12 things you never knew about Barbara Stanwyck

Few have led so full a life. Learn fascinating facts about the actress' schooling, wigs, salary and friendships.

How does one condense so great a life into a dozen bullet points? It is impossible. Barbara Stanwyck is carved into the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood actresses. The recent biography of the legend, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, packed a whopping 1,056 pages — and that is just the first volume, the first third of her life.

Born Ruby Stevens, the Brooklyn native had a hard, full childhood that led to an uncommonly precocious start in showbiz. She went on to become one of the most beloved figures in the industry, by her peers as well as her fans. Frank Capra once said, "In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down."

Let's take a look at some fascinating facts about the entertainment titan.

1. She never attended high school.

At the age of 14, after completing the eighth grade at P.S. 152, Ruby decided to get a full time job instead of matriculating onward to Erasmus Hall High School. The teenager worked as a switchboard operator, a file clerk, a package wrapper at Abraham & Straus, and at the Vogue Pattern Center. There is still some confusion about her education, as even an Erasmus Hall alumni page lists Stanwyck, as well as the school's Wikipedia page.

Image: AP Photo

2. She became a Ziegfeld's Follies dancer at the age of 15.

She was hired under the name Dolly Evans. In the 1922 Follies revue, the soon-to-be-Stanwyck danced in a ballet scene called "Frolicking Gods," which was a bit like those Night at the Museum movies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

3. Her crime film 'Night Nurse' was one of the films that led to the Motion Picture Production Code.

In 1934, the Production Code, also known as the Hayes Code, began to be strictly enforced in Hollywood, a way to try and clean up "indecency" from movies. Everything from profanity and drug use to childbirth and interracial relationships were white washed from movies. Everything needed a happy ending. What spurred the puritanical policing were gritty flicks like Night Nurse, which featured Stanwyck in lingerie, the attempted murder of children, and a dead Clark Gable at the close. Ironically, the staunchly conservative Stanwyck would become a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and support the blacklisting House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Image: Night Nurse

4. She truly went blonde for just one role, Stella Dallas.

Stanwyck bleached her hair once, for the lead in 1937's Stella Dallas, a film so popular it spawned a radio soap opera that ran for two decades. In other roles in which she played a blonde, the actress would wear a wig. Most notably in a brilliant classic…

Image: Stella Dallas

5. Billy Wilder intentionally dressed her in a terrible wig for 'Double Indemnity.'

For what is arguably the greatest noir film ever made, director Billy Wilder opted to slap a shoddy, cheap wig on his beautiful star. Critics moaned that the piece was too fake, but that was Wilder's intent. Wilder wanted "to make her look as sleazy as possible."

Image: Double Indemnity

6. She was the highest paid woman in America in 1944.

That wig was the only thing cheap about Stanwyck in 1944. She was named the highest earning woman in the land, raking in $400,000 that year. To put that in perspective, that's approximately $5.4 million in today's cash, a third of what Reese Witherspoon earned last year.

Image: Double Indemnity

7. William Holden remained forever grateful to Stanwyck for his career.

Producers were more than reluctant to cast the unknown Holden as the lead in the 1939 boxing flick. Stanwyck insisted on his casting. Holden earned the role of the violinist-pugilist, and remained so grateful to Stanwyck, his first big role, that he reportedly shipped her flowers every year to mark the anniversary of the first day of the filming. Four decades later, at the 50th Academy Awards, Holden and Stanwyck were presenting a Sound Oscar, when Holden publicly thanked her for all she did in a tearful, eternal moment.

Image: Golden Boy

8. 'The Barbara Stanwyck Show' unsuccessfully attempted to launch a few pilots for new series.

In the 1960s, the star turned to the small screen. Her first television gig, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, was an anthology show, but also a vehicle that repeatedly attempted to set up the actress with another series. In one concept, she was an American running an import-export shop in Hong Kong. Somehow, none of these were picked up by the network as full series. Though it lasted just a season, the show earned Stanwyck her first Emmy.

9. She was a big fan of author Ayn Rand.

A believer of objectivism, Stanwyck pushed for Warner Bros. to purchase the rights to the novel The Fountainhead, which was a slow seller in its first few years in print.

Image: AP Photo / Associated Press

10. Victoria was the only member of the Barkley family to not get shot on 'The Big Valley.'

Heath was hit the most, and Nick has the unfortunate honor of being the only Barkley who is shot twice in the same episode.

