Barbara Stanwyck’s Private Life Was Harder Than Most People Imagine

Classic Hollywood may be associated with films, lavish parties, awards ceremonies, and celebrities, but it’s also known for its scandals, rumors, tragedies, and worse. 1940s’ golden girl Barbara Stanwyck knew the latter side of Hollywood all too well, experiencing more drama and tragedy than most people could expect to see in two lifetimes. Unfortunately, Stanwyck’s personal life was fraught with more problems and more complications than the public originally thought. Take a look to see who Stanwyck really was and the trials she encountered throughout her life.

Stanwyck Experienced True Tragedy When She Was Just Four

Portrait of Stanwyck
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although Stanwyck would experience trauma throughout her life, her relationship with tragedy would, unfortunately, begin at a young age. She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens and was the fifth and youngest child of Catherine Ann and Byron E. Stevens, working-class parents.

When Stanwyck was just four, her mother was pushed off of a moving streetcar by an intoxicated person. This resulted in her mother having a miscarriage, from which she died from complications. Obviously, this deeply affected her father.

Her Father Couldn’t Handle It

Stanwyck doing her eyelashes
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As though Stanwyck’s family hadn’t suffered enough after losing its matriarch and an expected baby, things only got worse. Devastated., Stanwyck’s father, Byron, decided that he didn’t have what it took to raise five children on his own.

So, just two weeks after his wife’s funeral, he joined a work crew assigned with digging the Panama Canal, and his family never saw him again. For some time after, Stanwyck, and her older brother were raised by their eldest sister Laura.

Entering The Foster Care System

Portrait of young Stanwyck
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Although Stanwyck’s older sister Laura cared for her and her brother for as long as she could, when Laura got a job as a showgirl, she and her brother were placed in the foster care system.

While in the system, Stanwyck was moving up to four times a year and was constantly running away. She even took up smoking at the age of nine and didn’t quit until four years before her death. Eventually, she ran away for good, joining her sister on tour during the summers of 1916 and 1917.

A Disaster That Resulted In Infertility

Stanwyck on the phone
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

At the age of 14, Stanwyck dropped out of school and began working as a package wrapper at a Brooklyn department store. She never attended high school, although early biographical thumbnail sketches had her attending Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School.

Then, at the age of 15, Stanwyck became pregnant and had an abortion. Back then, this procedure was not only highly illegal but incredibly dangerous. To make matters worse, the doctors botched the surgery, leaving the teenage Stanwyck infertile for the rest of her life.

A Doomed Relationship On Broadway

Portrait of Stanwyck
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1923, just a few months after her 16th birthday, Stanwyck auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a nightclub in Times Square. For the next few years, Stanwyck worked as a chorus girl until 1927 when she became a Broadway star after scoring her first leading role in Burlesque.

During her time on Broadway, she met a co-star named Rex Cherryman on the set of The Noose, and although he was married, the two ran away together. Tragically, he died of septic shock on their retreat to Paris.

The Noose Didn’t Only Result In Tragedy

Portrait of Stanwyck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although her lover/co-star of The Noose would die early on in their relationship, the production of the Broadway show wasn’t all bad. It was during that time that Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, came up with the stage name that we all know and love her by.

At the suggestion of theatrical producer David Belasco, she changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck by combining the first name from the play Barbara Frietchie, The Frederick Girl, and the last name of the actress of the play, Jane Stanwyck. Both were found on a 1906 theater program.

Career Hurdles

Portrait of Stanwyck
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Although Stanwyck had a successful stint on Broadway with Arthur Hopkins calling her “the greatest natural actress of our time,” when it came to her transition to film, she had a few setbacks. At one point, producer Bob Kane gave Stanwyck a screen test for his upcoming 1927 film Broadway Nights.

However, Stanwyck lost her chance at the lead role because she couldn’t cry on demand during the test. Instead, she was given a minor role as a fan dancer, which was her first film appearance.

Meeting Her First Husband

Stanwyck and Fay
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

While acting in Burlesque, Stanwyck was introduced to her first husband, actor Frank Fay. The two eventually fell in love and were married on August 26, 1928.

Yet, not long after their marriage, Stanwyck began to explode in popularity and was becoming increasingly in demand by studios and directors. Her fame led to her new husband to become jealous of her. Unfortunately, Fay took his jealousy out on her physically in drunken rages.

A Bond With Joan Crawford

Stanwyck and Crawford
William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Luckily for Stanwyck, she had somewhere to go when things became particularly ugly between her and Fay. She lived next door to another Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford, and she would hop the fence to her neighbor’s building to wait until Fay had calmed down enough so that it was safe for her to come home.

It was during these times that the two established a close bond that would make the two actresses one of the most popular friendships in Hollywood.

Ending Things With Fay

Fay and Stanwyck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unable to have children after moving to Hollywood, Stanwyck and Fay adopted a ten-month-old son on December 5, 1932. However, sharing a child didn’t help their tumultuous marriage.

