The Hollywood Dame: Golden Age Starlet, Barbara Stanwyck

You can say a lot of things about Barbara Stanwyk, but a lazy worker is not one of them. Barbara Stanwyck was possibly the hardest working starlet in Hollywood, and her rise to the top was not easy. Her childhood was unstable, and she ended up in foster care. But despite all her struggles, Barbara was determined to turn her life around and become a star.

Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor / Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart / Barbara Stanwyck / Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck.

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Her hard work eventually paid off, and Barbara Stanwyk was the highest-paid actress at the peak of her career. In adulthood, she had the sense of security she didn’t have a child, but it didn’t mean things were easier. From marital heartbreaks to flings with young men, this is how Barbara Stanwyck became Hollywood’s darling.

The Femme Fatale

Barbara Stanwyck’s most famous role was Phyllis Dietrichson, the femme fatale of Double Indemnity. Many people consider her character the definitive femme fatale – but it almost didn’t even happen. Even though she was the first choice for director Billy Wilder, the actress almost turned down the part because she was terrified of playing an “out-and-out killer.”

Barbara Stanwyck hides behind the door as actor Fred McMurray walks into a room.

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But Wilder didn’t have to do a lot to convince her. The actress said that he “looked at me and he said, ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m an actress.’ He said, ‘Then do the part.’”

If That’s Your Real Name

Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t always Barbara Stanwyck; like many other starlets, it was just her stage name. She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, to working-class parents Byron and Catherine Stevens. She created her stage name by taking the first name of one of her early characters, Barbara Frietchie, and the last name of one of her early costars, Jane Stanwyck.

A photo of Barbara Stanwyck as a toddler.

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She also had two nicknames: “Missy” and “The Queen.” Although she was born into a seemingly happy family, tragedy struck. Barbara had to overcome extremely difficult obstacles to make it to the top.

A Family Tragedy

Many kids in the industry don’t always have it easy, but Stanwyck had a particularly heartbreaking childhood. She was just four years old when her mother passed away due to complications from a miscarriage. But it gets worse. The reason the miscarriage happened was because a drunk driver shoved her out of a streetcar while it was still moving.

A family photo of Barbara’s family, the Stevens.

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Stanwyck lost her mother in a tragic way, but it was just the beginning of her struggles. Two weeks after burying her mother, Stanwyck’s father abandoned her and her four siblings. Well, he left when he got a job digging in the Panama Canal, and he just never came back. That’s one way to give your kids trust issues.

Daddy Issues

After her mother passed away and her father abandoned his parental duties, Barbara and her brother grew up bouncing around foster homes. It didn’t come close to a stable environment. Sometimes, the youngster would go through more than four homes in just one year. Barbara would often run away from her would-be authority figures.

A photo of Barbara and her brother.

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But Barbara overcame it all. She used her pain to drive her to success. At her peak, Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t just the highest-paid Hollywood actress; she was literally the highest-paid woman in America!

A Working Girl

Barbara Stanwyck never really went to high school. She was kind of forced to drop out at age 14 and start making money to help her family pay the bills. Remember, neither of her parents were around. This was probably the first and only time the determined actress quit anything.

Barbara Stanwyck is riding a bicycle.

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It was Stanwyck’s sister Mildred who got her got her into showbiz in the first place… reluctantly. Mildred was working as a showgirl, and little Stanwyck idolized her big sister and her independent life. Mildred didn’t necessarily want Barbara to follow her path, but she would frequently tour around with the show and practiced all their routines backstage.

Teen Pregnancy

When she was just 15 years old, the teenaged Stanwyck received some scary and unexpected news: She was pregnant. With very few options, she decided to get an abortion. Unfortunately, things took a dark turn. The doctor botched the surgery making her infertile for the rest of her life, according to her biography.

Barbara Stanwyck, as a kitchen worker, shakes hands with George Brent.

Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent. Photo by John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

Determined to make some cash, the young Stanwyck took on a bunch of odd jobs while she was waiting for her big break. From a telephone office to cutting dress patterns, nothing was beneath her. In her words, “I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat.” See, struggling starlets are just like us!

Starting on the Stage

Stanwyck began her show business career as a nightclub chorus girl, performing from midnight until closing time at 7:00 am. Though she strutted around on stage in front of decadent high rollers, Stanwyck maintained her cool. One of her friends noted that the starlet was always “wary of sophisticates and phonies.”

Stanwyck as a chorus girl.