11. She was in a 'Dynasty' spin-off with Charlton Heston and Ricardo Montalban.

Produced by Aaron Spelling, the primetime soap The Colbys featured a stellar cast, yet the Dynasty spin-off only ran from November 20, 1985 to March 26, 1987. In the final episode, one of the Colbys is abducted by aliens.

12. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California.

Though she was everything from a dancer to a femme fatale, Stanwyck remained a cowgirl at heart. She requested no funeral, no burial upon her death. Instead, her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, the rustic setting for dozens of Hollywood Westerns.

Image: Annie Oakley

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RobertBlahBlahBlah 23 months ago
One of the most interesting things about Stanwyck got left out entirely. When she was 21 she married a guy who was a huge Broadway star. He got invited to Hollywood where he never managed to break into films. But she instead got a string of big breaks instead. While she was becoming one of the first big actresses of the sound era, he drank. While their marriage crumbled, she shared her frustrations and woes with her next door neighbor, a newly arrived screenwriter (later successful director) Bill Wellman. Knowing a good story when he heard one Wellman turned Stanwyck's story of a former star who turns to alcohol while his wife becomes a star into a screenplay. The script then got turned into a highly acclaimed film starring Fredrich March and Janet Gaynor entitled A STAR IS BORN, which was later remade with Judy Garland and James Mason and again remade with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and finally remade yet again with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Now, one popular rumor has long been - never confirmed by William Wellman - that the original, real life couple was Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson. But today, with Wellman's connection to Stanwyck and her first husband Frank Fay better known, we know better.

AN UNEXPECTED HAPPY ENDING - Unlike the men in various versions of A STAR IS BORN, Frank Fay did not commit suicide. And for a long time, he also failed to achieve professional success. But about ten years after his marriage to Stanwyck ended, Frank Fay achieved a mammoth success on Broadway, playing a slightly crazed rabbit lover in the play HARVEY, which a couple of years later became a huge film success for Jimmy Stewart. So things ended up working out for everyone. Anyway, if you were doing a list of things people didn't know about Barbara Stanwyck, you'd figure that her connection to A STAR IS BORN would get a mention.
mawagner 39 months ago
You forgot about her major role as Rachel Ward's mother in The Thorn Birds in 1983 where she was lusting after the priest, Richard Chamberlain.
SFocosi 39 months ago
Your Bio-pic forgot her most endearing Christmas/New Years' movie roles as the news-woman reporter in Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE where she had to play a writer wo had to save her job by Chastising a person who would commit suicide by jumping off a high-rise building at the time, where he then becomes like a cult-leader to many an adoring fan by her words. Not much unlike today, but Trump was born rich, & he does not need constituents helping his case; he won & lost, by hook & crook. Another Capra blacklisted movie ahead of its time because it exposed politics soft under-belly.
rkainne 39 months ago
It's interesting how they left out the part of her homosexuality. This was a very difficult period of time when everything that wasn't Hayes coded (I know Breen was the author but it is widely known as the "Hayes Code") and therefore a vehicle for conservative values was a career destroyer. Still, to prove gay people are like everyone else and not all liberal, her mind was as closed as her closet.
AngeliaKim rkainne 35 months ago
So what? I will take her over ANY ACTRESS of Today!
RobertBlahBlahBlah rkainne 23 months ago
Her so-called homosexuality has been discredited at this point. Her second husband was gay - Robert Taylor - but there isn't a shred of evidence that she was Lesbian. No biggie if she was; it just is that she was not. In fact, if anything she teetered on the edge of asexuality.
Donald 39 months ago
The beggining of Mccarthyism started in DC, but only gained traction in the even then extremely powerful liberal left Hollyweird elites leant a hand. I loved Big Valley. But also knew that Stanwyck was no naive little school girl playing a wholesome mother. She had a huge part in black balling several people out of hollywood. She was the most powerful woman in Hollywood and she used that power negatively an viciously.
SteveThames 39 months ago
Much preferred big valley to bonanza; similar shows go me ; Heath was my fav; lost Richard long much too soon
dangler1907 39 months ago
Phew. Ayn Rand lover and a "commie hunter"/blacklister? No wonder I never cared for that woman.
RobertEgloff dangler1907 39 months ago
Too bad you never cared for her. She was an accomplished, brilliant actress. I've never seen her in a movie or TV role, where she didn't excel.
Debby dangler1907 39 months ago
Yes I read this about her years ago. She like a few others turned against her fellow performers when she involved herself in the Red Scare and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She was an OK actress but I personally never liked her.
Debby RobertEgloff 39 months ago
She was an OK actress but there is more to her that that. Too bad mostly negative.
RobertBlahBlahBlah Debby 23 months ago
The only hugely negative thing about Stanwyck I know about is that she made Joan Crawford look like mother of the year. Barbara was a bad, bad, bad, bad mother. She adopted a kid almost on a whim and then proceeded to pretend he didn't exist. His spend his entire childhood at boarding school and she then refused to let him stay with her on his holidays. I love her as an actress, but what she did to that poor boy deserves a special corner in he'll. It is hard to understand how anyone can treat someone as badly as she did him. What breaks my heart is that first he was orphaned and then things got infinitely worse for him when she adopted him. Nothing angers me so much as the abuse of a child.
First, I'm to the Left of Karl Marx politically and she is nonetheless my favorite actress. I can't believe you have seen THE LADY EVE. To see that movie is to love Barbara Stanwyck, and to make you angry that she didn't make more comedies (and ditto Henry Fonda, who makes multiple pratfalls in the same film).

