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Book Review: ‘A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,’ at 1000 Pages, Builds a Living Thing

Book Review: 'A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,' at 1000 Pages, Builds a Living Thing

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson ends
abruptly in 1940. Still ahead are “The
Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity,” not to
mention more than 40 other movies and four years as the matriarch of a sprawling
19th century ranch on the television series, “The Big Valley.”

Yet the book, which takes Stanwyck from birth in 1907 to the
age of 37 and stardom in a town she hated for the “pretense” of its “so
self-important” people, is exactly 1000 pages long if you include its
meticulous stage, film, radio and television chronologies and notes on
sources. And it has a cast of thousands,
with each director, actor or owner of a speakeasy Stanwyck encounters given not
only his own backstory but the histories of the people with whom he has worked
or played. Carole Lombard, for example,
tended the “cows, chickens, ducks, pair of mules, goat, rabbits” on the 21 acre
estate she and Clark Gable turned into a working farm.

The 36 movies Stanwyck made between “Broadway Nights” in
1927 and “Remember the Night” in 1940 are treated the same way. The chapter on “Stella Dallas,” the movie
that brought Stanwyck the first of four Oscar nominations, not only includes a
biography of Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the novel, but a biography of Belle
Bennett who played Stella in a 1925 silent movie.

There are books in which details are piled on top of each
other harum-scarum until the reader struggles to breathe under the weight of
them. This is not one of those
books. In “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,”
the accretion of detail, told simply and unemotionally, builds a living
thing. Do we really need to know that
one of the many families with whom the half-orphaned child Ruby Stevens lived
gave her hot oatmeal for breakfast? Yes. “They were the first to give
me affection,” the grown up Barbara Stanwyck once said.  A hundred small details create the tough and
unyielding Brooklyn child whose mother, pregnant with her sixth child, died
after she fell off a trolley when she was kicked in the stomach by a drunk; and
whose father then deserted his six-year-old son and four-year-old Ruby for a
freighter to Panama.

Intent on becoming a dancer but with no money for lessons,
Ruby Stevens left school at 14, was in the chorus of a revue at the Strand Roof
supper club a few months later, and at 15, underage, one of 16 tap dancers,
called “ponies,” in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “1922 Follies.” The clubs at
which she and her friend Mae Clarke danced and sang (“I couldn’t sing worth a
darn. It didn’t matter as long as I
could belt it out so they could hear me in the back row”) were filled with
gangsters who generally behaved like gentlemen when they took the girls out for
a steak dinner.

What was unexpected to me was how successful Stanwyck was
during those early years, eventually reaching the magnificent salary of $100 a
week.   Men and women of the musical
revues and of the theatre saw something out of the ordinary in her. The master director and producer David
Belasco told her she didn’t know how to walk and to go to the zoo and watch the
animals. She went to the Bronx Zoo and
practiced the panther’s proud and purposeful stride until it became natural for
her. Belasco also renamed Ruby Stevens
Barbara Stanwyck just before her Broadway debut in a crime melodrama, “The
Noose.”  When she signed the contract,
she had to be told how to spell her new name.

Cast as a cabaret dancer secretly in love with a gangster,
she was given a major third act scene during the out-of-town tryout. Broadway critics noticed the girl who begged
to take the gangster’s body after he was hanged because “he ain’t got no
relatives” to give him a funeral. The
Sun said Miss Barbara Stanwyck “played it well enough to make first nighters
wipe tears from their eyes.” The New
York Times looked forward to “the further good work of Miss Dorothy Stanwyck.”

Within a few years, that further good work would be in the
movies.  But, first, there was a starring
role as the hot-tempered wife of a burlesque comedian in “Burlesque.”  Alexander Woollcott called the play “no
account” but described Miss Stanwyck as “touching and true.” She had asked for $300 a week.  She was barely 20 years old.

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel – True 1907-1940” does
detail her life — in particular her marriage to the supremely successful
vaudeville comedian Frank Fay and, despite her loyalty, its eventual
disintegration. Unsuccessful in
Hollywood, Fay became a heavy drinker and then an alcoholic. And alcohol began to make him violent. “I was nothing until Fay came along, and I
would have been nothing a great deal longer if he had never come along,”
Stanwyck once said. But, finally, she
began to be frightened — for herself and for Dion, the son they had adopted.
Fay began to hit her, and he hurled three-year-old Dion into the swimming
pool. The day he knocked her down a
staircase, she took Dion and fled, leaving behind the four-acre Brentwood
estate into which Fay had poured almost all of the $1 million Stanwyck had made
during her six years in Hollywood.

But the book is also a life of Hollywood during the 1930s
and America during the Depression and the way the dream factory and reality
interact. If the detail is sometimes
overwhelming, I am not surprised. Vicky
Wilson, who is now a senior editor and vice-president at Alfred Knopf, was the
editor of my first book, “The Making of the Wizard of Oz,” and, after I turned
in the first 10,000 words, she sent me back to my typewriter for more depth,
more details, more depth.

There will be many more details in Volume 2 of Barbara
Stanwyck’s life. One thing will not change, however. To the end, Stanwyck never saw herself as
more important than the unimportant people with whom she worked. As she says over and over at different times
and in different words, “In Hollywood you are loved for success and success
alone.”  And “I am a star today, but give
me one or two bad pictures and Hollywood will consider me a flop again.  It isn’t what you do or have done that
counts here. It’s what happens. That’s why I have never understood the minds
of the picture brains. And never will.”

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” is published by Simon and Schuster.

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