An Interview with Victoria Wilson, Author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940

Barbara Stanwyck never wrote an autobiography (and certainly never allowed any writer to get close enough to her to write a legitimate one). As such, the literary “holy grail” regarding the woman many consider to be the greatest actress of her generation was impossible to find—in fact, non-existent—for an excruciating amount of time. Fortunately, the gigantic gap in cinema history was bridged by Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True (1907 – 1940). And we all say, Hallelujah!

Book Cover, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson. Simon & Schuster.

As devoted fans, we are eternally grateful to Ms. Wilson for diving in with such detail into Barbara Stanwyck’s World. The finished product is an ambitious and comprehensive effort. Ms. Wilson earned unprecedented access to close friends and family of the ever-elusive star, thanks to her professionalism and sensitivity. Her in-depth portrait of Stanwyck and her work in the completed Volume I of the much anticipated two-volume Stanwyck biography, can safely be considered THE one. Because Stanwyck walked one of the hardest, rockiest roads to Stardom of anyone, it only makes sense that the agony of fans in waiting for her penultimate life story be just as dramatic– but very much worth the wait.

There is no other Epic Silver Screen Dame more deserving of a magnum opus. We had the enormous privilege to interview Victoria Wilson in depth about Volume I of her Life of Barbara Stanwyck.

Part 1 – About Victoria Wilson

Part 2 – A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Volume One

Part 3 – On Writing Barbara Stanwyck’s Biography

Part 4 – Barbara Stanwyck’s Career

Part 5 – Reflecting on The Stanwyck Effect

Part 6 – Final Thoughts and Volume Two


  • Your professional bio is impressive, and I encourage our readers to look you up on the internet! Tell us about yourself, as much as you are willing to share with our readers.
Vicky Wilson. Photo credit: Joyce Ravid.

I was born in New York but grew up on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve been an editor at Alfred Knopf for 51 years, and during that time, I have published many kinds of books, fiction, cultural, history, politics, photography, movie books, memoirs, everything. I was named by Bill Clinton to be on the US commission on Civil Rights.

  • I understand this Biography is a labor of love and time. Why did you choose Barbara Stanwyck? (Or did she choose you)?

I have published a lot of biographies, I work well with biographers, getting them to think about their subject in a more dimensional way. And I thought, it’s such an interesting form. In many ways for a time, it was more interesting than what was going on with fiction. I thought one day, why don’t I write a biography? This was in the mid-90s. I was trying to find a subject; I made a list of people who interested me, and I put Stanwyck on the list. I didn’t really know that much about her. I just knew the standard facts about her, she grew up in Brooklyn, she was married to Frank Fay, then she married Robert Taylor, and that’s about all I knew. I had worked very closely with John Kobal on a book I called The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers. John had met most of the Hollywood greats, I remember I would have him tell me what I called bedtime stories about them, and I would take that information and shape the text he was writing. John had interviewed Stanwyck, and I remembered him talking to me about her.  

The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers by John Kobal

John died of AIDS in 1991, there were so many people that he talked to me about, but what he said and how he spoke of Stanwyck stayed with me, and this book was a sort of out of homage to John. I found out a bit more about Stanwyck, and I was immediately drawn, she had an amazing life, interesting, it was not an easy life, but a big life, she worked with most of the great directors, started in Broadway, worked in radio in its earliest days, she worked at the tail end of silent pictures and finished her career in Television. Also, at that time, there was no serious book about her.

  • Did you know much about Stanwyck before you started your quest? What were your “pre-conceived” notions of her before you started gathering information?

All I knew was the standard knowledge at the time, that she was this tough Brooklyn girl who was an orphan at a young age. Then through a series of insane research (at the time of no google, no internet), I discovered that her family went way back, that she was a daughter of the American revolution. I was interested in silent films, and in watching Sunrise  on the big screen, what fascinated me is that it captured what happened to Stanwyck’s family, her sisters, her mother. Sunrise is a masterpiece about families going from small town America to the big cities, families that were breaking apart because of this shift. The notion of family interests me. The Stevens family was splintered because of that. What I had found out through my research, I was able to see it captured on the screen, I was just really discovering Stanwyck. I know her very, very well now.

  • After spending 20+ years with Barbara Stanwyck, what have you learned from her? Would you say that you “know” her now? She was one elusive person…

When I started this book, I said to myself, I’m only interested in getting as close to the truth as I can. I’m going to write this book for me so that I’m interested in it as I’m writing it. It was pretty much mostly original research. I had no idea where it was going to take me. I had the outlines of a life. And from there, it was all original research. There was no judgment and there could have been plenty of it.

I can now say that I almost know her too well. The first clue to her, the first moment when she became a real person was when I interviewed Walda Mansfield. That was a major interview. (Note from editor: Walda Mansfield was Stanwyck’s roommate in the mid/late 1920s in New York, when Barbara was still Ruby Stevens).

  • As a follow-up question, being such a constant in your life, has Stanwyck changed you in any way(s)?

