Barbara Stanwyck, Biographical Beginnings to Baby Face and Beyond

This originally posted when Barbara Stanwyck was Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies in December 2012.

Barbara Stanwyck 1933 Press Photo in promotion of Baby Face - Lady in Scarlet Velvet: Barbara Stanwyck features this alluring negligee of scarlet velvet in her next Warner picture BABY FACE

Ruby Catherine Stevens was born in Brooklyn, NY, July 16, 1907. Her mother died when she was four and her father abandoned the five kids pretty much right after that. Older sister Mildred was a showgirl. She took care of her younger siblings, but Ruby and the others were placed in foster care whenever Mildred went on a road tour.

"In the environment in which I grew up," Stanwyck said in 1955, "kids existed on the brink of domestic or financial disaster. We were alert, precocious and savage. I endured this world by developing a bitter hatred of it. I tried to escape by retreating to a dream world of my own" (Shearer).

Barbara Stanwyck 1939 Rothmans Beauties Tobacco CardRuby dropped out of school and worked a quick succession of odd jobs before entering show business herself.

By 1922 the fifteen year old was a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl and spent the next few years singing and dancing in revues and at nightclubs. Writer Willard Mack, a jack-of-all-trades who also acted, directed and produced, cast Ruby in her first Broadway show, The Noose, in 1926.

It was with The Noose that Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck.

The legend behind the Stanwyck name is that Mack and Stanwyck spotted a poster or playbill advertising old time actress Jane Stanwyck in Barbara Frietchie, a turn of the century play, and just combined elements of the billing to create Barbara Stanwyck. This origin story is repeated with regularity throughout Stanwyck's life and still survives as the popular explanation as to how Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck.

Barbara Stanwyck 1934 Player Tobacco CardProblem is that after running some soft searches I can't find record of the original Stanwyck. Neither could these folks, who saved me the trouble of becoming too obsessive over this by digging a lot deeper than I did.

(August 2014 note: Even the first volume of Victoria Wilson's massive 2013 biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 sticks mostly with this same story in similarly befuddled tones. Wilson offers an alternative in the possibility of Stanwyck being combined from the last names of Addison Stanton and Dorothy Southwick, two actors appearing together in Victor Herbert's 1906 Dream City, but the idea seems a stretch and is limited to a single paragraph on page 71 of her book.)

At any rate The Noose flopped, but 1927's Burlesque, which starred Stanwyck with Hal Skelly, was a big hit that made the actresses' name her own, no matter where it may have come from. During Burlesque Stanwyck met Frank Fay. They married in 1928 and Stanwyck followed her husband to Hollywood where he already had a contract.

Stanwyck soon had her first Hollywood hit in Frank Capra's Ladies of Leisure, which appropriately kicks off TCM's December 2012 Star of the Month slate of movies. Including that title TCM spends December showing you what Barbara Stanwyck was doing those next thirty-plus years:

If for any reason you are looking for TCM's December 2012 Stanwyck schedule, just click this text and the section will be expanded to reveal it.

Barbara Stanwyck - TCM Star of the Month Schedule

Wednesday-Thursday, December 5-6, 2012

  • 8:00 pm - Ladies of Leisure (1930) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves, Lowell Sherman, D: Frank Capra
  • 9:45 pm - This Is My Affair (1937) starring Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, D: William A. Seiter
  • 11:45 pm - The Other Love (1947) starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Niven, Richard Conte, D: Andre De Toth
  • 1:30 am - A Message to Garcia (1936) starring Wallace Beery, Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, D: George Marshall
  • 3:00 am - Stella Dallas (1937) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, John Boles, D: King Vidor
  • 5:00 am - The Miracle Woman (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners, Beryl Mercer, D: Frank Capra
  • 6:45 am - So Big (1932) starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Bette Davis, D: William A. Wellman
  • 8:15 am - The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Niles Asther, Walter Connolly, D: Frank Capra
  • 9:45 am - Baby Face (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne, D: Alfred E. Green
  • 11:15 am - Golden Boy (1939) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden, D: Rouben Mamoulian
  • 1:00 pm - Meet John Doe (1941) starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, D: Frank Capra
  • 3:15 pm - Executive Suite (1954) starring William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, D: Robert Wise
  • 5:00 pm - Walk on the Wild Side (1962) starring Jane Fonda, Capucine, Barbara Stanwyck, D: Edward Dmytryk
  • 7:00 pm - Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire (1991) - Documentary, D: Richard Schickel

