"She talked tough, worked hard, and was a little rough around the edges, but her ability to imbue a part with unflinching emotional commitment made her a star."
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. Charles Dickens might have written the story of Barbara Stanwyck's childhood, which was, by her own admission, "completely awful." Born into poverty, she lost her mother, Catherine McGee Stevens, at age four when a drunken stranger pushed the pregnant woman off a moving streetcar. Shortly thereafter, her father, Byron Stevens, a bricklayer, abandoned his children to go off to sea. She was raised in foster homes and by an elder sister but quit school and began working at age 13. By the age of 15, she became a Ziegfeld chorus girl.
In 1926 a friend introduced Stanwyck (then known under her original name) to Willard Mack who was casting his Broadway play The Noose. Asked to audition, she was cast on the spot. Mack thought a great deal of the actress and believed that to change her image she needed a first class name, one that would stand out. He happened to notice a playbill for a play then running called Barbara Frietchie in which an actress named Joan Stanwyck appeared. He used this to come up with "Barbara Stanwyck" as Ruby's new stage name. She was an instant hit, and he even re-wrote the script to give her a bigger part. She co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. Cherryman and Stanwyck began a romantic relationship. The relationship was cut short however when in 1928 Cherryman died at the age of 30 of septic poisoning while vacationing in Le Havre, France. Barbara's performance in The Noose earned her rave reviews from critics, and she was summoned by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights where she won a minor part of a fan dancer. The film marked Stanwyck's first film appearance.
Her first husband was established actor Frank Fay: they were married on August 26, 1928. On December 5, 1932 they adopted a son, Dion Anthony, who was one month old (Stanwyck eventually became estranged from Dion for reasons which are still not known). The marriage was a troubled one. Fay's successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom. Also, Fay reportedly did not shy away from physical confrontations with his young wife, especially when he was inebriated. (Some film historians claim that the Fay-Stanwyck marriage was the basis for A Star Is Born). The couple divorced on December 30, 1935.
Her marriage to Fay brought Barbara to a Hollywood that was slow to warm up to her. The turning point came after a screen test was brought to the attention of director Frank Capra. His Ladies of Leisure (1930) revealed to the world a new star, an actress who, as Capra himself said, "doesn't act a scene - she lives it."
A long-term Columbia contract was the result, and the studio soon loaned Stanwyck to Warners for 1931's Illicit. It was a hit, as was the follow-up Ten Cents a Dance. Reviewers were quite taken with her, and with a series of successful pictures under her belt, she sued Columbia for a bigger salary; a deal was struck to share her with Warners, and she split her time between the two studios for pictures including Miracle Woman, Night Nurse, and Forbidden, a major hit which established her among the most popular actresses in Hollywood. Over the course of films like 1932's Shopworn, Ladies They Talk About, and Baby Face, Stanwyck developed an image as a working girl, tough-minded and often amoral, rarely meeting a happy ending; melodramas including 1934's Gambling Lady and the following year's The Woman in Red further established the persona, and in Red Salute she even appeared as a student flirting with Communism. Signing with RKO, Stanwyck starred as Annie Oakley; however, her contract with the studio was non-exclusive, and she also entered into a series of multi-picture deals with the likes of Fox (1936's A Message to Garcia) and MGM (His Brother's Wife, co-starring Robert Taylor).
Stanwyck and actor Robert Taylor began living together. Some books have said that Taylor was less in love with Stanwyck than she with him. Their marriage on May 13, 1939 was arranged with the help of the studio, a common practice in Hollywood's golden age. She and Taylor enjoyed their time together outdoors during the early years of their marriage, and were the proud owners of many acres of prime West Los Angeles property. Their large ranch and home in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, Los Angeles, California is still to this day referred to by locals as the old "Robert Taylor ranch."
