Barbara Stanwyck Biography | Part 1
Barbara Stanwyck came from the “mean streets”, she was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn a hot summer day in July of 1907. One can easily see Stanwyck sliding into the stilettos of one the complicated and hard-broiled heroines Scorsese cooked up in the ‘70s. She would easily embody many a “tough mudder” of the silver screen during her own time, of course. But the pathos of her performances, the devastating allure of Barbara Stanwyck, was built on the foundations of her former self: little hard luck Ruby Stevens. Who was Ruby Stevens?
Ruby Stevens: A daughter of the Revolution
The last of the Byron Stevens – Catherine McGee litter, Ruby was born in Brooklyn on July 16, 1907. She had been preceded by three older sisters— Maude, Mabel and Mildred Stevens— and one brother, Byron Jr, the latter of whom she was the closest in age. Because Barbara Stanwyck proudly showcased her Brooklyn “roots” in many interviews, few know that her family was not originally from Brooklyn at all. The Stevens family can be traced in New England as far back as 1740. Father Byron Stevens was a brick mason who, on a trip to Boston, met Catherine McPhee. The young Canadian of Scotch-Irish descent, nicknamed “Kitty,” was visiting her aunt in the area when Byron fell for her. The duo married in 1886 and established themselves in Lanesville, MA.
Byron and Kitty clearly had their problems, as, before Ruby was born, Byron skipped out on his wife and three teenage girls, only to have his industrious wife track him down and start a new life in Brooklyn. And this is where the younger siblings Byron Jr. and Ruby were born.
With a mix of under-utilized intelligence and a fiery temper of her father, who had to abandon a career in law for a more exciting and busting construction business, and the humor and artistry of her mother, who dreamed of a life on the stage, Ruby should have turned out an accomplished young woman, brimming with life like her sisters. Unfortunately, fate intervened. When her mother Catherine was 8-months pregnant, she was kicked by a drunk from a moving street car and fell. Ruby and Byron Jr witnessed the fall. Catherine held on, fighting for her life and the life of her unborn sixth child, but following complications from a miscarriage, septic poisoning set in and Catherine Stevens passed away July 29, 1911. Ruby had just turned 4 years old.
Soon after, overcome with despair and steeped in alcohol, Byron Sr. would escape the pressures of single parenthood, a task he felt unfit for, by accepting a position in Panama building the canal. Or so the story goes. Regardless of his true destination, none of his children were to see him again.
Basically an orphan, Ruby had no choice but to become a rebellious ruffian, getting by with grit, determination and the skin of her teeth. Two of her three full grown sisters were by this time raising families of their own, and Mildred (“Millie”), Ruby’s favorite, was frequently traveling in pursuit of her stage career. Working as a team, the sisters swapped Ruby and Byron from home to home, even placing them with other families when times were tough. Eventually, Ruby and Byron, who adored each other, were separated in this game of musical chairs, which was yet another devastating blow. All the little girl knew was that she didn’t belong, she didn’t fit anywhere, and probably, in her mind, no one really wanted her.
”My father loved my mother madly and when she died, he went gypsy. I was raised by strangers, farmed out. There were no rules or regulations. Whoever would take me for five dollars a week, that’s where I was. So I really didn’t have a family. The tragedy was that there was never a family that had room for the two of us, Byron and me. The only game I can remember playing is the game of fighting”.
An Escape: Isadora Duncan and Pearl White
Ten or twelve different families took Ruby in, but fortunately, Ruby— an increasingly proud isolationist— had plenty of mettle to protect her insecurities. Her tough streak made her a great chum for boys, but she was generally picked on by other girls, most of whom teased her by calling her an “orphan.” This, including the turmoil and defiance of her nature, made school… unappealing, and she fared badly in every subject save literature. Here was a window to a better, more adventuresome world! She devoured books with abandon and equally fed her escapist penchants (inherited from her father, perhaps) with another love: the movies. Her favorite heroine was Pearl White, the gutsy serial star who was just as brave and had just as much fun as the men— and probably more.
