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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Illustration by Greg Ruth

Though it belongs—or appears to belong—to the gutter-bound caste of celebrity biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 puts one in a philosophical frame of mind. Author Victoria Wilson, vice president and long-time editor at Knopf, has devoted over 15 years and nearly 1,000 pages (including endnotes, but not the index) to what is only the first of a two volume affair. Meeting this effort raises, at a particular slant, the questions that forever dog biography, the tireless, thankless, pack mule of the literary arts: What amount of detail makes a life? What quality, what selection?

Stanwyck is 33 at the conclusion of Steel-True, which averages 26 pages for every year of her life. I made the calculation to suggest extravagance, but the number instantly looked a little cheap: That’s about two pages per month, a few lines a day. Faced with what Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman, calls the teeming, “disorderly actuality that is a life,” all biography is doomed to some nagging sense of failure, the whiff of ghostly insult. Its most popular form—in the last century anyway—the newspaper obituary, rated by the word, suggests complete surrender to this fate.

Despite all that, by its heft and by other means, Steel-True courts the definitive. Barbara Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn in 1907, star of stage and screen, died of congestive heart failure in 1990. The first posthumous Stanwyck biography—a brisk, gossipy volume by Axel Madsen—appeared four years later; Wilson’s book joins two others published in the last year. Steel-True’s first pages tell a sad tale: By age 4, Ruby had lost her Canadian-born mother to a trolley accident and her father to the Panama Canal. She spent the rest of her childhood shuttling between the care of foster homes and that of her three much older sisters (one of whom, Millie, performed on stage). “And some of this story is true,” Wilson observes of the Stanwyck foundling legend—the whole truth requiring the kind of myth-busting industry the author is clearly prepared to apply.

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After staggering to the finish of Steel-True (which concludes, in typically centrifugal style, not with Stanwyck, but with a long, evocative quote from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), I turned to the Madsen, if only to satisfy one of biography’s most powerful illusions—that of presenting a story in full. No matter how humane or respectful the treatment, the form’s appeal remains somewhat morbid: They do tend to die in the end. Prone to this strain of morbidity as a teenager, I returned over and over to biography, especially Hollywood biography. Manny Farber said that every movie transmits the DNA of its time. Movie stars are carriers too, their images touched with myth, their lives with myth’s human shading and frailties. As much as anything else, that junction seemed to hold the secret of how the best lives are lived.

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For Stanwyck, as for most movie stars, timing was key. Her style, which favors unfussy naturalism and pure wellsprings of emotion, appealed to directors like Frank Capra, and fell in sync with depression-era Hollywood’s burgeoning interest in realism. Alongside Busby Berkeley fantasias came The Miracle Woman (1931), So Big (1932, based on the Edna Ferber novel), and Stella Dallas (1937), for which Stanwyck received her first Academy Award nomination. Later, her roles in The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity would fuse the words “tough-talking” to her name. But at 14 she thrilled to Sarah Bernhardt’s Memories of My Life, and had this to say of her early reading habits: “I read nothing good, but I read an awful lot. Here was escape! I read lurid stuff about ladies who smelled sweet and looked like flowers and were betrayed. I read about gardens and ballrooms and moonlight trysts and murders. I felt a sense of doors opening. And I began to be conscious of myself, the way I looked, the clothes I wore.”

In a later era, young Ruby might have inhaled grotty paperbacks about the drama kings and queens—Joan Crawford, Frank Capra, Clark Gable, William Holden—who became her friends. Lurid Steel-True is not; Ruby Stevens would have scratched her head. Wilson’s measured style and scholarly application suggest an affinity with Peter Guralnick’s double-volume life of Elvis Presley, alpha specimen of the “serious” celebrity biography. Guralnick didn’t hedge or shy from his subject’s outsize, gaudy legend, but persisted at its side, where he found and treated with intelligence, compassion, and healthy skepticism an exceptional human being and significant product of his time.

If more icon-friendly contemporaries like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katherine Hepburn burn brighter in the cultural imagination, Stanwyck doesn’t lack for critical respect. Wilson treats her with a restorative seriousness, a great capacity for discursion, and a biblical grasp of lineage. The author appears most comfortable building around her subject—pouring foundations, scraping connective bricks, lowering signposted turrets into place, raising crested flags. The result is a curious blend of excess and restraint, where astonishing contextual and historical detail presides over a more attenuated grasp of the woman at the center of the story. Rather than whittling from research materials the figure of a notable woman, her experience and character, Wilson uses a mountainous volume and density of information to set her subject into a kind of molded relief.

For someone like Stanwyck—so stubbornly elusive that she’s hardly recognizable from one of this volume’s many photographs to the next—the latter approach makes sense. Double sense, given that her life grazed so much 20th-century mythos. Hoofing on Broadway by age 16 (and eventually in Ziegfeld’s Follies), Ruby Stevens wasn’t much of a dancer, but she could work, and she could move—even in the chorus, she held the stage. She also had an expressive, richly authoritative voice. Within a few years, technology would meet the challenge of these combined gifts: After Stevens made her successful debut as Barbara Stanwyck, dramatic stage actress, the talking pictures came to collect one of their most electric, emotionally daring performers.

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