Stanwyck: A Biography

Stanwyck: A Biography

by Axel Madsen


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A compelling portrait of one of Hollywood’s most invincible women, the late Barbara Stanwyck. A most unusual movie star, Stanwyck was an actress of considerable and neglected talent who elevated every role she had, a woman whose personal life matched the rocky road of her career. Whispered to be among Hollywood’s scandalous “sewing circle,” a group of internationally famous actresses who hid their potentially career-ending lesbianism and bisexuality, Stanwyck kept her liaisons a secret. Despite her steely resolve and her image as a take-control kind of woman, Stanwyck suffered from turbulent marriages and relationships, including her sensational marriage to, and divorce from, the abusive Robert Taylor. Madsen provides a fresh look at this fascinating, complex screen goddess, offering provocative and shocking details from one of Hollywood’s most interesting lives.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504008815
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Pages: 487
Sales rank: 691,646
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Axel Madsen authored twenty-two books, including sixteen biographies. His most notable works include an in-depth look at the life of a legendary fashion icon, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, and an investigation of the relationship between Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy, Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy. Madsen began his journalism career as a legman for columnist Art Buchwald in Paris, and later wrote one of the first books on television’s longest-running news magazine show, 60 Minutes: The Power and the Politics of America’s Most Popular TV News Show. As a 20th Century Fox publicist, he handled Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and George C. Scott, and was fired off Myra Breckinridge for siding with director Mike Sarne against producer Robert Fryer. His Hollywood biographies include the life stories of directors William Wyler, John Huston, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as an examination of Golden Age Hollywood’s gay underground in The Sewing Circle. He wrote and produced the ITV documentary version of The Sewing Circle. Over the years, Madsen interviewed scores of movers and shakers, from legends like Goldwyn and Selznick to directors like Howard Hawks, Louis Milestone, and Rouben Mamoulian. Madsen died in 2007.


Read an Excerpt


A Biography

By Axel Madsen


Copyright © 1994 Axel Madsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0861-7


"I Hope She Lives"

To get up in the morning and, on a soundstage, to become more intense and riveting than the reflection in the bathroom mirror fulfilled her deepest existential need. To crawl into fictional skins, to step into the pool of fused, dedicated light and hear a director's call for action suspended the banality of living. To assume made-up characters more raffish, witty, and lovely than her own self made hurts and failings go away.

She was an orphan when she was three. In her daydreams her parents had been rich, but somebody had got it all mixed up. It was all a big mistake. She was the princess on the pea. Not that it led to any folie de grandeur. "I just wanted to survive and eat, and have a nice coat," she'd say late in life. The norm of her childhood was struggle, confusion, and pain, but she learned not to blame anybody. Pop psychology wants us to understand Bette Davis in terms of her stage mother, Katharine Hepburn by explaining her doctor father. There is nobody to explain Barbara Stanwyck. She found it a bit embarrassing herself and in self-defense made her childhood a taboo subject for much of her life. In her eighties, she relented. "All right, let's just say I had a terrible childhood. Let's say that 'poor' is something I understand." She thought there was something second-rate about not having a mother, that she wasn't good enough—not altogether the woman she should be, not quite the actress people kept telling her she was.

A movie role was a nice coat to slip into, to disguise, not reveal, who she was. The lines were written in advance, and saying them masked the lack of education she knew was the reason she had a hard time expressing herself. From fifteen to eighty she was the perpetual overachiever and an exception to the rule that artistic temperament rarely goes hand in hand with financial smarts. She kept as firm a grip on herself as she did on her money.

A streak of bitterness ran deep in her. It made her earthy, instinctive, sarcastic, weary of sophisticates, and not very good at the games of love. Her orphan childhood made her deny her soft, caring, and vulnerable sides. She was too straightforward, too headstrong for romance, and couldn't believe a partner would want the relationship any other way. Men and women were equal, she believed, because character has nothing to do with gender.

She was a woman of allure, dogged calculation, and repressed emotions. She possessed a keen native intelligence, had a tongue as sharp as a rapier, yet her orphan's powerlessness left a hollow core in her that she hated. She was easily bored with herself and, to flesh out her existence, took any role. She taught her adopted son to take the knocks on the chin and to forget to cry. Her scrapper's mettle, her emotional reserve and cheeky pluck gave her a gravity that directors realized they could capture with a camera. Frank Capra embarrassed her when he told her that her austere beauty, wide thin mouth, straight brows, and classical nose projected purity, a kind of lonely gallantry and self-assurance that gave the scripted wisecracks contrast. In her fifties, "The Barbara Stanwyck Show" failed because as a TV host she had to open the show by standing there, stripped of a part, and be herself.