“Pearl White was my goddess and her courage, her grace and her triumphs lifted me out of this world. I read nothing good, but I read an awful lot. Here was escape! “
Ruby was a free spirit longing for its liberty, and as she idolized her showgirl sister Millie , she soon found a soulful catharsis in the art of dance and its muse, Isadora Duncan. When allowed to travel with her sister during the summer months, she learned the routines and performed them backstage for anyone willing to watch. To no one’s surprise, she dropped school after graduating 8th Grade from Brooklyn PS 152. The fourteen–year-old went looking for work.
Note: There are no documented pictures of Ruby for this period of her life between 4 and 16 years old.
Ruby Stevens goes to Broadway
Breaking away as an independent woman, she got work at various gigs, everything from wrapping at a store, to telephone operator to a hostess at the Vogue Pattern Center. Nothing stuck for long. When her steady beau Ed Kennedy scored her an interview at the Jerome Remick Music Publishing Company for an assistant position, because it was mildly related to her career of choice, Ruby brazenly auditioned for Jerry Cripp instead. Her impromptu, unrehearsed song and dance routine was a bit rough around the edges, but it got Cripp’s attention. What Ruby lacked in vocals, she made up for in enthusiasm. It was because of this unexpected introduction to show biz that she got a gig in the chorus of Earl Lindsay’s review working the notorious Strand Roof.
“Ruby had a driving ambition to be a dancer and I was so in love with her that above all things I wanted to help her” ~ Ed Kennedy
Ruby had been living with her older sister Maud and her family in Brooklyn since she was 12, but the relationship with her elder sister, and more specifically her brother-in-law’s younger brother was always rocky. With this new salary, Ruby was able to move out and fully achieve her dream of independence. Goodbye Brooklyn, hello Broadway!
It was Earl Lindsay that Stanwyck would first credit with turning her into a true performer. He encouraged her with discipline and tough love tutelage, just the kind a rebellious teen secretly craves. At sixteen, she quickly learned how to be a team player, which may not have coaxed her out of her isolationism, but did instill within her the distinct need for cooperation/collaboration to create the best possible product. This can be observed in her later career when she was known for being a crew favorite and a respectful, well-attuned, and cooperative actress.
“I learned how to dance…and hoofed my feet off… I was promoted to the front line. I tried to outdo myself by kicking higher than any of the other girls but Lindsay put me out of the line – Who do you think you are to be constantly out of step? You’ve got to learn right now that your job on the stage consists of teamwork. If you want to last, remember that.”
Finding a Home
Ruby was well aware of the hustle involved in show business, having witnessed Millie’s own career, but she was game. She was also sharp as a tack and a quick study. The more experience she gained, the more her confidence grew. In time she was even turned to as a bit of a den mother and took other new showgirls under her wing, teaching them the ropes. Two such doves would eventually become her roommates and best friends— future screen star Mae Clark and Dorothy Sheppard (later Walda Mansfield). They lived in a small flat in 46th St between Fifth and Sixth Ave.
“This was my first real home. We lived over a laundry. The heat seemed to come through every crack in the floor and ceiling. Then there was the noisy Sixth Ave EL train that shook the walls. Sometimes we felt like we could reach out and touch the trains. We were making $40 a week in the chorus, but it wasn’t enough. We never thought of saving. Every cent of that forty dollars went on our backs. We did our own washing, ironing, and dry cleaning, and we served as each other’s beauticians. I’d do Walda’s hair, she’d give me a manicure”
Surfing the Roaring ’20s
As chorus girls, Ruby, Walda and Mae managed as many as thirty-eight routines in one night. Often, the girls were hoofing it from one show in one building to another, all on the same night, whether working at the Ziegfeld Follies, as Keep Kool Cuities, Tex Guinan’s night club, George White’s Scandals, or even doing radio work.