I learned how to write a book through her, and I learned that the way in which I was brought up, even though very politically different, I was brought up in the world the way she was. I learned to be honest, cut to the chase, straightforward, to stand up for what you believe and to go forth into the world in as clean a way as possible, which I think she did.

  • Other than Stanwyck, who are your favorite actors, directors, as well as films of the Classic Era?

The first person who comes to mind is Irene Dunne, she is totally overlooked and was wonderful, and charming. Joan Crawford who wasn’t really an actress, but she had such a presence, and she’s so unbelievably spectacular looking and a better actress than people think. Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Kay Francis. And I also have a kind of new appreciation for Ginger Rogers who I think is also overlooked.

In terms of directors, there’s so many, there’s George Stevens, William Wellman, whom I wanted to write about in detail because not only they loved to work with each other, but also, because he used Fay and Stanwyck in writing A Star is Born. I like Howard Hawks, Cukor, Tay Garnett, William Wyler. I’m not a huge fan of John Ford, but I think How Green Was My Valley is a masterpiece. I also love Robert Rossen, Preston Sturges, Mamoulian, King Vidor, and early Hitchcock.


  • Who would you say were the people that most influenced/impacted Barbara Stanwyck and why?

Her sister, Mildred, whom I write a lot about, and Arthur Hopkins, those were the two biggest influences. Willard Mack, Frank Fay and Frank Capra were also very important. The biggest influence though, was not having a mother, because she had to fend for herself in ways that a child should never have to. It was her training for Hollywood, to deal with the studio system. She was always on the outside.

-Follow-up question: In your book you mentioned that her mother wanted to be an artist, but obviously when she married and had children it became a dream. Millie was the one that continued her mother’s dream and in turn, Barbara finally fulfilled that dream.

That obviously played a part, but I think her becoming an actress was more a result of the fact that Ruby felt she didn’t have a family and found a sense of family in the Theater World. For the disassociated child that Ruby was, the theater, the backstage chaos, actors coming together, gave her a sense of family.

  • Frank Fay is often the villain in Stanwyck’s story. You did an amazing job of “humanizing” him, separating him from the caricature most often presented. In what ways do you think her relationship with Frank Fay changed Barbara Stanwyck for the better and/or for the worse?

I go into detail about that marriage with Frank Fay for a lot of reasons, but one of them was to show how she was always on the outside both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Even though Fay was the biggest thing on Broadway and in Vaudeville, because of his illness, their marriage became the classic alcoholic marriage where the two of them were against the world and the world was against them.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Fay

Also, Fay influenced her acting greatly. When they met, she was becoming a star on Broadway, she had sort of exploded, in the play Burlesque. I wrote about how they met, which was interesting, and the tricks they played on each other. I went into all that detail about him because he was such an influence on her because he was so naturalistic. His acting, his work was so unadorned. Then I found that great quote from Cagney saying that that’s how he learned to act, from watching Frank Fay.

Fay was protective of Barbara, and she felt taken care of probably for the first time in her life. She was already in that world of Broadway but always on the outside, she was ambitious, and Fay brought her into this other stratosphere. She watched his work and she saw how unaffected he was. Everybody else had said the same thing to her – to strip down, strip down, strip down, get rid of all the affect.

-Follow-up Question: Later on in film, he was the complete opposite.

He was not right for film; he was 50 years too soon. They brought him in because he was a star but they did not know what to do with him – why would they make him into a French lover? He was decades ahead of his time because he was perfect for television.

  • Frank Fay “saved” Stanwyck’s film career by making sure Capra hired her for Ladies of Leisure. Do you think she would have made it without that intervention? Stanwyck was ready to go back to New York at that point.

Who could ever know. Let’s say she’d gone back to New York. She might have had a big career on Broadway and then she would have come out, I bet, another way. But who knows? She was somebody who felt safe with what she knew, and while she was an actress and she took big risks, she also stayed within what she knew, and key people entered her life at the right time. It’s true he helped with the audition – which Wellman used for A Star is Born – but what he did to her personally was terrible.

  • Speaking of A Star is Born. The book does a great job at describing how the Fay/Stanwyck marriage was one of the bases for the original film. Which of the many adaptations, for you, best describes Stanwyck’s marriage? Do you think Stanwyck knew that the film was based on her marriage?

I’d have to say that the one directed by Wellman, and that’s why I went into all that detail about the timeline of Stanwyck and Wellman’s pictures together and their friendship.  Wellman was the one who watched that marriage over a period of 3 years until it was over. I’m sure Stanwyck recognized many of her own personal experiences in the film. For instance, when Fay was arrested and brought down to the police station. That scene is in the film. I’m sure she did know it was based on what she had confided to Wellman. 

  • Frank Fay being the one man she was willing to give up everything for. Would you say that that Fay was the “real” love of Stanwyck’s life?