Politically she was closer to a liberal Republican, a thing that used to exist. She gets identified as a right winger for some unfair reasons. First and above all, people assume her politics were similar to Robert Taylor's, when in fact one of the reasons she divorced him was his increasing involvement in McCarthyism. Not only did she NOT work to blacklist anyone, she actually went out of her way to get behind the scenes work for blacklisted individuals. Another reason she gets identified as an ultra right winger was Ayn Rand. She liked Rand as a novelist, not as a thinker. She was a passionate reader of popular fiction (that is, detective fiction, mysteries, and best sellers, but not so much classic writers like Hugo and Dickens). For thr past several decades of her life she would get into bed early with a book, and read until she dosed off. The third reason she is unfairly identified as a right winger is the fact that when a young, struggling, not very talented actress kept getting rejected by the Screen Actors Guild for roles (SAG was not, as many think, a union at the time - it was created by the studios and all its officers for the first couple of decades were appointed by the studios, and the presidents were named by studio heads, not voted on by members). The actress had discovered that a writer with a name the same has hers had been
lefty in the thirties, and she had been confused with her. Stanwyck told her she knew the actor the studios had appointed to the SAG presidency for that year, and she could arrange for the actress, Nancy Walker, to meet with Ronald Reagan to get matters straightened out. So Stanwyck is the one who introduced Ron and Nancy. But, again, Barbara had much more in common with many of her leftist friends like Henry Fonda (one of the most passionate leftwingers in Hollywood) and Zeppo Marx (a sometimes next door neighbor and business partner and horse riding buddy); both loved to bred dogs (many Hollywood stars bought their German Shepherds from Zeppo). The truth is that Stanwyck, like many in Hollywoodbat the time, quickly came to hate the political games of the Fifties. Very, very few actors - though there were exceptions like Reagan and Forrest Tucker and Robert Taylor and Adolph Menjou and Donald Crisp). The studios mainly liked to used the Commie scare as a way to control the writers. whom they saw as the ones behind the unions in Hollywood. They didn't give a flip about Communists, but they HATED unions, which is why they started creating fake unions like SAG.
F5Twitster 40 months ago
"In 1934, the Production Code, also known as the Hayes Code, began to be strictly enforced in Hollywood..."

It's official name was the Breen Code, after Joseph Breen, who drew it up and and administered.

As for

"Producers were more than reluctant to cast the unknown Holden as the lead in the 1939 boxing flick."

The writers of this piece seem not to know that that film actually has a title: "Golden Boy."
obectionoverruled 40 months ago
Her role in Double Indemnity was unforgettable. The scene in which she surreptitiously meets her lover Fred MacMurray between the shelves in the supermarket is a classic. She was a natural, unlike more lauded actresses such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn, say, because she didn’t have to ‘act’. She played herself and her roles became her, not the other way around.
AgingDisgracefully 40 months ago
Tough chick. How tough?
Two of her three sons on Big Valley were made of Samsonite.
Or so I've been led to understand.
What does that mean??
Cowgirl 40 months ago
She was a very interesting lady & I'd like to learn more about her. I always enjoyed watching her in The Big Valley. I wish MeTV would have used a better picture at the top of this story. The one they picked is awful. The Big Valley was on for 4 years, so they could have used a picture that didn't have a pink tinit to it.
AnnieM Cowgirl 40 months ago
The Ziegfeld photo is beautiful.
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