A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK
Frank Capra called her “The greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.”
She was one of its most natural, timeless, and underrated stars.
Now Victoria Wilson gives the first full-scale life of Barbara Stanwyck, whose astonishing career
in movies (88 in all) spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound, and lasted in
television from its infancy in the 1950’s through the 1980’s—a book that delves deeply into her
rich, complex life and explores her extraordinary range of motion pictures, many of them iconic.
Here is her work, her world, her Hollywood…
We see the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock . . .
her years in New York as a 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, crucial in shaping the direction of her work, and who, together with his wife,
formed a trio that created 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—and beautiful—male star.
Here is the shaping of her career with many of Hollywood’s most important directors: among them, Frank Capra, “Wild Bill”
William Wellman (“When you get beauty and brains together,” he said, “there’s no stopping the lucky girl who possesses them.
The best example I can think of is Barbara.”), King Vidor, Cecil B. Demille, and Preston Sturges, all set against the times—
the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the unions, the advent of World War I—and a fast-changing, coming-of-age motion
And here is Stanwyck’s evolution as an actress in the pictures she made from 1929 through the summer of 1941 where Volume One
ends— from her first starring movie, The Locked Door (“An all-time low,” she said. “By then I was certain that Hollywood and I had nothing
in common”); and Ladies of Leisure, the first of her six-picture collaboration with Frank Capra (“He sensed things that you were trying to keep
hidden from people. He knew. He just knew”), to the scorching Baby Face, and the height of her screen perfection, beginning with Stella Dallas
(“I was scared to death all the time we were making the picture”), from Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and the epicUnion Pacific to the first of her
collaborations with Preston Sturges, who wroteRemember the Night, in which she starred.
And at the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself—her strengths, her fears, her frailties, her losses and desires; how she made use of the darkness
in her soul in her work and kept it at bay in her private life, and finally, her transformation from shunned outsider to one of Hollywood’s—and
America’s—most revered screen actresses.
Written with the full cooperation of Stanwyck’s family and friends, and drawing on more than two-hundred interviews with actors,
directors, cameramen, screenwriters, costume designers, et al., as well as making use of letters, journals, and private papers,
Victoria Wilson has brought this complex artist brilliantly alive. Her book is a revelation of the actor’s life and work.
With 274 photographs; many published for the first time.
Michael Korda on
A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK
Michael Korda has been Victoria Wilson’s editor during the fifteen years of
the Stanwyck project. He was the Editor in Chief of Simon and Schuster for
37 years and edited the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, David
McCullough, and countless others. He is also the prolific author of Hero:
The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Ulysses S. Grant, With Wings
Like Eagles, and more. He lives in upstate New York.
The phrases “long awaited” and “groundbreaking” are often cast around
rather too loosely in book publishing, but for once they apply with perfect
truth to Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907–1941,
the first volume of her remarkable biography of the brilliant, enigmatic and
complex actress whose life spanned the richest and fastest changing period
of the motion picture business, which included the coming of sound and
the beginning of color, and whose career took her from Broadway to
Hollywood stardom and television.
Movie star biographies taken as a genre tend to be slim and short on facts, more about glamor (and occasionally
scandal) than about the business of becoming a star, but Victoria Wilson has brought to her subject the narrative
brilliance, the phenomenal research, and the broad historical overview of such distinguished biographers as
Robert Caro and David McCullough—indeed this may be, to my knowledge is, the first time that a figure from
the world of show business has been treated as a serious subject, and the result is a major book that is not only
endlessly fascinating, but full of surprises, and above all thoroughly readable from the first page to the last.
Ms. Wilson has that most important of qualities for a biographer, empathy for her subject, but also the thirst for
details, the determination to root Barbara Stanwyck firmly in her time, and a real sense not only for what made
Barbara Stanwyck tick, but for how a movie gets made, as well as for the perfectionism and determination that
made Stanwyck a legendary performer who worked with such demanding directors as Frank Capra, King Vidor,
Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Anatole Litvak.
In the process, Ms. Wilson presents not just a riveting and profoundly convincing portrait of Barbara Stanwyck,
both as a woman and as a hugely gifted performer, with a careful, subtle description of her strengths and her
weaknesses, but a sweeping panorama of the world she came from, grew up in, and from which she fought her
way up to stardom at a time when America itself was changing radically and going through great historical
Fifteen years in the making—and that despite a career that has taken Victoria Wilson to an enviable position
as one of the most respected editors in book publishing, Vice President and Senior Editor at Alfred A. Knopf—
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: True Steel 1907–1941 establishes her as a uniquely gifted biographer, as sensitive
to Barbara Stanwyck’s traumatic childhood, complicated emotional life and difficult marriage as she is to
understand that most complicated of all the creative arts, the making of a motion picture.
In a career that spanned eighty-eight motion pictures, including such classics as Stella Dallas, Union Pacific,
Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number, Barbara Stanwyck carved out for herself a unique place as a
great star who brought to the screen much of the fierce intelligence, complexity, artistic integrity and inner
resolve that marked her own life.
This first volume ends with Stanwyck at the peak of her career, and I believe it will make you, as it did me,
look forward to the next volume.