Barbara Stanwyck – A Biography

 Late author Al Diorio unravels the genius of Barbara Stanwyck in his 1983 book, Barbara Stanwyck – A Biography. This book has become somewhat forgotten with the passing years. Though Stanwyck was incomparable, there are very few books written about her. One offering in particular, a more recently written biography that shall remain nameless, was held in great disregard. Many readers felt the newer biography was an attempt by the author to paint Stanwyck as a sexually confused socialite. True fans of Barbara will find Diorio’s writing much more satisfying. This spotlight on Stanwyck’s life and career is constructed tastefully and with a level of respect befitting to a Hollywood queen.

Before she was known the world over as Barbara Stanwyck, she was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, NY. Her mother, Catherine McGee, struggled to support five children when Barbara’s father, Byron Stevens, suddenly vanished. After locating him in Brooklyn some time later, they mended fences and resumed life as normally as possible. However, tragedy soon struck in 1910. Catherine was hit and killed while stepping from a trolley. She had been pregnant with her sixth child at the time. Two weeks after his wife’s funeral, a devastated Byron left to work on the Panama Canal and was never heard from again. Ruby was left in the immature hands of her older sisters. Too young to understand the finality of her mother’s death, she’d sit on the steps for hours “waiting for mama to come home”. The absence of a stable household instilled a deep-rooted need in Ruby to find happiness, a goal that often eluded her throughout life.

Diorio does a fine job following Ruby Stevens from various boarding homes to her rocky teen years. These were perhaps the greatest moments of influence in Stanwyck’s life, even after becoming a revered icon. Diorio spends a good amount of time examining the complex nature of adolescence. More welcomed is the fact that Diorio has the ability to explain thoroughly without dwelling. This is an important method in holding the reader long enough to build on Ruby Stevens. Having found random work in small venues to make ends meet, she eventually became a Ziegfeld Girl in 1924. It was two years later when playwright Williard Mack decided that “Ruby Stevens” was not an ideal name for an up-and-coming dramatic actress. After flipping through an old book of programs, a 30 year-old book cover caught Mack’s eye. It read: “Jane Stanwyck in Barbara Frietchie“. Because there was already a famous “Jane” on Broadway, Ms. Jane Cowl, Mack rearranged the name and created “Barbara Stanwyck”. Today, that name is a star in its own right.

One would assume that surviving a barren childhood would pave the way for a brighter adult life. However, Stanwyck’s rise to fame would be anything but easy. Her initial film roles were like a virtual see-saw. Though she was always praised for her performance, the films themselves were sometimes lacking. She managed to score a few hits here and there, which, more often than not, were the result of collaborating with director Frank Capra. Stanwyck brilliantly refused to be tied to any one studio. This allowed for various studios to offer roles and pitch scripts to the budding actress. Diorio is honest in his summation of each film. He notes the disasters as well as the triumphs. One of the most notable disasters was Stanwyck’s marriage to actor Frank Fay. Fay was a one-time star of the stage whose film work dwindled as his wife’s career prospered. He tried repeatedly to keep her in the home, and he drank excessively to blanket his severe insecurities. He was terrified of being known as Mr. Barbara Stanwyck. Despite the Hollywood buzz, Stanwyck refused to admit that her marriage was in crisis. Her lonely years as an orphan would not allow the possibility of another family failure. She lashed out at a columnist in 1935 with: “I’ll never divorce Frank Fay and Hollywood can’t make me do it. They can jabber as much as they please, say whatever comes into their heads, gossip from now ’til Doomsday. If I can’t stay married and stay in pictures, I’ll get out of pictures”. It was, however, a divorce waiting to happen and Stanwyck knew it. Before long, the weak foundation crumbled and the promise of stability was never fulfilled.

Diorio brings us along on the journey into the more recognized years of Barbara Stanwyck’s career. From her role in the classic Double Indemnity to her second marriage (Robert Taylor), this book leaves nothing to the wayside. Diorio calls upon some of the most memorable screen personas to assist him in honoring Stanwyck. They include: Eve Arden, Ralph Bellamy, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Sullivan, Glenn Ford, Joel McCrea, Ronald Reagan and many more. The reader gets the impression that this biography was done as a labor of love, rather than as a project for financial gain. The woman who would become known as Miss Barbara Stanwyck is treated with respect and dignity, and though it is nearly 25 years old, Barbara Stanwyck – A Biography is a very refreshing way to remember the little girl from Brooklyn who stunned the world.

Due to its age, Barbara Stanwyck – A Biography is not likely to be found brand new. There are many online retailers that deal in used books and offer this particular book at a very low price. Interested readers may want to search Amazon.com, Thriftbooks.com, or another retailer of their choosing. Additionally, local used bookstores may carry this title. It should be found with relative ease, and is certainly worth the effort.