BARBARA STANWYCK was one tough dame — tougher and more cold-hearted than the ruthless seductress she portrayed in Double Indemnity, the 1944 movie for which she is perhaps best known.
Her early environment made her that way — or so suggests author Victoria Wilson in Steel-True, the first of her two-volume A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, which follows the actress from 1907 to 1941. If you are looking for details about her famous parts — the grifter in Double Indemnity or the swaggering rancher on TV’s The Big Valley (1965-1969) — you must wait for part two. But don’t be tempted to skip part one. Stanwyck’s path from chorus girl to movie star may not be especially fascinating or unique, but Wilson charts the actress’s more startling, less savory evolution: from a dirt-poor innocent into a hardened Republican, bitterly opposed to collective bargaining, and devoted to the ideology of her first husband, Frank Fay, an alcoholic tax evader who hated “Roosevelt, Communism, unions, and Jews.” The marriage only lasted seven years; his ideology corrupted her forever.
Director Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant, also mentored Stanwyck on right-wing politics. But he is better known for coaching her on the finer points of film acting, arguably more subtle than performing on stage. He first worked with her on his 1930 film, Ladies of Leisure, a Pygmalion-inspired romp about an artist from a privileged background who falls for his model, a former hooker, only to have his snobbish family push the girl out of his life. Capra hated the insularity of the rich, the way “class and hypocrisy” caused them as a group to oppress individuals. This dislike, however, didn’t make him sympathetic to the poor as a group. He despised groups — especially unions, and he violently loathed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would be elected president in 1932.
Capra, Wilson posits, was infatuated with Stanwyck, which may have helped her career but also placed her in creepy company. According to a Wilson source, the director “adored” Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and displayed a picture of him on his bedroom wall.
You might think Stanwyck’s rough childhood would have made her sensitive to economic injustice and eager to help the disadvantaged. But it didn’t. Born to Byron and Kitty Stevens in 1907, Stanwyck — whose birth name was Ruby Stevens — was parentless by age four. In 1911, her mother, pregnant with a sixth child, fell from a Brooklyn trolley, after being kicked by a stumbling drunk. The mother miscarried, contracted blood poisoning, and died the next day. Stanwyck’s father, undone by the accident, ran off to dig the Panama Canal. This left Stanwyck and her six-year-old brother to drift between orphanages, relatives, and predators.
At age 12, “Ruby” underwent an abortion so badly botched that she could never again conceive a child. In lieu of high school, she fled to vaudeville, which offered some financial autonomy, but no respect. In 1923, while she was dancing in a chorus at the Shubert Theatre, singer Al Jolson hovered offstage and lunged at her when she finished her number. Enraged when she rebuffed him, he ripped open her costume and smashed his burning cigar against her breast. She couldn’t scream; there was a show going on. She endured until she blacked out.
Amid this bunch of louts, Frank Fay, a self-educated, heavy-drinking Broadway joke teller who was 16 years her senior, probably looked pretty good — or, in any event, good enough to marry, which she did in 1928. Although she had been an ardent reader and autodidact since childhood, she credited him with teaching her “everything I know of etiquette, of books and art and people and the world around me” — “I was nothing until Fay came along,” she said; a preposterous idea, but one that might appeal to an aspiring Republican, eager to submit to a brutal, patriarchal marriage.
In contrast, playwright Willard Mack actually deserved mentor credit. He launched her Broadway career with a key part in his realistic drama, The Noose. Even critics who disliked the play raved about Stanwyck’s performance. The New York Telegram wrote: After her character “sobs out her unrequited love for the young bootlegger in that genuinely moving scene […] there was nothing for the Governor to do but to reprieve the boy. If he hadn’t, the weeping audience would probably have yelled till he did.”
Mack, along with playwright David Belasco, gave her a new name to mark her transition from chorus girl (“Ruby Stevens”) to dramatic actress (“Barbara Stanwyck”).
She also like to call herself “Mrs. Frank Fay,” which she often had to do, when, for instance, she was bailing Fay out of drunk tanks on both coasts. Fay’s drinking, which was out of control in New York, became an even worse problem in 1928 when the couple moved to Hollywood — a car-oriented city even back then.
