Taylor’s contract with MGM so that flying could be figured into his career and make the two more interrelated. Regarding flying being the cause of the marriage’s breakup, absolutely not. That’s beyond oversimplification. I think I covered this in a previous question. I do believe he used flying as a way to force the issue, however. I sensed that Stanwyck was a jealous woman and she was jealous of his time with her away from her in his outdoor pursuits, his flying and his hunting/fishing trips. So their lifestyles became divergent as time went on.
The Lila Dileo affair during the filming of Quo Vadis on location in Italy troubles a lot of Stanwyck fans. Why humiliate Stanwyck that way? Why not ask for a divorce, plain and simple? From your perspective, what could have led RT to so publicly dishonor, for lack of a better word, someone whom, he may no longer have loved but was still grateful to and fond of?
Quo Vadis began work in 1949 and it took a while for it to come to fruition. He wanted to go, Stanwyck did not want him to go because it would have been 6 months away. It’s no secret that he was having an affair at that time (while shooting The Bribe (1949)), with Ava Gardner. She admitted so later in her biography, that must have not been good for the marriage. Barbara must have known. There was a lot of unhappiness at that point.
Once again, I’ll state the obvious … people do things in a marriage, a union, that aren’t pretty, that they aren’t proud of, that they wouldn’t do if they really thought about them ahead of time. As well, this was a two-way street. This bothers Stanwyck fans. On the other side of that fence, the way she treated Bob during their marriage—how she humiliated him in front of his family, and even friends, which was in a public arena—truly still bothers his fans. She was known, and I have this from multiple personal accounts, to call him names, criticize him, and simply rant and rave at him, in public, if he didn’t do as she wanted him to do. No matter who was around. Why didn’t he just ask for a divorce? He tried. A few times. She became very upset, in ways which scared him … not for himself but for her – JH: Was this the Lana Turner incident mentioned in an earlier Taylor bio that has since been “debunked”? LA: No, this was later.
Why did he do what he did, and in the way he did it? He felt he’d been pushed to the edge, and had no other alternative. Right or wrong, better or worse, this was how he handled the situation in which he found himself. Was it the best decision? Possibly not. Was it the best idea for her to demand a divorce from him, knowing, absolutely knowing, that he already wanted one? She was aware he’d already, in private, tried to go that route but expected he’d never take her up on her “offer.” He’d never done so before. He’d already asked her for a divorce. More than once. This time, however, when she challenged him, she took him up on it. And yes, he did it his way.
Their post-divorce dynamics are pretty strange… They dated right after divorcing, for example. What happened there? Do you think they could have gotten back together had Ursula Thiess not come along?
No, I don’t think they’d have gotten back together. He still loved and respected Stanwyck, but he’d gotten her out of his system insofar as a wife was concerned. Might they have continued on in some sort of a relationship was concerned? Possibly, if she could have handled his being involved with other women at the same time.
Did they stay in touch after his marriage to Ursula?
He was surprised when he discovered that they had both been cast in The Night Walker, so it’s not likely that they really stayed in touch after Ursula came into the picture. In fact, Ursula was the one who wanted him to do that film, for the most part.
Some early Taylor biographies tend to portray Stanwyck as, ahem, a cold “bitch” who only cared about work. Yet, after the initial bitterness following the divorce, it seems there was a sincere fondness between them post-divorce. Would you agree?
Oh, I think there was definitely a fondness between them post-divorce. Even more, there was a respect. I don’t believe Taylor, in particular, ever lost his care for her. In truth, if we truly love someone, and there’s no true bitterness in a break-up, that love doesn’t go away. It may fade but it never fully leaves us.
Taylor and Stanwyck share hand and foot prints at the Graumann’s Theater since 1941. Long after Taylor’s death, their prints were very deteriorated and the Theater offered Stanwyck to re-do the prints and replace the old, cracked ones with new ones. She said she would not do that because Taylor was not alive anymore and his prints would be lost forever.
