Friday, August 15, 2014

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940
Volume #1
by Victoria Wilson
Hardcover – 9780684831688
1,056 pages
Simon and Schuster
November 2013

Barnes and Noble

Imagine you’re on a nature walk in a historic park. If you just want fresh air and exercise, you’d walk at a brisk pace or maybe even go for a jog. If you want to take in some of the scenery, you might slow down your pace and look around a bit. However, if you want the immerse yourself in the experience, you’d explore all of the side trails, read every sign along the way, stop for every bird or wild creature you see, take photos of the various wildflowers, etc. It would take much longer but you would get everything out of the experience you could.

And that’s the kind of experience you’ll get reading The Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson. It’s not the quick walk through the life of Barbara Stanwyck nor is it a leisurely stroll. This book is an immersive experience with sidelines and context galore.

Despite its size and page count, this book is not an overwhelming read. Even though the total page count is 1,056, you’ll only be reading 860 because the backmatter (Film, Radio TV and Stage Chronologies, Notes, Selected bibliography and Index) takes up almost 200 pages.

It’s not to say that those 860 pages are a small feat. There is a vast amount of information and the author not only includes the chronology of Stanwyck’s life from her birth in 1907 up until 1940 where the book stops (right at the point when she's about to make Meet John Doe with Frank Capra) but also starts with her family before her birth and also sidelines into details about key characters in Stanwyck’s life and in the movie industry. You’ll learn more about directors, producers, authors, screenwriters, actors, actresses, even hairdressers, costume designers and agents. Political figures like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt are discussed at length. You'd think all that extraneous information would weigh down the book but for me all of that context made the absorption of new information a lot easier. Those breaks slow down the pace of the narrative but I never felt lost or overwhelmed. Instead the book progresses nicely and before you know it you’ve already taken in a couple hundred pages and look forward to reading more.

Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck

Interspersed throughout the book are black and white photographs placed wherever relevant to the corresponding text. There are many wonderful photos of Barbara Stanwyck, publicity shots, candids and family photos as well as photos of people in and out of Hollywood who were involved in Stanwyck’s life in different ways. You’ll find photos of directors, authors, other actors, etc.

Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

Barbara Stanwyck started out life as Ruby Stevens and the author refers to her as Ruby for most of the beginning. It’s only when the actress adopts the stage name Barbara Stanwyck and begins to be identified with the new moniker (and not a moment before), does the author switch to using Stanwyck. This was a little confusing to me but it was clear what the author was doing and made sense in the narrative. It also serves to demonstrate Stanwyck’s progression into adulthood and her career as a full-fledged actress.

I didn’t know much about Stanwyck’s life and although the book only covers 33 years I got a good sense of who Stanwyck was as a person and as an actress. She had a rough childhood. Her mother died when she was four years old. Her three older sisters were adults and had already left home and started lives on their own, her father abandoned her and her older brother By (Byron) Stevens. By and Ruby/Barbara were left to fend for themselves and were transferred to various foster homes and sometimes stayed with their older sisters. Such an unstable and transient childhood had a profound effect on Stanwyck.

Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck

There is a lot to learn about Stanwyck in this book. As a woman she really valued relationships. However, some of those relationships turned out to be toxic ones. The author explores Stanwyck's doomed marriage with her first husband, actor Frank Fay. By the end of their relationship, Fay was a domineering brute and a drunkard. When you read about their relationship, which progressively gets worse and the narrative goes along, you can't help but root for Stanwyck to kick him to the curb. The book also explores Stanwyck's love affair and the beginning of her marriage to fellow actor Robert Taylor. Stanwyck had a complicated relationship with her adopted son Dion that got worse over the years. Dion was very generous to author Victoria Wilson and sat down for countless interviews and proved to be a great resource for the book! Stanwyck had a close friendship and working relationship with Marion and Zeppo Marx and was best buds with Joan Crawford. I admire her devotion to her brother By, even when some of his actions frustrated her.

Barbara Stanwyck and her son Dion

I was intrigued by Stanwyck's reluctant fashion sense (she had a simple hat, hated adornment) and her lack of materialism. This is something that the author brings up throughout the book and it provides an interesting glimpse into Stanwyck's personality.

Each and every film Stanwyck made before 1940 is explored. Certain films are given more attention; Stella Dallas (1937) gets its own chapter. Stanwyck was well-read, appreciated a good script, had a strong work ethic to the point of sometimes being a workaholic and she often a victim of a harsh studio system.

The author sometimes shows bias towards her favorite Stanwyck's films. For example, Remember the Night (1940), a film I don't particularly care for but has a cult following thanks to TCM, is given additional attention and praise in the book. I always appreciate some sort of positive bias in a biography because it demonstrates how passionate the author is about the subject they are writing about. This book is frank about much of Stanwyck's life but there is a clear affection for the subject.

Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas

The book isn't without faults. There are some points where the author repeats herself. After so many pages devoted to the marriage of Stanwyck and Fay, later in the book she recaps Fay's background as though we hadn't heard of it before. I thought that was odd. Plot descriptions sometimes were broken up with asides and I found a couple instances where a plot point was repeated. There are a few errors in the book too (a couple I noticed but didn't jot down and one someone else pointed out to me). I think perhaps another pass is needed to fix any minor errors and weed out some repetition. Otherwise, I thought this was a well-written and very organized book and author Victoria Wilson's 15 years of research, interviews, writing and editing pays off handsomely.

Are you a Barbara Stanwyck fan? Then this book is required reading for you. It's long, and there is more coming, but it's well worth your time.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy.

Watch the video below to hear the author speak about the book and find out what "Steel-True" refers to!

This was my second review for my Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.


  1. Goodness, all those pages and she didn't get through all of Stanwyck's life or career! Still, it sounds really informative. Are you in publishing? Some of the things you wrote made it sound like you work in publishing (back matter, etc). Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Desiree - It's quite a feat to cover only 33 years in 860 pages! And you have a sharp eye. I do work in publishing. I've been in the book industry for 16 years, ever since I was a teenager working in a bookstore.

  2. What a great review, Raquel! I agree with all the points you make, too - I felt the same way. So happy you enjoyed the book <3


  3. An interesting and well-written review. I've yet to read the book, but I'm looking forward to it, and taking my time, as you say, to absorb the fascinating trail the author sets for us. I'm especially intrigued by your note that the author discusses the films in detail. One of the frustrations of film star biographies and autobiographies is the usual habit of spending a great deal of time on the private life of the start, but giving short shrift to the movies.

  4. I just watched Double Indemnity last night for the first time and was completely floored by how good it was. Some films transcend genre/era and become essential viewing. I would put DI on that short list of films and I'm curious what other films of her I should check out

  5. Great review Raquel -- makes me want to muscle through those 800+ pages! I'm a big fan of most authors who gain access to surviving family members' stories and memorabilia (and effectively filter them from the popularly known or other opinion)... Is Wilson planning a 2nd volume? As mentioned, some of her more powerful/popular movies are just on the horizon of where this story ends.


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