No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that she would be grateful to him for what he exposed her to and where he brought her professionally. But I don’t think she had any gratitude for the agonies, the hell that he put her through.  And once she left him, she was free, which I write about in Volume One. I loved writing about her friendship with Marion and Zeppo Marx.  Zeppo Marx was crucial to her because he saw something in her that she didn’t see, which is the humor. Marion was also such a great influence, a graceful, intelligent, outgoing friend who knew Hollywood. I loved writing about Marwyck, it was great fun.

  • How did such a traumatic first marriage affect Stanwyck? After Fay, Barbara seemed to want to be more the alpha in her romantic relationships… Is it safe to say that Fay represented a father figure to her whereas Taylor brought something more maternal? Or are these assumptions the product of the film magazine “spinning” machine?

I think she was definitely the alpha in her relationships after Fay. Stanwyck tended towards isolation. She had her two roommates in New York, but when Fay came into the picture, and moved to Hollywood it was Fay and Stanwyck against the town. She was in reaction to him. He almost killed her, he beat her up many times, and she stayed with him because she was determined to make it work no matter what. So, she was in reaction to that, which is why, Robert Taylor was so good for her in a way. And, by the way, I do think that was a real marriage.

I wouldn’t phrase it that way. I must be careful because there’s certain things that I don’t want to talk about because I’m about to write about them. So, I’m happy to say this for Volume One, I do set up that Taylor brought her out into the world. Taylor was a socialized being much more than Stanwyck was. Also, when she started seeing him, he was on the cusp of his huge stardom. He was much more electric as a star at that point than she was, because she had been around then for a while, and it really wasn’t until Stella Dallas that she had her big moment. I think Taylor normalized life for her.

Taylor was definitely not a father figure. Taylor was such a gentleman, someone who could take care of her more gently.  Stanwyck turned into Frank Fay in the way that she was shaping him.  

  • Barbara was most vivid for me as a reader during her Broadway times. I can picture her as a real person, with her roommates Walda Mansfield and Mae Clarke. I understand you were able to speak to Walda herself! What did she have to say about Stanwyck? Did she see a difference between the Ruby she knew and the Hollywood Stanwyck?
Ruby, Mae and Walda playing Cabaret Dancers in The Noose (1927)

Walda Mansfield was a major interview for me, as I said before, that’s when she became real to me, I felt Ruby through Walda.  They were girls trying to make a living, they made a pact to work together, which they tried to do, and they did. Had Stanwyck stayed on Broadway, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened to her because that rocket that was heading to the moon when Fay said, “we’re going to California”, who knows where it would have taken her.

  • Stanwyck’s relationships with Walda and Mae seemed to fade after her move to Hollywood. Was Fay responsible? Or was this Barbara wanting to fully break away from Ruby Stevens?

Fay was certainly responsible to a certain extent. Before him, it was the three of them, they were the triumvirate, they did everything together and, then Stanwyck started to see Frank and he didn’t want them around. Stanwyck stopped talking to Mae Clarke. When they went to Hollywood, I remember Walda telling me that she had gone out to Hollywood earlier. She found out that Stanwyck was coming to Hollywood and went to meet her at the train, Stanwyck was very cold, and Walda assumed it was because a lot was going on with luggage at the station and it was very chaotic. So, Walda called her after and she could tell that Stanwyck didn’t want to have anything to do with her. They saw her a couple of times, but it didn’t go well. Walda was hurt, of course, but she clearly stated how she let it go. Mae was the one that had a harder time. She was not well, she had a lot of problems when she moved to Hollywood, accident, nervous breakdown, so losing Stanwyck’s friendship haunted her for a long time.

-Were you able to speak to Mae Clarke?

She had died , so I spoke to Jim Curtis, who had published a long conversation with her;  a great book about Mae Clarke.

Roommates Ruby Stevens and Mae Clarke

-I would imagine that after Fay was out of Stanwyck’s life, Barbara could reconnect with her old friends?

Stanwyck did not do that, once she moved on, she closed the iron door on you, which I am writing about. 

-My next question would be, do you think Barbara Stanwyck was trying to break from Ruby Stevens?

I think that once she did break with Walda and Mae, she turned her back on Ruby Stevens. But she didn’t because, you can only break away for so long and to a certain point, which I’m going to write about in the upcoming book. She would come back to New York a lot and visit her family and she took care of them – her sister -, which did not make her happy. She loved her nephew; she loved his kids. There’s so much to write about still in Volume Two and I haven’t gotten to the interesting part yet.

  • Did Barbara Stanwyck feel pride or shame in Ruby Stevens, or a combination of both?

I would say both. I mean, she was probably proud that she survived and that she had made her own success. In a way, Ruby Stevens served her well, but then, it probably got in her way. There she was at 23, going up against Columbia, with what it meant to go against a Studio in the early 30s, and she stood her ground, and she won. That takes guts. But she was also someone full of fears too. Totally strong and full of fears at the same time.

