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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 Hardcover – November 12, 2013
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Michael Korda on A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 By Victoria Wilson
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.
*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
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There are also statements that defy explanation. For example, on page 119, Wilson has Stanwyck making a four-hour train trip from New York City to St. Louis. Such a trip would have required the train to have averaged more than 250 miles per hour, which even an air liner couldn't have done in 1928. On page 421 she informs us that Minneapolis is in the U.S. northwest. Page 622 states that Samuel Goldwyn hired composer Louis Gottschalk to write the music for the 1925 version of "Stella Dallas". That would have been a real coup for Goldwyn, since Gottschalk had been dead since 1869! These are just a few examples among many gems of unedited nonsense.
Like so many books that are published today, this one needed, but did not receive, editing for focus, writing style, consistency, and accuracy of facts.
Victoria Wilson, the author, has filled this very long book with such microscopic ephemera that it damages our interest in her subject: the magical Barbara Stanwyck. When Ms. Wilson trains her microscope solely on Stanwyck - her life & loves, her roles, her commitment to her work, her relationship with her co-workers both in front of and behind the camera, her fights, her fears, her courage - this is truly an invaluable book.
Ms. Wilson's actual writing is nothing to exclaim upon; to say her prose style is workman-like is probably the most generous thing I can think of to say about it. It is reportage and that's about it - nothing of the author shows through. Perhaps that's fine, but it's certainly not to my taste.
The filler or fluff or whatever one might call it, damn near overwhelmed this reader. As much as I tried, I couldn't understand why her editor didn't grab that essential blue pencil and carve this book's content nearly in half.
This is, apparently, volume one of a two-volume treatise on Stanwyck. I almost dread the second volume, but I also can't wait to get my mitts on it. I would recommend this book but only to those with the patience of Job, and an unquenchable love for Barbara Stanwyck and her amazing career.
The best female example of this is Barbara Stanwyck. While she was an enduring presence in the pop culture world, probably most familiar to me from the long-running The Big Valley, popular during the antediluvian times of my youth, I didn’t really appreciate her magnificent qualities as an actress. It was only when I recently saw her films that I understood her range and force, from wonderfully timed comic performances in Xmas In Connecticut and The Lady Eve to her emotional, dramatic tours de force in such noir thrillers as Double Indemnity and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. I consider Barbara Stanwyck a powerful, emotional actress who was able to project personality and purpose way and above her diminutive, slight frame.
I therefore read Victoria Wilson’s exhaustively researched, lengthy biography of Stanwyck with a great deal of interest and pleasure. Stanwyck had a harrowing childhood, basically abandoned to a large extent at an early age after her mother’s tragic death, forced to live in different strangers’ homes with periodic interventions by her much older sisters, busy with their own lives and children. Like something from a corny old movie or play, she got into show business in emulation of her older sisters, first working as a dancer and then getting a big break with a small part as an actress where she excelled. She worked her way up through persistence, talent, and a hard boiled willingness to do what it took to succeed, to include dispensing sexual favors. Wilson describes in intricate detail how Stanwyck met her first husband, Frank Fay, a wildly successful vaudevillian considered by many to be the man who invented stand up comedy. Fay was the one who brought Stanwyck to Hollywood, figuring he’d conquer films just like he had Broadway. Reality intervened and Fay reacted by crawling into a bottle all while Stanwyck became increasingly more successful, scoring in one film after another, until her star far outshone his. Wilson describes Fay’s fights with Stanwyck, his increasing alcoholism and insane behavior, and, most unforgivable of all, his abuse of their adopted son Dion.
Wilson relates all these distasteful bits along with thumbnail portraits of other people in Stanwyck’s life both personal and professional, some of them highly informative, most notably about Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s second husband. Rather than take a narrow gauge approach and focus on the personal detail of Stanwyck’s life, Wilson tries to give a broad picture, to show the actress’s life and career in the context of the United States at the turn of the 20th Century as it entered an era of unprecedented change and upheaval. Stanwyck was very much a part of that change, staking out a career for herself in the still young film industry and making a tremendous go of it. She always worked her hardest, gave nothing less than a hundred percent, walked on set knowing all her lines and everybody else’s too, and made a point of knowing everyone on the crew. Her dedication, professionalism, and talent shine through in every film she made, even pedestrian oaters.
I recommend this book highly, but with one caveat. Like I wrote before, it is lengthy, almost nine hundred pages worth and might prove to be a tough slog for someone who’s not really all that interested in so much information. I kind of nodded off myself when the author extensively described the stables Stanwyck had built on a horse farm. Still, if you’re a real old film buff, I think you’ll find that the trek is worth it.