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Barbara Stanwyck got the big break she was waiting for in the play The Noose and then in Burlesque. In both of those roles, the rising starlet was able to show off her showgirl experience. She won much acclaim, and, soon enough, Hollywood came calling. But not everyone was happy about that; Broadway director Arthur Hopkins admitted, “I had great plans for her, but the Hollywood offers kept coming.”

Her Big Break

Stanwyck’s first movie was almost a big role in 1927’s Broadway Nights, but it ended up going terribly wrong. She had screen-tested for the starring role, but she couldn’t cry on demand for the director. That failure demoted her to the small part of a “fan dancer” in the movie instead. The over-achieving Stanwyck was heartbroken and totally disappointed in herself.

A portrait of Barbara Stanwyck holding a fan.

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The first Hollywood movie to explicitly explore the reason and motives behind plotting someone’s death in detail was Double Indemnity. Although we have plenty of true crime shows now, this was no small feat in the days of Hollywood’s restrictive and moralistic Hays Code. In fact, many insiders thought the content was un-filmable when producers optioned the picture.

Do It Yourself

Barbara Stanwyck didn’t let anything get in the way of her work, not even serious danger. When she was 50 years old, her character in Western Forty Guns needed to get her foot caught in a stirrup, fall, and then get dragged along behind the horse. This was so risky that even the stuntwoman refused to do it. However, Stanwyck decided to just do it herself. This little accomplish got her inducted into the Hollywood stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.

Stanwyck is riding a horse in a still from the film.

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Barbara Stanwyck was certainly a hard-working actress. She was always coming off a job, in the middle of a job, or looking for a job, giving her a truly impressive film resume. As one of her directors explained it, “she only lives for two things, and both of them are work.” They don’t make them like Barbara Stanwyck anymore, that’s for sure.

Tragedy Strikes Again

Barbara Stanwyck was also known for her notorious love life. When she was on the set of her first play, she fell head over heels in love with her much older costar, Rex Cherryman. The problem? Cherryman was already married to someone else. The desperate couple decided to take an illicit voyage to Paris, but it ended in utter tragedy. On the overseas journey, Cherryman died from septic shock.

Barbara Stanwyck and Rex Cherryman pose by a plane propeller.

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Rising up from her difficult childhood, Stanwyck was a big supporter of the “American Dream.” She didn’t believe the people should get government handouts and criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency because of his opposing opinions.

Everybody Loved Her

Staying true to her hardworking roots, Stanwyck was known to be incredibly kind to crew members and everyone working on set. She wasn’t one of those celebrity divas who wouldn’t look ordinary folks in the eye. In fact, she knew all the crew members and made a point to learn the names of their wives and children. One of her frequent collaborators, Frank Carpa, once said, “In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize hands down.”

Barbara Stanwyck is talking to a group of people on the set.

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Like everything else in her career, Barbara Stanwyck was dedicated to her life-long smoking habit. She started when she was just nine years old and only quit four years before she died.

The Biggest Prick in Hollywood

In 1928, the 21-year-old Stanwyck walked down the aisle with Broadway star Frank Fay. In 1932, the couple adopted a son, Anthony Dion. They seemed like a wholesome, happy family, but as in many cases, the picture-perfect appearance was just that – an appearance. Their union had a chilling dark side.

Barbara Stanwyck sits on the armrest of a chair and looks over the shoulder of Frank Fay.

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Fay had a rageful side and was so intensely jealous of his wife’s Hollywood success. He would take his anger out on her physically quite often, especially if he was drinking. During their relationship, there was a running Hollywood joke: “Who’s got the biggest prick in Hollywood?” The answer? “Barbara Stanwyck.”

Mommy Dearest

Although she was a phenomenal actress and beloved costar, Stanwyck’s maternal instincts were kind of disturbing. While raising her son Tony, she was apparently demanding and even authoritarian. And once Tony grew up, things got worse. The mother-son relationship was estranged, and they only saw each other a few more times for the rest of their lives.

Barbara Stanwyck is relaxing by a swimming pool with her adopted son, Anthony Dion.

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Frank Fay and Stanwyck had a dysfunctional marriage. Insiders revealed that A Star Is Born took parts of its dialogue directly from their blowouts; the script was written by their friend William Wellman.

Working With Marilyn

Stanwyck’s portrayal of a sultry con woman in the classic comedy The Lady Eve was an instant hit, especially with young men. As one critic put it, she gave off a charge “that would straighten a boa constrictor.”

Monroe is showing off her ring to Stanwyck in a scene from Clash By Night.

