The first time Fred MacMurray spots Barbara Stanwyck in the classic film noir Double Indemnity, she is standing at the top of the stairs wearing a towel and a sly grin. “I wanted to see her again — close. Without that silly staircase between us,” he once said about the woman who would lead him to commit murder in the 1944 thriller. Barbara’s remarkable career began onstage at the Ziegfeld Follies and lasted long enough to include a guest stint on the glittering TV soap Dynasty.
Along the way, the late Big Valley actress proved that she could do anything: Westerns, comedies, romances, dramas and even films where she sang and danced. Adored by fans and beloved by directors, actors and film crews for her professionalism, Barbara had it all — except for a happy home life. Orphaned as a child, the star, who was born Ruby Stevens, grew up fast, but the survival skills that allowed her to succeed in Hollywood couldn’t help her avoid two bad marriages or provide her with the skills to become a good mother.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Barbara lost her own mother at age 4 when she was killed in a street-car accident. After the funeral, her father left to work on the Panama Canal and disappeared. “She was basically an orphan, brought up in foster homes,” Dan Callahan, author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the latest issue, on newsstands now. “It was a very rough childhood. She was sleeping on floors.”
Salvation came from watching movies and vaudeville. In 1923, Barbara followed in her older sister’s footsteps and landed her first job as a showgirl. “A man named Willard Mack trained her [for Broadway],” says Callahan. “She was a very ambitious person who said it was her dream to become the best actress of her time.”
The Sorry, Wrong Number actress had already changed her name when two movie bigwigs saw her in the hit Broadway play Burlesque. “She often said that Ruby Stevens sounded like a stripper, whereas Barbara Stanwyck sounded like a leading lady,” Callahan dishes.
Invited to Hollywood, Barbara worked tirelessly. In her first decade as an actress, she racked up more than 30 credits and starred in as many as four films per year. “She was extremely versatile. She was a really good dramatic actress, could do comedy, and she could dance and sing,” Jeanine Basinger, professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University, tells Closer.
But while Barbara’s career thrived — in 1944 she earned $400,000, making her the highest-paid woman in America — her personal life was never as successful. Her first love, actor Rex Cherryman, died before they could marry. In 1928, Barbara wed her Burlesque costar Frank Fay, a comic who grew abusive when her film career eclipsed his. “A Star Is Born was based on their marriage,” reveals Callahan. “He drank too much and hit her.”
To save their union, the couple adopted a son, Dion. “The end for Barbara was when Frank threw the toddler into the pool,” says Callahan. They divorced in 1935 with Ball of Fire actress taking custody, but motherhood did not suit her. Dion spent most of his young life at boarding school. “Barbara didn’t have parents, so she didn’t know anything about being a mother,” says Callahan.
She wed again in 1939, after news of her romance with actor Robert Taylor got out and MGM Studios forced them to marry. It was not an equal partnership. She called him “Junior” while Robert referred to her as “The Queen.” The union limped along for 13 years, until Robert’s fling with an Italian actress hit the tabloids and Barbara divorced him.
While the film careers of many women stall as they age, Barbara adapted and kept working. She was almost 50 when she allowed herself to be thrown from a horse and dragged in the hit Western Forty Guns. “She did her own stunts, which was rare,” says Basinger.
Disliking travel, Barbara segued into TV in the last part of her career. In 1985, she went from a guest spot on Dynasty to starring in its spinoff, The Colbys. “To be working with a living legend was extraordinary,” says Linda Evans, who acted with Barbara on both The Big Valley and Dynasty. “She was the most amazing woman. She taught me that you show up on time, you know your lines, you come prepared. It has served me well my whole life.”
Calling herself “a tough old broad from Brooklyn,” Barbara said she intended to keep acting until she was 90. She came close, dying at age 82 in 1990. “She aged very gracefully,” says Basinger. “Her audience loved her because she was there for decades and never, ever gave a bad performance.”