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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 Hardcover – November 12, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 1056 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684831686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684831688
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 2.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (135 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #183,062 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

More About the Author

Coming November 12, 2013

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.

Customer Reviews

I highly recommend this book to fans of Barbara Stanwyck and to classic film enthusiasts.
Jennifer Wells
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.
Yet, this is only volume one of two volumes on the great Hollywood actress, Barbara Stanwyck.
David Valentino

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Douglas M VINE VOICE on 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 By Constant Reader on 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 26 people found the following review helpful By Teresa Miller on 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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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Linda B. Clifford on December 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorites and I was looking forward to getting to know more about her. What a disaster! It's obvious there was an enormous amount of research, but there is no story here, and CLEARLY no editor or an editor that should be fired along with his or her supervisor. How did Simon & Schuster ever sink this low on the quality meter?

I've only read 7% (Kindle) of this book, but feel compelled to send out warning flares to those who care about good writing.

I knew there was trouble ahead when the author first mentioned someone named Byron. I'm thinking, "Who is Byron?" I had to flip back several pages to remind myself the brother's name was Malcolm Byron Stevens, who, up to that point, she had been calling Malcolm. The author continues to call people by one name, then another. Granted, people in show business change their names, but it's the author's responsibility to make it clear and organized for the reader. She introduces Lucille LeSueur a few times as a background character, never telling the reader this is Joan Crawford. Then suddenly she refers to her as Joan Crawford, but doesn't connect the dots back to Lucille. If a reader didn't know her real name, they'd be lost.

There's no emotion or caring in the writing. What am I saying - There Is No Writing! It's just a ridiculously long string of notes. Slightly organized, repetitive and dry. Maybe, after all that research, the author was so exhausted, she didn't have any energy left for the actual writing. Maybe she kept doing the research and making those notes out of the fear of writing.

Whatever the reason, this book is an Unedited Laundry List and an injustice to a great actress. Barbara, we still don't know you. Sigh.
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