Barbara Stanwyck’s rags to riches journey to become one of Hollywood’s greatest stars is one that continues to inspire all that get to know her. This is why we compiled the ultimate list of Top 10 things you need to know about Barbara Stanwyck.
Perhaps you are an avid fan of Barbara Stanwyck, the woman, the legend and her films; maybe you are a huge fan of The Big Valley; perhaps you are an Old Hollywood fan and are always looking for new content. Or maybe you are just getting to know Stanwyck. Regardless of your background, this page is a place for you, and whether you are an old fan or a new one, here is our list of 10 essential things you need to know about Barbara Stanwyck’s Biography and Career:
BARBARA STANWYCK BIOGRAPHY:1.
Once Upon a Time…A Star was Born
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. You probably know she became an orphan at age 4. What you probably don’t know is that she was the youngest of 5 siblings. None of her older siblings could give her a home, so her childhood came straight out of a Dickens novel; filled with poverty, abandonment, and foster homes. Her youth was not much better. Young Ruby became a chorus girl at Texas Guinan’s speakeasy at the tender age of 15—a powerful beginning for a powerful life! We will populate the Barbara Stanwyck biography section with tantalizing content about her amazing life.
Becoming an Actress:
Stanwyck became an instant Broadway superstar with the dramatic lead in Arthur Hopkins’ Burlesque which was only her second play. She never had a formal acting lesson or was part of any theater company…I know what you are thinking…nope, she did not sleep her way to the top. How did she do it then? It was the combination of the “school of life”- who made her street smart and gave her depth- and one key Pygmalion figure, famous Playwright Willard Mack. Mack gave chorus girl Ruby Stevens a chance with a chorus girl part in the third act of The Noose. Originally a non-speaking part, the role expanded to a small and powerful scene and Ruby won the new improved part.
Leading up to the play’s Broadway debut, Ruby Stevens changed her name to the more glamorous Barbara Stanwyck. Mack would give Stanwyck one play each day to practice before rehearsals. Mack’s intensive tutelage paid off and Stanwyck’s single scene in The Noose caused a sensation among audiences and critics. Naturally, Barbara remained forever thankful to Willard Mack and credited him with starting her acting career.
From Broadway to Hollywood
Later in Hollywood, Stanwyck would find equally important Pygmalion figures in Frank Capra, who taught her how to act for movies; Preston Sturges, who taught her how to be funny on camera; and Billy Wilder, who, in Stanwyck’s words, “Taught me how to kill -on screen- and Thank God for that!” She also became the highest paid woman in America in 1944—not bad for an orphan from Brooklyn!
3. Barbara Stanwyck Bio:
Stanwyck never wrote an autobiography, and before Victoria Wilson’s book came to life, there wasn’t a serious in-depth Barbara Stanwyck bio. However, Wilson’s book is only Part 1, and only covers until 1940 when Barbara was 33 years old, we are still waiting for Part 2 (help us Vicky Wilson, you are our only hope). So right now, if you want read a complete Barbara Stanwyck bio, Stanwyck by Axel Madsen is your “best” option, but be aware it was was full of wrong assumptions. We still recommend you read Victoria Wilson’s book regardless because it is an impressive book and Ms Wilson’s sources were Stanwyck’s family and closest friends.
Stanwyck and Fay: A Star is Born
Barbara was married twice. Stanwyck’s first husband, the controversial vaudeville genius Frank Fay, was a lot of things: an alcoholic, an abuser, a racist (there’s a long list), but we have to thank him for her movie career. Fay was an established Broadway star when they married in 1928, and, shortly after, Hollywood came calling for both of them. After two horribly failed films, and multiple unsuccessful screen tests, Barbara was ready to go back to Broadway. Fay, who at the time was more successful, was heartbroken for his wife, so he personally delivered a screen test to Frank Capra and begged him to give her a chance. Before seeing the test, Capra was about to pass on her as the protagonist in what would eventually become her breakout role (Ladies of Leisure), and the rest is history.