  • Back to Stanwyck and Taylor… Opposites attract, and in this case, more than ever. What brought them together? What is the truth behind the lore?
Robert Taylor by George Hurrell

Let’s not underestimate the fact that he was quite beautiful. It was a complicated thing that was going on between them because, on one hand, he was much younger, and was new to Hollywood and she had forged her path already. He was a normal guy that had become a star overnight and that’s when they met, after Magnificent Obsession (1934). She’s been living in this twisted world, with an insane man (Fay), fighting for her life at the same time as going out in the world and making it sort of appear normal, supporting him and supporting their child. Fay kept on spending more and more money. He was in and out of institutions. So, she had been living in this insanity and Taylor meant normalcy. At first, Stanwyck was initially wary because she didn’t want to go into a relationship again, she loved her newfound freedom. But there was a sweetness about Taylor that she responded to. He made life normal for her. There was no more drama in her life. And Stanwyck fit into Taylor psyche too because she was a powerful, strong woman, and he had that with his mommy. And as I said before, don’t underestimate the physical attraction.

  • Lots of people say that Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage to Robert Taylor was a “lavender” marriage. What is your opinion?
Barbara Stanwyck Biography: Posing for photographers after their wedding May 1939
Stanwyck and Taylor, Wedding Day

It was a real marriage.  I started out probably thinking that it was a lavender marriage, but now I don’t think so anymore. The famous Scotty Bowers book, that manuscript reached my desk, I didn’t end up publishing it, but… that’s another story. I spoke to him, he was a sweet man, and I confirmed through a long story for another time involving Alfred and Blanche Knopf, that Bowers was not lying. I was curious to know about Stanwyck and Taylor and I asked him, and from what Bowers told me, Taylor was not at all in that small guarded gay world in Hollywood. It was confirmed by another source, who was at the center of that world.

-Why do you think the lavender marriage topic is so prevalent? Most give it as a fact.

That doesn’t mean anything. This is exactly what I didn’t want to do in this book, to repeat what everybody else said based on nothing. As I’ve said, I want to get as close to the truth as I absolutely can. I had no investment in writing it one way or another.

It seems prevalent because everybody’s looking at life in the world in which it is now, there was Stanwyck who was strong and there was Robert Taylor who was pretty. Am I going to write about Stanwyck’s sexuality? Yes.

  • According to Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor biographers, Taylor had confided in Crawford that “All he had to say is ‘yes,’” implying he had no say in their union. Were you able to confirm/debunk that story?

That could mean a thousand different things, it could mean that the details of the wedding were out of his hand, because MGM took care of everything, but that comment doesn’t make up the substance of their marriage.

  • Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden– Do you think if Stanwyck had not met Taylor, Holden would have been the love of her life? He seemed to appreciate her much more and be a sort of a soul mate…

If she hadn’t met Taylor, you don’t know what would have happened to her life because Taylor brought her into the World, he made her accessible in many ways and he made Hollywood accessible to her, so who knows if she would have even been considered for Golden Boy, which was a prestige production. If she had an affair with William Holden? We will have to wait for Volume Two, it has not come up in my research yet.

  • One of the most shocking claims you make in your book is that Stanwyck was unable to bear children because of a botched abortion in her teens. Were you able to speak to a direct source about this?

There’s a whole story about how I came to that. There were three reliable sources for that, chorus girls that had toured with her, and they were all disparate. They didn’t know each other, so I knew that was real.

-Stanwyck was never open about it.

What she said about not being able to have children was that she was a bleeder. It was ridiculous. I know that wasn’t her publicist, Helen Ferguson, because it predates Helen but it never made any sense. It would be difficult to do you own stunts and be a hemophiliac.

-Why would she lie about something like that?

There’s one thing that I’m very careful about, I don’t ascribe feelings. I’m totally opposed to that. But this is an interview so I can give you my opinion. I can’t say she was ashamed, but I think there was some shame about it.

  • We know that Stanwyck adopted a boy, Dion, in 1932 when she was married to Frank Fay, and that, for lack of a better phrasing, it did not go well… Was motherhood, biological or otherwise, important to Stanwyck or more of a fantasy?

Stanwyck’s mother died when she was 4. I can’t even imagine what that means. I remember as a child if I couldn’t find my mother for five minutes…Her family broke apart after that, she had three sisters who were living their own lives. It was very haphazard. She didn’t have the notion of mothering. Do I think she wanted to be a mother? I think she wanted the idea of it, but I don’t know if she knew how to be a mother. There was also the societal pressure to be a mother. Even though you’re an actress, they had children. Many of them had to adopt because they couldn’t, they had abortions. But if they did, many sent their children away to military/boarding schools, that was the “fashion” of the time in Hollywood.