The conflict that shaped her life—and made her so interesting to watch on the screen—was the struggle between her wish to give of herself and her need to be in control. Too special and too identifiable to play Everywoman, she was wrong for many of her parts. Prestigious films eluded her as she aged, yet she survived the cameras for an astonishing fifty-five years.

She did not burst onto the scene. She eased on and eased off even more leisurely. Frank Capra's Ladies of Leisure was her breakthrough, but it was already her fourth movie. The Night Walker was her eighty-eighth and last, but it was followed by twenty years of television, much of it unworthy of her talent. She played a rich mix of characters, many of them gutsy, self-reliant women, faith leaders and chiselers, gold diggers and saps, burlesque queens and cardsharps. When movies got fewer and shabbier in the 1950s and '60s, she let go playing high-ridin' women engaged in brutal mating games. Her sexuality in The Furies and Forty Guns is so arrogant that to win her the gunfighters in love with her practically have to kill her. There were also portrayals of victims, of course. Barbara did her share of movies in which a woman sacrifices herself for her man, her child, for other women, and she excelled at that other movie staple—the tough reporter who goes mushy in the fadeout. She was attracted to roles that required her to annihilate herself in another, invented woman and knew how to endow both her victims and hard-a-snails dames with faux-naïf cunning and dramatic sense. She was fearless when it came to fleshing out swindlers, gun molls, dupes, and sentimental masochists. "Some of my most interesting roles have been completely unsympathetic," she said. "Actresses welcome such parts, knowing that vitriol makes a stronger impression than syrup." She talked a good game, but lost her nerve when Joseph Mankiewicz offered her All About Eve. Playing an actress on the skids terrified her.

To be a star is to live in a glass house, yet Stanwyck eluded just about everyone. She knew how to choke off subjects she didn't want to talk about, how to close doors behind her, even to friends. Many insiders were surprised when Malcolm Byron Stevens died in 1964. They didn't know she had a brother.

A lot was never known about her.

She grew up afraid of trusting anyone, afraid of people finding out she didn't belong to anybody. Her insecurity gave her tough veneer. It also gave her the kind of discipline that helps a person hang on to dazzling success. She longed for acceptance and stability, but the first man who paid attention died when she was twenty-one. She rushed into the arms of a riveting charm-pot and had to learn all over again that the only person she could count on was herself.

People who met her for the first time were surprised by how small she was. She stood all of 5' 3" and most of her life weighed under 115 pounds. In her teens her voice was already deep and husky and made her sound like someone with a secret. Her alto was all-business, and it deepened over the years into a voice whose throaty undertone warned of the scam to come. In many of her films, there is a suggestion of zingy, smutty sex, of a woman enjoying her perversity and control. She saw life as a poker game. You play the hand life deals you. If men lose, it's their problem. Instead of seeing the glint in her eyes they should watch the cards in their hands.

She was the incarnation of grace and save-your-ass resilience that defined an era. While remaining the least mannered and pretentious of the stars of her period, she was up there with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. Her uncanny way of looking at herself as if she were a third person appealed to both male and female audiences. Lesbians in search of role models adopted her as one of their own. They admired the qualities she projected, her inscrutability to the opposite sex in her films, the way she related to men. Fear of her own feelings and of society's reaction made her surround her intimate life with discretion. People could never wrest from her anything she didn't want them to know.

She maintained an easy camaraderie with her strong directors—William Wellman, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Capra wanted to tumble into bed with her, but discovered a greater rush in the way she goaded his talent. There is a measure of irony in the fact that her all-round good sport, "director's actress" reputation robbed her of choice roles. Self-respecting legends are supposed to throw tantrums, to knife fellow actors in the back, to intimidate employers. The scheming of her friend Joan Crawford to get the Mildred Pierce title role so awed its producer that the casting of Stanwyck was rescinded. Barbara could never convince David O. Selznick she was perfect for the good-time girl dying of a brain tumor in Dark Victory or Jack Warner that The Fountainhead's woman between two men was her.

