A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1941
Seldom does a book itself match its subject matter in terms of intimidation.
But over 1,000 pages dedicated to the life and work of Barbara Stanwyck in Victoria Wilson’s new biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True make this hardback edition a hefty read.
The reader’s elbows give way, his wrists go weak, just as everything (The Great Depression, a lack of anything like a formal education, the early loss of both mother and father) in the end yields to the ferocious will of little (five foot three, fully grown) Ruby Stevens, who would show the world a thing or two when rechristened Barbara Stanwyck.
Just take a look at the picture of Stanwyck on the book’s cover—the set of the mouth, the brow, those eyes. And know that in giving her book a name Victoria Wilson got it just right. If Hepburn had flint, Stanwyck most assuredly had steel.
But then the reader glimpses the subtitle and worries over what he has gotten himself into: 1907–1940. Nine hundred pages just to get to the World War II years? In what volume will we get to The Big Valley? Wither The Thorn Birds?
Happily, all worry soon yields to the immediacy of Victoria Wilson’s writing, the manner in which she recreates Stanwyck’s world.
There is for instance, a lovely moment very early on, one that explains so much. A moment in which the orphaned Ruby Stevens, having “tended children, washed dishes, ran errands” to raise the money of the ticket, escapes her native Brooklyn into the air-cooled darkness of a movie theater to get to see the new weekly installment of The Perils of Pauline:
“The heroine of the Perils was a young modern woman of 1914. Pauline’s parents, like Ruby’s, were dead. Pauline is alone in the world and lives in a grand mansion with servants who attend to her needs and drive her about in her town cars and roadsters. Pauline is not stuffy, nor does she put on airs. She is simple, trusting, free-spirited, bursting with the possibilities of life, and hell-bent on experiencing its adventures. A devoted suitor asks her for her hand in marriage, but Pauline laughs off the proposal. Marriage and its obligations are of no interest to her. Pauline intends to ‘realize life’s greatest thrill’ and then describe them in a book that she will write herself, a romance of adventures.”
Pauline went forth to experience her adventures, variously being “kidnapped on horseback, pursued by Indians, tossed down the side of a mountain, ducking boulders, or bound and gagged and left in a cave,” always surviving her perils with grit and pluck. And the little girl whose eyes grew large as what she saw on the flickering screen, witnessed both the possibilities that life had to offer for those who never feared peril, and the birth of an amazing new medium.
Where other biographers mistake their own passionate interest in their subject’s childhood and linger upon it for chapter upon chapter, Ms. Wilson wisely keeps the action moving. And of course the Dickensian nature of Stanwyck’s own story helps.
And the reader is rapt reading about Ruby Stevens, who despite any natural talent or formal training, becomes a chorus girl and actually manages to work for the great Ziegfeld himself in his Follies and to moonlight a bit for the notorious Texas Guinan in her Manhattan speakeasy a couple nights a week after the theater’s curtain had come down.
And reading about how Ruby got to be Barbara—the intellectual property of none other than theatrical impresario David Belasco, who with producer William Mack looked through a stack of old Playbills before coming across an old Clyde Fitch play starring one Jane Stanwyck. And reading about how Stanwyck, who by dint of hard work and hard will, managed to transform herself from chorus girl to legitimate actress, met and married the much older Frank Fay, the reigning star of the vaudeville stage, whose own movie contract got Stanwyck out to Hollywood.
In most Hollywood biographies, that’s where the action picks up. But here the action began on page one. The momentum increases as an out-of-work and under-appreciated Stanwyck learns to hate Hollywood early on, only to reevaluate her stance once director Frank Capra changes his mind about his early assessment of her: “She not an actress, she’s a porcupine.”
Stanwyck begins to lay down the celluloid and Victoria Wilson gives us access to her movies (Capra’s Forbidden, the 1932 film version of Edna Ferber’s So Big, the pre-code hottie Baby Face, the unbearably racist The Bitter Tea of General Yen) in a remarkable manner.
Where most authors simply give the reader information on how and when a film was made, the cast involved and any hijinks that ensued, Wilson instead recreates the film itself, allowing the reader to stand witness to the creative process.
