by Dan Callahan. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. 252 pp., illus. Hardcover: $35.00
Unlike her contemporaries Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck never mythologized her own life. She never wrote a memoir and she was as reclusive as she could manage, even in the era of television talk shows in the latter part of her career. Over the course of fifty-six years in the public eye, however, she did drop a trail of tidbits to feed the publicity machine, and Dan Callahan is not the first to feed from them. This is the fourth biography of the star, and while it may be the most “heartfelt,” it is far from the most factual. Stanwyck was in the spotlight from 1927 to 1983, a spotlight she arguably attracted, in an industry to which she arguably contributed a great deal. Callahan nevertheless prefers a story of survival, and he finds this story mapped onto her many Hollywood roles in this critical biography that views her life through the prism of her films. “In her case,” he says, “she and her work are the same thing,” and his book is a curious conflation of Stanwyck’s personality with the many melodrama-ensconced characters she played.
The story begins with little Ruby Stevens (Stanwyck’s birth name) waiting on the steps of her Brooklyn apartment building for her mother to return, refusing to believe in her accidental death (she was hit by a streetcar; not long after, Ruby’s father mysteriously disappeared). Callahan picks up this woeful anecdote from Axel Madsen’s biography, which he incidentally dismisses as “woefully inaccurate.” Yet the orphan on the Brooklyn stoop reappears again and again in Callahan’s story, as the image of Stanwyck’s pitiful beginnings, craving for attention, and longing for love. He proceeds to speculate without reservation on “Stany’s” emotions in her various roles, based on their proximity to her own life and the “well of permanent hurt inside her.” For example, her two failed marriages haunt her relentlessly through her romantic pairings. She was, at first, “masochistically loyal” to her first husband, Frank Fay, a drama that is reprised in The Purchase Price (1932). Her divorce from Robert Taylor in 1947 was said at the time to be due to her “bossiness,” which Callahan finds reflected in her hysterical performance in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), among other films. He also attributes her erotic depiction of gambling in The Lady Gambles (1949) to her lack of satisfaction with Taylor: the “sense-memory of eroticism,” he says, comes through in her performance, as her character substitutes gambling for sex. It is true that Stanwyck had bad taste in men, and that she had a lot of lackluster leading men, but she also had some strong partners, such as Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, and Robert Ryan, who gave her something to work with. After 1947, the only hint of romance in her biography is Robert Wagner’s claim that he was her lover for a while in the Fifties, a bit of trivia that Callahan clings to in order to account for her self-confidence as an older, single woman.
This kind of fictional behind-the-scenes narrative is woven throughout the book, most of it frustratingly undocumented. Al Jolson was reputedly responsible for a couple of cigarette burns on Stanwyck’s chest, and every angry word and punch she throws on screen is aimed at him, along with the abusive Fay, and every other jerk that ever took advantage of her. Stanwyck adopted a son with Fay, whom she abandoned to boarding schools and military service. This bad mothering hounded her throughout her career, especially when the son, Dion, went public with his story in the early Sixties. For Callahan, Stanwyck’s failure as a mother informs her brilliant maternal performances in films such as Stella Dallas (1937) and All I Desire (1953), in which she proves she knows how to “act” like a good mother.
To read the complete review, click here so that you may order either a subscription to begin with our Summer 2012 issue, or a sample copy of the issue.