Preferring to work as a free agent, Barbara's star rose even higher when she played the ultimate in self-sacrificing motherhood, the title character in Stella Dallas (1937). She then starred in a screwball comedy Breakfast for Two, followed by the downcast 1938 drama Always Goodbye, the caper comedy The Mad Miss Manton and Golden Boy with William Holden.
Next she proved herself adept at comedy in a pair of 1941 films, director Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, which also showed her in her first really glamorous on-screen wardrobe, and director Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire (1941). Another superior film, Capra's Meet John Doe, completed a very successful year. On a dare from writer-director Billy Wilder, she created one of the most memorable femmes fatales in film history, the seductive murderess in Double Indemnity (1944), which won her roles in several of the decade's other great film noirs, including 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and 1949's The File on Thelma Jordon. In between, Stanwyck also starred in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number, her final Academy Award-nominated performance. Adding to her display of versatility were several Westerns, starting with Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific (1939), in which she often did her own stunts.
Taylor was rumored to have had several affairs during the marriage, including one with Ava Gardner. Stanwyck was rumored to have attempted suicide when she learned of Taylor's fling with Lana Turner. She ultimately filed for divorce in 1950 when a starlet made her romance with Taylor public, the decree being granted on February 21, 1951.
After her divorce from Taylor, Stanwyck had several discreet romances including one which was revealed many years later by actor Robert Wagner, 23 years her junior.
Whatever her true feelings for Taylor, Stanwyck was reportedly devastated when many of his old letters and photos were lost in a house fire. She never remarried, collecting alimony of 15 percent of Taylor's salary until his death. According to one book, she tried to collect back alimony even after his death from his second wife, Ursula, even while Ursula was struggling with financial problems.
Reeling from the painful divorce from second husband Robert Taylor, Stanwyck buried herself in work, including low-budget Westerns and television programs. In 1960, she won an Emmy for her work on The Barbara Stanwyck Show. She also won an Emmy for one of her most memorable roles, tough matriarch Victoria Barkley in the Western series The Big Valley (1965-1969). When she lost out on the chance to co-star with Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1980), Barbara threw herself into another television part, the sex-starved land baron in The Thorn Birds (1983), a role that brought her an Emmy. Two years later, she headlined The Colbys, a spin-off of the hugely successful nighttime soap opera Dynasty.
William Holden always credited her with saving his career when they co-starred in Golden Boy. They remained lifelong friends, and he paid tribute to her at the 1977 Academy Awards. Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar. In a rare example of pure graciousness and sincerity, Holden paused before they presented the Oscar to pay a special tribute to his good friend and acting partner Stanwyck. Stanwyck had no idea the tribute was coming. Holden continued discussing the tribulations that had occurred on the set of the film Golden Boy and said that he owed his career to Stanwyck, who stuck up for him when things looked bad. Stanwyck was overwhelmed by the tribute and hugged her good friend.
During her later years, she suffered from vision loss and spinal deterioration in addition to the problems that contributed to her death. She died January 20, 1990 in Santa Monica, California from pneumonia, chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD-COPD), emphysema, and arteriosclerotic heart disease (ASHD) with myocardial infarction (heart attack). She did not have a funeral and has no grave. Her ashes are scattered in Lone Pine, California.
American Film Institute
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Golden Apple Awards
Golden Boot Awards
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards
Screen Actors Guild Awards
Venice Film Festival
Walk of Fame
"I would have to say that I have never worked with an actress who was more cooperative, less temperamental and a better workman, to use my term of highest compliment, than Barbara Stanwyck." (Cecil B. DeMille, on directing Stanwyck -- PR TNT's special, Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire 1991)
"Career is too pompous a word. It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid for doing what I love doing." (Barbara Stanwyck -- PR TNT's special, Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire 1991)
Her breakthrough performance occurred in 1930's Ladies of Leisure, directed by Frank Capra, who said her emotionally charged acting could "grab your heart and tear it to pieces."