Wilson contends that Stanwyck hated Hollywood, especially its flaunting of wealth, and that she “saw herself as part of the working class, who were more often than not, to her, free from pretension and social affect.” In an interview she told a reporter:
The two best friends I have in this town are a young married couple who haven’t a dime. They probably never will have. Their names will never twinkle in electric lights. But they’re real. I’d rather spend an evening with them than go to the best Mayfair party ever given.
In this quote, I think, lies the paradox of Stanwyck’s beliefs — which Wilson mentions but never closely examines. How could Stanwyck identify with the “working class,” yet remain subservient to a drunk who showed off his money in ways that she professed to despise? How could she turn a blind eye to social injustice? Stanwyck, Fay, and Capra, Wilson writes, “believed that if they had risen up from poverty and made something of themselves, why shouldn’t everyone be able to do the same?” Even so, shouldn’t the hard-won haves show some compassion, at least, for the struggling have-nots?
Early in the Great Depression, when vast numbers of people were jobless, Fay got it into his booze-addled brain to build a monument to himself — an “estate” on four acres in Brentwood Heights. The house would have been grotesque under any circumstances — it included a freestanding gym with billiard tables and a punching bag, a six-car garage, and giant statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary — but during the Depression it was obscene. Of course Fay went bankrupt building it. By 1934, the Federal Government alleged that he and Stanwyck owed $6,000 in back taxes, and put a lien on their earnings, hers by then exceeded his. But I couldn’t help wondering — why didn’t Stanwyck see this coming? Why didn’t she put down her tiny foot and stop Fay’s profligacy?
While married to Fay, Stanwyck also hankered to adopt a child. “I want one so badly that it amounts to a phobia,” she told an interviewer. But the adoption did not go well, and, like most adoptions, it could not be undone. Fay terrorized the kid, who grew stout and sullen and cut off communication with Stanwyck for much of his adult life.
Wilson’s 1,000-plus pages are not just filled with Hollywood minutiae; many provide a historical context for the events in Stanwyck’s life. Readers not familiar with the New Deal, for instance, will learn how President Roosevelt steered the United States away from ruin. “Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, in which Roosevelt set up series of codes of fair practice for more than five hundred industries, as well as a maximum-hour workday and a minimum wage,” Wilson writes. “Lawyers, doctors, newspapermen, and writers all wanted to unionize.”
As did screen actors — except Stanwyck, who shared Fay’s and Capra’s allergy for organized labor. She refused to join until she could no longer hold out. In order to work on Broadway, she had to become part of Actors’ Equity, which in 1934 fused with the Screen Actors Guild and issued an ultimatum: join the union or never work in any medium again.
After divorcing Fay, Stanwyck took up with actor Robert Taylor, a dull, pretty fellow reminiscent of a Ken doll (decades before the Ken doll was made). The reader senses that Stanwyck merely settled for this hollow man and didn’t have a high opinion of men in general: “Don’t expect the man you love to be a combination of Mussolini, Gable, Lindbergh, King Edward Eighth or a Robert Taylor,” she said. “If you do, you’re riding for a fall. [...] All men are human, mortals and if they do exhibit a few godlike traits that’s velvet.” Her candidates for “velvet” — fascist dictator Mussolini and Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindberg” — startled me, even coming from her. And readers seeking corroboration for the rumors of bisexuality that swirled around Stanwyck late in her career will be disappointed. If Stanwyck had a closet, Wilson isn’t opening it.
Or not yet, anyway: Wilson intends to deliver a second volume, which may reveal more than her first. In this book, Stanwyck’s romantic life seems to move away from heterosexuality at its crudest: she divorced a brutal drunken oaf in favor of a pretty, almost epicene second husband. This bodes well for a more complicated, pansexual personal life in the pages to come.
For now, volume one ends with the beginning of World War II. Capra and Stanwyck are together again, planning to collaborate on “a chilling cautionary tale about the rise of Fascism in America and the endangerment of democracy.” A noble idea, but I couldn’t help wondering: did Capra ever take down the portrait of Mussolini on his bedroom wall?