'A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True' Has Moments of Energy and Verve

The long-awaited first volume of an encyclopedic biography of Barbara Stanwyck’s life and career arrives on shelves with plenty of flaws for the second installment to correct.

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

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 1,056 pages
Author: Victoria Wilson
Price: $40.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

The numbers 1907-1940 on the cover of a Barbara Stanwyck biography prompt a double-take without so much of a glance between its pages. Only up to 1940? cries the eager Stanwyck fan? That just misses Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, which came out the very next year! She won’t even get to read her reviews for Meet John Doe! And we have to wait another ten years for part two before reading about Double Indemnity?

Worry not, dear reader. Author Victoria Wilson decided to cut off her narrative at the cusp of Stanwyck’s major stardom with consideration of the mountains of research conducted for this biography, which builds a world around the actress born Ruby Stevens that proves far more fascinating than any heretofore unknown tidbits about Billy Wilder’s conduct onset. Indeed, Wilson does not even refer to the actress by her stage name until a major role gives her opportunity to change it, and reflects a constant identity crisis by switching back and forth between “Ruby” and “Barbara” for many pages.

For the appeal of Stanwyck -- a performer for whom Wilson demonstrates the sort of fervent admiration necessary to sustain a project like this over more than a decade -- lies in her consummate professionalism and devotion to each part, allowing her to fit smoothly into the anguished melodramas of William A. Wellman as well as the rich comedies of Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen. The sort of discipline Stanwyck displayed over her rightly-heralded career on stage and screen is no one’s birthright, and the early chapters, depicting a young Ruby Stevens flitting between odd jobs before eking out a living as a dancer and eventually a stage actress in the New York City of the '20s, provide the necessary perspective to sympathize with the mercurial and enigmatic character she remained throughout her life in Hollywood.

There are multiple possibilities, though, as to why Stanwyck becomes more elusive after having followed her rise to success onscreen. One is that Stanwyck, as Wilson reminds the reader throughout, never fully acclimated to the life of a movie star, developing a touchy relationship with the press as they endlessly predicted the failure of her first marriage to the brilliant but unstable Broadway comedian Frank Fay. As well, the records of Stanwyck’s public actions find her full of contradictions, alternately fighting tenaciously to keep the son she fought to adopt out of Fay’s hands after the divorce and later sending the boy off to military school at the age of six.

But the third and most significant factor in Stanwyck’s opacity throughout the biography is its lack of a clear organizing principle; Wilson has published a book which apparently no one bothered to read before printing. Her scrupulous, just-the-facts approach does necessarily and admirably eschew the sort of conventional dramatic arc that so many celebrity biographers have resorted to in order to humanize their subjects. Yet Wilson should not be praised simply for a high quantity of fact-finding, as good published research demands quality of structure and presentation, as well.

The book’s lack of editing reveals itself awkwardly with the repetition of certain anecdotes; one involving a chance encounter with Irving Thalberg crops up twice as if told by a forgetful relative. Moreover, Wilson’s commitment to sketching out the broader history of Hollywood in the late ‘20s and ‘30s never quite rivals her vivid portrait of New York in Ruby’s childhood, which adheres to a limited perspective and has the seedy rush of all the best show-biz narratives despite forgoing the usual conventions.

Much later, a brief history of the formation of the Screen Actors’ Guild unfolds as an aside over several pages, culminating in one sentence relating that Stanwyck wasn’t a member until years later. This is hardly the sloppiest or most miscalculated of Wilson’s info-dumps; one might go for a dozen pages at a time before suddenly jerking their head up and thinking “wait, where’s Barbara during all this?” A page or so telling that Stanwyck’s next film would be Stella Dallas leads into a brief overview of the source material’s author, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, then her dissatisfaction with the stage play, then six pages summarizing the plot of the 1925 silent film adaptation, four pages on its production by director Henry King (who never worked with Stanwyck), and another seven pages on the tribulations of director King Vidor in mounting the 1937 remake with the interference of producer Samuel Goldwyn. Got all that?

To complain of too much detail in a biography of almost a thousand pages would be foolhardy, but Wilson’s affinity for packing each page with as much information as possible about the birth, life, and career of every single side character gets pretty exhausting, especially without any consistent throughline. The Stella Dallas chapter, fortunately, sees Wilson briefly swept up in her enthusiasm for Stanwyck’s performance, in which the actress ages decades onscreen. These bursts of passion for the book’s subject, scattered and infrequent as they are, elevate the tangled strands of surrounding trivia into something that can appear for brief passages to be a coherent whole.

Wilson’s book is alternately a fleet and shambling thing, one which struggles to inject some drama into monotonous episodes of Fay and Stanwyck’s home life but later manages to summon the full relief and delight of the actress’s subsequent relationship with Hollywood then-newcomer, Robert Taylor. Moments of real energy and verve arrive whenever Wilson allows herself a minute’s indulgence in the power of Stanwyck’s story, her immense talent and her struggles to exist happily in the place that allowed its fullest expression.

Why are these moments so scattershot? The Stella Dallas chapter illustrates rather well what gets in the way of a full portrait of Stanwyck: Wilson is so invested in the ideal of her intense research, of digging up all the facts about every significant figure of interest in each individual Stanwyck production, that it becomes impossible to relate all of them back to the story of a particular person, or even a time, place or medium. What is the Stella Dallas chapter about? Is it about turn-of-the-century literature? The perils of adaptations? The distance between silent and sound-era Hollywood? The difficulty of directorial expression underneath the yoke of heavily regulated studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer? By retaining such a vast scholarly remove and transitioning awkwardly (with line breaks and section markers) between disparate subjects, Wilson leaves the reader struggling to make out what that blurry picture in the distance is supposed to be, let alone what they should take away from it. It’s a guided tour through a forest that takes the time to list every available fact about the trees, one by one.

Another volume is on the horizon, and the closing quotation of volume one is a speech from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, which urges at the outbreak of World War II that Americans are “the only lights left in the world”. This is something like a mission statement, or at least as close as Wilson gets to one, for act two: an intent to show just how crucial Stanwyck is to the beacon that America and its culture were to a pivotal point in world history. Here’s hoping for perhaps a shorter book, and a fuller story.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.