Barbara Stanwyck Was Hollywood’s Most Elusive Star

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 8 2013 10:38 AM

The Long Hello

One thousand pages into a multivolume biography, Barbara Stanwyck feels as mysterious as ever.

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Wilson’s account of the 1924 name change suggests the fanatical depths of her research: In Stanwyck’s telling a producer, finding “Ruby Stevens” too burlesque for the serious theater, assembled “Barbara Stanwyck” from a 25-year-old playbill listing Jane Stanwyck in the title role of Barbara Frietchie. But Wilson can’t find evidence of such a program, or a Jane Stanwyck, and presents in its absence an apparently random 1906 playbill, for a comic opera called Dream City, listing players Addison Stanton and Dorothy Southwick. What if, Wilson wonders, the producer conflated these two surnames, adding a Y “to make it appear more regal”? (At such moments, exhaustive is a word that cuts both ways.)

The context-driven approach, like biography in general, has its problems. Even the most frivolous practitioners—the slanderers and secret-dumpers, the ecstatic and the malign—can’t do without the verifiable basics. And though claiming what Werner Herzog calls “the accountant’s truth” is impossible where the accounts and memories of others are concerned, standard biographical practice equates such less-than-stable information with public record. (I am thinking in particular of Steel-True’s relayed accounts of a botched abortion at age 12 that left Stanwyck unable to bear children and of her rape by the brother of her sister Maud’s husband when Stanwyck was 14.) This is where point of view and its efforts toward narrative and interpretive coherence come in, helping to shape the author’s theory or rough idea of a life, rather than claiming the thing itself. The degree to which a biographer pretends objectivity varies, the pretending does not.

Victoria Wilson
Victoria Wilson

Photo by Joyce Ravid

Wilson resists these efforts in Steel-True, testing the limits of biography with impressive and sometimes frustrating mettle. The voice of Steel-True is passive, reportorial, almost choral. (The author asserts herself most when critiquing Stanwyck’s various screen performances.) Applied to Wilson’s landmark recovery and synthesis of 1920s and ’30s Broadway and Hollywood history, it works beautifully. Each of Stanwyck’s projects (and those of her husbands, vaudeville star Frank Fay and Camille dreamboat Robert Taylor) merit a kind of Hollywood Almanac entry: mile-deep background on the material, the writer, and the director; casting follies; even deeper journeys into plot summary; what the film cost, what everyone was paid, what it made; and finally, what Variety and the gang had to say. There are limits, for even the most interested reader, to this approach; massive blocks of situation tend to obstruct a fluid sense of story. But Wilson is a bold and determined architect, and ultimately succeeds in tracing, via some of Hollywood’s most brilliant minds and celebrated careers, the evolution of both an industry and an art form during one of its most hallowed and productive periods.

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Applied to Stanwyck herself, the effaced point-of-view can leave the reader mystified. In lieu of a more sustained, meditative take on Stanwyck herself, Wilson offers occasional, unabashedly descriptive interludes; distributed across 860 pages, they suggest a kind of long hello. “She was lusty, bantered about, was full of wit. She played tennis, went to the fights, didn’t gossip, and took trouble on the chin. She minded her own business, smoked with an unaffected pleasure thought of as masculine, exuded plenty of sex, but never used it to further her career,” we learn on Page 298. Eleven pages later: “When she loved, it was with an elemental intensity that was almost bitter. She was reserved, seemingly undemonstrative, direct, a good sport … a straight shooter, honest, and would go through hell for someone she loved.” From Page 858: “She was not an indecisive woman—fluttering, coy, flitting from one uncertainty to another. She knew her mind and spoke it.”

Conflicting accounts tend to pass without comment. She was, we are told, a consummate professional, deeply principled, not “actressy,” unpretentious, real, fiercely loyal. She also ditched her old dancer pals, changed her number after each shoot, disliked fat people as a rule, and demanded proper tea service on set promptly at four, “served on big trays brought by uniformed waiters in white coats.” Where one friend calls Stanwyck a whiner who relished playing the orphan, a few pages later another calls her “tough” and “cool, very, very cool.” Some of her principles beg further inspection. Stanwyck and Taylor were on the wrong side of Hollywood’s communist witch hunt. She would become the highest paid woman in the country but seemed allergic to taxes, breezed through picket lines, and refused to join the newly formed Screen Actor’s Guild, later chaired by Ronald Reagan. Wilson’s admiration for the tough, very, very cool version of Stanwyck is evident, but after almost a thousand pages it’s odd to still feel like we’re taking her word for it.

Though work emerges as the great love of her life, Stanwyck’s marriage to Fay dominates much of Steel-True, and it is here that her contradictions—natural enough in the continuum of a personality—weigh heaviest on the reader. Fay was violent and controlling, an alcoholic who toward the end of their marriage was beating Stanwyck, endangering their toddler, urinating on the heads of her dinner guests. Their marriage provided one inspiration for the original A Star Is Born, a zeitgeist-wrangler since remade several times. In one of the deftest and most invigorating of the book’s digressive plunges, Wilson spends 12 fascinating pages charting the convergence of characters and lore that brought one of Hollywood’s favorite auto-narratives into being. Applied to Stanwyck’s abusive seven-year marriage, the tone of considered remove grows increasingly conspicuous, and problematic (“Loyalty, self-sacrifice, and service, which she never disassociated from affection, enabled her to stick by Fay”), as the story degenerates into something a little too shabby, too Babylon—something, well, out of A Star Is Born—for Wilson’s purposes.

Or perhaps Steel-True only suffers from the affliction that strikes “definitive” reckonings of all worthy enigmas; it appears most impenetrably chaste in the wake of occasional, enlivening blasts from Stanwyck herself, quotes recalling her screen persona’s tossing head and glittering eyes. “Love floors women,” she said in the wake of her first divorce. “Women who battled life with their bare hands; women who have faced joblessness and hunger and death and illness … collapse, fall to pieces, turn to water when they fall in love. It hits them between the eyes and takes the heart right out of them and plays ball with it.” Tell it, the reader thinks, only to be told more than she might wish to know about A Message to Garcia (1936). But soon comes another sizzling clue: “There’s such romance in living my own life as I wish to live it,” said Stanwyck. “And it’s dangerous because no woman can live in marriage this way. Perhaps, no one can live this way, for long, safely. There’s such passion in peace, that I can’t believe it isn’t dangerous. And even if it is, life is dangerous.”

Post-Fay, anyway, having been “immunized” against the kind of feelings that threaten self-betrayal, Stanwyck appears to have done her most dangerous living on screen. Steel-True does more to elucidate the relationship between Stanwyck’s life and her times than that binding her life and her art—the drive not just to work but to master this new medium, make good on its promises, push to extremes, play ball with our hearts. Once again, the star’s words do much to satisfy the unreasonable desires we bring to the stories of the exceptional, famous dead. “It’s gone and done,” Stanwyck said, describing the purge of screen performance, “and you did it and you feel a little bit of emptiness after it’s over. You thought it had left you, but it hadn’t. You say to yourself, I hope she lives.

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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson. Simon & Schuster.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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