  • Regarding Dion, I’m sure Volume Two of your book will offer a larger insight. It seems, however, that the moment Taylor comes into Stanwyck’s life, Dion started to fade out of focus for her. Was Taylor’s arrival truly the catalyst, or is the issue more complex?
Stanwyck, Taylor and Dion at Northridge, 1938

As a side note, Dion was named after an actor and playwright that Frank loved and admired, Dion Boucicault Jr, but he didn’t go by the name Dion, he went by the name Tony. His full name was Anthony Dion Fay. I spoke with Tony at length and according to him, that’s pretty much what he saw and how he felt. Taylor didn’t want him around; he didn’t like kids. And that was not the only time I heard that. Taylor wanted Stanwyck for himself. I certainly had many conversations with Tony about it.

I set it up in the book, she started to send him away, and the thing that she didn’t understand, which I show but I don’t judge her, the thing that she did not understand is that the more she sent him away, the more he acted out. She had rigid notions on education – we all have to some degree. She had problems with his weight, his grades and instead of embracing him, she sort of renounced him in various ways. I don’t want to judge her because she did the best she knew how. You have to remember, actors are narcissistic, their careers were everything.

  • How would you describe Barbara Stanwyck as a person outside of her celebrity?

Stanwyck was a mensch. She was a solid human being, grounded and tough but solid. Those qualities come across in her work and that’s why people like her. She was a real person that one would like to admire.  I’m sure she had her idiosyncrasies, and I write about them, but there’s an energy about her that’s fun.


  • Of course, editing is not the same as writing. Who helped you the most with putting together this massive endeavor?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I’d have to say Barbara Stanwyck. It was a process. At first many people said, I’m not speaking to you. Her family was willing to speak to me right away. Her nephew was great and adorable. And then Nancy Sinatra Sr. was wonderful. I would call her up and read her chapters over the phone and she would say that I knew more about Barbara Stanwyck than she did. Tony Fay, the son was totally important, but a lot of different people were important. Stanwyck herself, I feel she gave me permission to write the book, and eventually, all her friends started to talk to me. They were generous and important sources.

  • In previous interviews, you mentioned that you wanted to give the reader background information on Stanwyck’s world, which included her co-stars, directors, and overall politics. This often takes the narrative away from Stanwyck herself, yet you learn so much more about her world. Where did you draw the line between background information and too much information?

I had previously published many biographies before I decided to write one. And I was always interested in the cultural history that was at the center of these books and brought that out with the writers, and I would steer them to speak more about the broader world of the subjects they were writing about.  

I was grateful that Stanwyck hated Roosevelt and was against unions because I could write about them, and it was fun. There’s also a lot of theater history, which was fun to write about. There’s a lot of politics in this book, but there’s more that comes up in Volume Two.

If I re-read the book now, I probably think maybe there was too much about this or that. But as it is, I cut out a ton. The book was not intentionally meant to be a two-volume biography. As I wrote it, it was clear it was going to be huge. The editor in me said, “Vicky, if you write this, it will have to be cut.” The writer in me said, “This is the way I have to write this book. This is what it feels right.” The editor in me then said, “oh, go ahead and write it as you feel it needs to be written and as I, the editor would say to the writer, we’ll cope with it later.”

I was  at an event, and David Rosenthal, the then head of Simon and Schuster asked me about the book. And I said, well, I can either continue writing it or we could do it in two volumes. And at the end of the event, he said, do it in two volumes. I had to go back and shape the material for the first volume. I wrote it and then when I went back and interwove a lot of this digressive material. 

  • How long did it take you to interview and gather information on Stanwyck? I understand that when you started this process, a lot of people that knew her were alive. Are there any outstanding or new questions that have arisen you wished you would have asked or drilled a little deeper for?

I started the book in 1996. There was no internet, no google. I would find these books where I would read, not just background information, but I would read novels of movies that she made or books she was interested in. There was no Book-finder then. You can look in the bibliography, there were thousands of books, whatever she sort of touched upon, I read.

I had extensive conversations with a lot of people who knew her. This one part of her family on her brother’s side, I was having difficulty finding anything. And one day, this was ages ago, after trying very hard to find out about her brother’s family, I finally gave up, and years later, I was at my office, and I got a call from this woman who was married to Stanwycks’ nephew. She was wonderful. I loved this woman. We spent so many hours, weeks talking on the phone. Then she got sick and sadly died. It is traumatic when you lose a source like that. Not only because they are helping you with the research, which means everything, but because I became friends with her, as well as many of the sources. I spent two years talking to Tony Fay. As I’m writing, I’m sure I would love to be able to talk to a lot of people who are no more. I’d love to be able to talk to different directors who, with whom she worked. I would have loved to have been able to talk to Zeppo and Marion, but I talked to their son. He was very helpful.

-I love that human side of writing the biography and becoming friends with your sources and how it does leave an impact on the writer too.

There was one source who was a distant relative of Stanwyck through marriage, but she knew her and was very formal. She lived in Connecticut. At first, she didn’t want to talk to me. And then we began to talk. She was an amazing woman. After three years of talking to her, one day out of nowhere, she mentioned an important detail. I was shocked, but it confirmed something. It had taken her that long to think of that detail that came out of many conversations and be able to feel she could tell it to me. Some people you can’t just interview once or twice. It is a process of trust and knowing your subject. It takes time for people to open up.