She was famously married to actors for periods of her life. Frank Fay was a one-man vaudeville act who sank in direct proportion to her rise. She felt guilty and responsible for his failure and veered from wanting to lose herself in the marriage to being fiercely independent, deepening her fears of intimacy. Their seesaw relationship became so much a model for A Star Is Born that Selznick hired lawyers to make sure the screenplay wasn't liable to court action. Growing up shifting for herself may have tempered maternal instincts, but to save the marriage she conned Fay into adopting a baby. She was never close to the boy. When he was six she banished him to a succession of boarding schools.

She married Robert Taylor on her terms. She treated the matinee idol as an adolescent and humiliated him in front of the macho friends he so desperately needed to reinforce his masculinity. Their sex life, such as it was, lasted only months, but the marriage turned out to be a clever career move. They were a fulsomely correct couple during World War II and the Hollywood witch-hunt years when, politically, they swung sharply to the right. He loathed his own screen-lover image and hated the pretty-boy roles that made women swoon. Upholding the image, however, was all-important. When challenged by Ava Gardner, he climbed into bed with her. In old age Stanwyck's passion for him turned morbid. Twenty years after he died, she became convinced his ghost was visiting her, that he had returned to guide her into the afterlife.

Stanwyck walked too fast, talked too fast, and made too many pictures. She made no excuses for her clunkers with Ronald Reagan, Barry Sullivan, and Joel McCrea. She told interviewers that if she didn't have fun working, she wouldn't be doing it. When people suggested such sentiments were typically associated with actors like James Cagney and Spencer Tracy, she answered, "Maybe we're just more used to these traits in men, so that we associate them with masculinity instead of character."

Barbara worked tirelessly to improve herself. Because she realized she lacked education and social graces, she read, studied, and, to deal with people smarter than she, built an armor plate of one-of-the-boys wisecracks. She detested people who felt pity for themselves. She hated hats, flattery, feathers, and conversationalists who began their sentences with "Listen ..." She never veered out of control, never suffered tortured brooding or chemical dependencies. Acting was a job. She put on lipstick without a mirror and when people asked, "What if it smears?" she said, "Then the makeup man fixes it. That's his job. We all have jobs." She refused to watch the dailies or to be technical. "Don't teach me, take care of me," she told her cinematographers, who over the years ranged from studio journeymen to "name" camera like George Barnes, Rudolph Maté, and James Wong Howe. Not to have a role lined up in some movie made her restless. When married to Taylor she agreed with him that she should have some other interests, but went right ahead signing up for film after film. Fellow actors both admired and resented her self-punishing exactness. She was never late on a shoot, never forgot her lines. They paid her a lot to do what she liked best, she thought. The least she could do was get there on time.

Stanwyck was a homebody who traveled only under duress. She visited Europe only three times and, feeling out of her depth, lapsed into a caricature of the American yahoo abroad. For half her long life she lived alone and called herself a bachelor woman. In her later years she spent long, solitary nights drinking herself into a stupor. Like many movie stars of her generation, she smoked herself to death.

Bad health plagued her old age, but she refused to let the public see her fall apart. She had the memory of an elephant. It took her from thirty to sixty, she said, to sort out and jettison the clutter in her mind. "I think living in the past, clinging to memories and souvenirs of days long gone, treating the present as a sort of hazy, second-rate competitor of the 'good old days,' is an anesthetic for those who have too little to do, and too much time in which to do it," she proclaimed.

Being a loner gave her otherworldly insights that astonished even her. "I see things, I have instincts," she said on her eightieth birthday. "Many times before somebody says something, I know what they'll say. A couple of times people said, 'You're weird.'" Nancy Sinatra, Sr., her best friend during her later years, thought she was reincarnated, that she had been on this earth before. To which Barbara cracked, "Other people say senility is setting in."

She was of a period that wasn't all-knowing about show business. Her stardom didn't rely on finding an angle or a spin. She never "did" Barbara Walters, or "The Tonight Show," or a book tour (or a book). Her best friend was her publicist, who saw to it that the Stanwyck-Taylor marriage fell apart according to sanitized Hollywood standards. Nobody quoted Barbara on her conservative politics during the Red Scare or interviewed her brother or her sisters back in Brooklyn.

In today's ever-recycled entertainment world of short and shallow screen careers and video-rental accessibility, she is an intriguing personality of a fabled age, the orphan as ready vessel into which roles are poured. Hollywood's pinnacle decades were her busiest, and happiest, years. The all-powerful studios and the most gifted directors wanted her. She was married to the top studio's handsomest leading man, was a pro's pro, and earned scads of money.

