Actress. Born Ruby Stevens, on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. Stanwyck was the youngest of five children of Catherine (McGee) Stevens and Byron Stevens, a bricklayer. Both her parents were the children of immigrants. In 1910 Catherine died of a fall; two weeks later Byron Stevens ran away to Panama. Ruby and her brother Malcolm boarded with families who took in orphans.
The hardship and loneliness of her early life affected Stanwyck profoundly. Though they lived in separate homes, she and her brother protected each other. Their father died en route from Panama some time before 1914, and in 1915 her brother left her to live with an older sister. In school, Ruby had difficulty making friends and little interest in academics. When she was eight, her sister Mildred, who had supported both children from her earnings as a chorus girl, took Ruby on the road for three summers, whetting her desire to be a dancer. From 1919 to 1921 she boarded with the Harold Cohen family--"the first people," she wrote, "ever to brush my hair, to care how I looked. ... They even tried to stop me from swearing!"
In 1921, just before her fourteenth birthday, Ruby began supporting herself as a department store wrapper, then as a telephone company clerk. Seven months later she sold patterns and later found a typing job with the Remick Music Company in Tin Pan Alley, the legendary music publishing section of Manhattan. A manager there got her a job at the Strand Roof nightclub, where producer Earl Lindsay taught her to dance in a chorus. She had a bit part in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies and in 1923 danced in both George White's Scandals and the Shubert revue Artists and Models. On May 22, 1924 Stevens opened in Lindsay's Keep Kool. The Ziegfeld touring company picked up her skit in September. She performed, among other numbers, the Ziegfeld “Shadowgraph”—a silhouette striptease. The next year she did another Shubert revue, Gay Paree (1925).
Through friends, Ruby Stevens met the playwright Willard Mack, who hired her for a bit part as a chorus girl in his new play. Mack built up Stevens's role, giving her an emotional scene begging for the body of an executed man. He coached her intensively and induced her to change her name to Barbara Stanwyck. On 20 October 1926 she opened in The Noose to unanimous praise. During the run, Stanwyck won a supporting role in the silent film Broadway Nights (1927), her first picture. On stage in September she portrayed the wife of a drunken vaudevillian in George Watter's Burlesque, a performance that the critic Alexander Woollcott called "touching and true."
While playing in The Noose, Stanwyck had fallen in love with leading man Rex Cherryman, but Cherryman died unexpectedly, and in August 1928, Stanwyck married the actor-comedian Frank Fay. It was his third marriage; the couple had one adopted child. In August 1929 the couple went to California, where Stanwyck was to play in The Locked Door for producer Joseph Schenk. In Hollywood Stanwyck found no one like Mack to instruct her in film acting. The Locked Door (1929) proved stilted and theatrical. Mexicali Rose (1929), in which she played the title role despite her Brooklyn accent, was worse.
For six months Stanwyck did only screen tests. Seeing his wife grow despondent, Fay persuaded director Frank Capra to view a test in which she played a scene from The Noose. Capra signed her to star as a party girl in his Ladies of Leisure (1930), and he became the mentor Stanwyck needed. Stanwyck's popularity soared. At Warner Brothers she played a canny socialite in Illicit (1931), while Ten Cents a Dance (1931) and Night Nurse (1931) showcased her in spunky, unglamorous roles. Her growing popularity strained her marriage; but when she broke her contract to be with Fay, the studio sued and prevailed. They also raised her salary to $50,000 per picture.
In September 1931, Stanwyck returned to work at Columbia. By the end of 1935, she had starred in fourteen films. At Warners for William Wellman she made Edna Ferber's So Big (1932), her first A picture. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) for Capra at Columbia she was daringly in love with a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), and at RKO for George Stevens she made a memorable Annie Oakley (1935).
As his career declined, Fay became periodically drunk and violent. Stanwyck struggled to preserve the illusion of a contented household, and in April 1933 she costarred with Fay in Tattle Tales, a revue that traveled to New York City in June. But on New Year's Eve 1935 the couple signed a divorce settlement. The battle for custody of their son--whose relations with both were distant--was protracted and bitter.
