- Category : Actress
- Type : ME
- Profile : 3/5 - Martyr / Heretic
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Maya 2
Barbara Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress. She was a film and television star, known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional with a strong, realistic screen presence, and a favorite of directors including Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. After a short but notable career as a stage actress in the late 1920s, she made 85 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before turning to television.
Orphaned at the age of four and partially raised in foster homes, by 1944 Stanwyck had become the highest paid woman in the United States. She was nominated for the Academy Award four times, and won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. She was the recipient of honorary lifetime awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1981, the American Film Institute in 1987, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Golden Globes, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Screen Actors Guild. Stanwyck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is ranked as the 11th greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.
Barbara Stanwyck born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, New York on July 16, 1907. She was the fifth and youngest child of Catherine Ann (née McPhee) and Byron E. Stevens. The couple were working class, her father a native of Massachusetts and her mother an immigrant from Nova Scotia, Canada. Ruby was of English and Scottish ancestry, by her father and mother, respectively. When she was four, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving streetcar. Two weeks after the funeral, Byron Stevens joined a work crew digging the Panama canal and was never seen again. Ruby and her brother, Byron, were raised by their older sister Mildred, who was only five years older than Ruby. When Mildred got a job as a John Cort showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four different homes in a year), from which Ruby often ran away.
"I knew that after fourteen I'd have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that ... I've always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they're 'very' sorry for me."
Barbara Stanwyck, 1937
During the summers of 1916 and 1917, Ruby toured with Mildred, and practiced her sister's routines backstage. Watching the movies of Pearl White, whom Ruby idolized, also influenced her drive to be a performer. At age 14, she dropped out of school to take a job wrapping packages at a department store in Brooklyn. Ruby never attended high school, "although early biographical thumbnail sketches had her attending Brooklyn's famous Erasmus Hall High School." Soon after, she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for a salary of $14 a week, a salary that allowed her to become financially independent. She disliked both jobs; her real interest was to enter show business even as her sister Mildred discouraged the idea. She then took a job cutting dress patterns for Vogue magazine, but because customers complained about her work, she was fired. Her next job was as a typist for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company, a job she reportedly enjoyed. However, her continuing ambition was to work in show business and her sister finally gave up trying to dissuade her.
Ziegfeld girl and Broadway success
In 1923, a few months before her 16th birthday, Ruby auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a night club over the Strand Theatre in Times Square. A few months later, she obtained a job as a dancer in the 1922 and 1923 seasons of the Ziegfeld Follies, dancing at the New Amsterdam Theater. "I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat," Stanwyck said. For the next several years, she worked as a chorus girl, performing from midnight to seven a.m. at nightclubs owned by Texas Guinan. She also occasionally served as a dance instructor at a speakeasy for gays and lesbians owned by Guinan. One of her good friends during those years was pianist Oscar Levant, who described her as being "wary of sophisticates and phonies."
In 1926, Billy LaHiff, who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople, introduced Ruby to impresario Willard Mack. Mack was casting his play The Noose and LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl be played by a real chorus girl. Mack agreed and after a successful audition, gave the part to Ruby. She co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. As initially staged, the play was not a success. In an effort to improve it, Mack decided to expand Ruby's part to include more pathos. The Noose re-opened on October 20, 1926 and became one of the most successful plays of the season, running on Broadway for nine months and 197 performances. At the suggestion of either Mack or David Belasco, Ruby changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck by combining the first name of her character, Barbara Frietchie, with Stanwyck, after the name of another actress in the play, Jane Stanwyck.
Stanwyck became a Broadway star soon after when she was cast in her first leading role in Burlesque (1927). She received rave reviews and it was a huge hit. Film actor Pat O'Brien would later say on a talk show in the 1960s: “The greatest Broadway show I ever saw was a play in the 1920s called ‘Burlesque'.” In Arthur Hopkins‘ autobiography, To a Lonely Boy, he describes how he came about casting Stanwyck, saying: “After some search for the girl, I interviewed a nightclub dancer who had just scored in a small emotional part in a play that did not run (The Noose). She seemed to have the quality I wanted, a sort of rough poignancy. She at once displayed more sensitive, easily expressed emotion than I had encountered since Pauline Lord. She and (Hal) Skelly were the perfect team, and they made the play a great success. I had great plans for her, but the Hollywood offers kept coming. There was no competing with them. She became a picture star. She is Barbara Stanwyck.” He also describes Stanwyck as, “The greatest natural actress of our time,” noting with sadness, “One of the theater’s great potential actresses was embalmed in celluloid.”