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Barbara Stanwyck was truly a good friend to the people who needed her, even when those people were Hollywood babes threatening her successful career. In 1952’s Clash by Night, Stanwyck worked with the iconic Marilyn Monroe, who once said that Stanwyck was the only person in Hollywood’s generation to ever show her any kindness.

Wigging It Out

Stanwyck’s character needed to wear a wig for Double Indemnity, but the fake hair was so objectively bad that some people consider it the movie’s only flaw. Director Billy Wilder said that the reason for the bad wig was to highlight the “phoniness” of her character, but studio heads weren’t so keen about the creative attempt. One production head even said, “We hired Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington.”

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from the movie

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In time, Wilder finally confessed the truth about the infamous wig! Apparently, he didn’t realize how bad it was, and once he did, it was too late to change anything. He admitted, “After I shot four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake.” But instead of admitting he was wrong, he just acted like it was his grand plan all along.

A Scandalous Starlet

In 1939, Barbara Stanwyck tied the knot for a second time, this time with the young actor Robert Taylor. Like many of her romances, this one had a juicy secret. It turned out that the studio “arranged” the wedding after finding out that Stanwyck and Taylor were already in a scandalous live-in relationship. The stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age had to adhere by strict moral codes. This meant no fling without a ring.

Barbara Stanwyck sits on the terrace with her husband, Robert Taylor.

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Stanwyck was quite the naughty girl when she was in her forties. During that time, she began an affair with Robert Wagner, her Titanic costar, who was just 22 years old at the time. That relationship eventually ended, but things would get even more scandalous. She spent one steamy night with young heartthrob Farley Granger.

A Carnival on Set

The time Barbara Stanwyck spent on The Lady Eve was pretty bizarre. Preston Sturges, the film’s director, was a flamboyant fella as wacky as the comedies he created. He would walk around set wearing vibrant berets, feather hats, and waving cashmere scarves around to liven up his actors. But that was just the beginning.

Henry Fonda plays cards with Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from the film 'The Lady Eve'.

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When it was time to film Stanwyck’s steamy bedroom scene, Surges decided to put on a bathrobe in order to… get everyone in the mood? Ah, Old Hollywood. Sure, it’s important to have time on set, but sometimes you need to be serious and focused. The actress later described the entire experience as “a carnival.”

It Could Have Been Worse…

On October 27, 1981, 74-year-old Barbara Stanwyck lived everyone’s worst nightmare! A strange sound woke her up in the middle of the night, but before she knew what was happening, she was smacked in the head with an object and then stuffed into her closet.

Barbara Stanwyck, 1981, arrives for Sunday brunch.

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The intruder took thousands of dollars in jewels from the iconic actress. Unfortunately, the police never caught him. Although he got away with his crime, Stanwyck just feels lucky he didn’t harm her. Well, he didn’t physically hurt her, but she must have been so terrified.

Best Friends Forever

Barbara Stanwyck and fellow Hollywood legend Joan Crawford were life-long friends and even neighbors at one point. Crawford was also Stanwyck’s fiercest protector. Apparently, whenever things would get physical between Stanwyck and Frank Fay during their marriage, the actress would run away to Crawford’s house. She climbed the fence into her house and would hang out there until it was safe for her to go back home.

Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Taylor are out for dinner

Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor. Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Although they were best friends, Joan Crawford still served Stanwyck some cold-hearted betrayal. When the starring role for the classic Mildred Pierce was up for grabs, Stanwyck was hoping to get the part. However, Crawford was a little quicker and snatched the part. The kicker? That role landed Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress.

Irreconcilable Differences

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor had a happy marriage, but only for a time. Despite their mentor/mentee relationship and more than a decade of marriage, Taylor insisted that the actress file for divorce.

Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck sit at a table in a restaurant.

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As it says in the official records, Taylor wanted to move out of Hollywood, and Stanwyck didn’t. Understandable, right? Well, as it turns out, this was just a cover. The real reason was much darker. Taylor was involved in multiple affairs throughout their marriage – and apparently, so was Stanwyck.

The Best Actress Who Never Won an Oscar

Famed director Cecil B. DeMille had a favorite, and it was Barbara Stanwyck. In his autobiography, he admitted that she was his most beloved actress he had ever worked with, saying, “Barbara’s name is the first that comes to mind as one whom a director can always count to do her work with all her heart.” That is quite the compliment!

Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Two Mrs. Carrolls'.

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What was shocking, though, was that the talented actress never won an Academy Award, despite being nominated four times. People have referred to her as “The best actress who never won an Oscar.”

But She Received an Honorary Oscar

But in 1982, Stanwyck did win an honorary Oscar. When she was on stage to give her speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. She gave a heartfelt tribute to her fellow actor and close friend who recently passed away, William Holden.