"During Double Indemnity (1944) Fred MacMurray would go to rushes. I remember asking Fred, 'How was I?' 'I don't know about you - but I was wonderful!' Such a true remark. Actors only look at themselves."
"I'm a tough old broad from Brooklyn. I intend to go on acting until I'm ninety, and they won't need to paste my face with make-up."
"Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr. Capra taught me that. Sure it's nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting - watch the eyes!"
"Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don't care what happened before. I don't even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing - I'll take it in those fifteen minutes."
"My only problem is finding a way to play my fortieth fallen female in a different way from my thirty-ninth."
Commenting in 1939 on the fact that her fiancé, Robert Taylor, at 28, was four years younger than she, which raised eyebrows then, Stanwyck said: "The boy's got a lot to learn and I've got a lot to teach."
"It's perhaps not the future I would choose. I still think it's possible to make a success of both marriage and career even though I didn't. But it's not a bad future. And I'm not afraid of it."
"I couldn't remember my name for weeks. I'd be at the theater and hear them calling 'Miss Stanwyck, Miss Stanwyck,' and I'd think 'Where is that dame? Why doesn't she answer? By crickie, it's me!"
"Egotism - usually just a case of mistaken nonentity."
"There's nothing more fun in the whole world than seeing a child open a present at Christmas. To have a six-year-old boy stroke a bicycle with his eyes and, not daring to touch, turn and ask, 'Is it mine, Missy? Really mine?' That's part of my future. The rest is work. And, I hope, some wisdom."
"There is a point in portraying surface vulgarity where tragedy and comedy are very close."
Frank Capra loved how emotive Barbara was, but he found that she gave everything she had on the first take. For this reason, he took to rehearsing the other actors without her, not bringing Barbara in until the cameras were ready to roll. According to Capra, one take was enough - she never missed a line.
Barbara was known for her powerful, confident stride. Rumor has it that she acquired the "Stanwyck walk" by going to the zoo and observing the panthers.
Barbara's marriage to gorgeous actor Robert Taylor didn't change her unadorned style. Yet when they attended a premiere and she was accidentally hustled away with the casually dressed, screaming fans, she decided it was time to spruce up her look.
In 1944 the IRS claimed that Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in the USA, with an annual salary of $400,000.
Nicknames: Missy, The Queen
Measurements: 33 1/4-23-33 1/2 (Source: Celebrity Sleuth magazine).
Often called "The Best Actress Who Never Won an Oscar."
According to the biographical film Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire (1991), Stanwyck became a model for women actors. Such stars as Sally Field and Virginia Madsen have publically pointed to Stanwyck as their model.
Sister of actor Bert Stevens.
In the early 1950s, made a television commercial for Lustre Creme shampoo.
Was of Scots-Irish and English descent.
Worked briefly as a fashion model in the late 1920s.
Was listed #11 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years of The Greatest Screen Legends."
Her wicked turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) was ranked #8 on the American Film Institute's villains list of the "100 Years of The Greatest Screen Heroes and Villains."
She was voted the 40th "Greatest Movie Star of All Time" by Entertainment Weekly.
Picked up the starring role in Ball of Fire (1941) after Ginger Rogers dropped out.
She lost a kidney in 1971.
In 1981, she was beaten and robbed in her bedroom by an intruder who woke her up at one in the morning.
In 1985, her house was destroyed in a fire. She was upset to lose all of Robert Taylor's love letters.
Her siblings were named Maude, Mable, Mildred ("Millie"), and Malcolm Byron Stevens.
Ailing, she was replaced by Susan Hayward in Heat of Anger (1972), which was to have been a pilot for a prospective TV series to be called Fitzgerald and Pride.
Graduate of Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, New York.
Stanwyck's papers are in the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, P.O. Box 3924, Laramie, WY 82071.
Turned down the role of Angela Channing on Falcon Crest (1981).
Her performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) is ranked #98 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
Her performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) is ranked #58 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
Was best friends for many years with Frank Sinatra's first wife, Nancy.
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