  • Did you start with a list of people to interview, or did you build a list as you researched? Did you have certain connections to help you get some of these interviews?

I had lists upon lists, upon lists which caused nothing but anxiety. I had lists of archives and lists of movies. For a first book, it’s not an easy life…it’s not as if she died young, and or that she made a few movies. She literally lived the whole span of the entertainment industry: Broadway, 80+ films, 20 years in television. It’s a big life.

  • Who were the hardest/most reticent people that you interviewed and why?

I’m trying to think of who was the most reticent, maybe I’ve yet to come to them so far.

  • Who were the most eager/helpful?

Her immediate family was wonderful and generous. Her nephew, her best friend Nancy Sinatra Sr., and all her close friends were all generous to me and gave me a lot of time and we became friends. The children of friends were helpful. Her longtime wonderful assistant was crucial.

Everybody was helpful, of course, there was Walda Mansfield, her former roommate and closest friend in her youth. And the person who was so important in being able to interview her was Jim Curtis, who had written a book with Mae Clarke. I ended up publishing him for 25 years.  And archivists across the country were so important and helpful – Ned Comstock; the archivist at the Schubert Theater; the wonderful archivist at SAG.

Somebody who is no longer alive but was extremely generous to me was Kirk Douglas. He had had a series of strokes but agreed to talk with me. At the end of the interviews, he said “you’ve exhausted me”. But he stayed with me ‘til the end.

  • Who was the source(s) that gave you the most insight into Stanwyck?

Everybody gave me different insights. I mentioned Walda Mansfield, she was the key that opened the door. With Walda, she somehow went from being Barbara Stanwyck to being a real human being, this young girl in New York trying to make her way and I could see it. I could feel all that through Walda’s words. But there wasn’t just one person. They all gave me different aspects. When you’re writing a biography, you amass all of this material and understanding, but at some point, you have to put it aside and go beyond what everybody has told you. You need all that knowledge and understanding, but as a writer, you have to put it all together.  You’re going on your own instincts in making connections. And nobody has made those connections or brought up certain aspects. That’s what you as an author bring to the book, having seen the whole picture of someone’s life through so many different sources.

Stories that Tony Fay told me that one could never find anywhere else. I talked to screenwriters who wrote for her who were so smart and interesting; and directors who worked with her; and actors…

  • Conversely, who was the most disappointing source and why?

Even though they’re not alive, I am not going to name names. There was one person I interviewed, who was without question the least interesting person. Very dull.

  • By the end, you must have heard so many Stanwyck stories… Do you have a favorite?

Well, I haven’t finished Volume Two. I think you have to ask me when I’m done with it.

-Maybe your favorite story up to Volume One?  

I’ll tell you that’s something that I write about in Volume One, about Camille, with Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo, that was a great gift that Stanwyck’s nephew gave me when he said that he’d be sitting by the piano and Stanwyck would be giving Robert Taylor the reading of his lines, coaching Taylor, and when you watch that movie, you totally hear Stanwyck in his performance.

But there were so many stories in Volume One – the Marion Marx stories; stories of Fay – of meeting him, of their coming together; the great discovery of who really gave Ruby her big break – it wasn’t Willard Mack – and the details of it. Her work with Capra; he financial nightmare with the IRS because of Fay; how she and Marion built Marwyck; the great discovery of her sister’s work in the theater and finding the reviews of the shows Milly (her sister) was in; the stories of the Merkents; of Lanesville; bit by bit…it all came together…

  • Were there any bits of information that were unfortunately left off the record? And how do you go about deciding which information to include or exclude?

There’s so many aspects to that answer. For example, whether somebody told me something that did not feel true. I could have been wrong, but I had to trust my instinct. When you’ve been an editor for 50 years, you get to know voice and you know what sounds true and what doesn’t. And then there were other things that I thought, is it really going to add anything? There were certain things that I implied in Volume One that I write about in Volume Two. It comes down to instinct.

For instance, I published a biography of Greta Garbo by Barry Paris. We talked about putting  in the last photograph of Garbo taken when she looked just dreadful. She was sick and she was elderly, and I said, “why add this?”. There’s something that’s exploitative about it, so we didn’t put the picture in the book.

-I’m sure you have a million other stories about writing the book. Maybe you can write a book about writing the book.

Absolutely, it’s definitely a journey and the people that you meet along the way, and also, your hunches, how your hunches are borne out. That’s the most exciting thing of the whole process, you have this instinct and then all these different pieces fall into place, and you say yes, you were right. That was the right direction or that was the right hunch.


  • It is often said that Stanwyck had no formal training, yet, during her 8-month “The Noose” run, Willard Mack had her learn and perform one play per week. That is excellent training, don’t you think? Did Stanwyck underestimate her own training?

But today we mean by formal training that she didn’t go to acting school? No, she didn’t go to acting school, but she went to life school and she had those people who were crucial to her, as I said, Arthur Hopkins, Willard Mack, Frank Fay, and Frank Capra.