Around this time, Stanwyck was summoned by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights. She lost the lead role because she could not cry in the screen test but was given a minor part as a fan dancer. This was Stanwyck's first film appearance.
While playing in Burlesque, Stanwyck had been introduced to her future husband, actor Frank Fay, by Oscar Levant. Stanwyck and Fay were married on August 26, 1928 and soon moved to Hollywood.
Stanwyck's first sound film was The Locked Door (1929), followed by Mexicali Rose, released in the same year. Neither film was successful; nonetheless, Frank Capra chose Stanwyck for his Ladies of Leisure (1930). Numerous prominent roles followed, among them the children's nurse who saves two little girls from being gradually starved to death by a vicious Clark Gable in Night Nurse (1931); So Big!, as a valiant midwest farm woman (1932); Shopworn 1932; the ambitious woman from "the wrong side of the tracks" in Baby Face (1933); the self-sacrificing title character in Stella Dallas (1937); Molly Monahan in Union Pacific (1939) with Joel McCrea; the con artist who falls for her would-be victim (played by Henry Fonda) in The Lady Eve (1941); the extremely successful independent doctor Helen Hunt in You Belong to Me (1941) also with Fonda; a nightclub performer who gives a professor (played by Gary Cooper) understanding of "modern English" in the comedy Ball of Fire (1941); the woman who talks an infatuated insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband in Double Indemnity (1944); the columnist caught up in white lies and Christmas romance in Christmas in Connecticut (1945); and the doomed wife in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). She also played a doomed concert pianist in The Other Love (1947); the piano music was played by Ania Dorfmann, who drilled Stanwyck for three hours a day until she was able to move her arms and hands to match the music. Stanwyck was reportedly one of the many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), although she did not receive a screen test. In 1944, Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the United States.
"That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple."
Kathleen Howard of Stanwyck's character in Ball of Fire
Pauline Kael described Stanwyck's acting, " seems to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera" and in reference to her early 1930s film work, "early talkies sentimentality ... only emphasizes Stanwyck's remarkable modernism".
Many of her roles involved strong characters. In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck brought out the cruel nature of the "grim, unflinching murderess," marking her as the "most notorious femme" in the film noir genre. Yet, Stanwyck was known for her accessibility and kindness to the backstage crew on any film set. She knew the names of their wives and children. Frank Capra said of Stanwyck: "She was destined to be beloved by all directors, actors, crews and extras. In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down."
William Holden and Stanwyck were friends of long standing. When Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar, Holden paused to pay a special tribute to her for saving his career when Holden was cast in the lead for Golden Boy (1939). After a series of unsteady daily performances, he was about to be fired, but Stanwyck staunchly defended him, successfully standing up to the film producers. Shortly, after Holden's death, Stanwyck recalled the moment when receiving her honorary Oscar: "A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish".
When Stanwyck's film career declined in 1957, she moved to television. Her 1961–1962 series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success but earned her an Emmy Award. The 1965–1969 Western series The Big Valley on ABC made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy. She was billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck," and her role as frontier family matron Victoria Barkley was likened to that of Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene in the series Bonanza. Stanwyck's costars included Richard Long as Jarrod Thomas Barkley, (who had been in the film All I Desire (1953) with Stanwyck), Peter Breck as the hot-headed Nick Barkley, Linda Evans as Audra Barkley, and Lee Majors as Heath Barkley, the son fathered out of wedlock by the Stanwyck character's husband with another woman. As one of her many roles, she also appeared in the television series, the The Untouchables with Robert Stack.