“We rushed from one job to the next through Times Square stark naked, I swear, in freezing weather, and the coats were not so hot either. The three of us worked like dogs and were strong as horses. We worked nights but saw a lot of movies and Theater in the daytime” ~ Barbara Stanwyck
Ruby taught the girls the ropes and kept her head above water. Life as a single girl was rough; life was a show girl was even harder. Ruby had plenty of experience dealing with the sometimes brutal nature of the male sex. Her cynicism taught her how and when to play her cards, though she didn’t always triumph. Allegedly, according to biographer Victoria Wilson, at the age of 14 she had been abused by her sister Maude’s brother-in-law. Ruby also had confided to a chorus girl friend that another incident in her mid teens had ruined her future chances for children.
Later, according to Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson, famed entertainer Al “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” Jolson allegedly put a cigarette out on her chest when she refused to go home with him after a show. Suffice it to say, she didn’t trust the gruffer sex all that much, and she used her powers of persuasion and manipulation to get what she wanted from them without being gotten, which is to say she maintained her dignity if not her “virtue.”
Ruby Stevens Moves Up The Ladder
Of course, a girl knows when she’s had enough. The time came when Ruby decided that she had long since paid her dues, and she was ready to move a few up on the ladder of success. With the help of Mrs. Henry Harris, who was looking for real chorus girls to fill the parts of cabaret singers in the second act, Ruby landed a role in Willard Mack’s play “The Noose.”
Ruby had a small, 6-line supporting role (along with soul sisters Mae and Dorothy) that was expanded when the story “wasn’t working.” The play started on the road, and before the Broadway opening, it needed a dramatic shift to give it more punch. Harris again went to bat for Ruby and Willard Mack handed Ruby a pivotal new scene in the third act in which her character must plead to a judge on behalf of her unrequited love, whom she believes to be dead.
Re-Birth through Acting
Ruby craved the role but was afraid of it. Here was the real thing!
“It was Willard Mack who completely disarranged my mental makeup. The process, as are all processes of birth and rebirth, was pretty damn painful, especially for him. I got very temperamental. The truth of the matter, the bejesus was scared out of me. I’d storm out and yell around I couldn’t act- couldn’t and, what’s more, wouldn’t. Mr. Mack, who had flattered me, encouraged me, patted me on the back, wisely reversed his tactics”
After multiple, grueling rehearsals, she broke down and swore she’d quit. She wasn’t an actress. She was a dancer!
“One day right before the whole company, he screamed back at me that I was right, dead right. I was a chorus girl, would always be a chorus girl, and would live and die a chorus girl. I swallowed the bait, sinker and all. So I yelled right back that I could act, I would act, that I was not a chorus girl. I was Bernhardt, Fiske and all the Booths and Barrymores rolled into one”
Barbara Stanwyck is Born
On opening night of her expanded role, Ruby, of course, stepped up to the plate and her transcendent, gut-wrenching scene brought the house down and saved the play. Her tearful, honest, and harrowing performance was the stuff of mother nature— raw and unrepentant. She had moved up a notch in the world. And thanks to a suggestion from David Belasco she changed her stage name to Barbara Stanwyck. “Ruby Stevens sounds like the name of a burlesque queen” said Belasco, and legend has it that after looking at an old poster hanging in his office, he combined the names of English actress Jane Stanwyck with the title of the play, Barbara Fritchie, to birth a name that would become one of the most famous names in showbiz history, Barbara Stanwyck.
“Goodbye Ruby Tuesday…”
Barbara Stanwyck Biography Part 2: From Barbara Stanwyck to Mrs. Fay coming soon…in the meantime, please check our Essential Guide to Barbara Stanwyck.
Barbara Stanwyck: A Biography by Al DiOrio
Irene Harris Picture courtesy of Book Cover of Broadway Dame, The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris