Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens; July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress, model, and dancer. She was a stage, film and television star, known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional for a strong, realistic screen presence. A favorite of directors including Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra, she made 85 films in 38 years before turning to television.

Barbara Stanwyck
Stanwyck in 1939
Ruby Catherine Stevens

(1907-07-16)July 16, 1907
DiedJanuary 20, 1990(1990-01-20) (aged 82)
  • Actress
  • model
  • dancer
Years active1922–1986

Stanwyck got her start on the stage in the chorus as a Ziegfeld girl in 1923 at age 16 and within a few years was acting in plays. She was then cast in her first lead role in Burlesque (1927), becoming a Broadway star. Soon after that, Stanwyck obtained film roles and got her major break when Frank Capra chose her for his romantic drama Ladies of Leisure (1930), which led to additional lead roles.

In 1937 she had the title role in Stella Dallas and received her first Academy Award nomination for best actress. In 1941 she starred in two successful screwball comedies: Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper, and The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda. She received her second Academy Award nomination for Ball of Fire, although in recent decades The Lady Eve has come to be regarded as a romantic comedy classic with Stanwyck having given one of the best American comedy performances. Fonda and Stanwyck teamed up again in another romantic comedy, You Belong to Me (1941).

By 1944, Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States. She starred alongside Fred MacMurray in the seminal film noir Double Indemnity (1944), playing the smoldering wife who persuades MacMurray's insurance salesmen to kill her husband. Described as one of the ultimate portrayals of villainy, it is widely thought that Stanwyck should have won the Academy Award for best actress rather than being just nominated. She received another Oscar nomination for another of the film noirs she starred in, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). After, she moved into television in the 1960s, she won three Emmy Awards – for The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), the western series The Big Valley (1966), and The Thorn Birds (1983).

She received an Honorary Oscar in 1982, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1986 and is the recipient of several other honorary lifetime awards. She was ranked as the 11th greatest female star of classic American cinema by the American Film Institute.[1] An orphan at the age of four, and partially raised in foster homes, she always worked; one of her directors, Jacques Tourneur, said of Stanwyck, "She only lives for two things, and both of them are work."[2]

Early life

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, of English and Scottish descent.[3] She was the fifth  and youngest  child of Catherine Ann (née McPhee) (1870-1911) and Byron E. Stevens (1872-1954), working-class parents. Her father was a native of Lanesville, Massachusetts, and her mother was an immigrant from Sydney, Nova Scotia.[4][5] When Ruby was four, her mother died of complications from a miscarriage after a drunken stranger accidentally knocked her off a moving streetcar.[6] Two weeks after the funeral, her father, Byron Stevens, joined a work crew digging the Panama Canal and was never seen again.[7] Ruby and her older brother, Malcolm Byron (later nicknamed "By") Stevens, were raised by their eldest sister Laura Mildred, (later Mildred Smith) (1886–1931), who died of a heart attack at age 45.[7][8] When Mildred got a job as a showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four in a year), from which young Ruby often ran away.[9][Note 1]

"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[11]

Ruby toured with Mildred during the summers of 1916 and 1917, and practiced her sister's routines backstage.[10] Watching the movies of Pearl White, whom Ruby idolized, also influenced her drive to be a performer.[12] At the age of 14, she dropped out of school to take a job wrapping packages at a department store in Brooklyn.[13] Ruby never attended high school, "although early biographical thumbnail sketches had her attending Brooklyn's famous Erasmus Hall High School."[14]

Soon afterward, she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for $14 a week, which allowed her to become financially independent.[15] She disliked the job; her real goal 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.[11] 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.[16]

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 nightclub over the Strand Theatre in Times Square.[17] 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.[18][19] 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.[20] One of her good friends during those years was pianist Oscar Levant, who described her as being "wary of sophisticates and phonies."[18]

Billy LaHiff, who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople, introduced Ruby in 1926 to impresario Willard Mack.[21] Mack was casting his play The Noose, and LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl be played by a real one. Mack agreed, and after a successful audition gave the part to Ruby.[22] She co-starred with Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas.[23] As initially staged, the play was not a success.[24] In an effort to improve it, Mack decided to expand Ruby's part to include more pathos.[25] 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.[19] At the suggestion of David Belasco, Ruby changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck by combining the first name from the play Barbara Frietchie with the last name of the actress in the play, Jane Stanwyck; both were found on a 1906 theater program.[24][26]

Stanwyck became a Broadway star soon afterward, when she was cast in her first leading role in Burlesque (1927). She received rave reviews, and it was a huge hit.[27] Film actor Pat O'Brien would later say on a 1960s talk show, "The greatest Broadway show I ever saw was a play in the 1920s called 'Burlesque'." Arthur Hopkins described in his autobiography To a Lonely Boy, how he came to cast Stanwyck:

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 called Stanwyck "The greatest natural actress of our time", noting with sadness, "One of the theater's great potential actresses was embalmed in celluloid."[28]

Around this time, Stanwyck was given a screen test by producer Bob Kane 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.[29]

While playing in Burlesque, Stanwyck was introduced to her future husband, actor Frank Fay, by Oscar Levant.[30] Stanwyck and Fay were married on August 26, 1928, and soon moved to Hollywood.[9]

Film career

Stanwyck's first sound film is The Locked Door (1929), followed by Mexicali Rose, released in the same year. Neither film was successful; nonetheless, Frank Capra chose Stanwyck for his film Ladies of Leisure (1930). Her work in that production established an enduring friendship with Capra and led to future roles in the director's films.[19] Other prominent roles followed, among them as a nurse who saves two little girls from being gradually starved to death by Clark Gable's vicious character in Night Nurse (1931). She also portrays a small town teacher and valiant Midwest farm woman in So Big! (1932) and an ambitious woman "sleeping" her way to the top from "the wrong side of the tracks" in Baby Face (1933), a controversial pre-Code classic. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), another controversial pre-Code film by director Capra, Stanwyck portrays an idealistic Christian caught behind the lines of Chinese civil war kidnapped by warlord Nils Asther. A flop at the time, containing "mysterious-East mumbo jumbo", the lavish film is "dark stuff, and its difficult to imagine another actress handling this ... philosophical conversion as fearlessly as Ms. Stanwyck does. She doesn't make heavy weather of it."[31]

In Stella Dallas (1937) she plays the self-sacrificing title character who eventually allows her teenage daughter to live a better life somewhere else. She landed her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress when she was able to portray her character as vulgar, yet sympathetic as required by the movie. Next, she played Molly Monahan in Union Pacific (1939) with Joel McCrea. 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.[19] In Meet John Doe she plays an ambitious newspaperwoman with Gary Cooper (1941).

"That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple."

Kathleen Howard of Stanwyck's character in Ball of Fire[32]

In Preston Sturges's romantic comedy The Lady Eve (1941), she plays a slinky, sophisticated con-woman who falls for her intended victim, the guileless, wealthy snake-collector and scientist Henry Fonda,[33] she "gives off an erotic charge that would straighten a boa constrictor."[34] Film critic David Thomson described Stanwyck as "giving one of the best American comedy performances",[35] and its reviewed as brilliantly versatile in "her bravura double performance" by The Guardian.[36] The Lady Eve is among the top 100 movies of all time on Time and Entertainment Weekly's lists,[37][38] and is considered to be both a great comedy and a great romantic film with its placement at #55 on the AFI's 100 Years ...100 Laughs list and #26 on its 100 Years ...100 Passions list. [39][40]

Next, she was the extremely successful, independent doctor Helen Hunt in You Belong to Me (1941), also with Fonda. Stanwyck then played nightclub performer Sugerpuss O'Shea in the Howard Hawks directed, but Billy Wilder written comedy Ball of Fire (1941). In this update of the Snow White and Seven Dwarfs tale, she gives professor Gary Cooper a better understanding of "modern English" in the performance for which she won an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.[41][42]

In Double Indemnity, the seminal film noir thriller directed by Billy Wilder, she plays the sizzling, scheming wife/blonde tramp/"destiny in high heels"[43][44] who lures an infatuated insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband. Stanwyck brings out the cruel nature of the "grim, unflinching murderess", marking her as the "most notorious femme" in the film noir genre.[45] Her insolent, self-possessed wife is one of the screen's "definitive studies of villainy - and should (it is widely thought) have won the Oscar for Best Actress", not just been nominated.[44][43] Double Indemnity is usually considered to be among the top 100 films of all time, though it did not win any of its seven Academy Award nominations. It is the #38 film of all time on the American Film Institute's list, as well as the #24 on its 100 Years ...100 Thrillers list and #84 on its 100 Years ...100 Passions list.[46][47]

She plays the columnist caught up in white lies and a holiday romance in Christmas in Connecticut (1945). In 1946 she was "liquid nitrogen" as Martha, a manipulative murderess, costarring with Van Heflin and newcomer Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.[48][49] Stanwyck was also the vulnerable, invalid wife in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and the doomed concert pianist in The Other Love (1947). In the latter film's soundtrack, the piano music is actually being performed by Ania Dorfmann, who drilled Stanwyck for three hours a day until the actress was able to synchronize the motion of her arms and hands to match the music's tempo, giving a convincing impression that it is Stanwyck playing the piano.[50] In 1944, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.[19]

Pauline Kael, a longtime film critic for The New Yorker, admired the natural appearance of Stanwyck's acting style on screen, noting that she "seems to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera".[51] In reference to the actress's film work during the early sound era, Kael observed that the "[e]arly talkies sentimentality...only emphasizes Stanwyck's remarkable modernism."[51]

Many of her roles involve strong characters, 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."[52] While working on 1954s Cattle Queen of Montana on location in Glacier National Park, she did some of her own stunts, including a swim in the icy lake.[53] A consummate professional, when aged 50, she performed a stunt in Forty Guns. Her character had to fall off her horse and, with her foot caught in the stirrup, be dragged by the galloping animal. This was so dangerous that the movie's professional stunt person refused to do it.[54] Her professionalism on film sets led her to be named an Honorary Member of the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame.[55]

William Holden and Stanwyck were friends of long standing and when Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar for 1977, he 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."[56]

Television career

As Stanwyck's film career declined during the 1950s, she moved to television. In 1958 she guest-starred in "Trail to Nowhere", an episode of the Western anthology series Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, portraying a wife who pursues, overpowers, and kills the man who murdered her husband.[57][58] Later, in 1961, her drama series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success, but it earned her an Emmy Award.[19] She also guest-starred in this period on other television series, such as The Untouchables with Robert Stack and in four episodes of Wagon Train.

She stepped back into film for the 1964 film Roustabout, which showcases Elvis Presley, in which she plays a carnival owner.

The western television series, The Big Valley, which was broadcast on ABC from 1965 to 1969, made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy.[19] She was billed in that series' opening credits as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck" for her role as Victoria, the widowed matriarch of the wealthy Barkley family. In 1965, the plot of her 1940 movie Remember the Night was adapted and used to develop the teleplay for The Big Valley episode "Judgement in Heaven".

Years later, Stanwyck earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds.[19] 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 the first of its two seasons, and her role as "Constance Colby Patterson" would prove to be her last.[19] Earl Hamner Jr., former producer of The Waltons, had initially wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing in the 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest, but she turned it down and the role went to her best friend, Jane Wyman.

Personal life

Marriages and relationships

While playing in The Noose, Stanwyck reportedly fell in love with her married co-star, Rex Cherryman.[9] 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.[59]

On August 26, 1928, Stanwyck married her Burlesque co-star, Frank Fay. She and Fay later claimed they disliked each other at first, but became close after Cherryman's death.[9] A botched abortion at the age of 15 had resulted in complications which left Stanwyck unable to have children, according to her biographer.[60] After moving to Hollywood, the couple adopted a ten-month-old son on December 5, 1932. They named him Dion, later amending the name to Anthony Dion, nicknamed "Tony". 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 was reportedly physically abusive to his young wife, especially when he was inebriated.[61][62] Some claim that this union was the basis for dialog written by William Wellman, friend of the couple, for A Star Is Born.[63] The couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Stanwyck won custody of their son, whom she had raised with a strict authoritarian hand and demanding expectations.[64] Stanwyck and her son were estranged after his childhood, meeting only a few times after he became an adult. The child whom she had adopted in infancy "resembled her in just one respect: both were, effectively, orphans."[65] Her son died in 2006.[66]

In 1936, while making the film His Brother's Wife (1936), Stanwyck became involved with her co-star, Robert Taylor. Rather than a torrid romance, their relationship was more one of mentor and pupil. Stanwyck served as support and adviser to the younger Taylor, who had come from a small Nebraska town; she guided his career, and acclimatised him to the sophisticated Hollywood culture. 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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 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.[67][68] 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."[69]

Stanwyck and Taylor mutually decided in 1950 to divorce, and after his insistence, she proceeded with the official filing of the papers.[70] 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, and Stanwyck did not share that goal.[71] 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). She never remarried. According to her friend and Big Valley co-star Linda Evans, Stanwyck cited Taylor as the love of her life. She took his death in 1969 very hard, and took a long break from film and television work.[72]

