Childhood & Early Years
Barbara Stanwyck was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Byron E Stevens, was a bricklayer. Her mother’s name was Catherine Ann Stevens. She was their fifth child.
When Ruby was four years old, Catherine died from complication arising out of a miscarriage. Soon after, Bryon abandoned the family and Ruby’s nine year old sister Mildred had to take charge. Later Ruby and her brother Bryon were put in foster homes while Mildred entered the show business.
In 1916 and 1917, Ruby took leave from school to accompany Mildred on her tours. Her ambition to become a performer developed during this period. Whatever little money she had was spent on watching films. When she was nine she started smoking.
At the age of thirteen, Ruby left school to take up the job of wrapping packages at a departmental store in Brooklyn. Subsequently, she took series of jobs; such as filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone, cutting dress patterns for Vogue magazine and typing for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company.
However, her real goal was to enter show business. Mildred tried to dissuade her; but finally gave up. At the age of sixteen, Ruby obtained a job as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies at Broadway.
As the show ended in 1924, she joined a night club owned by Texas Guinan, where she worked as a chorus girl, performing from 12 AM to 7 AM. Occasionally, she was also required to serve as a dance instructor at a speakeasy for gays and lesbians.
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On October 20, 1926, Ruby began her career in acting, winning the lead role of a cabaret dancer in 'The Noose’. For the show, she created a new name for herself by combining the first name of her character, Barbara Frietchie with the last name of the leading lady of the play’s London production, Jane Stanwyck. The show ran for nine months.
Subsequently in 1927, she won another lead role in the Broadway play 'Burlesque’. It ran for two years and established her as Broadway star. In the same year, she also played the part of a fan dancer in ‘Broadway Nights’, a silent film, but did not get any credit.
Therefore, her actual film career began in 1929, when she was chosen to play Ann Carter in ‘Locked Door’, a talkie film. In the same year, she had another film ‘Mexican Rose’ released. Unfortunately, neither film was successful.
In 1930, she was selected to play Kay Arnold in ‘Ladies of Leisure’, a romantic drama film directed by Frank Capra. While the film received positive reviews, Barbara Stanwyck got special mention and with that she became a star.
The film was followed by few more successful films such as ‘Illicit’, ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ (both released in 1930); ‘Stolen Jools’, ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘The Miracle Woman’ (all released in 1931). Finally it was another Frank Capra film ‘Forbidden’ (also released in 1931), which took her to the A-list of Hollywood stars.
Stanwyck was a versatile actor, who depicted different kinds of character with equal ease. For example, she was a Midwest farm woman in ‘So Big’ (1932); an ambitious woman in ‘Baby Face’ (1933); a gun-trotting bank robber in ‘Ladies They Talk About’ (1933) and a self-sacrificing lady in ‘Stella Dallas’ (1937).
’Stella Dallas’ was also important for another reason; she received her first Academy nomination for it. Her depiction of Molly Monahan in ‘Union Pacific’ (1939) was highly appreciated.
The 1940s was equally a successful decade for Stanwyck. It opened with ‘Remember the Night’ (1940), which got great reviews. The following year, she received her second Oscar nomination for her depiction of Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea in the comedy drama ‘Ball of Fire’ (1941).
However, her first film in 1941, ‘Lady Eve’ was equally significant. In this film, she played a con artist, who falls for her intended victim. Much later in 1994, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
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Her depiction of extremely successful, independent doctor Helen Hunt in ‘You Belong to Me’ (1941) was another milestone in her career. ‘Meet John Doe’, directed by Frank Capra, also demands mention.
These films were followed by equally successful ventures, such as ‘The Gay Sisters’ (1942), ‘Flesh and Fantasy’ (1943) and ‘Lady of Burlesque’ (1943). The last one made a profit of $650,000.
In 1944, she had another big hit; ‘Double Indemnity’. Here she depicted the role of Phyllis Dietrichson, who persuaded a lovesick insurance salesman into killing her husband. The film earned her the third Oscar nomination.
She received her fourth Oscar nomination in 1948 for her role of Leona Stevenson, the doomed wife in ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’. In between, she had quite a number of hits. ‘Christmas in Connecticut’ (1945), where she played a columnist caught up in white lie and ‘The Other Love’ (1947), where she played a doomed concert pianist, were among them.
In a career spanning from 1927 to 1964, Stanwyck starred in 85 films. In spite of age, her popularity remained as high as before.
Her last film was ‘The Night Walker’, made in 1964. It was psychological suspense thriller, where she played an unhappy housewife living in constant state of dread.
Since 1952, Stanwyck began appearing on television off and on. ‘The Barbara Stanwyck Show’, which ran in 1960-1961, earned her Emmy Award. However, from 1964 onwards, she began to concentrate only on television.
’The Big Valley’ (1965 to 1969), where she played Victoria Barkley, was one of her major works on television. So was ‘The Thorn Birds’ (1983), where she played the role of Mary Carson. Her last television series was titled ‘The Colbys’ (1985-1986), where she depicted the character of Constance Colby Patterson.
Awards & Achievements
Although Barbara Stanwyck had received four Academy Awards nomination in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category she failed to win any. Ultimately, in 1982, she received the Academy Honorary Award "for superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting."
She also won three Emmy Awards for her work in ‘The Barbara Stanwyck Show’ (1961), ‘The Big Valley’ (1966) and ‘The Thorn Birds’ (1983).
Also for ‘The Thorn Birds’, she received Golden Globe Award in 1984.
In 1986, she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award, an honorary Golden Globe Award bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment".
In 1987, she received the AFI Life Achievement Award, established by the Board of Directors of the American Film Institute.
In 1960, she was included in the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street
Personal Life & Legacy
On August 26, 1928, Stanwyck married her Burlesque co-star, Frank Fay. In 1932, they adopted their only son, Anthony Dion Fay. However, the marriage did not work and the couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Stanwyck won custody of their adoptive son. However, he became estranged once he grew up.
On May 14, 1939, Stanwyck married Robert Tailor after three years of courtship. Although they had a happy time they decided to divorce mutually in 1950. At Tailor’s insistence, Stanwyck filed the divorce paper. The couple was finally divorced in February, 1951.
After retiring from work in 1986, she remained busy with her charity work. She died on January 20, 1990 from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.