Her long career offers insight into the trajectory of women in pop culture. In the 1930s, she was, with Joan Blondell and Carole Lombard, a favorite of male audiences. Nobody played a saucy dame better than she. Women moviegoers didn't quite know how to accept the tart, direct females in wisecracking comedies or the tough ladies in the action movies and often preferred to see Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, and Ruth Chatterton give up "everything" for the man they loved.

Today's young women see Stanwyck as one of them, as someone who challenged the notions of what a woman could be and do long before society thought of redefining feminine parameters. Today, Madonna tries to capture the Stanwyck allure that made the screen sizzle with carnality and cynicism. In Hero, Geena Davis reprises Stanwyck's classic tough gal reporter, Bette Midler remakes Stella Dallas, and Dyan Cannon stars in a TV remake of Christmas in Connecticut.

Barbara talked about the women she played in the third person and, once a shoot was over, how she hoped she had breathed life into them. "It's gone and done and you did it and you feel a little bit of emptiness after it's over. You thought it had left you, but it hadn't. You say to yourself, 'I hope she lives.'"



She was born Ruby Stevens.

Her place of birth was 246 Classon Avenue, Brooklyn, the date July 16, 1907. She was the fifth, and last, child of Byron and Catherine McGee Stevens, both working-class natives of Chelsea, Massachusetts. Catherine was the daughter of Irish emigrants, Byron of English parents. As an adult Stanwyck played up the Irish heritage. She knew how to glide like the leprechauns, she said, and besides the Irish brashness also possessed the Irish quietude. Ernest Hemingway said she had "a good tough Mick intelligence."

Catherine had raven-black hair and violet eyes. She was twenty when she married Byron, a handsome, red-haired part-time fisherman and construction worker. Children followed in quick succession. They all had names beginning with M —Maud, Mabel, Mildred, and Malcolm Byron.

Chelsea offered few opportunities. When Stevens heard bricklayers were making fifty cents an hour erecting row houses in New York's expanding boroughs, he ran off one night in 1905. By questioning the men he had worked with, Catherine managed to find her husband. She packed her four children and their possessions and in Brooklyn found Byron. The family lore would have it that he was less than pleased when Cathy showed up with the kids. But bricklaying was a trade in demand and the family settled at 246 Classon Avenue, a long street running north-south from Myrtle Avenue to Prospect Park, where their last child—Ruby Katherine—was born.

Maud and Mabel were teenagers, Mildred eight, Malcolm Byron six, and little Ruby going on three during the winter of 1909-10, when their mother became pregnant again. Cathy was stepping off a streetcar when a drunkard lurched forward and knocked her to the ground. Her head struck the curb. A month later she was dead.

Ruby walked behind the coffin with her father, three sisters, and brother. Two weeks after the burial, Byron enlisted to join a work crew digging the Panama Canal. His children never saw him again.

The two eldest daughters shifted for themselves and soon married. It eventually fell to the third daughter, Mildred, to bring up Byron, as Malcolm Byron was always called, and Ruby. Little more than a child herself, Mildred became a showgirl. When she went on the road, she shuttled Byron and Ruby from pillar to post, farming them out to a shifting cast of relatives and neighbors. She couldn't always "place" the two siblings together. Each time little Ruby ran away from a foster home, Byron knew where to find her—on the stoop on Classon Avenue, where she'd be sitting "waiting for Mama to come home."


Excerpted from Stanwyck by Axel Madsen. Copyright © 1994 Axel Madsen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. "I Hope She Lives",
2. Brooklyn,
3. "Stark Naked, I Swear",
4. Rex,
5. Faysie,
6. Hollywood,
7. Capra,
8. Low-budget Life,
9. What Price Hollywood?,
10. Depression Blues,
11. Single,
12. Arly,
13. Private Lives,
14. Stella,
15. Offscreen,
16. Screwballs, Mr. C.B., and Golden Boy,
17. Marriage,
18. Passions,
19. The Lady Eve,
20. The Sweater Girl,
21. Patriot Games,
22. Double Indemnity,
23. Rand and Warner,
24. Uneasy Peace,
25. Bearing Witness,
26. Prejudice,
27. Primal Women,
28. False Fronts,
29. Herself,
30. B Pix,
31. Sharp Reminders,
32. "Barbara Stanwyck Show",
33. The Last Picture Show,
34. Matriarch,
35. Golden Girl,
36. Closing Number,
37. "It Worked—Didn't It?",
Notes on Sources,

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