An Interview with Victoria Wilson, Author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE (1907-1940)

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

The life of Barbara Stanwyck has fascinated film lovers for decades. Her particular combination of sex appeal, toughness, and grit makes for an intriguing character and was doubtless informed by a private life about which she was extremely reticent. This, along with innate intelligence and a seemingly natural instinct for acting, has made her one of the most enigmatic personalities of classic Hollywood.

Though it seems impossible to fathom, there has never been a major biography of Barbara Stanwyck.

Until now.

On November 12, Simon & Schuster will publish A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True (1907-1940), volume 1 of the long-awaited first complete biography of Barbara Stanwyck. 15 years in the making and running a whopping 1,056 pages in length, author Victoria Wilson has created a colossal piece of literature covering the first 33 years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. Comprised of tireless research and interviews with the star’s family, friends, and acquaintances, the work promises to become one of the most complete and enduring biographies ever written about a motion picture star.

I conducted an interview with Victoria Wilson a few weeks ago, and her answers appear here.Thank you to Vicky Wilson for this interview, and please be sure to pre-order your copy of the book by clicking here.

AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA WILSON

Q This is a biography that has been in the works for 15 years, and has been very highly anticipated in the classic film community for a long time. What was your research process like in writing a book of this caliber and magnitude?

A The answer to the question of research is a huge one . . .to begin with it was definitely a process of starting on the outside and working one’s way deeper and deeper into a subject, a world, and then worlds within worlds.  I began with making lists – of films, directors she worked with,  living people to interview, archives. .  .gathering information and creating a detailed chronology and constantly filling it in (it is now almost 400 pages long); collecting fan magazines. The earlier the fan magazine, the more authentic the interview, the information in the articles; there were no funnels, no press agents, no studio filters; fewer inventions of facts; less distortions.  There was the process of interviewing people, once, twice, three times, sometimes over months, sometimes over years (as with Barbara’s friends, family, her son, etc). There was the process of collecting materials – press books, articles, objects, photographs, letters, scrapbooks, reading them, taking the information I needed, thinking about it, having it lead me to other people, ideas, and so on.  I went through every file of every picture she made, or almost made.  I read the novels of pictures she made, or almost made.  I wrote about the novelists whose novels she read; the playwrights whose plays she acted in, or almost acted in; the directors with whom she worked. I hired researchers to go through and copy scrapbooks of her friends; to go through court records; to go through Variety from 1927 onwards and copy every article on Stanwyck, Frank Fay, Robert Taylor, etc. Each was put in chronological order in large 3-ring notebooks I amassed. I could go on and write a book about the research for the book; of the stories of finding people; of being lead to others, of leads that appeared one day and didn’t make sense or were answered until months or years later . . .And this only begins to give you an idea of what was involved.

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A 1932 fan magazine with Stanwyck on the cover.

How did your interest in Barbara Stanwyck as a subject come to be?

I had always been aware of Barbara Stanwyck as an interesting actress. Someone slightly odd, compelling, not beautiful but sexy, intelligent, sometimes off-putting in her off-centeredness – but always interesting on screen.

It was really John Kobal, who I published and who became a great friend, who would tell me stories about the actors he had interviewed over the years (eventually we put together the interviews in a book called PEOPLE WILL TALK and I had John write up the stories he’d told me about them as introductory pieces to each interview) who talked to me several times about Stanwyck that made me see her in a new way, a way that stayed with me.

Years passed. I published as an editor at Knopf many biographies. I enjoyed the process of working with biographers as they did their research; helping them to think about their subject and what they were discovering about him or her and I decided one day to think of writing one myself.

I made a list of various subjects and Barbara’s name was on the list. I didn’t know much about her and did some preliminary research and realized that there hadn’t been a serious book on her; that her career spanned the history of Hollywood in its second stage and onward through television; that she’d worked with almost every major director; that she as an actress who could do almost anything onscreen; and there was the question of what she projected on the screen and where did that come from and what did it come out of . . .

On the set of LADIES OF LEISURE (1930), her breakout role and her first film with director Frank Capra.

Barbara Stanwyck had a reputation for being an intensely private person, refusing to talk about her difficult childhood or go into detail about her romantic relationships. How did you go about uncovering some of the aspects of Barbara Stanwyck’s life about which she was so reticent?

