In 1981, Barbara Stanwyck caressed a gold cigarette case as she spoke with a reporter. The art deco-style box, decorated with a sunburst of her face and her birth stone, a brilliant ruby, had been a gift from her second husband, Robert Taylor. “Losing somebody you love by death or divorce is hard,” the then 73-year-old legend admitted.
Though she became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress in classic films such as Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity, Barbara, nicknamed “The Queen” for her imperious manner, endured much heartache — often at the hands of the men she loved. Abandoned by her father as a child, she withstood an abusive first marriage before finding a better life with Robert. The end of their union after 12 years broke her heart, but proved that the star of TV’s The Big Valley would always be a survivor. “If they decide they want to be free, there’s nothing to battle for. You have to let go,” she reasoned.
But there were good times first. In 1947, Barbara reminisced with Robert about their first meeting. “The night I first met you, at a dinner party at the old Trocadero in Hollywood, my first thought about you was, ‘He’s a lot of fun,’” she recalled.
Barbara deserved some fun. She had fallen for her first husband, vaudeville star Frank Fay, around the time she broke out in Broadway’s 1927 hit Burlesque. But after they wed, Barbara’s blossoming movie career began to eclipse his fading one, turning the alcoholic actor mean and physically abusive. They divorced in 1935.
When she met Robert, Barbara described herself as finally “coming out of an emotional Black Hole of Calcutta.” Dan Callahan, author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, calls the gentlemanly actor “a great relief” to Barbara. “He was a little younger than her and very, very beautiful,” he tells Closer.
The pair bonded over their shared sense of humor, strong work ethic, lack of pretention and love of horses. Barbara had built Marwyck, a San Fernando Valley breeding farm, in 1937. Robert eventually purchased his own ranch nearby. They might have continued their under-the-radar romance in peace had Photoplay not published an article called “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives” in 1938. “They’re always invited together [to events] just like man and wife,” sniped the article. “They spend a quiet evening together at either one or the other’s place.”
Fearing a scandal, Robert’s studio brass leaned on him to marry Barbara. “And in those days, the studio really did own you,” says Callahan.
On May 14, 1939, the pair were wed under their legal names, Miss Ruby Stevens and Mr. Arlington Brugh. Years later, Robert admitted he had felt pressured and confused. “I wasn’t even sure I was in love,” he confessed. “The only thing I was allowed to say about the whole thing was ‘I do.’”
When World War II broke out, Robert put his film career on hold and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At 32, he was deemed too old for overseas duty, but he served as a flight instructor for three years. “During the 1940s, Barbara was working all the time,” says Callahan. “And he was serving, so there was a period where they weren’t seeing that much of each other.” When they were together, they were forced to make a show of their private lives. “It became more of, ‘We are a couple. We are photographed for magazine layouts,’” says Callahan. “The pressure on having to put up this front is part of what began to fade their marriage.”
Robert’s affections began to stray. There are breathless accounts of his affair with Lana Turner, his costar in 1941’s Johnny Eager. “She became an obsession. I had to have her, if only for one night,” he said, according to the biography Robert Taylor: The Man With the Perfect Face.
Some stories claim that a distraught Barbara slashed her wrist when he demanded a divorce, but she denied it. “It is not true that I attempted suicide upon learning of the affair between Robert and Lana Turner,” Barbara said. “The media tends to blow things way out of proportion.” Callahan also confirms it was fiction. “In 1939, she was rushed to the hospital because she had put her hand through a window. [Gossips] moved the incident up, but it was just a false story,” he says. “And if you are going to try to kill yourself, you don’t do just one arm.”
But a decade later, Barbara did fly to Rome to confront Robert when stories about his affair with an Italian actress on the set of Quo Vadis reached her. “It was just not good publicity,” says Callahan. “It became a question of having to save face.”
The couple divorced in 1952, and a judge awarded Barbara their Hollywood mansion and 15 percent of Robert’s earnings until she remarried. She never did. “Bob and I didn’t stay friends,” admitted Barbara, who reunited with her ex-husband on screen for 1964’s The Night Walker.
Robert’s second wife, German actress Ursula Thiess, kept Barbara at arm’s length for years, but reportedly invited her to visit Robert in the hospital before his 1969 death at age 57. “Barbara went to his funeral and wept,” says Callahan. “It was not usual behavior for her. She didn’t show her emotions in a public setting. She also kept photographs of him when she was older.”
Despite everything, she could never forget Robert. “We became friends again,” said Barbara. “Time does take care of things.”