I have to give her every due. She stood up for him. She was very good for him and did good to him. Marriages don’t always work. It does not make one person or the other the bad guy. Both did things that were wrong for that marriage. But that does not make them bad, just human.
There seems to be a divide between Stanwyck and Taylor fans. Do you understand both sides of the story and what would you say to “bridge” the gap?
I’ve truly not noticed that most Taylor fans dislike Stanwyck. It is true that they are more favorably inclined toward Ursula Thiess insofar as her as his wife. That is because Ursula was more suited to him as a wife. She knew how to handle Bob—his enjoyment of alone time, and sometimes just being “inside himself.” These traits were traits that seemed to aggravate Barbara as time wore on. Ursula allowed him the space to live that way and, in doing so, he grew toward her, not away from her. Insofar as Stanwyck fans disliking Bob, you can speak to that much better than I. If that’s true, I’d say it’s likely because they don’t understand the true dynamics that lived between them. Again, we can’t judge others based on our own lives, our own beliefs, or our own feelings. Bob and Barbara were living, breathing human beings and their lives were private and personal, away from the glare of lights and cameras. They had their issues but, in the end, what went on between them didn’t happen to make anyone else happy or unhappy. It was all for their own attempt at happiness which, sadly, didn’t come together for them as a couple. They did try, however. They BOTH tried, and I respect them both for their efforts.
What did the marriage to Barbara Stanwyck mean to Robert Taylor?
Bob Taylor had great respect for Barbara Stanwyck, from the beginning to the end of their intimate relationship, and throughout the rest of his life. She was an important person in his life and he always credited her as such. He gave her great credit for many things in his life, for helping him become the actor, and professional, he became. He married Barbara because he loved her. And he did not take marriage lightly. He wanted to emulate his parents’ marriage and wanted a forever marriage. He learned strength and how to stand up for himself from Stanwyck. He grew up in that marriage.
PART 5 -ROBERT TAYLOR LEGACY
RT was a huge star in his day—again, akin to the Brad Pitt of his day in terms of Star Power. He had a three-decade career at the top, yet today his figure has faded considerably. Other conservative contemporaries like Cooper, Gable and Wayne have endured, yet Taylor, who was just as popular as them, is not even in AFI’s Top 25 Classic stars. Why do you think this is?
I’ll answer this with a question below.
A cursory investigation into Hollywood generally introduces the researcher to a prejudiced image of Taylor as a somewhat “milquetoast” mama’s boy. In contrast, some earlier Robert Taylor biographies combat this image by overcompensating and overemphasizing the “masculinity” of RT, his infidelities/romances with beautiful women, etc. The effort can come off as desperate and almost reinforce the opposite identity. What do you think some authors/bloggers get so wrong in their portrayals of Taylor? When confronted with contradictions, conflicting sources, rumors, etc. how do you divine fact from fiction?
To my knowledge, there have only been a small handful of true Taylor biographers. I was the second. The first, Jane Ellen Wayne, wanted to make him into the screen idol he played. She had an idealized vision of him. She had actually met him, I believe, and that was the man she saw. I personally didn’t want to “overcompensate” or overemphasize Bob’s masculinity, his infidelities or extracurricular romances. He was what he was. We all are. Biographers are, in my mind, often of one or two schools—either they want to romanticize their subject, or they want to vilify the individual, digging up as much dirt as possible, true or rumored to be true. I attempt to show my subjects to be human. I may not always be thoroughly successful—after all, the person is no longer with us, so they can’t tell their story for us—but I do my darnedest. We all have skeletons and I won’t ignore those about any of my subjects. I won’t sensationalize, either. Bob Taylor was a man. He had tendencies in his earlier years which made him seem soft. This seemed to have made him, personally, overcompensate, in his beginning years in Hollywood to show others that he wasn’t soft, that he could be his own man. Then, as he grew more confidant in who he was, and people saw that, indeed, he wasn’t a milquetoast, he lived the life of a man that he felt a man should live, the sort of life he WANTED to live. Was it always a life that satisfied those around him? No. Then again, that’s what happens in all relationships.
