A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940

by Victoria Wilson

Hardcover, 2013




Simon & Schuster (2013), Edition: First Edition ~1st Printing, 1056 pages


"Fifteen years in the making, the first volume of the full-scale astonishing life of one of our greatest screen actresses whose career in pictures spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound--the first to delve deeply into Stanwyck's rich, complex life and to explore her extraordinary range of eighty-eight motion pictures, many of them iconic; her work, her world, her Hollywood through an American century.Frank Capra called her, "The greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known." Yet she was one of its most natural, timeless, and underrated stars. Now Victoria Wilson, gives us the most complete portrait we have yet had, or will have, of this magnificent actresses, seen as the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock...her years in New York as dancer and Broadway star...her fraught marriage to Frank Fay, Broadway genius, who influenced a generation of actors and comedians (among them, Jack Benny and Stanwyck herself)...the adoption of a son, embattled from the outset; her partnership with the "unfunny" Marx brother, Zeppo, together creating one of the finest horse breeding farms in the west; her fairytale romance and marriage to the younger Robert Taylor, America's most sought-after male star...Here is the shaping of her career working with many of Hollywood's most important directors: among them, Capra, King Vidor, Cecil B. Demille, Preston Sturges, all set against the times--the Depression, the rise of the unions, the coming of World War II and a fast-evolving coming-of-age motion picture industry. At the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself--her strengths, her fears, her desires--how she made use of the darkness in her soul, keeping it at bay in her private life, transforming herself from shunned outsider into one of Hollywood's--and America's--most revered screen actresses. Written with full access to Stanwyck's family, friends, colleagues, and never-before-seen letters, journals and photographs"--… (more)


(19 ratings; 3.4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mckall08
This is a long book - over 700 pages of prose and a couple of hundred more of filmography, index, and footnotes. And the print is small!!! You can tell I'm one of those guys that would rather have a lot of good food, rather than l smidgen of gourmet fare. I'm astounded that I'm 300 pages in and
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still reading. [More sooner or later]
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LibraryThing member MCampbellUNPress
I'm terribly disappointed in this and I would like to write a long, long essay why. Some major problems: Wilson quotes "Barbara said" throughout, with lengthy excerpts. Checking the notes, these seem to be from stories in Modern Screen, etc. Those stories were largely made up by publicists and
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copywriters, and hardly could reflect Stanwyck's internal thoughts and motivations; Wilson must know this. In many cases, these "Barbara said" quotations are so clearly the made-up prose of a publicist that they are laughable. Yet Wilson isn't using them ironically, she takes them as gospel.
Secondly, there is a failure to connect the dots. For example: Stanwyck leaves an abusive, seven-year marriage to a raging alcoholic, and immediately becomes friends with a woman who is a heavy drinker. Since Stanwyck's father was also an alcoholic, some speculation as to a pattern of behavior (Al-Anon not yet existing) seems in order. Yet these disjointed facts are just left laying on the page. As this is a doorstop of a book, that's a lot of bits left laying around. Why?
Wilson's deliberate style is pointillist, a fact here, a fact there, and there is so much backtracking and repetition that it becomes hard to follow. Threads are drawn together poorly, or not at all. For example Stanwyck's relationship with Joan Crawford, who appears at scattered intervals, beginning when they were Ruby Stevens and Lucille LeSeur. At one point they seem strangers, then close, then strangers, then antagonists. Huh? Again, this occurs way too often to be careless, it must be deliberate, but it is infuriating. I don't understand Stanwyck's relationships with Mae Clarke or Crawford any better than I did before reading this. That's a failure.
Poor copy editing and typos mar the book. Pictures appear without captions. "He" instead of "She" in the middle of one long paragraph makes nonsense of an entire plot synopsis.
And so on. I decided not to finish, after 500+ pages, as I just don't trust this biographer. I do not understand the rave reviews. So long, with so much pointless material (what every contributor to a movie was paid in salary, for a movie Stanwyck wasn't even in), and in the end, to no point.
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LibraryThing member ceg045
I received A Life of Barbara Stanwyck as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

This first volume tells the tale of the first 33 years of Stanwyck's life. At nearly 900 pages, Wilson's research is broad and deep, and very impressive. The book begins with a brief family history, then moves into an account of
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her childhood--essentially an orphan, she was bounced between the homes of her older siblings and family friends. As a young teen, she got her start on the New York stage, gaining a reputation as a skilled stage actress before making the jump to Hollywood. In the midst of all this, the book explores her personal relationships: her first abusive marriage to stage performer Frank Fay, the adoption of their son Dion, her tumultuous divorce, and her second marriage to heartthrob Robert Taylor, not to mention her friendships and working relationships with Frank Capra, Zeppo Marx, and others.

Great research aside, I think there's something to be said for a good editor. To be honest, I'm not an expert on or aficionado of Stanwyck or Old Hollywood in general, so I came into this book as a relative novice. I think too much time was spent in long drawn-out explanations of the backstories and plots of her various films (as well as those of her two husbands, Frank Fay and Robert Taylor). At times, I felt the thread of the narrative--Stanwyck's life--kept getting lost.

Finally, the more I read, the more I just didn't like Stanwyck herself--for example, her refusal to receive a lower salary during the Great Depression--I'll grant she had a case by the letter of the law (her contract), but when behind-the-scenes laborers were getting their much smaller salaries cut dramatically, it came off as a bit diva-like and greedy to me. Also, I wasn't particularly impressed by her treatment of her son Dion. I'm guessing that the second volume will include more on their relationship, but sending a six year old to military school because he's plump doesn't give the best early impression.

While I give Wilson credit for the pure amount of information she has found, organized, and disseminated, this one just didn't grab me. Fans of Stanwyck or of this era of Hollywood cinema may very well disagree, however.
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LibraryThing member rhbouchard
I'd have to agree with the previous reviews - a lot of information, but that seems to be it. It's more of an encyclopedia than a life story - it's just a series of facts or publicity quotes, in some cases.
What was a real treasure are the background stories of everyone Barbara meets or works with.
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We get a lot of how some of the famous, even legendary Hollywood personalities got their start and where they were career-wise and personal life wise up to the time they intersect with Barbara.
Not sure if I'll pick-up the next volume.
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Original language


Physical description

9.25 inches


0684831686 / 9780684831688
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