The most anticipated book on Stanwyck. This two-part Barbara Stanwyck Biography promises to be THE definite bio on Barbara Stanwyck. Victoria Wilson has dedicated more than 10 years to this book so the expectations are very high. September cannot come soon enough and we will provide our review once the books is in our hands. THE book out of all Barbara Stanwyck books to date.
To evaluate this book, one must first know the one that preceded it. Soon after Robert Taylor’s death in 1969, Jane Ellen Wayne began writing an admiring biography of the actor. Her heart was obviously in her work. Her anti-Stanwyck bias was equally obvious. During the book’s early chapters Wayne resents Stanwyck favorably, as befits the woman that Taylor was to fall in love with. But later on, as their marriage begins to crumble, Wayne attempts to justify Taylor’s wandering eye by turning Barbara into the kind of woman with whom the reader can’t sympathize.
Fourteen years later, on the heels Stanwyck’s resurgence (an Honorary Oscar, and an Emmy for “The Thornbirds”), Wayne reached into her trunk and turned her Taylor biography into a STANWYCK biography —- but in doing so (her animus now more profound than ever) she omitted what little of value the first book contained. For instance, Barbara’s touching letters to estranged husband Frank Fay (on page 61 in the Taylor book).
Furthermore, when drawing on material from other books, Wayne’s tactics are stunning in their audacity.
Here are just two examples: Wayne takes Frank Capra’s affectionate story about meeting, working with, and falling in love with the young Stanwyck (as told in his autobiography “The Name Above the Title”) and systematically deletes everything except his first NEGATIVE impression. Then there’s the story (from Ella Smith’s excellent “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck”) told by a witness to Barbara’s first screen-test; (which was sabotaged by a vindictive cameraman whose advances she had rejected). Here, Wayne has STANWYCK appear to be telling the story, which not only makes it sound self-serving but also allows Wayne to omit the gentleman’s admiring remarks.
This is the kind of book for which the term “hatchet-job” was invented.
In 2009, Wayne went to the well again with yet another Stanwyck book: “The Life and Loves of Barbara Stanwyck”
It’s basically the same book as “Stanwyck”, but incorporates the fictions she dredged from Axel Madsen’s book.
LARRY KLENO’S JANE ELLEN WAYNE STORIES
Some background via Larry Kleno, Stanwyck’s close friend and publicist. When Jane Ellen Wayne began her book “The Life of Robert Taylor”, her attempt to speak with Barbara was rejected. Barbara had a low opinion of Hollywood biographies and was also loathe to open old wounds. Wayne then sought out Helen Ferguson. After her stroke, Helen had retired to the desert. Wayne took her little daughter, a very active child, with her to the home where Helen was staying. The attendant assumed that they were family members and were welcomed in. Helen later phoned Kleno to describe what happened. She said that this pushy woman came in, with a child she couldn’t control, and before they left the little girl had written all over the walls with a lipstick. Helen was quite upset.
Wayne received a much warmer welcome from Taylor’s wife and friends. The more she learned about Bob, the more she was smitten. William Wellman once wrote that Bob was probably the finest man he ever knew. Almost everyone she spoke to loved and admired him. Nobody on Barbara’s side would speak to her. It’s no wonder her books are so extremely biased. That’s quite understandable. The weird thing is how obsessed she became with Taylor.
For the record: Barbara never said a word against Ursula. Whenever it was assumed that Ursula had been the “other woman” in their break-up, Barbara would defend Ursula, who had entered the picture after the divorce. The women were on good terms as Barbara came to visit Bob during his last days. Ursula’s subsequent anger was when she discovered, upon reading Bob’s financial records, that Barbara had been receiving alimony until the day Bob died.
What she didn’t know was that when Barbara learned the seriousness of Bob’s illness she phoned their MUTUAL business manager, and told him to stop the payments. As far as she knew, they had ended that day. After Bob died, and his accounts were being settled, those payments were included. Because they had to be. A legal agreement can’t be cancelled with a phone call.
It’s unfortunate that Ursula was never made aware of Barbara’s wishes.
Until the early 1980’s one could not find a book devoted entirely to the life of Barbara Stanwyck. In 1973, Ella Smith’s outstanding “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck” dealt with some aspects of her early years, but it was primarily focused on her career. Smith’s book was part of a decade-long rediscovery of Barbara Stanwyck. Thanks to film retrospectives, cable movie channels, and the emergence of videotapes, the appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck kept growing. In 1981 she was honored by The Film Society of Lincoln Center —- following on the heels of Chaplin, Astaire, Hitchcock, Cukor, Bob Hope and John Huston, she was the first woman to be so honored in her own right (earlier Joanne Woodward had been honored together with her husband, Paul Newman).
In 1983 the Motion Pictures Academy presented her with the Life Achievement Oscar. So the time was ripe for the publication of a Stanwyck biography. In 1983 Al DiOrio made a well intentioned attempt to fill this void with what is basically a cut-and-paste biography. For those who have little knowledge about Stanwyck’s history, this book provides a reasonable over-view. DiOrio’s problem was that, aside from a few people who had worked with her, the he didn’t receive any cooperation from her close friends or family.
That forced him to rely on old interviews and magazine articles. Some of these have value, especially for readers who don’t have the time to dig them up. For longtime fans, however, there’s not much new here.
Unfortunately, there are the inevitable errors, and misquotes. For instance regarding her sisters: he confuses Maude with Millie. It was her sister Maude (the one she wasn’t close to) who lived until 1977. Both Millie and Mable died by 1933.
Another example: After director John Farrow (“California”) humiliated an actor and she demanded he apologize to the man, she did NOT threaten that Farrow “would never work again”. She simply said that he would never direct HER in another scene until he apologized.