The following year friends introduced Stanwyck to actor Robert Taylor. Their romance became so prominent that under studio pressure the couple married in May 1939. They had no children. After working with Taylor in her first broadcast drama, Stanwyck appeared regularly on the Lux Radio Theatre. Her sixteen roles from 1936 to 1943 included performances in Main Streetand Wuthering Heights.
In order to maintain the momentum of her career, Stanwyck searched so diligently for the right scripts that studios put her on suspension for being "too picky." Nevertheless, in her thirties she played her most memorable parts. As Stella Dallas (1937) she received her first Academy Award nomination. In Remember the Night (1940), she played a diamond thief, and in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941), she practiced her wiles on Henry Fonda, while receiving her second Academy Award nomination. In Ball of Fire (1942), she was a stripper in a houseful of professors. Other distinguished films included Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific (1939), Rouben Mamoulian's Golden Boy (1939), and Capra's Meet John Doe (1941). The role usually considered Stanwyck's best came in 1944 when at Paramount she played the predatory Phyllis Dietrichson, who seduces Fred MacMurray into murdering her husband in Double Indemnity. It won her a third Academy Award nomination. That same year the Internal Revenue Service proclaimed her the highest-paid woman in the United States.
Her marriage with Taylor was less successful. Stanwyck found his neglect, his attention to other actresses, and his absences difficult to bear. He was away in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1945, and he made films in London in 1949 and in Rome in 1950. She followed him to Rome but on their return granted him a divorce in February 1951. That same year she became permanently estranged from her son.
In May 1947 Taylor had begun testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming colleagues he believed tainted by communism. Stanwyck also embraced anticommunist sentiments but nevertheless worked with artists who were under suspicion. In 1952 she made Clash by Night, Clifford Odets's proletarian drama of adultery, directed by the unofficially blacklisted Fritz Lang.
After Double Indemnity, despite cutbacks in studio production, Stanwyck made at least two pictures a year until 1958, including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), which brought her a fourth Academy Award nomination. After 1957 Stanwyck had no film offers until 1962, when she played the lesbian madam of a bordello in Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side. She made only two more theatrical films, including Roustabout (1964), in which she hired Elvis Presley to work in her carnival.
As film offers grew scarce, Stanwyck turned to television. On October 10, 1956 she debuted in her first television drama, a half-hour Western for Ford Theatre. She hoped to develop a series based on the lives of frontier women, and in 1958 and 1959 she filmed four episodes of Zane Grey Theatre. During the following two years she made the Barbara Stanwyck Show, starring in thirty-two half-hour dramas. She won the Emmy for outstanding actress in a series in May 1961.
From 1961 to 1964 she made four episodes of Wagon Train and one of Rawhide, and she portrayed a missing-persons detective in The Untouchables. Then, from 1965 to 1969, she played the matriarch of a family of ranchers in The Big Valley. The series renewed her fame; in 1966 she received both an Emmy and the Screen Actors Guild Award. In 1967 and 1968 she was named Photoplay's "Most Popular Female Star." At sixty-seven, suffering from emphysema, she retreated into a carefully guarded private life. In 1982 she emerged to receive an honorary Oscar, and in the following year she played the passionate matriarch in David Wolper's television miniseries The Thorn Birds. Despite her difficulty breathing, her performance was among the best of her career and brought her a third Emmy.
In addition to emphysema, Stanwyck also suffered vision loss and spinal deterioration, but she continued to perform and showed up to accept the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986. She was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1988 and after recurrent illness, she died on January 20, 1990, in Santa Monica, California, of congestive heart failure complicated by emphysema. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine in the California Sierras, where she had filmed on location.
In eighty-four theatrical films and three television series, Barbara Stanwyck portrayed a range of complex women who combined independence with emotional vulnerability. Her forceful, unmannered performances captured these characters convincingly. The same simplicity made her antic comedies disarming and oddly believable. Devoted to her profession, she showed to colleagues--actors and stage crews alike--an understanding and emotional support that sometimes eluded her in personal relationships. Performers with whom she worked, including William Holden, Robert Wagner, and her husband Robert Taylor, acknowledged their debt to her. Colorful and outspoken, she did not cultivate the mystique of other stars but presented herself as a working actress, often performing her own stunts. She was celebrated for her professionalism--always on time, always secure in her lines, always costumed, made up, and ready to work.
© Biography Resource Center, 2001 Gale Group
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