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Barbara Stanwyck, The Brooklyn Bruiser

Updated on February 7, 2014

A Much Underrated Actress

Barbara Stanwyck was an American film and television actress, who was known and respected for her professionalism and ability to play a wide variety of roles. Although she is best known today for her starring roles on television in 'The Big Valley' and 'Dynasty', she made her name in a highly successful movie career extending over 5 decades and 93 films and in 1944 was reputed to be the highest paid woman in America.

Barbara received four nominations for Academy Awards and received an honorary lifetime award from the Academy in 1982 for "superlative

creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting."

She is ranked at number 11 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest female stars of all time. She also won 3 Emmy awards and a Golden Globe.

Barbara as a young girl
Barbara as a young girl

Early Years

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York into a working class family. She had three sisters and a brother. Her childhood was unhappy and unsettled. When she was four her mother was killed after being pushed off a trollybus by a drunk. Her bricklayer father abandoned the family and she was brought up initially by her sister Mildred who was 5 years her senior. When Mildred got a job as a showgirl with impresario John Cort, Ruby and her brother Byron were sent to a series of foster homes.

Mildred kept in touch and Ruby's first taste of show business was accompanying her sister on tour and practising routines with her backstage. She was also a fan of movie actress Pearl White who became a big influence on the young girl.

Ruby went to school at Erasmus Hall High School, New York City, but had no interest in academic learning. She left at age fourteen and took a series of jobs including filing clerk at the Brooklyn telephone office, pattern cutter for Vogue, and stenographer. All her ambition had become focused on show business, however, and in 1923, still not 16, she began dancing in local speakeasies. The same year she was chosen to become a Ziegfeld chorus girl.

The Young Actress

During her 3 years with Ziegfeld, Ruby met playwright and director, Willard Mack, who suggested she audition for his new play, 'The Noose'. She got the part and also a new name. Mack suggested the name, Barbara Stanwyck, from an old poster of English actress Jane Stanwyck in a play titled, 'Barbara Frietchie'.

Barbara made her Broadway debut in 'The Noose' in 1926. It ran for nine months and 197 performances and Barbara received excellent reviews. She also began a love affair with her co-star, Rex Cherryman.

She became a major stage star with her next play 'Burlesque' in 1927, although the play itself was critically mauled. In the same year she made her movie debut in a minor role in 'Broadway Nights', and after completing her stage run in 1929 appeared in her first Talkie, the drama 'The Locked Door'. During this time she met comedian Frank Fay whom she married in 1928 after the sudden death of Rex Cherryman from septic poisoning. 10 years her senior and at the peak of his career Fay was Vaudeville's highest-paid headliner, earning $17,500 a week. With the advent of sound movies stage performers were becoming in demand. The newly married couple moved to Hollywood where Barbara's movie career was about to take off.

Barbara with First Husband, Frank Fay

In Hollywood she first appeared in Columbia's low-budget 'Mexicali Rose' in 1929, followed the next year by the picture which propelled her to stardom, Frank Capra's 'Ladies of Leisure'.

She continued to make impressive appearances in pre-Code films such as Capra's 'The Miracle Woman' in 1931, William Wellman's 'Night Nurse' the same year, and 'Forbidden', a major hit which established her among the most popular actresses in Hollywood. She developed her own unique image of a tough, no-nonsense working girl in movies such as 1932's 'Shopworn' and 'Ladies They Talk About', and in 1934 'Gambling Lady' and 'The Woman in Red' the following year further established the persona.

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'Night Nurse' 1931

'Baby Face' 1933 with John Wayne

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But while her career was gathering momentum, her husband's was floundering. Frank Fay lacked onscreen charisma, and films such as 'The Matrimonial Bed' in 1930 and 'God's Gift To Women' in 1931 were serious flops. He also alienated much support in Hollywood with his alchohol fuelled abusive and irrational behavior. Barbara left Frank Fay in August 1935, and moved to the San Fernando Valley, California. Their divorce became final at the end of the year.

The Woman in Red, Barbara Stanwyck, 1935

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Movie Stardom

Barbara's career continued its upward course and by the end of the decade she was a major Hollywood star after successes like ' Annie Oakley' in 1935 ane the classic melodrama 'Stella Dallas' in 1937.

With Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity 1944

She started the 1940's with a big success with Fred MacMurray in 'Remember the Night' then she hit her peak period with comedies such as 'The Lady Eve' with Henry Fonda and 'and Ball of Fire' both in 1941, and films noir like the wonderful 'Double Indemnity' in 1944 when she plays a cold femme fatale who talks an infatuated insurance salesman (Fred McMurray) into killing her wealthy husband, and as the doomed wife in 'Sorry, Wrong Number' in 1948.

By 1944 her pre-eminent position was such that it was estimated that she was the highest-paid woman in the United States.

Wedding to Robert Taylor, 1939

After her divorce from Frank Fay, Barbara, in 1936, fell in love with Robert Taylor, her co-star on 'His Brother's Wife' and they began living together which caused gossip and consternation amongst the fans and fan magazines. In those hypocritical days couples were supposed to be married before they lived together.

After consultations with Louis Mayer of MGM, Robert and Barbara, along with MGM's huge publicity department, finally arranged a marriage ceremony on May 13, 1939. The marriage seemed destined to be a happy one but Barbara's career focus and particularly Taylor's philandering (he had affairs with both Ava Gardner and Lana Turner) caused much unhappiness and Barbara filed for divorce in 1950. She never remarried and she relentlessly collected her alimony - a share of Taylor's salary - until his death in 1969.

On the set of 'Titanic' 1953

The other love of Barbara's life was actor Robert Wagner, 23 years her junior, whom she met in 1953 when they were filming 'Titanic'.

They had an affair for four years until she ended the relationship.

After her heady successes of the first half of the 1940's, Barbara's career began to slow down with two flops in 1946 - 'My Reputation' and 'The Bride Wore Boots' but she recovered well with her second great film noir 'The Story of Martha Ivers' in the same year, following with 'B.F.'s Daughter' in 1947,and the thriller, 'Sorry, Wrong Number' in 1948, which gained her her last Oscar nomination.

The 1950s were less kind to her career and good roles became increasingly rare. After 'The Furies' in 1950 with Anthony Mann, she appeared opposite Marilyn Monroe in 'Clash by Night' the following year and in the all star 'Executive Suite' in 1954 with William Holden and June Allyson but she did not have another major movie hit and, by now grey haired and in her mid 40's she was cast in a string of low budget Westerns.

'The Story of Martha Ivers' 1946

'The Furies' 1954

Television

In the 1960's, Barbara turned to the relatively new medium of television to host 'The Barbara Stanwyck Show' from 1961-2, winning an Emmy for her work. After returning to movies in some generally disappointing films like 'Roustabout' with Elvis Presley in 1964, she returned to television and from 1965-69 she starred in the long-running Western series 'The Big Valley', earning another Emmy for her performance and becoming one of the most popular actresses on television.

With Elvis Presley in 'Roustabout' 1964

With Richard Chamberlain in 'The Thorn Birds'

Final Days

In the 1980's she struck TV gold once more as Constance Colby in 'Dynasty and its spin-off series 'The Colbys'. She gained a final Emmy for 'The Thorn Birds' in 1983 even though her health had started to decline. She suffered from emphysema and she died on January 20, 1990, from congestive heart failure complicated by pneumonia. She was 82.

At her request, there was no funeral and after cremation, her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California.

Barbara Stanwyck, A Class Act 1905 - 1990

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