DiOrio mostly avoids the temptation to indulge in sensational speculations, with one exception. Perhaps to add some drama (as if she needed more than her life already provided) he brings up the old story about her “suicide attempt” as a result of Taylor’s “flirtation” with Lana Turner in 1941 while shooting the film “Johnny Eager”. DiOrio writes that the injury occurred October 7, 1941.
Apart from it not fitting Stanwyck’s survivor temperament, the time frame doesn’t add up. The film “Johnny Eager” was released January 17, 1942. Barbara’s mysterious accident occurred nearly two years earlier, in February of 1940! According to Lana (in her autobiography), Bob fell for her during the filming of “Johnny Eager”. Wishing to court her openly, and being an “honorable” man, he told Barbara of his intentions, which Barbara didn’t take very well. It’s said that she went off to stay with a friend (either Harriett Coray or Holly Barnes) until she could gather herself. When she returned, she was met by Bob who begged her forgiveness. It seems that while she was away he ran into Lana in the studio commissary and told her he was free, and she practically laughed in his face. She told him she hadn’t been serious — in fact she already had a new crush. After that embarrassment Bob seems to have stayed pretty close to home until Ava Gardner eight years later.
As for that 1940 incident in which she cut her arm, it’s said that she never explained it. That’s not true. I found the explanation in an old magazine article about playwright Vivian Cosby. Vivian was gravely injured when her dress caught fire, and she remained a shut-in for years. In order to supplement her income she wrote magazine articles. Many sympathetic stars came to her home to be interviewed. Barbara was among those who visited and kept up an encouraging correspondence with Cosby. In this particular article she included letters that the stars had written her, including this one, from Barbara, dated February 14, 1940. “Thanks for writing to me. I do appreciate it, and excuse my scrawl. Since the hand injury I don’t write very well any more. I guess I rate a penalty for not having sense enough to know that you shouldn’t hit a window glass with your hand when the window sticks.”
And then, on February 27th Barbara wrote: “Dear Vivian: You were very sweet to be worried about that rumor, but don’t worry about things you hear. Imagine putting a sinister conception on my window opening attempt. I tried to open the window, it stuck. I carelessly hit it with the heel of my hand. The glass broke and my wrist was badly cut. It was bleeding, and everyone was excited, and all I could think of was not bothering Bob, who was working. They took me to the hospital for the stitching that was necessary. So now I hear the gossips tried to make something out of the fact that I didn’t broadcast my stupidity. Well, I’m not the morbid type, and if I were, what it heaven’s name have I to be morbid about? I’m lucky and happy and I know it! As for you, don’t believe anything you hear in this day and age. That’s a rule you can’t lose on.”
At the same time, I do like some of the comments from her co-workers. My favorite is this from director Douglas Sirk (“All I Desire” and “There’s Always Tomorrow”):
“She impressed me all the time as someone who had a great exeperience, someone who had really been touched deeply by life in some way. Because she had depth as a person. That is exactly what we see on the screen and that is why she’s a great star. There is nothing the least bit phony about her ever. Because she isn’t capable of it. That insignificant little picture she did with me and she played it all out of herself. And yet she’s so discreet — she gets every point, every nuance without hitting on anything too heavily. And there is such an amazing tragic stillness about her at the same time. She never steps out of it, and she never puts it on — but it is always there, this deep melancholy in her presence. I think she’s more expressive and resonant than any other actress I worked with.”
IN SHORT: Despite its errors, it’s not a bad book if one is just getting acquainted with Barbara Stanwyck and desires more information about her personal life than is contained in Ella Smith’s flawless book. But I’ve always believed that the best way to know Barbara Stanwyck is to watch her films.
Ella Smith’s coffee-table book on the career of Barbara Stanwyck is, bar none, the finest of its kind that this writer has ever read. Instead of being content to merely list Stanwyck’s films and reprint old reviews (in the tradition of most “Films of” books), Ella Smith has gone the extra mile, and then some. This is because the idea originated with Smith (as opposed to a writer being “assigned” the project by a publisher), and it’s entirely her baby.
Smith designed the layout, selected the photographs and determined which of them would get the full page treatment (and her choices are absolutely breathtaking!) In addition to including original reviews of Stanwyck’s stage, film, and television work (as well as highlights from Stanwyck’s interviews from that period) Smith personally viewed all of Stanwyck’s work, and her observations are marvelously perceptive (drawing as they do on her own experience as actress, director and teacher). I was particularly pleased that she notes the powerful impact of Stanwyck’s SILENT moments (whereas too many critics remember only the explosive ones). But most of all, I value the interviews Smith conducted with Stanwyck’s co-stars and directors. These anecdotes are, in turn, touching and funny — and reveal aspects of Stanwyck’s personality that add greatly to the readers’ regard
Of all the books written about Barbara Stanwyck, THIS is the only one worthy of her. for the woman, as well as the actress.
Review by Suzanne Frasuer
Note: This book has two editions, first edition as seen on the left image was published in 1974, the second editions was published in 1985 and includes updated information on The Thorn Birds, Honorary Oscar and Lincoln Center Film Society Gala Tribute information.
The following books discuss or feature Barbara Stanwyck in sections of the book. A review on each of them will be added shortly.
Recipes for Life, Linda Evans, 2012
Robert Taylor: A Biography, Charles Tranberg, 2011
Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Comunism, 2008
Pieces of My Heart, Robert Wagner, 2008
Killer Tomatoes:Fifteen Tough Film Dames, Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, 2004
People Will Talk by John Kobal, 1985
Confessions of an ex-fan magazine writer, Jane Wilkie, 1980 (love this one!)