Would Stanwyck have made it without Fay? We will never know, but we do know Fay didn’t take her stardom (and his failures) very well, as he wanted to be the main “bread winner” of the family. After years of abuse, Stanwyck finally divorced him in 1935. If this story sounds familiar, it is because rumor has it, the Fay and Stanwyck marriage was the basis for the movie, remade three times now, A Star is Born.
Stanwyck and Taylor: Hollywood Royalty
Enter second husband, movie star Robert Taylor, who initially wanted an exciting wife. They met shortly after Stanwyck’s divorce and married in 1939.
“Miss Stanwyck is not the sort of woman I’d have met in Nebraska” ~ Robert Taylor
Stany and Taylor were indeed a perfectly odd couple for some solid 15 years. They were incompatibly compatible, he, the gregarious country-boy at heart, and she, the street-smart gal from Brooklyn.
“The boy’s got a lot to learn and I’ve got a lot to give” ~Barbara Stanwyck
In a town of revolving door marriages and divorces, their union was one of the most envied and solid. They were also a gift to fan magazines (see gorgeous photos below).Then Taylor yearned for a more traditional wife (get the message here, ladies?), and they divorced in 1951. Taylor re-married and had two kids from that union. Barbara never re-married; she was too tired battling men on-screen to battle them off-screen, so she devoted her life to TV and her friends.
Was Barbara Stanwyck gay?
This question is always followed by…“Wasn’t her marriage to Robert Taylor a lavender marriage?” The short answer is no. BUT, if she was, we are in the XXI century, who cares? (Obviously a lot of people do care, one way or another, still!). I cannot imagine someone as honest, independent and ahead of her time as Stanwyck taking that kind of secret to her grave. Whoever was gay of that era, it’s pretty well known by now; the rest is gossip and innuendo.
Reading Victoria Wilson’s definite Stanwyck biography, one can clearly see that Stanwyck was completely in love with her two husbands. Many people seem to assume Stanwyck was a closeted lesbian based on either her perceived tough-gal persona or vague claims by biographer Axel Madsen – failing to provide any support to those claims; but the facts and the reality of Stanwyck’s life point to the contrary.
Bottom line: Victoria Wilson, the biographer who had closest access to her close friends and relatives, concludes she wasn’t.
Did Stanwyck have any children?
Barbara did not have any biological children due to, allegedly, a botched abortion in her youth, but she adopted a son with Frank Fay in 1932 named Dion. Dion always comes up in any Stanwyck conversation. We will explore more in depth in the bio section, but to put it mildly, they had a troubled relationship. Dion and Stanwyck grew bitterly apart as Dion came of age, and just as he turned 21, they never spoke to each other again. This is as poignant and as heartbreaking as it can get. The orphan who grew up without a mother did not know how to be maternal. A son that did not understand that he wasn’t enough for his mother, and that her work was her identity.
BARBARA STANWYCK LEGACY: FILMS and TV SHOWS
6. Barbara Stanwyck made 84 films and featured in more than 200 TV episodes. She appeared in 79 radio shows and had a total of 597 stage-acting performances—that is a whopping 1,600+ hours of direct “screen/stage time”. Stanwyck LOVED to work, some say work was her life. What is clear is that her legacy speaks volumes of that life…what a life!
Stanwyck was nominated four times for an Academy Award for
- Stella Dallas (1937)
- Ball of Fire (1941)
- Double Indemnity (1944) and
- Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
She never won a competitive Oscar…(shame, shame, shame Oscars).
The Academy “fixed” this grave omission with an honorary Oscar in 1982. She was also the third woman to receive the AFI Lifetime Achievement award and won 3 Emmys for her roles in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds.
Why did Stanwyck never win a competitive Oscar?
Maybe because she made it look too easy; she was a natural actress before it became the acting standard. Also, she never had one studio pulling for her (she was an independent actor before it became fashionable, too). Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and Double Indemnity never getting one of those makes us feel slightly better about that (not really). If we could go back in time, we would fix many things, and one of them would certainly be giving Stanwyck an Oscar for literally creating the femme fatale role in Double Indemnity. And that’s just for starters!