Stanwyck finally ended their union after Fay, in a drunken rage, threw their adopted son, Tony, into the pool. Stanwyck had enough and filed for divorce and full custody over their son, which she won. Nevertheless, it would seem that Stanwyck winning custody wouldn’t flourish into a loving mother-and-son relationship.

A Troubled Relationship

Stanwyck and her son
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Regardless that Stanwyck won custody over her son, it didn’t improve her mothering abilities. Apparently, Stanwyck was rather hard on Tony, with some describing her as raising her son with an authoritarian strictness with demanding expectations.

After Tony’s childhood, the two became estranged, meeting just a few times during his adult life. According to Time Magazine, Tony “resembled her in just one respect: both were, effectively, orphans.” Tony would eventually pass away in 2006, having little connection to his mother.

Becoming Involved With Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor and Stanwyck
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

While making His Brother’s Wife in 1936, she became involved with her co-star Robert Taylor. The two began secretly living together, which sparked countless rumors about the couple’s relationship. Although Stanwyck was hesitant about being married for a second time, in 1939, their marriage was arranged by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The couple would eventually divorce in 1950, with many rumors claiming that the source of their separation was Taylor’s constant infidelity and that Stanwyck was having affairs of her own. However, the two remained close friends after their marriage ended.

She Had To Be Concinved To Be In Double Indemnity

MacMurray and Stanwyck
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Double Indemnity was released in 1944 and is considered by many to be Stanwyck’s most iconic performance. The movie was a film noir that had the actress playing a seductive femme fatale that convinces a starstruck insurance salesman to kill her husband. Although it’s believed that Stanwyck was snubbed out of an Oscar, she almost didn’t take the role.

Stanwyck was hesitant about playing a killer on screen, but director Billy Wilder wasn’t going to accept that for an answer. To convince her, Wilder asked, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” And that was that.

People Made Fun Of Her Costume

Stanwyck in Double Indemnity
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Even though many believe that the film is one of her most memorable roles and describing her character as “the most notorious femme” in the film noir genre, she didn’t escape criticism.

Some people had some issues with her costume, specifically her wig, which had a lot of people talking. One producer even went so far as to call her “George Washington.” Wilder defended Stanwyck saying the wig was a deliberate choice until after filming, he admitted that it was a mistake.

At The Top Of The Industry

Stanwyck in a dress
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

By 1944, Stanwyck had made such an impact in Hollywood that not only was she the highest-paid actress in the industry, but the highest-paid female in all of the United States.

From a girl that had been through so much at a young age and into her adult life, this was quite the accomplishment. Of course, not everyone at the time knew about the many trials and tribulations that she had faced to get to where she was.

She Was Stubborn In Her Political Beliefs

Stanwyck posing
Margaret Chute/Getty Images
Margaret Chute/Getty Images

Although Stanwyck is best known for being an actress, she was also firm in political beliefs. She strongly opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal.” Having faced adversity and risen to the status that she had, she didn’t believe in government and felt that anyone could succeed on their own.

She was also an early member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of Ideals, which opposed communist ideals and the promotion of them in Hollywood.

She Didn’t Slow Down In Her Later Years

Stanwyck posing
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Even at the age of 45, it was clear that Stanwyck could still get whatever she wanted. During that time, she had a four-year romantic affair with 22-year-old Robert Wagner, whom she had met on the set of Titanic in 1954. Of course, Stanwyck was the one to eventually end the relationship.

In the 1950s, Stanwyck also had a one-night stand with another young actor, Farley Granger. He described the encounter in his autobiography Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway.

She Was Also A Stuntwoman

On the set of the Cattle Queen of Montana
RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images
RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

While working on 1954’s Cattle Queen of Montana on location in Glacier National Park, Stanwyck performed many of her own stunts such as swimming in an icy lake. Furthermore, at the age of 50, she performed an incredible stunt on the set of Forty Guns with her character falling off of a horse, and with her foot caught in the stirrup, she was dragged by the animal.

The stunt was so dangerous that even the professional stuntmen on the set refused to do it until Stanwyck volunteered. Her devotion to doing her own stunts led her to become an Honorary Member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.

She Was Attacked In Her 70s

Stanwych in 1981
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

After retiring from Hollywood, Stanwyck remained active in various other facets of her life, such as charity work, which she participated in often, and out of the limelight. In 1981, while living in the Trousdale area of Beverly Hills, the 74-year-old Stanwyck was awoken by a masked assailant breaking into her home.

She was hit in the head with a heavy flashlight and then forced into the closet while the intruder made out with $40,000 in jewels. Unfortunately, they were never caught.

Her Final Years

Stanwyck in a coat
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In 1982, while filming The Thorn Birds, Stanwyck contracted bronchitis from the special-effects smoke, which was only made worse by her decades-long addiction to cigarettes. On January 20, 1990, Stanwyck passed away from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at a hospital in Santa Monica.

Prior to her death, she indicated that she didn’t want a funeral service, and, in accordance with her wishes, her ashes were scattered from a helicopter over Line Pine, California.