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Book Review: 'A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,' at 1000 Pages, Builds a Living Thing

Photo of Aljean Harmetz By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood November 25, 2013 at 1:16PM

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson ends abruptly in 1940. Still ahead are “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity,” not to mention more than 40 other movies and four years as the matriarch of a sprawling 19th century ranch on the television series, “The Big Valley.” Yet the book, which takes Stanwyck from birth in 1907 to the age of 37 and stardom in a town she hated for the “pretense” of its “so self-important” people, is exactly 1000 pages long if you include its meticulous stage, film, radio and television chronologies and notes on sources.
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Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

What was unexpected to me was how successful Stanwyck was during those early years, eventually reaching the magnificent salary of $100 a week.   Men and women of the musical revues and of the theatre saw something out of the ordinary in her. The master director and producer David Belasco told her she didn’t know how to walk and to go to the zoo and watch the animals. She went to the Bronx Zoo and practiced the panther’s proud and purposeful stride until it became natural for her. Belasco also renamed Ruby Stevens Barbara Stanwyck just before her Broadway debut in a crime melodrama, “The Noose.”  When she signed the contract, she had to be told how to spell her new name.

Cast as a cabaret dancer secretly in love with a gangster, she was given a major third act scene during the out-of-town tryout. Broadway critics noticed the girl who begged to take the gangster’s body after he was hanged because “he ain’t got no relatives” to give him a funeral. The Sun said Miss Barbara Stanwyck “played it well enough to make first nighters wipe tears from their eyes.” The New York Times looked forward to “the further good work of Miss Dorothy Stanwyck.”

Within a few years, that further good work would be in the movies.  But, first, there was a starring role as the hot-tempered wife of a burlesque comedian in “Burlesque.”  Alexander Woollcott called the play “no account” but described Miss Stanwyck as “touching and true.” She had asked for $300 a week.  She was barely 20 years old.

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel - True 1907-1940” does detail her life -- in particular her marriage to the supremely successful vaudeville comedian Frank Fay and, despite her loyalty, its eventual disintegration. Unsuccessful in Hollywood, Fay became a heavy drinker and then an alcoholic. And alcohol began to make him violent. “I was nothing until Fay came along, and I would have been nothing a great deal longer if he had never come along,” Stanwyck once said. But, finally, she began to be frightened -- for herself and for Dion, the son they had adopted. Fay began to hit her, and he hurled three-year-old Dion into the swimming pool. The day he knocked her down a staircase, she took Dion and fled, leaving behind the four-acre Brentwood estate into which Fay had poured almost all of the $1 million Stanwyck had made during her six years in Hollywood.

But the book is also a life of Hollywood during the 1930s and America during the Depression and the way the dream factory and reality interact. If the detail is sometimes overwhelming, I am not surprised. Vicky Wilson, who is now a senior editor and vice-president at Alfred Knopf, was the editor of my first book, “The Making of the Wizard of Oz,” and, after I turned in the first 10,000 words, she sent me back to my typewriter for more depth, more details, more depth.

There will be many more details in Volume 2 of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. One thing will not change, however. To the end, Stanwyck never saw herself as more important than the unimportant people with whom she worked. As she says over and over at different times and in different words, “In Hollywood you are loved for success and success alone.”  And “I am a star today, but give me one or two bad pictures and Hollywood will consider me a flop again.  It isn’t what you do or have done that counts here. It’s what happens. That’s why I have never understood the minds of the picture brains. And never will.”

"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck" is published by Simon and Schuster.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Barbara Stanwyck, Books


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.