The HUAC hearings… You certainly give a very thorough explanation of what led to this defining moment in RT’s life, which had not been done prior. What would be the short version take-away that would help outsiders understand Taylor’s point of view and eliminate the prejudice that “he was a snitch and ruined careers?”
I don’t know how much more plain it can be said … history is history BECAUSE it was lived before the days in which we live now. It’s history because we didn’t live in it. Someone else did. With that as fact, those people who lived in that particular time in history did so with their own beliefs, their own feelings, and their own sensibilities. Add to that … you, and I, Bob Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, are all products of both our upbringing and our environment. Our environment, which, by the way, is—to those of us trying to now understand it—is history. Me trying to explain to people why Robert Taylor wasn’t trying to ruin careers, why he was not a snitch, is like me trying to change people’s minds about their politics versus someone else’s politics. The House Un-American Activities Committee was the elephant in the room of Bob Taylor’s life. It had to be addressed in the story of his life. He was told by Louis B. Mayer that he would stand up in front of that committee. He would, basically, become the studio’s patsy. He begged them not to make him do that. He, being who he was, he felt the law required him to answer the questions they would ask him. They already had all the information. It was for show, a circus, and Louis B. Mayer threw him under the bus. “History,” as it’s been written over the many years since, wants you to believe that he was a snitch, but that was not the true story.
If your readers haven’t read my book, they can do so and get all this from there. It’s too complicated to go into in depth here. Taylor had his Navy commission dangled in front of his face and was told what he was going to do. If he didn’t do it, he would not be allowed to go into the Navy. Essentially, it was his career, his responsibility to his mother, grandmother, and Ivy Pearson Mooring, who he was also supporting at that time, which weighed heavily on him … all this was in jeopardy if he didn’t toe the line. And everything—everything—he said on that stand—was coerced out of him, and was already known by those who led his words. These statements were documented by the US government long before Bob Taylor ever uttered a word on that stand. As well, the people mentioned—and he said, in response to what was asked, they could be disruptive, etc, etc, which was a tactic of the communist party, and which was a leading question by those trying to get him to name names.
Did he ever regret his involvement?
My book goes into this clearly. He wrote a letter to the committee BEGGING them, quite literally, not to put him on the stand. He didn’t want to go on that stand. He didn’t want to be there. He felt it was an absolute circus, a travesty, and should’ve never happened in the first place. The United States government was in bed with the Hollywood studio system to put on a show, and Bob Taylor, as well as many others, knew it. Taylor was MGM’s sacrificial lamb, and he was all too aware of this. However, for reasons as mentioned above, he did what he felt he had to do. Why? Because that was the type of man he was. He was, for better or worse, whether you, me, or your readers agree with him or what he did, of a mind that his country was in dire shape and he couldn’t stand by and allow it to go in the direction it was going without doing something, whatever he could do. He was adamantly against communism, and this was his stand.
Before the HUAC craze started, Bob had a brush with an extortionist, which you indicate may have been related to the forthcoming America-Russia tensions in Hollywood. Could you elaborate on this situation? Were these kind of threatening notes common for Taylor?
In my research, I didn’t find a lot of this going on in his life. That doesn’t mean there weren’t more. It was serious enough that the FBI got involved and considered it a serious concern.
The political division in Hollywood during the Red Scare is echoed in today’s right-left polarization. As a very vocal conservative, how do you think Bob would react to the Hollywood of today?
I hesitate to put my take on the opinions of someone else, especially someone who can’t respond. It would only serve to polarize those who already have their beliefs about him. I think it’s rather obvious as to what he’d think about today’s political environment without me coloring those ideas.
The general bias in Hollywood has shifted from conservative to liberal, but in both instances, actors can’t seem to stay away from politics. Why do you think that is?