Barbara Stanwyck is holding her Oscar in the press room.

Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

“I loved him very much, and I miss him,” the starlet said. “He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so, tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.” That is the sweetest thing ever! She certainly would have made him proud!

Her Last Wishes

After her split with Robert Taylor, Stanwyck never walked down the aisle again. She even told people he was the love of her life. When he passed away in 1969, Stanwyck was devastated. She mourned him so strongly that she even took a break from Hollywood. Yes, you heard that right: The dedicated Barbara Stanwyck actually took a break from work. That’s how you know she was totally heartbroken.

Barbara Stanwyck looks back while leaning against Robert Taylor.

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In 1990, when she was 82 years old, Stanwyck passed away from the pulmonary disease at a California hospital. In a move that didn’t surprise those closest to her, the actress didn’t want a funeral and banned anyone from giving her one.

It Ends Now

In the 1930s, Stanwyck’s first rocky marriage finally came to a horrific end. Their heated argument quickly escalated when the drunk and angry Fay threw their little son Tony into the swimming pool. Umm… that’s one way to traumatize your child.

Barbara Stanwyck is standing in the garden.

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At this point, Stanwyck was done. How he treated her was one thing, but the second he put their child in danger, Stanwyck knew it was over. It was the last straw for the actress. In 1935, she officially filed for divorce and took full custody of Tony.

She Went Blonde for One Role

When she was 15 and became a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, she was hired under the name Dolly Evans. During the 1922 Follies revue, the soon-to-be starlet danced in a ballet scene called “Frolicking Gods,” which was kind of like those Night at the Museum movies.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the pianola in a scene from 'Stella Dallas'.

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In 1937, the actress bleached her hair for the first and last time. It was for the lead role in the hit movie Stella Dallas. The film became so popular it was turned into a radio soap opera that ran for twenty years. Any other time she played a blonde, Stanwyck wore a wig.

Violated the Motion Picture Protection Code

In 1934, the Production Code – also known as the Hayes Code, began to enforce their strict rules in Hollywood in an attempt to clean up “indecency” from movies. Profanity, drug use, childbirth, and even interracial relationships were totally whitewashed from cinema. Everything needed a happy ending.

Stanwyck, as a nurse, gets very close to her co-star seductively.

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What spurred the policies were flicks like Night Nurse, which portrayed Stanwyck in lingerie, showed the attempted murder of children, and featured a dead Clark Gable at the end. Ironically, the staunch conservative starlet would become a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of America Ideals and support the blacklisting House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Attempted to Launch Some Pilots

The star switched to the small screen in the 1960s. Her first television job was The Barbara Stanwyck Show: an anthology show, but also something that continuously tried to set up the actress with another show.

Raymond Burr, Barbara Stanwyck, and Fred Astaire are holding their statuettes at the Emmy Awards.

Raymond Burr, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire. Photo Bruce Bailey/Archive Photos/Getty Images

One idea was where she was an American running an import-export shop in Hong Kong. Believe it or not, none of the new concepts were picked up as a full series for the network. But don’t sell her so short. Despite the show lasting just one season, Stanwyck earned her first Emmy thanks to that show.

The Role She Never Got to Play

Stanwyck was a strong believer in objectivism and pushed for Warner Bros. to buy the rights to the novel The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, although the book was a slow seller in the first few years after it was released. She really wanted to play Dominique Francon, the book’s heroine, in the movie adaptation.

Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey in a scene from the movie

Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey. Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Rand allowed Warner Bros. to purchase the rights on one condition: not one word of the dialogue could be changed. After production was delayed and many other events unfolded, it didn’t look like the movie was happening. Ultimately, director Mervyn LeRoy hired Patricia Neal for the role. He later criticized her performance and revealed she only got the part because they were having an affair. Poor Stanwyck was disappointed and left Warner Bros. after this incident.

Always a Southern Girl

Barbara Stanwyck was featured in the all-star cast of the primetime soap The Colbys, produced by Aaron Spelling. The Dynasty spin-off had a short run and ran from November 20, 1985, to March 26, 1987. In the lady episode, one of the Colbys is abducted by aliens.

Barbara Stanwyck is smiling to the side and wearing a cowgirl outfit.

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Although she became a femme fatale and a Hollywood sensation, Stanwyck remained a cowgirl deep down. She didn’t want a funeral or burial after she passed. Instead, she wished for her ashes to be scattered over Lone Pine, California. Sounds like a rustic setting for a good Hollywood Western.

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