I'm going to be totally honest: I don't know anything about Barbara Stanwyck. The good news, for my self-esteem at least, is that no one else seems to either. As many bios as I read, as much investigating as I do, the general consensus seems to be that this woman remains unknowable-- a compelling, talented, provocative, damn mystery. The one thing that I do know about Barbara Stanwyck is that she stood apart. Apart. Above. Beyond. Far and away, head and shoulders over everyone else. She was separate somehow-- within, while without. She was a movie star, but she was more finitely an actress. More concerned with delivering passionate, dedicated, and shameless performances than being glamorous, she endeared herself to depression era audiences by more fully representing them as a true working girl and not a beauty queen. With her small eyes, large nose, and tiny mouth, she too falls into the category of unlikely celebre fatales-- a slot also occupied by the pop-eyed Bette Davis and the over-angular Katharine Hepburn. While not remembered as the most gorgeous of the silver screen's offerings, an honor belonging to perhaps Ava Gardner and Lana Turner-- both of whom had affairs with her 2nd husband, Robert Taylor-- Barbara seems sexier, more dangerous, and more interesting. While beauty tends to cripple certain actresses, Barbara's natural attractiveness-- sometimes soft and sometimes threatening-- was elevated by her smarts. She was intriguing, dominating, and indecipherable. While she wore her emotions out unapologetically in her film roles, still she remained evasive-- a question mark forever inviting our curiosity. Barbara was a Hollywood starlet, but she was not of Hollywood. She stood apart. Perhaps this is because little Ruby Stevens always stood apart from Barbara Stanwyck.
Ruby Stevens was born on July 16, 1907 to Byron Stevens and Catherine McGee in Brooklyn, NY. The youngest child, Ruby 'stood apart' even then, being the only one of her siblings to have a name not beginning with the letter "M." Her isolation would only be increased when she lost her mother in a tragic accident-- Catherine was knocked off a streetcar by a drunk. Not long after, Ruby's father took off, allegedly to find work digging the Panama Canal. Soon, the family received word that he too had died, although it remains debatable whether he passed away or merely passed on his family. In any case, he never returned. Thus, the children were shuffled between foster homes and each other, with Ruby remaining closest to her brother Malcolm (called Byron). She would often run away from whatever home she was currently occupying to the front stoop of her old house, where she would stubbornly and forlornly await her mother's return. The feisty fighter the world would remember was herein beginning to take shape. Ruby's saving grace through every harmful hard-knock she would take was her fortitude: her iron will. True, she may have been dealt a dirty hand, but she was going to win the pot even if she had to flat out bluff to get it. This she did by putting on a controlled, tough exterior. She would wear a series of masks-- whatever best suited the occasion-- in order to get past the BS and get to what she wanted: freedom. It is a testament to her inner spirit that she was able to emerge from this maelstrom as gracious, grounded, and dignified as she did.
God knows, it wasn't easy. After Ruby came to live with her sister, Millie, who was a chorus girl, she too took up the craft. It was easy money, and anyway it was as close as she could get to her real dream-- acting. Ruby adored Pearl White, and when the world of poverty and hunger began to crowd her, she would push aside the negativity by indulging in cinematic dreams. She too would enjoy going to the zoo and studying the cats, whose steely, controlled strut she would mimic in order to put on an exaggerated confidence. She would need these happy thoughts and tricks, especially as life around her grew increasingly dark. While she would recall her showgirl days with fondness-- happy times of youth and high-kicks, when anything seemed possible-- this was mostly the work of a woman who refused even in retrospect to play the victim. The truth was that days in Texas Guinan's nightclubs and the Ziegfeld Follies, particularly as a fifteen-year-old, had been hard, even violent. Women were pinched, prodded, manhandled, and sexually manipulated. How far Ruby went to maintain her ambition, and perhaps even safety, remains a mystery, but there are hints at the pain she suffered. Many friends would catch a glimpse of the cigarette burns she had on her chest-- unwanted trophies of her survivalism. There is rumor that she received these war wounds from Al Jolson himself, though this has never been proven.