Barbara Stanwyck Best Movies:
Stany never gave a bad performance. In fact, there are so many great films in Stanwyck’s filmography that we could not make a top-10 list, so we compiled a Top-20 list of Barbara Stanwyck’s best movies. Ball of Fire (1941), Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) are her top 3 films (no surprises there), but the real gems are beyond her best films.
Beyond the gold standard of pre-code, and one of Stanwcyk’s most iconic roles, Baby Face (1933), be sure to check her in Ladies They Talk About (1933), and beyond the film-noir gold-standard, Double Indemnity, there are gems like No Man of Her Own (1950) or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
Stanwyck also made Westerns, and none as surprising and full of acting powerhouses as Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950). Melodrama? Stanwyck’s stock in trade, Stella Dallas (1937) of course is her most famous melodrama, but make sure to check Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953) and a personal favorite My Reputation (1946). We could go on and on with this game; there are multiple gems for every genre.
Did you know?
Missy and The Queen where her nicknames. Also, Stanwyck single-handedly made the name Barbara popular in the 40s when she became the highest paid woman in America. You want proof? See the chart below. Wonder why so many mothers and grandmothers are called Barbara? Do you know a Barbara born between the 30s and 50s? Ask them why their mothers chose the name Barbara….
Among Hollywood Greats:
“When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck” – Anthony Lane, New Yorker Magazine.
Barbara Stanwyck could master drama, comedy, film noir and TV. She could also do cartwheels (see Lady of Burlesque). The only thing she could not do was accents and singing. While not a pop culture figure as Bette or the Hepburns, to addicts of Old Hollywood and critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work.
Stanwyck belongs at the top of the Golden Age of Hollywood greats, along with Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn (some may add Joan Crawford here too). Bette could not do comedy or film noir (but she could do drama like no other). Hepburn could not do film noir (but she could be Kate like no other). That leaves Stanwyck as the undisputable Queen of Film Noir and jack of all trades. In other words, thank God for them and their wonderful differences and legacies.
Bette, Barbara and Kate, each with their unique personalities and imperfections, helped define the modern woman. They led a generation of actresses in an era where women were top box office draws.
What made Stanwyck performances so special?
Stany was one of us, she made us believe we could be her characters. When you watch a Bette or Hepburn film, you WISH you were them, and you watch in awe and entertainment, but you know deep down, you’ll never be them. When you watch a Stanwyck performance, no matter the genre and no matter the quality of the film, you live the part with her. Watching a Stanwyck film, she becomes your own personal Virtual Reality conductor into the story. That is, in my mind, the powerful Stanwyck effect.
BARBARA STANWYCK DEATH:
Barbara Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990 of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She died aged 82 despite and due to smoking heavily all her life. She did not want a funeral. Her ashes were scattered in Lone Pine, California, where she had loved shooting exteriors for her westerns.
The best physical place to connect with Stanwyck today is Marwyck, the Northridge ranch built in 1937, where she lived her happiest times. Miraculously, Marwyck still stands intact today in the midst of the brutal San Fernando Valley development. We have The Friends of Oakridge Estate to thank for this amazing treasure. Please make every effort to visit Marwyck and support them.
Barbara Stanwyck’s legacy has grown tremendously since her death, and we have compiled a list of essential articles that support this well-deserved and ever-growing prestige.
Stanwyck left no grave and no autobiography, so if you want to feel a connection to the real Stanwyck today, her films are the best places to go.The truth is in the eyes, and Barbara Stanwyck’s eyes, in film and real life, always spoke the truth. The truth of the little underprivileged orphan called Ruby Stevens who became Hollywood Royalty against all odds.
What would you add to our Stanwyck essential Guide?
Barbara Stanwyck was such a complex and enigmatic personality, it is difficult to summarize her in one post. As I was making this list, I realized I barely scratched the Stanwyck surface with this guide, did I miss something? What would you add or change?