As here, in this moment in which Wilson recounts the filming of the climactic moments of Stanwyck’s Ever in My Heart:
“Barbara’s character has recognized her husband in the canteen where she is stationed in France. He is sitting in uniform with his back to her; she realizes he is trying to pass as an American soldier. Instead of turning him in to military authorities, she becomes giddy with fear and diverts the attention of the American (the [Ralph] Bellamy character) who is trying to capture ‘the spy’ (Bellamy’s former beloved friend) in their midst. She enables her husband to vanish into the crowd of Allied soldiers milling about. Outside, hundreds of young men are marching in formation going off to fight. It is the ‘big push’: the Rainbow Division is heading into battle. The din of artillery and soldiers boots in the muddy terrain is deafening and doesn’t let up.
“Her character is stunned by having seen her husband, by the recognition that he is a spy, and by having colluded with the enemy, allowing him to escape. She returns to her room, dazed. He is there, waiting for her.
“She realizes the nightmare of their situation. Her body is taut. “I didn’t know what I was doing,’ she tells him. ‘I won’t help you again. I’ve got to give you up.’
“’Give me just a few minutes,’ he whispers in her ear. ‘It’s been so long, so long. Have you forgotten everything we had together? The tears? The laughs . . .’
“Barbara, with hardly a gesture or movement, makes it clear that she is as trapped as Hugo; she can’t betray her husband or her country or the young soldiers going to battle. Her once innocent love is no longer their to have; it’s doomed by duty and sacrifice and a war they had nothing to do with.”
Having seen the film, the reader notes that it is actually better in the author’s telling of it than it was on the screen.
The talent that brings this moment to life brings Stanwyck herself to full Technicolor in the pages of Steel-True. And yet the author’s great strength in bringing to life the films themselves and in indicating their cultural importance is the author’s weakness as well, in that all these recreations tend to pad the work overall.
While Stanwyck undeniably made some of Hollywood’s finest films and stands as one of the most versatile performers—she was as indelible in Preston Sturges’s comic masterpiece The Lady Eve as she was in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity—not every one of her films is worthy of such skilled recreation. Especially given that her yeoman work for the studios in the ’30s was often more factory output than art. Her best films ahead of her as we leave her in 1940 (only Stella Dallas is already in the can), surely Stanwyck herself would have looked the author in the eye and said “Enough already!” and urged her to edit.
And then there is this: the fact that in writing about someone who was, admittedly, ill at ease with others, stand-offish, and hard to understand, Wilson has for some reason seemingly agreed with her dead subject not to pry.
So while we are given the detailed circumstances of her complicated, angry divorce from Fay, and some indication that Stanwyck more or less fell for Robert Taylor before she married him, next to nothing is reported as to the relationships that the woman had outside of marriage.
More specifically, the author at not point addresses the persistent rumors of Stanwyck’s lesbian relationships. While Wilson reports at length, for instance, on Stanwyck’s youthful, passionate friendship with actress Mae Clarke, she at no time explores the oft-reported nature of their friendship—by way either of confirmation or denial. It is as if the author herself has never heard the rumors, and therefore chooses not to address them.
Which is, let’s face it, odd. Especially when so much detailed information is given about things of much less importance, the amount of a given IRS lien on Stanwyck’s house, for instance, or the number of horses housed at her Marwyck Ranch, or the details of her various suspensions from various studios when she refused to work with inferior scripts.
As heavyweight a book as it is Steel-True is a wonky wonder, more firmly freighted to her film work than her personal world. Film students will find a wealth of information here, not just about Stanwyck, the actress, but about the world in which she thrived. About Capra and Cukor and Selznick and Thalberg and Mayer and Warner and Sturges and on and on. But for the rest, but for the those things that motivate, stimulate, and devastate, it is as if Stanwyck herself stood over the shoulder of Victoria Wilson as she wrote, saying, “Not that. Let’s not go into that, Cookie,” and the author hit delete.
But who knows. Hopefully, there’s still volume two. Hopefully, all hell might break loose.