Ruby found a champion in Willard Mack who cast her in his new show, "The Noose," giving her her first real chance at acting. Her performance was so moving that fellow actor Elisha Cook, Jr. would have to excuse himself so he could vomit. Ruby soon found herself in the arms of Frank Fay, the vaudeville comedian of his day and a performance hero to up-and-comers like James Cagney. The marriage of Ruby and Frank remains an eye-brow raiser, but the impetus behind Ruby's decision to wed the rough, older man is not difficult to decipher. He was successful, and he was powerful, at least in the showbiz world. She hoped to find a protector, perhaps a father figure. Since she latched onto him shortly after the death of another lover-- "Noose" co-star Rex Cherryman-- it is also understandable that in her vulnerable state she grasped blindly onto someone for comfort, even knowing that she could never fully give him her heart. After fighting and failing to get stage roles and enduring several disastrous screen tests and auditions, Ruby was ready for a change of scenery. Fay went West to Warner Bros, and she followed. The odds were against her, yet, strangely, after having been a small fish in a big pond, she would indeed become a great white in Tinsel Town. She would call Hollywood her home for the rest of her life.
Barbara Stanwyck, as she was now called, would come to define a generation of women. They trusted her on the big screen, because she was one of them: no pretension, no frills, no fallacy. She was the real thing-- grit, gumption, and guts; pain, fragility, and love. In the tales of many Hollywood heroes, it appears that most of these Golden Gods just got lucky. Not Babs. No way. She got where she was going through sheer determination. But she did have some help. Her career really took off when Frank Capra took her under his wing. When she auditioned for Ladies of Leisure, Capra was nonplussed. She was nervous, awkward, and unattractive, or as he put it: "a porcupine." Then, he saw a screen test she had done in color from "The Noose." He did a complete 180, and as he directed her and realized the depth of her talent, his tune would change: "She doesn't act a scene. She lives it." He would also fall madly in love with her in the process. His treatment of her in their films together would establish her future screen presence-- that of the authentic, American female. She was complicated, sexual, strong, emotional, vengeful, and vulnerable all at once. After tickling America's fancy in the naughty Forbidden and provoking their hypocrisy in the interracial romance of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, she continued free-lancing and landed the role of Baby Face-- a film which in itself represents the debauchery and daring of pre-code cinema and its women. As Barbara's Lily Powers sleeps her way to the top, taking no prisoners and showing no mercy, she maintains audience sympathy, because they have seen the slums from which she came and to which she refuses to return. She too possesses the heart of a woman, which despite all her efforts, can still break. This was the Babs epitome: tough on the outside with a soft and creamy center.
In life, Barbara's heart too broke. Her relationship with Fay became-- if it had not always been-- abusive. As her fame and status grew, so too did she outgrow Fay, who became jealous, possessive, and malevolent. Babs probably would have endured his cruelty longer, in her typical martyr-like fashion, had she not her adopted son, Dion, to protect. After Fay showed signs of redirecting his anger at the small boy, Babs pulled the plug on the marriage and said "adios" to Frank. In truth, Babs wasn't cut out for marriage or motherhood, a lesson that she would learn too late. She wanted desperately to create the illusion of the happy home that she had always craved, but having no knowledge or experience of it herself, she was ill-equipped to maintain it. Furthermore, she was far too independent and too self-protective to let any man too deeply into her life, even her son-- with whom she suffered an increasingly estranged relationship as he grew. Her deepest sadness was perhaps not being able to find a soul mate who could meet her eye to eye, who could both dominate her resistant emotional nature and still nurture and protect the little girl inside. After escaping the overpowering menace of Fay, Babs set her sights on a fairer member of the opposing sex, Robert Taylor-- who, like Tyrone Power, was the masculine answer to cinematic objectification. Since jokes ensued that Babs wore the pants in this relationship, it is reasonable to assume that she purposely chose a weaker partner this time around so that for once she would be the one in control and not the doormat. Neither extreme worked. This marriage too ended in divorce.
Another wrench thrown into the Babs romance debacle is her controversial sexuality. Some allege that she was a strict homosexual and that both of her marriages were frauds. But this doesn't seem completely acceptable. It is known that she had sexual relationships with men, including Taylor-- which provoked the cataclysmic "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands and Wives" Photoplay article on 1939-- and even a scandalous affair with the much younger Robert Wagner-- which makes her eyeballing of him in that initial Titanic elevator scene quite telling and hilarious. It seems she had an eye for the "pretty boys," which is too evident in her friendships with men like Gary Cooper (with whom she may too have had a tryst) and the devoted William Holden, whom may have been the only man she ever truly loved, albeit in a completely platonic way. She too was so deeply grieved by her divorce from Taylor that she remained bitter about it for the remainder of her life, claiming alimony even though she could most certainly have maintained herself financially.