  • What was Stanwyck’s acting “secret?” Natural talent? Her drive and willingness to learn? Survival instinct?

All of that and she listened to what people said, she had good instincts about who could be good to her, and all the people that I mentioned above (Mack, Hopkins, Fay, Capra), stripped her down of all of the affect and the excessive movements. She had experienced a lot of loss, a lot of profound feelings. And she was a smart and nuanced woman. She understood human nature, and she used all of that loss.

  • Would you say Frank Capra was the most important person in Stanwyck’s film career?
Frank Capra visiting Barbara Stanwyck, on the set of Golden Boy 1939

Yes, I guess it would be Frank Capra. He started her off, he shaped her for film. Those early films with him were crucial. That first film that they did together, Ladies of Leisure, is an amazing movie when you look at it. It’s quintessential Capra. Her talent was there but she didn’t even know what she was doing in film until Capra came along. You can see that in her previous film, Mexicali Rose, it was a terrible film, but she still has a natural quality that comes through despite the dreadfulness of the movie.

  • What acting method do you think she would have most “aligned” herself? Method, Meisner?

She would probably say there was no method, she’d say she just followed her instincts and continued evolving on the path that her mentors had set her on.

  • Stanwyck came out of the Theater, yet Stanwyck never went back to Broadway – as most of the actors in her generation did in their later years. Why do you think that is?

I think she was terrified of going back. She was terrified of a lot of things, which might seem contradictory to how she comes across. I will be talking about this in the upcoming book.

-Was she ever aware of good she was?

Probably she knew she was good, but she was never good enough. It’s only my instinct saying that. She would say she was just doing her job; she was showing up and doing her job and taking responsibility for what that entails.

  • The Stanwyck of Ladies of Leisure is not the same as Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. The characters presented are almost day and night, whereas with Davis or Hepburn, their evolution over the years seemed less extreme. Why or how do you think Stanwyck evolved so much!

The writing got better, the parts, the projects. Mexicali Rose was a disaster, then she met Capra, then she worked with Wellman, Capra again, she did Baby Face, which she practically wrote. Then she met Zeppo and he introduced her to comedy. And then her breakthrough role was Stella Dallas, it’s her first prestige project and her breakthrough role. She was “lucky” to find good collaborators, but she also had good instincts on who to trust. And she was a serious reader and knew good material and material that she would be right for. Remember that she became independent and worked for 2 or 3 studios at a time, which was completely unheard of.

I also think the characters that she played changed and got bigger, more interesting and she grew up with them too.  The 40s were a great decade for women. Movies were written for women, the studios catered to women.

  • In your opinion, what role(s) signifies Barbara Stanwyck at her peak?

I’d have to say it starts where I left off in Volume One, the year was 1941, it was quite a year for Stanwyck, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe and Ball of Fire. Followed by Double Indemnity in 1944 and many other movies which I talk about in Volume Two.

-And yet, she did not win an Oscar…

I’m not going to equate Stanwyck to Cary Grant, but both were independent, and never won an Oscar and both have lasted.  So many of these pictures and performances that won Oscars, some of them vanished. In any kind of awards, whether it’s books, or film, you’ve got people who are reacting to a particular moment in society, but that doesn’t mean those are the pictures that are going to last for generations.

  • Did she turn down a role that you think she should have taken? Also, did she go for any roles that she did not get?

In Volume One, I can think of Dark Victory as a role that she wanted and didn’t get. I cannot think of any roles she was offered that turned out good later. In Volume Two, she did turn down roles. There were roles that she turned down because she said, “you don’t need me for it”, which is basically saying there’s nothing there, but in a nice way. She also campaigned for some films , so we’ll have to wait for Part Two of this interview.

  • What was Stanwyck’s approach to preparing for a film? Also, were you able to figure out how Stanwyck selected her projects? Was it based on the story or based on the people attached?

She would memorize her lines backward and forward and everybody else’s lines. As to how she selected her projects, I’m sure each time it was individual, there were those people who she liked to work with. I’m sure she did Golden Boy because she thought it was a prestige production and it was an art movie.

  • Watching Baby Face today, it remains so powerful after 100 years. Stanwyck was personally involved with story development on that one, and you do an excellent job documenting it. She did not seem to be involved in story development later. Given the extraordinary results of Baby Face, how do you explain this?

Because she was old fashioned. She said you do what you do and I’ll do what I do. That’s what she would say to the wardrobe people, she was indifferent about the wardrobe, she said you take care of it and I’m going to focus on the acting. I wrote about it in terms of her not having vanity in that way. Zanuck may have asked her to help him in Baby Face and that’s why she got involved. Everybody writes about Baby Face because of the sheer nakedness of her making her way up and because of Stanwyck’s performance, but the most shocking Stanwyck pre-code movie for me was Night Nurse. That’s a shocking movie and I often lecture about it.

  • Of all her characters, who are the ones that are closest to the real Stanwyck?