Actors feel they have a platform because they have a public voice. They’re very visible and, in some ways, they are America’s royalty. We, as the viewing public, tend to idolize them and follow their every move. For better or worse, we often put them on a pedestal and what they believe can hold a lot of weight in the minds of followers. It’s not necessarily a good thing … actors are no more human, or smarter, or more politically aware, than any of the rest of us. They simply have more visibility which gives them a louder voice than the rest of us.
Both Taylor and Stanwyck seemed to have been pretty uninterested in leaving a legacy of their lives and careers. Other stars were certainly much better at preserving their stardom for future generations. Why is that?
I’m harping on an overdone theme, I know, but I can’t speak to Barbara’s thoughts. Bob wasn’t all that confident in his work, as a whole. That, sadly, was mirrored in a lot of the reviews he received. In my opinion, that often was colored by those who didn’t like his earlier work—which was simpler and studio-driven—or in his later years, by his politics. Bob himself, however, was really a man without much of an ego. Whatever else could be said about him, he simply didn’t have a lot of an ego. He knew who he was, he knew what he was decent at doing, and he did it to the best of his ability. He always felt as if he’d fallen into his career, and he was eternally grateful for it. It wasn’t the reason for his being, however. It was forever something of a mystery to him that he’d lived as THE Robert Taylor for so many years and did have such a legacy. If he’d not fallen ill, he probably would’ve been more determined to preserve a legacy in politics than in entertainment. That, however, was not to be.
Do you know RT’s children? I am happy that he experienced the joy of being a father, something that is a unique, life-altering experience. What do you see of RT in his children? What are they most proud of about their father? What are their favorite RT movies?
I do know his children. Both are beautiful people, inside as well as outside. His son is something of a physical mirror image of him. The first time I saw him, I almost fell over … it was like Bob Taylor had walked in the room. They both, his son and daughter, have his quietness and gentle sensibility. They have an understated sense of humor. I’m honored to know them. They don’t speak of favorite movies … they just like them all. I do recall, however, a story Tessa, his daughter told me. She was in her kitchen years after her dad had died. Her TV was on in another room and, suddenly, she heard his voice. It caught her off-guard and she walked into the living room. He was there on the screen on Death Valley Days. It was a bittersweet moment for her.
If you could meet RT for lunch today, what five questions would you ask him?
1. What was it really like to be involved with the HUAC? HIS words. 2. Tell me about “your” Barbara … I’d really like to have heard him talk about her candidly—the days they were together, how he felt with her, etc. 3. What did it feel like to go from a small-town Midwestern boy, and be turned into a Hollywood heartthrob known and sought-after around the world? 4. What were your 2 biggest regrets in life? 5. Tell me about your spiritual beliefs … this question has ALWAYS been one I’d love to have had him answer directly. He never really spoke of his spirituality.
100 years from now, will RT be remembered? What will his legacy be in 2120, professionally and personally?
Will he be remebered in 100 years? I don’t have a crystal ball. I really can’t answer that question. If the world continues on in the more progressive, liberal direction in which it is currently going, I’d say, no, probably not, except maybe as a footnote in Hollywood’s memory bank.
What is the contemporary actor that most reminds you of RT or that echoes his legacy best?
That’s a hard question. I think if I had to compare him to anyone in Hollywood today—and this is putting me on the spot—it might be Tom Selleck. Both are known, and have been known, as very handsome men in the business, having started out getting work based mostly on their looks. As they grew in Hollywood and became more confident, their parts expanded. Selleck has managed to hold on and keep a decently-high profile despite the fact that he isn’t a liberal. Taylor, despite the fact that his career did falter a bit because of his politics, he never really lost work because of that. Another one I might make a slight comparison to is Clint Eastwood, for similar reasons.
Thank you Linda for luminating Robert Taylor’s life and for helping us better understand both the man and his legacy with your patience to our many questions and your thorough responses. I personally have a much better understanding of the man after reading your book and this interview. History is hardly ever black and white, and Robert Taylor’s work and professionalism deserve the much-needed analysis and appreciation you have afforded him.