It too is assumed that the mysterious cuts that appeared on her wrists were not the result of a mishap with a broken window, as she claimed, but rather self-inflicted wounds that she administered after learning of Taylor's affair with Lana Turner. Was she that deeply in love with him, or-- if this story is indeed true-- were these damaging mutilations more emblematic of her own insecurity and her anger that yet another man had betrayed her: that the dream life was indeed just a dream? Then, one cannot completely ignore the many questionable rumors about love affairs or sexual relationships she may have had with members of her own sex, including Joan Crawford-- who was a close friend and a woman with whom she had much in common. But are these merely rumors? Or was Barbara a bi-sexual who occasionally took sensual comfort in the arms of a female friend? Since her nature was to evade, it would make sense that she refuse to "take a side," as it were. Her inability to settle down and open up emotionally may have manifested itself in multiple, inconclusive sexual relationships with both men and women. Since she grew defensive, then silent, whenever the subject of her sexual nature was raised, it appears that the world will never know.
As conflicted, painful, and lonesome as her personal life was, her work never varied. Because she did not place herself above her characters, she would inhabit them fully and richly-- whether playing the sadistic femme fatale of Double Indemnity or the con-artist with second thoughts in The Lady Eve. Over time, she came to prove that she could play anything and play anything truthfully. For this, her audiences worshipped her. Her co-stars did too, particularly the men. Coop, Joel McCrea, Cecil B. DeMille... They were all enchanted and a bit hypnotized by her talent. Her commitment, wherein she would heedlessly perform her own stunts and proudly show off the bruises, endeared her to her co-workers and the crewmen, who adored her and greeted her warmly each day on the set. She was earthy, not an artiste nor a stuck-up prima donna. And she was gifted. The only thing she couldn't play was "dumb." Her filmography, though filled with the occasional clunker, is so overridden with memorable performances that she remains the envy of every wannabe ingenue in Hollywood. Golden Boy, Remember the Night, Ball of Fire, Clash by Night, Sorry Wrong Number, and Stella Dallas. Oh, Stella Dallas... Does acting get any better than this? Babs's turn as an inept social climber turned sacrificial mother is one of few films that turns me into a blubbering idiot every time. Yet, due to the political processes of the Hollywood studio system, she never won an Oscar for Best Actress. As a free-lancer, she was without studio protection and thus without studio pull. She would settle for a Lifetime Achievement Award.
As Babs aged and times changed, she maintained her work ethic. She made the transfer to television easily, starring in her own show and later in "The Big Valley." Despite being a city girl, Barbara always loved Westerns, and even had a ranch of her own. After a life of struggle, the peace and serenity of a simpler life of roping horses on the open plains probably came like a wave of welcome relief. Despite her continuing desire to create, it could not be denied that her services were not requested as much as they had been in her hey-day. Though still luminously beautiful in her old age and just as riveting, Hollywood has always been about youth. At the end of her life, Barbara thus became melancholy, yearning for the work of her younger days and admitting to close friends that she felt like she had been "forgotten." After strong television performances in the likes of "The Thorn Birds" and silly but necessary contributions in "Charlie's Angels," Barbara Stanwyck passed away on January 20, 1990 at the age of 82. Her ashes were scattered upon land that had once served as the location for many of her Western shoots. Ruby Stevens had fought her way through one hell of a life, and her ultimate success had been accomplished: she had died a legend.
Barbara Stanwyck remains just as enticing to modern audiences as she did to her contemporary fans. Her talent is still envied; her private life is still much gossiped about. Her allure compels almost tactically from beyond the grave, as if she too made a Chaney or Garbo-like decision the pull a great, impenetrable curtain between her work and her true identity, forever inviting fascination. When one goes searching for Barbara's secret self, one is destined to emerge from his mental travels just as perplexed as ever. It is her great humanity that draws us, for in the end, what else is there? She seemed so tough, so strong, so self-assured... When you start to break through the mask and see the fragile person inside, it leaves you a bit dumbfounded. She reveals herself as a small child. As a woman, you want to mother and nurture her; as a man, you want to kiss her tears. But just as quickly as the revelatory, big screen, emotional moment occurs, she throws out more smoke and mirrors and disappears behind her husky, assertive drawl and her sharp, snake-eyed stare. In her work, she inspired people to live fully, affectionately, dangerously, romantically... to enjoy the life that she never did. It is only in her work that she lives and breathes with total honesty; with no secrets. It is in her work that you find Barbara Stanwyck... and sometimes even the little girl she began as: Ruby Stevens.