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.
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.
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.
*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.