Victoria Wilson’s new biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 is impressive, if just for its length and heft. It is just the first half of a two-part exhaustive look into the life and career of one of Hollywood’s most enduring, yet shyest stars. Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, started life in Brooklyn as a quasi-orphan. Her mother died when she was quite young and her father disappeared soon after, leaving young Ruby and her brother Byron to be raised by friends and family. Her three older sisters tried to help with the two younger children, but had families and struggles of their own, and Ruby and Byron were frequently separated. Her older sister Mildred was in show business, a chorus girl in traveling shows, and as soon as Ruby could, she joined her sister on the road, and eventually, after watching and learning, tried to pursue similar opportunities for herself.
She became a chorus girl and landed a spot, in 1922 and ’23, as a dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1926 she was given the opportunity to step out of the line and play the part of a chorus girl in a play on Broadway called The Noose. During the run of the highly successful play it was suggested that she change her name, and Barbara Stanwyck was born. Two years later saw Stanwyck on the way to Hollywood with her new husband Frank Fay. He was the toast of Vaudeville and Broadway and was, like many stage performers of the time, being wooed to star on the silver screen. But Fay and movies didn’t quite mesh.
Wilson mentions the rumor that their relationship might have been the basis for the film A Star is Born, but just as quickly dismisses the possibility and offers other examples. According to Wilson, Stanwyck was unhappy staying at home and playing at being a housewife, something a woman with her vagabond existence had no talent for. Fay asked his connections at the studio to put her in a picture as a favor — it was soon discovered that she was the real deal, and Fay was not, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. As Stanwyck’s star began to rise, Fay’s began to decline, not helped at all by his alcoholism. Stanwyck never forgot how he helped start her career and was grateful. She also loved him, but stayed with him far too long.
Wilson, who is also an editor at Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, goes on far too long about the marriage, and how frustrated Stanwyck must have been on a day-to-day basis. Editor, edit thyself? This book may win awards for tenacity and veracity, perhaps, but not really readability. There is altogether too much repetition throughout the lengthy tome. How many times can Wilson mention that Stanwyck was private, shunned parties and such? Or that Fay was a drunk? The book is meticulously researched and detailed, but it is also sooooo loong. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is only the first in a planned two-volume set. Would the star really want such a detailed accounting of her life and work? After being reminded by the author for the umpteenth time how much the private Stanwyck shunned the limelight, the reader is forced to focus on how intrusive the subject of this biography might find this voluminous undertaking.
On the plus side, Wilson gives as detailed a description of Stanwyck’s films as she does the times they were made – notable news events like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Depression — highlighting how insular Hollywood was, with it’s inflated salaries, from the real struggles going on in the country. The author works hard to bring 1920s New York stage and 1930s Hollywood to life, and much is fascinating. But she is sometimes so wedded to her “just the facts, ma’am” approach that when she finally does have a chance to reveal some folks from Stanwyck’s early days – who became who in Hollywood – it falls flat. Friends like roommate Violet Mary Klotz who became actress Mae Clarke (The girl who had Jimmy Cagney infamously shove half a grapefruit in her kisser) and her acquaintance the wild Bille Cassin, later Lucille LeSeur, later her very good friend … Joan Crawford — names any classic movie buff would know, so why be coy about revealing them? There is a distinct lack of foreshadowing throughout, which would have made this so-serious book a lot more fun.
For fans of Hollywood gossip, there is some, interspersed with all of the descriptive text. Director Frank Capra had a crush in her. Stanwyck had a botched abortion as a teenager that left her infertile. Fay may have hit her and had mental problems. But for the most part, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a collection of facts, dates, and research. The author gives blow-by-blow descriptions of each movie plot, but with no interpretation or review of Stanwyck in the role. She does, however cite other current reviews of the time, but no modern look at the films. The quality of the photos in the book were disappointing too — for such a mammoth undertaking couldn’t higher quality movie stills be found?
Conflicting or contrasting facts or quotes are included, too. Wilson spends the first half of the book emphasizing how much Stanwyck hated Hollywood and parties,
“I wouldn’t wear an ermine coat to a Hollywood opening if I was offered the coat and $1000 bonus. All of the ermine coats the furriers had in stock were rented to movie people for the opening of ‘Grand Hotel.’ Imagine putting on a show like that just to let people think you’re more prosperous than you are. Not for me.”
But once Fay is finally out of her life, her feelings about such things change. She little by little begins to venture out, with the help of her friend and agent Zeppo Marx and his wife. Once she left Fay she suddenly became more social, going to parties and nightclubs — even wearing (gasp) ermine. There are more than a few such contradictory passages in the book. Of course Stanwyck could have changed her mind, but after 500 pages of stating (over and over) how she hated to socialize, dress up, etc., why present the opposite so matter-of-factly? The author leaves the reader to come up with the real answer — that Fay — who was tyrannical and abusive, kept Stanwyck close to home. He didn’t like to socialize and certainly didn’t want her to. This could have been a portrait of a woman who was strong in many ways, in her career and elsewhere, but was also in an oppressive, abusive relationship.
Readers (those with stamina) have to slog through Stanwyck’s unhappy relationship with Fay for more than half the book until we and the star finally get a glimpse of the handsome Robert Taylor.
Is it worth the wait? It is certainly interesting that (understandably marriage-shy) Stanwyck and Taylor were pressured by Hollywood’s skewed morals squad to make their long-term romance official, as they did with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and other unmarried celebrity couples. But most readers may be bleary-eyed before they get to this part of the over-1000 page book. It takes until page 610 to really read about one of the few of Stanwyck’s early film efforts that even the most dedicated film fan may have seen, Stella Dallas (1937).
Barbara Stanwyck was undeniably a great actress. She made some wonderful movies, although her real Hollywood heyday, and most of her classic films, the ones for which she is best remembered, will not turn up until the second volume, whenever that one comes out — The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Sorry, Wrong Number, The File on Thelma Jordon, Clash by Night, Titanic — not to mention her easy transition to television later in her life in The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds. Barbara Stanwyck and her career is certainly worthy of biography. One just wishes that she and her films could have been approached in a more critical and more concise manner.