The new Barbara Stanwyck biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907 – 1940 by Victoria Wilson, is, with appendix, footnotes, index and acknowledgements, over 1,000 pages long.
And it is just volume one.
This first, full scale bio of Barbara Stanwyck is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) study of Hollywood’s greatest actress. Born in Brooklyn—of course—Ruby Davis had an astonishing Hollywood career that spanned four decades, from the beginning of the sound era of the late 1920’s, through Hollywood’s Golden Age, and right into television.
It seems there was no role that was beyond Stanwyck’s remarkable emotional range. From the extravagant melodramas of So Big (’32), and Stella Dallas (’37), to the shimmering Frank Capra social drama of Meet John Doe (’41), to the hilarious screwball comedies of The Lady Eve (’41) and Ball of Fire (’41), and then as Phyllis Dietrichson, the definitive femme fatale in Double Indemnity (’44), there was no genre in which Stanwyck did not perform flawlessly. She had depth and range. Directors treasured her raw, honest performances. And movie crews adored Stanwyck for her professionalism and lack of pretense.
Every phase of Stanwyck’s life and career is lovingly detailed in Wilson’s book: Ruby’s impoverished Brooklyn childhood, the hungry years struggling as dancer; her slow rise to stardom in Hollywood—a town and culture she despised—and her troubled marriage to Broadway star Frank Fay whose huge theatrical success never translated into the movies.
Stanwyck was a deeply private woman who did not share confidences easily. Thus, it’s not surprising to learn that she jealously guarded two great secrets for as long as she breathed.
Author Victoria Wilson reveals that when Stanwyck was a chorus girl with the Ziegfeld follies in 1924:
Nancy Bernard, one of the dancers in the chorus, became good friends with Ruby, and they shared a room. Ruby called her Billy for no reason other than she liked the name. While on the road, the two were having a few drinks one night when Ruby confided that she had been raised in a convent. She also told “Billy” that her mother was Jewish and her father gentile. “But I’m a Christian,” said Ruby. “I believe in Christianity.”
Until proven otherwise, everyone in Hollywood is Jewish.
After months of working together and long hours on the train and in between shows, Ruby told Nancy that she couldn’t have children. A couple of years before, Ruby said, she was seeing the son of a man who owned a chain of restaurants. Ruby had a “problem” and had it “fixed.” It was a bad abortion with complications, and she would never be able to get pregnant again.
Stanwyck was just 15 years old when she had the botched abortion.
Myrna Loy also endured an abortion which rendered her infertile. As did Elsa Lanchester. Lana Turner had two abortions. Kay Francis had at least seven abortions. Joan Blondell’s husband, cinematographer George Barnes, forced Blondell to have multiple abortions. Gloria Swanson had one abortion which haunts her autobiography. Playwright Clifford Odets forced Luise Rainer to undergo two abortions. Rita Hayworth aborted Howard Hughes’ child. Bette Davis had two abortions. Joan Crawford miscarried several times, and then had an abortion. Judy Garland had two abortions. And Grace Kelly, pregnant but not married to Oleg Cassini, had an abortion in spite of her devout Catholic upbringing.
Thus, Stanwyk’s ordeal was more common in Hollywood than is ordinarily acknowledged. It remains for a sensitive historian to chronicle the tragic impact of abortion on some of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
No doubt, as I make my way through this massive volume, I’ll gain further insights into Barbara Stanwyck, a complex and endlessly fascinating woman.
Karen and I wish all our friends a relatives a lovely and meaningful Shabbat.