Stanwyck was one of the best-liked actresses 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[73][74]), James Stewart, Linda Evans, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny and his wife Mary Livingstone, William Holden, Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray.[75]

Stanwyck who was 45, had a four-year romantic affair with actor Robert Wagner, 22, whom she met on the set of Titanic (1953). Stanwyck ended the relationship[76] which is described in Wagner's memoir Pieces of My Heart (2008).[77] In the 1950s, Stanwyck also had a one-night stand with Farley Granger, which he wrote about in his autobiography Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway (2007).[78][79][80]

Political views

Stanwyck opposed the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She felt that if someone from her disadvantaged background had risen to success, others should be able to prosper without government intervention or assistance.[81] For Stanwyck, "hard work with the prospect of rich reward was the American way". Stanwyck became an early member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) after its founding in 1944. The mission of this group was to "... combat ... subversive methods [used in the industry] to undermine and change the American way of life." [82][83] It opposed both communist and fascist influences in Hollywood. She publicly supported the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, her husband Robert Taylor appearing to testify as a friendly witness.[84] Stanwyck shared conservative Republican affiliation with such contemporaries as: Mary Pickford, Walt Disney, Hedda Hopper, Randolph Scott, Robert Young, Ward Bond, William Holden, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, George Murphy, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Shirley Temple, Bob Hope, Adolphe Menjou, Helen Hayes, director Frank Capra, and her Double Indemnity co-star, Fred MacMurray.[85][86]

She was a fan of Objectivist author Ayn Rand, having persuaded Jack L. Warner at 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.[81][87]


Stanwyck was originally a Protestant, and was baptized in June 1916 by the Reverend J. Frederic Berg of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church.[88] She later converted to Roman Catholicism when she married her first husband, Frank Fay.[89]


Her elder brother, Malcolm Byron Stevens (1905–1964), using the professional name Bert Stevens, also became a prolific film and TV actor, appearing mostly in supporting roles, often uncredited. According to IMDb, he has 461 acting credits.[90] He appeared in two films that starred his famous sibling: The File on Thelma Jordon and No Man of Her Own, both released in 1950. He and actress Caryl Lincoln married in 1934 and remained together until his death from a heart attack. They had one son, Brian.

Later years and death

Stanwyck's retirement years were active, with charity work outside the limelight. In 1981, she was awakened in the middle of the night, inside her home in the exclusive Trousdale section of Beverly Hills, by an intruder, who first hit her on the head with his flashlight, then forced her into a closet while he robbed her of $40,000 in jewels.[91]

The following year, in 1982, while filming The Thorn Birds, the inhalation of special-effects smoke on the set may have caused her to contract bronchitis, which was compounded by her cigarette habit; she was a smoker from the age of nine until four years before her death.[92]

Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990, aged 82, of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She had indicated that she wanted no funeral service.[93] 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.[94][95]


Radio appearances

Awards and nominations

Year Association Category Work Result Ref.
1938 Academy Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Stella Dallas Nominated [99]
1942 Academy Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Ball of Fire Nominated [99]
1945 Academy Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Double Indemnity Nominated [99]
1949 Academy Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Sorry, Wrong Number Nominated [99]
1960 Hollywood Walk of Fame Motion Pictures, 1751 Vine Street Won [100]
1961 Emmy Awards Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Series The Barbara Stanwyck Show Won [101]
1966 Emmy Awards Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role The Big Valley Won [101]
1966 Golden Globe Awards Best TV Star – Female The Big Valley Nominated [102]
1967 Emmy Awards Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role The Big Valley Nominated [101]
1967 Golden Globe Awards Best TV Star – Female The Big Valley Nominated [102]
1967 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Won [103]
1968 Emmy Awards Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role The Big Valley Nominated [101]
1968 Golden Globe Awards Best TV Star – Female The Big Valley Nominated [102]
1973 Hall of Great Western Performers

Cowboy Hall of Fame Oklahoma City

Lifetime Achievement Award Performer Won [104]
1981 Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute Won [99]
1981 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Career Achievement Won [105]
1982 Academy Awards Honorary Award Won [105]
1983 Emmy Awards Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series The Thorn Birds Won [105]
1984 Golden Globe Awards Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role The Thorn Birds Won [102]
1986 Golden Globe Awards Cecil B. DeMille Award Won [102]
1987 American Film Institute Life Achievement Won [106]



  1. Ruby attended various public schools in Brooklyn, where she received uniformly poor grades and routinely picked fights with the other students.[10]


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