Hardcore research, pulling together bits and pieces . . .I went to Lanesville, Mass where her family came from and figured out just how – and why – her father became a mason . . .I went to Chelsea, Mass and found in the records where her family moved and moved again and again, up in stature and closer to the center of town away from the rough edges of the city on the river. I pieced together her upbringing in Brooklyn, bit by bit. But it is what one brings to the bits and pieces that makes the narrative and makes it make sense. That’s instinct, and grasp and understanding of character and human beings and coming to know one’s subject through the choices she made; the things she said; her desires and dreams and ambitions etc. Stanwyck was private but she did talk about her childhood. If anything, she played up what was difficult about it and glossed over what was normal about it. Why? Because the experience of it to her was so lonely and tough and relentless and wouldn’t it be for all of us if by the time we were four we were without a mommy and daddy and had a brother who was two years older and just as lost as we were and had three much older sisters who did the best they could to take care of us but were essentially making their way in their own lives and new families.

Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, and was orphaned at the age of 4 when her mother was killed and her father abandoned the family.

One of the most fascinating things about Barbara Stanwyck, to me, is how much her rocky childhood influenced who she became as an actress and a person, yet she still refused to let that childhood define her. What was the most important aspect of Barbara Stanwyck’s childhood that you uncovered for this book, in terms of how it helped shape her character?

Her childhood totally made who she was, just as our childhoods make or have made who we are. Her childhood was about taking care of herself and getting through and being on her own – and apart. Her childhood of being taken to New York from Brooklyn by her sister who was a dancer and actress and being able to watch the performances in the wings and feeling close to her sister, all of which became a family to her, home to her. It gave her the sense of belonging which is what work did for her and did for her throughout her life. . .but that particular childhood also prepared her to make her way in Hollywood. She never was part of any studio family; was under contract to more than one studio when that was unheard of beginning in the early 1930’s whereas Robert Taylor, who grew up in a real family of loving parents who adored him, stayed within his Metro family for decades, longer than any other contract actor at MGM. Finally, all of the hurt and abandonment and anger and terror that she experienced as a child, and the will to survive and make something of herself, and also the love of her own sisters and brother and nephews informed the complex range of feeling and intelligence and humor and spirit and sense of fun that comes through on the screen. It was all of a piece and came right out of her childhood.

Circa 1924. Stanwyck’s sister Mildred was a chorus girl, and she soon followed suit.

Stanwyck’s two marriages, first to vaudevillian Frank Fay and next to MGM superstar Robert Taylor, both ended in divorce. Rumors circulated for years and persist today about her marriage to Robert Taylor, and that it may have been manufactured as something as a “lavender marriage” by the studio system to quell talk about the sexualities of both Stanwyck and Taylor. Clearly, it would be very difficult to say for certain whether or not this was the case, especially as so many years have passed. In addition, Stanwyck seemed to be very much in love with Taylor, never remarried, and took his 1969 death extremely hard. In your research, was there anything you found that would lead you to believe that these persistent rumors about their marriage had any truth to them?

I had one ambition for my biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and that was to write a book that reflected the truth about my subject and her world, regardless of what it was. I have written quite detailed portraits of Stanwyck’s two marriages; the first to Frank Fay; the second to Robert Taylor. Each marriage was complex and came about because of complex reasons – and stayed in tact because of equally complicated reasons; neither marriage came about because of homosexuality. I asked many people who would have a somewhat informed inkling about Robert Taylor’s sexuality, people who knew him at the time, or would have heard about the (then, of necessity) underground truth of his sexuality and nowhere did I come across any hint of his being gay, including interviewing Harry Hay, founder in 1950 of the Mattachine Society. If anyone would have known, or heard about the truth of Taylor’s sexuality over the years, it would have been Harry Hay. . .

Stanwyck and Taylor came together at opposite points in their careers, which most people don’t know. She may have been successful and by that time been around Hollywood for six or so years, but her career was in trouble when she met Taylor. He was the big big star, just exploding into real fame and overwhelmed by it all. If anything, she needed him, for lots of reasons, which I write about in the book. And he needed her – just not as his beard.

The last thing Metro wanted was for Robert Taylor to be married, until they did, and it was not as a cover up for his sexuality. When people read the book they will see in detail how Stanwyck and Taylor came together, and what it did for both people; how it helped both and changed both. Volume Two portrays the shape of the marriage and how and why it ultimately fell apart, which, as in real life, happened over time and grew out of a set of subtle and complicated circumstances – and out of two people changing and changing out of different needs at different stages of their life, and their work.