Up to where I left off, I would say an amalgam – the grit of The Purchase Price; the knowledge of the world of Baby Face and Gambling Lady; the humility and fun of Annie Oakley; the courage and will of Stella Dallas; the gumption of Union Pacific; and the worldly wise and vulnerability of Remember the Night.


Barbara Stanwyck in 10 Words. Volume One.
  • What surprised you the most about Stanwyck, the person and the actress, (besides being super professional and knowing everyone’s lines, of course)!

Her films. As much as I know how she works – which I can see, and I wish I couldn’t see it as much as I can – she’s so good, it always amazes me just how resonant and sexy she is, so many decades after the movie was made.

  • What kind of personality did Stanwyck have on set? Was she chatty or aloof? Warm or mysterious? How did she prepare for and unwind from her scenes?

I think she was protective of herself when she had to do a scene and had to focus. But in general, and she is famous for that, the crews adored her. These are the things that people would say to me in all the interviews, “She was very professional. She showed up on time. She knew her lines, the crew loved her”. That’s the line that you get on Stanwyck. And then you must go beyond that to get what you wanted to get from the person being interviewed.


  • What is your favorite Barbara Stanwyck movie from the Volume One Period 1931-1940. You can name several. I’d be hard press to tell you a favorite myself…

Yes…lots…as they say, “Lot’s, Charles, lots.” Forbidden; The Purchase Price; Gambling Lady; Stella Dallas; and Remember the Night.

  • Why do you think stars like Stanwyck, so long gone, have endured the test of time and remain so revered today?

Because her acting is not attached to an age, a particular time, it’s just human. And so, what’s around her in a film might age, might be dated, but the acting isn’t.  

Also, it’s hard to tell, I want to think that my book helped, I think it solidified something because it put her into a context and a narrative. This is the first and only in-depth biography on her.

She was in a way, ahead of her time, and the world is catching up to her. It took a long time.

  • Stanwyck is now a legendary actress and role model for many men and women around the Globe. In your own words, how would you define her legend?

It’s hard to put into words…there were a lot of stories, but not sure there was a legend. I would say…her photo in the Blackglama ad…What becomes a legend most? That defines her legend.

The Stanwyck Legend
  • They don’t make them like Stanwyck anymore… But are there any current actresses you would identify as a Stanwyck “type?”

There’s a person who’s similar to her but her career is mostly on Broadway. She does not look like Stanwyck physically but sort of embodies her acting. It’s Patti LuPone.

  • What recent movies do you think Stanwyck would have been great in?

Oh, I wouldn’t know, because most of these movies don’t interest me.


  • After Spending 20-years with her, is there a last mystery that remains elusive to you? Something that nags you because you couldn’t quite resolve it?

I think you’re going to have to ask me that at the end of Volume Two. I hope there’s still a mystery right now because I need to have that mystery to pull me along.

  • Stanwyck never wrote an autobiography; she did not seem to care about PR and legacy. She thought (and she thought right) that her films would speak for her. Was it stubbornness or fear that kept her private life shrouded in secrecy? Would she have been accepting/proud of your book?

It’s possible she did not want to look back, she wasn’t exactly the most self-reflective human being. I also wouldn’t say she did not want to write an autobiography because of stubbornness, embarrassment, it goes much deeper than that.  I hope to capture the quality of what it is in Volume Two, it’s much more nuanced than that.

Would she have been accepting of my book? I think she would have said, “how did she get all of this?” I know she’d probably remark that I know more about her than she herself does. And she might say “Who would care about all of this…or any of it…?” When I finished Volume One, I thought, whatever happens to it, I gave it my all and I think I got her, and I think she would have liked it.

  • If you could meet Barbara Stanwyck for lunch today, what 5 questions would you ask her?

Let’s save this for after Volume Two.

  • If you had 5 words to describe Barbara Stanwyck what would they be?

I spent more than 150,000 words describing her in one book and am working on the second…it’s not as if she was Churchill or FDR or Picasso – but her life had size and I’ve put it in the context of the century she lived in. I answer this in question 45. I think I used ten words there: grit, knowledge of the world, humility, fun, courage, gumption and vulnerability. 

  • You’ve been asked this a million times, but… When can we expect Volume Two?

I’m hoping to finish the book in a year or a year and a half.

Comment from Editor: And after this interview, we are so looking forward to that.

From all her fans and sincere film lovers everywhere, thank you for your hard work and sincere effort to produce the biography you did. You are the only person that had real access to the people in Stanwyck’s world and the sensibility to understand such a complex person in a deep way making all the connections with the wealth of information collected,  as such, this makes you a very important person in film History. Thank you for honoring her memory and her craft.

Victoria Wilson is about to launch a podcast with film historian Foster Hirsch on movies, books and the arts. Stay tuned.


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

Victoria Wilson, Simon and Schuster

Victoria Wilson podcast – coming soon

Note:  Photos in this publication courtesy of A Life to Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940