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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 [Kindle Edition]

Victoria Wilson
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (136 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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 us the first full-scale life of Barbara Stanwyck, whose astonishing career in movies (eighty-eight in all) spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound, and lasted in television from its infancy in the 1950s through the 1980s—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 fairy-tale 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. De Mille, and Preston Sturges, all set against the times—the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the unions, the advent of World War II—and a fast-changing, coming-of-age motion picture industry.

And here is Stanwyck’s evolution as an actress in the pictures she made from 1929 through the summer of 1940, 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 epic Union Pacific to the first of her collaborations with Preston Sturges, who wrote Remember 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.

Writing 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.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Michael Korda on A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 By Victoria Wilson

Michael Korda

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, 1907-1940, 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 crises.

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: Steel True 1907-1940 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 expectantly to the next volume.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Likely best remembered for her roles in the classic films Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number, Stanwyck enjoyed a career that spanned four decades, from chorus girl to Broadway to film to television star. Wilson spent 15 years exhaustively researching the life and career of an iconic actress (this is the first of two volumes). Born Ruby Stevens, orphaned at a young age, she was steeled by a traumatic childhood in Brooklyn. Wilson chronicles Stevens’ transformation from chorus girl to Broadway actress, the name change, and other metamorphoses along the way to a career in 88 films, a troubled marriage to Broadway stage actor Frank Fay, and, later, a fairy-tale marriage to a young Robert Taylor as well as her work with legendary directors Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Wilson also chronicles the metamorphoses of Broadway and moviemaking, with the advent of sound and then color, through the seismic social and cultural changes of Prohibition, the world wars, and the Great Depression. Richly researched, drawing on interviews with Stanwyck’s friends, family, and colleagues as well as her journals and letters, this biography offers insights into the strengths and insecurities of a woman famous for her trademark toughness and vulnerability. Photographs enhance this fabulous and expansive examination of the life of an iconic American actress. --Vanessa Bush

Product Details

  • File Size: 31303 KB
  • Print Length: 1057 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 12, 2013)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00A28GU6I
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #249,634 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An encyclopedia as well as a biography - a disappointment November 22, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is no doubt that the long awaited biography of Barbara Stanwyck will be the benchmark in the future for any reference to the actress. It is an enormous book with meticulous research and comprehensive information but strictly as a biography it has some serious flaws. The author has chosen to "record the facts" which is admirable in itself, leaving the reader generally to draw conclusions, but the offset is the text is very dry and the tone somewhat detached. There is not even a Foreword in which the author gives a clue to her own feelings about Stanwyck.

It may be that given this was a 15 year effort, the author "lost the wood, for the trees" and a severe editor was needed. For example, too much is given to analysis of Robert Taylor's films, with further pages devoted to Luise Rainer, Ann Harding, Anne Shirley and Fred MacMurray just for starters. Then there are the directors - John Ford, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Cecil B. De Mille etc - each with much more information than is required here, given that the reader can research other sources if interested in these individuals. The point is that the biographical details of Stanwyck get lost. I simply began to skip page after page of irrelevant (to Stanwyck) detail.

And those movie plots!! They go on for pages with little or no analysis of Stanwyck's interpretations; ironical too, because Dan Calahan's heavily criticised book on Stanwyck does a much better job in this area. There are some surprising errors too, if minor, such as a George Hurrell portrait of Stanwyck from "The Gay Sisters" which is labled at least 7 years earlier; the claim that Stanwyck first sings in "Banjo on My knee" when it had already been noted she sang 4 years earlier in "The Purchase Price".
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80 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Biography November 12, 2013
Format:Hardcover
I have been reading entertainment biographies for over 50 years. This is the best one I have read to date. Actually, I would go so far to say it is the best biography I have ever read period. This is a long book and only volume one. There is a lot of detail. That can make for a very dry read. Not with this book. Ms Wilson writes so that you feel you are right next to Barbara Stanwyck as she goes through her life. She also give insights and facts into Ms Stanwyck's personality that I never knew. I didn't realize she had three older sisters when her mother died and her father abandoned them. I always thought it was just she and her brother struggling through childhood. I didn't realize she had a shy personality. There are so many interesting facts and details in this biography. I think Barbara Stanwyck was one of our best actresses-she had a tremendous range. She could play practically any type of character. I found her to be fascinating but little known. This book reveals a lot about her. It also gives wonderful details and history of the theater world in New York and the film industry in Hollywood. I have not found one dull or boring page. If you like Barbara Stanwyck and the world of entertainment then I think you will enjoy this book as much as I do. Frankly, I can't wait for volume 2.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Missed Opportunities January 4, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
First of all, the author's dedication and respect for her subject, the incredible Barbara Stanwyck, is obvious, and I want to commend her for that. What confounds me is the careless editing of the book, especially since the author is such a respected editor herself and this book was published by S & S. I agree with several of the earlier reviews--that for some reason the book struggles to maintain its focus on Stanwyck herself, getting side-tracked by overly detailed backstory about directors, writers, other actors. This often leads to awkward transitions from section to section that interrupt the momentum of Stanwyck's own story. Even when the book does settle on Stanwyck, it somehow doesn't provide any insight into her beyond the basic details. For example, we're told Stanwyck was raped by an extended family member, but we don't feel the ongoing resonance of that tragedy. Then there are the missed opportunities. Another reviewer has already mentioned how the early reference to Lucille LeSueur failed to note that LeSueur later became known as Joan Crawford, a connection that would have made later anecdotes about Joan Crawford's friendship with Stanwyck more substantive. Finally, there are the just plain copy editing errors, one of Stanwyck's character's names being alternately spelled Bonny in the narrative and Bonnie in the accompanying photo.

