A Life of Barbara Stanwyck

Steel-True 1907-1940

By Victoria Wilson

Simon & Schuster.

1,056 pp. $40

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Carrie Rickey

On Barbara Stanwyck's birthday in 1939, her husband, Robert Taylor, was at the studio doing retakes. Two weeks later on his natal day (she was 32, he 28), they celebrated both events over an intimate dinner.

When they got home, Taylor didn't turn on the lights. He told his wife of six months to go upstairs and put on her prettiest nightie. When she announced from the top of the stairs, "Come and get it," Taylor flicked on the lights and the roomful of guests yelling "Surprise!" were startled to see Stanwyck stark naked on the landing. Mortified, she ran into the bedroom, locked the door, and did not speak to her spouse.

In baring her emotions on screen, Stanwyck (1907-1990) had few equals. As the first installment of Victoria Wilson's ambitious two-volume Stanwyck biography shows, regarding private matters, the actress who commanded both big screen and small for six decades had just as few when it came to maintaining her privacy. Discretion begets mystique.

At 867 pages, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True 1907-1940 matters because Stanwyck matters. One wishes it did not rely on fanzines such as Modern Screen, Photoplay, and Silver Screen for so many of its subject's quotes, but Wilson gleans every possible resource, even those that might have been written by studio publicists.

What distinguishes the woman born Ruby Stevens from contemporaries like Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn is that Stanwyck didn't play variations on a persona. She created each character from scratch. She had the humility to know that the movie was about not her, but rather the story. Where other actors had on/off settings, Stanwyck was born with an emotional rheostat, subtly adjusting her considerable dramatic wattage. She of husky voice and panther lope played chiselers and artist's models, cardsharps and sharpshooters, newshens and henpeckers. No screen actress had a more varied career.

She rose from the chorus line to radio to Broadway to film, a beneficiary of excellent direction, but also largely inner-directed. Wilson masterfully tells the story of how Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck. But once the actress moves from Broadway to Hollywood, Wilson loses the thread of her subject's inner life. The reader knows what and how it happened, but Wilson rarely conjectures why.

Would that the author were not compelled to share the backstories of each of Stanwyck's colleagues. These tangents disrupt the mighty flow of the bio, a tale of a Flatbush girl's triumph over adversity that in its early chapters reads like a show-business A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Ruby Stevens was the youngest of five. Her three sisters were already adults, and her brother was two years her elder. At 4, she saw her pregnant mother fall off a trolley. Mrs. Stevens died the next day. Soon after, Mr. Stevens went on a bender and went to the Panama Canal to work. He died there.

The Stevens youngsters were parceled out to anyone who would take them. Not only did Ruby lose both parents, but she was separated from her beloved brother, Malcolm. Not until she was 9, taken in by a sister's neighbors, was Ruby taught about table manners and hair-brushing.

At 14, she didn't go to high school. She went to work, struggling through entry-level jobs such as switchboard operator and dime-store cashier. Raped by a brother-in-law of her sister's, she had no family support. She discovered reading and began a lifelong practice of a book a day. She found consolation and inspiration from Rudyard Kipling and Hugh Walpole. Following her sister, Ruby found work on the chorus line. She dated gangsters, trading sex for furs and steak dinners.

She made early forays into radio. "Ruby had no training as an actress," Wilson writes, "but she was a reader and knew how to use the words." She also had a bottomless well of pain from which to tap. In the actress' own estimation, she wasn't beautiful. Yet everyone thought she "had something." Including Al Jolson, who burnt her breast with his lit cigar when she spurned his pass.

In 1926, she was tapped to play a small but significant part on Broadway in The Noose, as a cabaret girl who begs the governor for the body of her executed lover. Theater guru David Belasco rechristened her "Barbara Stanwyck." Bill Mack, her director, taught her "acting was thinking." On her own, she learned that thinking was feeling. Her reviews were stellar. She was 19.

Oscar Levant fixed her up with Frank Fay, the comedian's comedian, Broadway legend, and lush. He isolated Barbara from her friends. He was 37; she was 21.

"What appeared to be possessiveness to others was love to Barbara, mother love, father love, and romantic love," says Wilson. They wed in 1928. Both onstage and off, he was top banana.

In 1929, the scene shifts to Hollywood, and the tale of her rise and his fall reads like A Star is Born. Their doomed marriage inspired the show-business cautionary tale of two-career couples. Fay was a headliner signed to big-budget films while Barbara made the studio rounds and ended up at Columbia on Poverty Row. At first, she didn't take to director Frank Capra, nor he to her. But they made four extraordinary films together, Capra dedicated to "preserving the intense honesty" he saw in her screen test.

She had discipline, talent, and super-focus. She didn't care if she played unglamorous or unsympathetic roles. The critical consensus of her in Capra's Ladies of Leisure (1930) was "a star is born." Meanwhile, Fay was in and out of sanitariums for his drinking.

She wanted a baby. Because a botched abortion left her unable to have children, she adopted an orphan and named him Dion. Herself an orphan abandoned and abused, was Stanwyck compensating for her own youth?

After the storm of the Fay marriage that ended in divorce, not drowning, came the calm of Robert Taylor, the younger matinee idol who brought her out of her shell. If their marriage was "lavender," as was widely rumored, each of them interested in same-sex partners, Wilson provides no evidence.

In the end, I found Wilson's book both exhaustive and exhausting. And I can't wait for Volume 2.