Stanwyck and Robert Taylor married in 1939 and divorced in 1951.

I was very saddened to learn of the 2006 death of Barbara Stanwyck’s only son, Dion Anthony Fay. Were you able to speak with him about this book, and what insights was he able to provide about his childhood and his intensely complex relationship with his mother?

I was able to find Tony Fay, long before the internet, through a man who was in charge of security for the Pope on his New York visits. That is a funny story – but he did find Tony and I interviewed him during the course of many years. He was extremely helpful during the writing of the book and we became quite close. Tony talked to me in great detail of his years growing up, of his nurses, his years with Fay in the house, and then after, being sent away, first to schools, then to camps, of his loneliness, of his fears of his mother, and bewilderment towards her,and his defiance; of his mother’s marriage to Bob Taylor; of the years Tony lived at home during the war when Bob was in the Navy as a training officer; of his relationship with Uncle Buck*; his years after, going to various schools; of living in Beverly Hills and much much more. I was extremely fond of Tony. Despite being put up for adoption once and then cast out by his adopted mother, Tony Fay was a loving man who managed to triumph over difficult, dark years.

Barbara Stanwyck with her son Dion Anthony Fay (called “Tony”), whom she adopted with husband Frank Fay in 1932.

Barbara Stanwyck is often described as “the best actress who never won an Oscar,” and indeed, her versatility is staggering. Her ability to play drama, film noir, and comedy with equal flair is almost unmatched. To what do you attribute her extraordinary talent?

Deep intelligence; a dark childhood; iron determination; will; large emotions – fear; anger; loss; a driving discipline; uncanny talent.

Barbara Stanwyck in “The Thorn Birds,” a TV miniseries she made in 1983 and which also won her the 1983 Emmy and Golden Globe.

How would you like Barbara Stanwyck to be remembered today?

You’d have to ask that of Stanwyck herself. And chances are her answer would be not at all, that she was here for a time, did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and when it was over, it was over.

REFERENCE:

*Uncle Buck was the boyfriend of Stanwyck’s sister Millie, who was one of Stanwyck’s closest friends and biggest supporters. He ran her house for years and for a time, he looked after her son, Tony.

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35 responses to “An Interview with Victoria Wilson, Author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE (1907-1940)

  1. Fascinating subject. Very much looking forward to this book.

  2. She is a fascinating subject! She is my favorite of the Classic Stars, nobody had her range or longetivity. I first ‘met’ her on TV and was wonderfully surprised to find she had a filmography like no other. I have read a book about her, there are a few published. Like so many other star bios it relied on what was published in the fan magazines of the day, and published interviews. I have read Miss Stanwyck was a very private person. I have known about this book for a long time. I have pre-ordered it. My question would 400 pages? Wow! I am curious as to how these pages will be filled and what Victoria Wilson can reveal about the incredibly talented Miss Stanwyck.

  3. More than 400 pages, 1,056 in fact. There have been a few books published, but none were serious. At all. I think they’ve all been self-published.

  4. Good grief! Now I remember over 1,000 pages! I am expecting (do not know) a thorough examination of her filmography, a bio, we know she came up the hard way, her dancing days, her first marriage, and her marriage to Robert Taylor has been touched upon elsewhere, as well as the misguided adoption of her son. Hopefully a treasure of photographs and much more! Thank you for the interview with Victoria!

  5. I am confused, this book covers Miss Stanwyck’s life until 1940? The author mentiones a second volume. If is all discussed here I think both will be worth it!

  6. Yes, she is hard at work on the second volume. Not sure when it will be out, but I will follow up with her for another interview when the second volume comes out!

  7. Great interview. Thank you. Sounds like the book is a must read.

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

  8. Thank you! And thanks for reading!

  9. Wonderful interview, Lara. This promises to be a terrific read!

  10. A great book, exhaustively researched. Excellent side stories on many of the movie folks who crossed Barbara’s path. Can’t wait for Volume 2.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly. This is probably my #1 favorite biography I’ve ever read–and I’ve read a lot. Waiting on pins and needles for volume 2!

  12. Kathleen Elzey

    I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. When will the 2nd part be available?
    Kathleen Elzey

  13. I don’t think anyone knows yet–my last update from her says she’s a little more than 1/3 of the way through writing volume 2. Here’s hoping that we won’t be waiting another 15 years!!