I rarely share reviews, because I understand how hard it is to write a book, especially one of this scope. And I am convinced that Ms. Wilson is ideally suited to be Stanwyck's biographer. I'm just hoping that as Ms. Wilson approaches part 2 of Stanwyck's biography, she can use her own considerable talents to focus on Stanwyck more exclusively and help us get to know her on a deeper level.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book Written about Miss Sanwyck, but... November 28, 2013
By DLT
Format:Hardcover
This biography of Barbara Stanwyck is an audacious undertaking. Victoria Wilson should be congratulated on her years of research and writing what is, thus far, the best book yet on Miss Stanwyck. That said the book at over 1000 pages could easily have been a one-volume work rather than ending in 1940. The author writes mini-profiles of several people who worked with/knew Miss Stanwyck and many of these profiles, while mildly interesting, are not (with a few exceptions) really relevant to Miss Stanwyck’s story. It gives the reader the impression of being filler. The author is also repetitive in reminding the reader of something that happened in prior chapters. I also think that she writes too much about movie plots—a lot of this could have been cut and a truly terrific book of 500 pages could have been produced. I really do wish that the author would have written a single volume biography. I remember several years ago we got a similar type of biography of Bing Crosby covering roughly the same period (1904-1940) with the promise of a second volume to come that covered the remainder of his life. It never came. Apparently, despite good reviews, sales didn’t warrant it or something. I wish the author of this Barbara Stanwyck book would have cut the filler, excessive movie plots and repetitions and provided us with a cohesive, single volume life of this terrific and up-until-now sadly neglected actress.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A very interesting life of one of the best actresses of the "Golden Age"
Published 21 days ago by David G. Jennings
2.0 out of 5 stars WAY too much detail and a real chore to read through even if you're a...
This book is REALLY long and only covers half of her life...WAY too much detail and a real chore to read through even if you're a big fan and a fast reader like I am... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dr. C
4.0 out of 5 stars This is an interesting book. It does provide a ...
This is an interesting book. It does provide a lot of extra information that relates to Barbara and the time period. At times the editing could use improvement.
Published 1 month ago by Pearl
5.0 out of 5 stars ... a Christmas gift for a friend and she really enjoyed it.
This was a Christmas gift for a friend and she really enjoyed it.
Published 1 month ago by Susan Lacoste
3.0 out of 5 stars The Editor Needed Editing
This book is a useful compendium of detail about Stanwyck and her time, but Wilson is apparently so imposing a figure as an editor, herself, that no one had the nerve to become her... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Scaramouche
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad
Too bad it stopped at 1940. Not bad, but could be better.
Published 3 months ago by L. Gaggini
2.0 out of 5 stars Factual error regarding "Baby Face" (1933); how many more are there?
OK, my bad, when I bought this book I didn't realize that it was over 900 pages and it only covers Barbara Stanwyck's life and career to 1940. Read more
Published 3 months ago by G. Misthos
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Can't wait for the next volume - have read it twice and will probably reread.
Published 3 months ago by Dolly
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth it!
Fascinating! So much (at times almost too much) information about a true Hollywood original. Wilson gives all the facts, some great analysis of Stanwyck's performances, and the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Greg Mehrten
2.0 out of 5 stars Bloated, uninspired slog
Sadly, this book reads like a very rough first draft waiting for revision and tightening. That's all the more surprising given that the author is a senior editor at Knopf. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Susan Schulman
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More About the Author

Coming November 12, 2013

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK
Steel - True
1907 - 1940

Victoria Wilson

The first full-scale astonishing life of one of our greatest sceen actresses whose career in pictures spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound.
The first book to delve deeply into Stanwyck's rich, complex life and to explore her extraordinary range of eighty-eight motion pictures, many of them iconic.

Here is the most complete portrait we have yet had, or will have, of this magnificent actresses, seen as the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock...her years in New York as 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, together creating 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 male star...Here is the shaping of her career working with many of Hollywood's most important directors: among them, Capra, King Vidor, Cecil B. Demille, Preston Sturges, all set against the times--the Depression, the rise of the unions, the coming of World War II and a fast-evolving coming-of-age motion picture industry.

At the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself--her strengths, her fears, her desires--how she made use of the darkness in her soul, keeping it at bay in her private life, transforming herself from shunned outsider into one of Hollywood's--and America's--most revered screen actresses.

Written with full access to Stanwyck's family, friends, colleagues, and never-before-seen letters, journals and photographs.

"What you have done is extraordinary. It is an amazing book, brilliantly written enhancing the whole life, Barbara's life, happenings around her--people of the industry, people in the theater and in politics. The way you have shown her life to include other situations, all that you interject . . . it makes her life, to me, more historically important. My father fell in love with Barbara after he saw her in Ladies of Leisure. He loved to go to the opera and to the movies and the only star he talked about was Barbara Stanwyck. He used to say she was an incredible actress. And she was. She really was. You have brought her wonderful career magnificently to life, and as her friend, I thank you."

-- Nancy Sinatra, Sr., Barbara Stanwyck's closest friend


With 274 photographs, many published for the first time $ 40.00


Victoria Wilson is a vice president and senior editor at Alfred Knopf. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the US Commission on Civil Rights and has served on the boards of PEN American Center, the National Board Review of Motion Pictures, the Writing Program of the New School of Social Research, and Poets & Writers. She lives in New York City and upstate New York.

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