Years later, Stanwyck earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. In 1985, she made three guest appearances in the primetime soap opera Dynasty prior to the launch of its short-lived spin-off series, The Colbys in which she starred alongside Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beacham and Katharine Ross. Unhappy with the experience, Stanwyck remained with the series for only one season (it lasted for two), and her role as Constance Colby Patterson would prove to be her last. Earl Hamner Jr. (producer of The Waltons) had initially wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing on the successful 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest, but she turned it down and the role went to her best friend, Jane Wyman.
Marriages and relationships
While playing in The Noose, Stanwyck fell in love with her married co-star, Rex Cherryman, who became her fiancé in 1928. Cherryman had become ill early in 1928 and his doctor advised him to take a sea voyage to Paris where he and Stanwyck had arranged to meet. While still at sea, he died of septic poisoning, at the age of 31.
On August 26, 1928, Stanwyck married her Burlesque co-star, Frank Fay. She and Fay later claimed that they disliked each other at first, but became close after the sudden death of Cherryman. After moving to Hollywood, they adopted a son, Dion Anthony "Tony" Fay, on December 5, 1932. The marriage was a troubled one. Fay's successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom. Fay engaged in physical confrontations with his young wife, especially when he was inebriated. Some claim that this union was the basis for A Star Is Born. The couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Stanwyck won custody of their troubled adoptive son.
In 1936, while making the film His Brother's Wife (1936), Stanwyck became involved with her co-star, Robert Taylor. Following a whirlwind romance, the couple began living together, sparking newspaper reports about the two. Stanwyck was hesitant to remarry after the failure of her first marriage. However, their 1939 marriage was arranged with the help of Taylor's studio MGM, a common practice in Hollywood's golden age. Louis B. Mayer had insisted on the two stars marrying and went as far as presiding over arrangements at the wedding. She and Taylor enjoyed time together outdoors during the early years of their marriage, and owned acres of prime West Los Angeles property. Their large ranch and home in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, Los Angeles is still referred to by the locals as the old "Robert Taylor ranch."
In 1950, Stanwyck and Taylor mutually decided to divorce and after his insistence on a divorce, she proceeded with the official filing of divorce papers. There have been many rumors regarding the cause of their divorce, but after World War II, Taylor had attempted to create a life away from Hollywood, an effort that Stanwyck did not share. Taylor had romantic affairs and there were unsubstantiated rumors about Stanwyck having had affairs as well. After the divorce, they acted together in Stanwyck's last feature film, The Night Walker (1964). Stanwyck never remarried and cited Taylor as the love of her life, according to her friend and costar, Linda Evans. She took his death in 1969 very hard and began a long break from film and television work.
Stanwyck was one of the most well-liked actors in Hollywood and was friends with many of her fellow actors (as well as crew members of her films and TV shows), including Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee, George Brent, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda (who had a lifelong crush on her and a rumored affair), James Stewart, Linda Evans, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone, William Holden, Gary Cooper, Fred McMurray, and many others.
Stanwyck had a romantic affair with actor Robert Wagner, whom she met on the set of Titanic (1953). Wagner, who was 22, and Stanwyck, who was 45 at the beginning of the relationship, had a four-year romance, which is described in Wagner's memoir, Pieces of My Heart (2008). Stanwyck ended the relationship. In the 1950s, Stanwyck also, reportedly, had a one-night-stand with the much younger Farley Granger, which he wrote about in his autobiography Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway (2007).
Stanwyck was a conservative-minded Republican along with such contemporaries as William Holden, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, George Murphy, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Bob Hope, and her Double Indemnity co-star, Fred McMurray. She was a fan of Ayn Rand, having persuaded Warner Bros. to buy the rights to The Fountainhead before it was a best seller and writing to the author of her admiration of Atlas Shrugged.
Later years and death
Stanwyck's retirement years were active, with charity work outside the limelight. She was robbed and assaulted inside her Beverly Hills home in 1981. The following year, while filming The Thorn Birds, the inhalation of special-effects smoke on the set may have caused her to contract bronchitis. The illness was compounded by her cigarette habit; she had been a smoker from age nine until four years before her death.
Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990 of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 82 at Saint John's Health Center. She had indicated that she wished for no funeral service. In accordance with her wishes, her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California, where she had made some of her western films.