  14. Julia Stephens

    Couldn’t put this book down…want Vol 2 now!

  15. I read the book and loved it. It is often difficult to make non-fiction read well, but this book does it. I almost think it should be called A History of Old Hollywood with an Emphasis on Barbara Stanwyck.

  16. Movie lover

    That scene from the thorn birds never ceases to give me goose bumps.

  17. Steve Downey

    I have fallen in love with Barbara Stanwyck. No, I mean really. My wife KT Sullivan knows it. I’m well-
    beyond smitten. I want that “steel-true” strength and guts across from me, beside me, upholding me, knowing me in every way. What a woman was Barbara! Such a woman is KT!

  18. Oh, I hear you on that one! I’VE fallen in love with Barbara Stanwyck! Truthfully, I don’t trust anyone who isn’t in love with her, man or woman.

  19. Kathleen Elzey

    When is Volume 2 coming out? I was left hanging at the end of Volume 1. I’m looking forward to learning more about the later years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life.

  20. Last I heard, she was a little more than 1/3 of the way through Volume 2. I hope it comes out soon!

  21. Just finished reading B S Steel-True! Loved it & it is my all time favorite bio of a Hollywood star!! Can’t wait for vol.2!! Please Hurry!!!

  22. I completely agree. Can’t wait for volume 2!

  23. A page-turner it is indeed. But I wondered if Miss Stanwyck’s life and career from 1907 to 1940 required a thousand pages to cover it, and I’ve got to say that much of the material is neither about Barbara, or even slightly Barbara-related, but generally about Hollywood at the time. I was disappointed to see a photo of Jean Harlow in 1938, when many of us know, without looking it up, that she died in 1937. And so it made me wonder if there were other inaccuracies.

  24. John Buchak

    For the last twenty-eight years of Tony Fay’s life we were best friends. He was my golfing partner, drinking buddy, and next door neighbor when you interviewed him in Sherman Oaks. It is so sad to see how many bad things have been said about my dear friend. You on the other hand have been so kind in your words about him. Thank You.

  25. I’m trying to read this book. It’s one of the most boring biographies I have ever read. Barbara Stanwyck is my all time favorite actress, but I don’t get a feel for her as a person at all from this book. There are a lot of words, but not a lot of heart here.

  26. Thanks for your comment. Wilson’s writing is very much in the style of the old biographers, academics from the 60s. I personally love that style, but it’s not for everyone.

  27. I have read HUNDREDS of biographies of classic movie stars, and this IS the most boring. There is very little of Barbara Stanwyck, and nothing new. This was an expensive book, and I expected a whole lot more.

  28. Interesting. I have heard that perspective. Personally, I loved it. But I’m very much into the style of the old academics, and that’s the way Wilson writes. As I mentioned in my previous comment response, it’s not for everyone.

  29. Robert Forney

    I was in basic training at Fort Ord California in 1952. Tony was the leader of the squad I was in. He was a great guy. Friendly and open, although he didn’t talk much about his past and family. He never said anything negative of his mother or Fay and when asked about Taylor his answer was “he’s OK”. He was well liked by all.

  30. John A. Buchak

    When Barbara Stanwyck died, all she left her son, Dion Anthony Fay, out of all her millions and millions, was $5,000 dollars. It was a take it or leave it tiny bit of what she had. He loved her so much.

  31. Regarding their supposed ‘lavendar’ marriage, what about Farley Granger’s story in his autobiography:

    “After he asked Stanwyck how her husband, actor Robert Taylor, was doing, Granger says, “She just stared at me very coldly and said, ‘You mean Mr. Taylor? He’s left me. For a woman!’”

  32. Richard Kumler

    Yes I agree the book is extremely long. I can see why with the amount of research done and interviews conducted resulting in many stories would cause one to go off on side tracks. I really enjoyed the side ventures. Looking forward to volume 2.
    Rich Kumler Henderson

  33. Sorry, but its very hard to admire someone who treats their child so poorly. By luck, this boy turned out to be a fine person, but it could have been very different for him. Whatever Barbara’s talent was, I am appalled at her treatment of her son.

  34. That’s fair. But to offer another perspective on the situation, Stanwyck had an immensely difficult childhood herself, had no role models, and no idea how to be a mother. And her son realized that and forgave his mother, even though he had been pretty scarred for life by her treatment of him.

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