As we are approaching the twenty fifth anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck’s, passing back on January 20th, 1990, I thought that I’d reflect back on the hellacious life and career of Barbara, or Missy, as what many called her.
Ruby Catherine Stevens made her star studded debut on July 16th, 1907, in Brooklyn, to parents Catherine and Byron Stevens. At the time of Ruby’s birth, Catherine was definitely competent with child rearing, as she had already produced four children, three girls and one boy, who was born two years prior in 1905. Ruby was to be the fifth child and last addition to the family.
Early life wasn’t easy for Ruby. When she was four, Ruby and her brother Malcolm were on a trolley car with their mother Catherine, when a drunken stranger accidently slipped and knocked her off the moving streetcar. Pregnant at the time with what was to be her sixth child, Catherine suffered from a miscarriage and complications from the fall and passed away shortly after. With their mother gone, Ruby and her brother were left with their father, but raising the children alone became a burden for Byron Stevens, and two weeks after the funeral he left and secured work digging the Panama Canal. He was never seen again.
With no parents to care for them, Ruby and Malcolm were left as orphans. Ruby’s older sister Millie often looked after them, but eventually she procured work as a showgirl, which meant that Ruby and Malcolm would have to be placed in a series of foster homes. Sometimes they would stay in as many as four different homes a year. With no room for both Ruby and Malcolm in the same foster home, the two siblings were always separated. Ruby was left perturbed and would often elude her current residence.
The Summers of 1916 and 1917, were among some of the convivial times for Ruby. She got to go on tour with her sister Mildred, and she loved to practice her sisters routines backstage. She enjoyed watching Pearl White in movies, and that helped establish her passion for performing. Dropping out of school at fourteen, she secured a job wrapping packages at a department store in Brooklyn. Ruby found that job rather repetitive, so she took up another position. This time filing cards at the Brooklyn Telephone Office, where she earned $14 a week. That salary allowed her to become financially independent. Though she was working, Ruby was focused and had her mind set on accomplishing her goal, entering show business. Millie discouraged the idea, so Ruby found work cutting dress patterns for Vogue Magazine, but customers began to complain about her work, and that resulted in Ruby being fired. Soon after she gained more employment, and worked as a typist for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company. At last she had finally attained work that she supposedly enjoyed, though she still dreamt of a life in show business, and as time went on her drive and ambition escalated. Millie realized there was no way she was able to dissuade Ruby now.
Luck came Ruby’s way in 1923, just before her 16th Birthday, when she auditioned for a place in the chorus at The Strand Roof, a nightclub that is situated over the Strand Theatre in Times Square. When word came that the “The Ziegfeld Follies” were after dancers, Ruby auditioned and won the part of one of the dancers in the 1922 and 1923 seasons, performing at the New Amsterdam Theater. After the season of 1923 ended with “The Ziegfeld Follies”, Ruby kept herself busy working as a chorus girl at nightclubs which were owned by Texas Guinan. She maintained a schedule of working from midnight to seven in the morning. As time progressed she intermittently instructed dance at a speakeasy which was also owned by Guinan.
In 1926, Willard Mack was busy in preparation for his latest play “The Noose”. He was casting actresses when Billy LaHiff suggested that he cast a real chorus girl to portray the role of the chorus girl. Billy had only just introduced Ruby to Willard, so he encouraged Ruby to audition for the part of the chorus girl. Willard Mack was impressed with Ruby’s audition and gave Ruby the part. Though the original stage play of “The Noose” was not a success, the play opened on October 20th, 1926 to rave reviews. The show was a hit with audiences, running on Broadway for a total of 197 performances during nine months, the show was crowned one of the most successful plays of the season, and earned Ruby a new name. Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck.
With the success of “The Noose”, Barbara Stanwyck became eminent on Broadway, and in 1927, was cast in “Burlesque” her first leading role. The show opened to critical acclaim, and Barbara’s reviews were positive. Hollywood began knocking on her door. Soon after she was approached by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for “Broadway Nights” but lost the part due to not being able to reduce herself to tears during the screen test. However Barbara didn’t completely miss out. She was given a minor part as a fan dancer, and made her film debut.
During her run in “Burlesque”, Stanwyck was introduced to Frank Fay. The couple married on August 26th, 1928. Not long after the wedding, Barbara and Frank moved to Hollywood. Upon their arrival in Hollywood, Barbara scored a role in what was to be her first sound film “The Locked Door”. After “The Locked Door”, she was cast in “Mexicali Rose”. Both films were released in 1929, but sadly these films opened to poor reception. Success was on it’s way when Barbara was cast in several notable roles including “Ladies Of Leisure” and “Night Nurse”.
On December 5th, 1932, Barbara and Frank adopted a son who they called Dion Anthony Fay. After a turbulent marriage Stanwyck and Fay divorced in 1935, and Barbara gained custody of Dion. In 1939, Barbara married Robert Taylor. They were married for eleven years, and divorced in 1950.
As the 1930’s progressed, Barbara’s appeal and acting maturated, and in 1937, she landed the role of Stella in “Stella Dallas”. Not only did “Stella Dallas” open to rave reviews, Barbara was recognized as a great dramatic actress, and received her first Academy Award nomination, and to this day the film serves as one of Barbara’s greatest performances.
More prominent roles, and an Academy Award nomination for her role in “Ball Of Fire” followed for Barbara. In 1944, she portrayed the role as Phyllis Dietrichson in one of the greatest Film Noirs of all time “Double Indemnity”. This was another prodigious triumph, and Barbara received her third Academy Award nomination. After a string of successful films she earned her fourth Academy Award nomination for her role in “Sorry Wrong Number”.
In the late 1950’s, Barbara’s career began to decline, so she moved on and tried the television medium. Though she never won an Academy Award, she received an Emmy Award for the “Barbara Stanwyck Show”. During the years 1965 to 1969, she appeared in “The Big Valley” where Barbara became a household name once again, and received another Emmy Award.
In October 1981, Barbara faced one of the biggest adversities in her life, when she was robbed and assaulted in her home at about 1am in the morning. This was a big blow for Barbara, but she made a comeback and appeared in “The Thorn Birds” where she received yet again another Emmy Award.
After “The Thorn Birds” Barbara’s health deteriorated. While filming “The Thorn Birds” she had contracted Bronchitis, but the illness was also inflicted from her long history of smoking.
In 1987, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to motion pictures.
Sadly Barbara Stanwyck passed away on January 20th, 1990 at Saint John’s Health Center. She was 82. The cause of death was Congestive Heart Failure and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In accordance to her wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in Lone Pine, where most of her westerns were filmed.
With a conglomeration of different roles, and meritorious performances on her long resume of films, Barbara Stanwyck remains one of the brightest and most versatile actresses to ever grace the silver screen. Even twenty five years after her passing, audiences are still enthralled by Barbara’s presence onscreen, and intrigued by her amiable aura that she produced off screen.
Rest In Peace Barbara Stanwyck: July 16th, 1907 – January 20th, 1990.
Written by Crystal Kalyana.