Wednesday-Thursday, December 12-13, 2012

  • 8:00 pm - Banjo on My Knee (1936) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Walter Brennan, D: John Cromwell
  • 9:45 pm - Remember the Night (1940) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, D: Mitchell Leisen
  • 11:30 pm - The Lady Eve (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, D: Preston Sturges
  • 1:15 am - Ball of Fire (1941) starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, D: Howard Hawks
  • 3:15 am - You Belong to Me (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Edgar Buchanan, D: Wesley Ruggles
  • 5:00 am - Lady of Burlesque (1943) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O'Shea, J. Edward Bromberg, D: William A. Wellman
  • 6:45 am - To Please a Lady (1950) starring Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, D: Clarence Brown
  • 8:30 am - The Bride Walks Out (1936) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Raymond, Robert Young, D: Leigh Jason
  • 10:00 am - Breakfast for Two (1937) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall, Glenda Farrell, D: Alfred Santell
  • 11:15 am - The Mad Miss Manton (1938) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Sam Levene, D: Leigh Jason
  • 12:45 pm - The Woman in Red (1935) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Genevieve Tobin, Gene Raymond, D: Robert Florey
  • 2:00 pm - The Secret Bride (1935) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, D: William Dieterle
  • 3:15 pm - Ever in My Heart (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Otto Kruger, Ralph Bellamy, D: Archie Mayo
  • 4:30 pm - Shopworn (1932) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Regis Toomey, ZaSu Pitts, D: Nick Grinde
  • 5:45 pm - Illicit (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Rennie, Ricardo Cortez, D: Archie Mayo

Wednesday-Thursday, December 19-20, 2012

  • 8:00 pm - Double Indemnity (1944) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, D: Billy Wilder
  • 10:00 pm - The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, D: Lewis Milestone
  • 12:00 am - Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, D: Anatole Litvak
  • 1:45 am - Clash by Night (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe, D: Fritz Lang
  • 3:45 am - Jeopardy (1953) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Ralph Meeker, D: John Sturges
  • 5:00 am - Witness to Murder (1954) starring Barbara Stanwyck. George Sanders, Gary Merrill, D: Roy Rowland
  • 6:30 am - Crime of Passion (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, Raymond Burr, D: Gerd Oswald
  • 8:00 am - Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire (1991) - Documentary, D: Richard Schickel
  • 9:00 am - The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) starring Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Alexis Smith, D: Peter Godfrey
  • 10:45 am - Cry Wolf (1947) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn, Geraldine Brooks, D: Peter Godfrey
  • 12:15 pm - The Gay Sisters (1942) starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, D: Irving Rapper
  • 2:15 pm - Ladies They Talk About (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Lyle Talbot, Preston Foster, D: Howard Bretherton, William Keighley
  • 3:30 pm - The Purchase Price (1932) starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Lyle Talbot, D: William A. Wellman
  • 4:45 pm - Forbidden (1932) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy, D: Frank Capra
  • 6:15 pm - Ten Cents a Dance (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ricardo Cortez, Monroe Owsley, D: Lionel Barrymore

Wednesday-Thursday, December 26-27, 2012

  • 8:00 pm - Forty Guns (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, D: Samuel Fuller
  • 9:30 pm - The Maverick Queen (1956) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Scott Brady, D: Joseph Kane
  • 11:15 pm - The Violent Men (1955) starring Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Glenn Ford, D: Rudolph Mate
  • 1:00 am - Trooper Hook (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Earl Holliman, D: Charles Marquis Warren
  • 2:30 am - The Moonlighter (1953) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, Roy Rowland
  • 4:00 am - Annie Oakley (1935) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Melvyn Douglas, D: George Stevens
  • 5:45 am - Night Nurse (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Clark Gable, D: William A. Wellman
  • 7:00 am - Gambling Lady (1934) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Pat O'Brien, Joel McCrea, D: Archie Mayo
  • 8:30 am - His Brother's Wife (1936) starring Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Calleia, D: W.S. Van Dyke
  • 10:00 am - My Reputation (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Lucile Watson, D: Curtis Bernhardt
  • 11:45 am - B.F.'s Daughter (1948) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Charles Coburn, D: Robert Z. Leonard
  • 1:45 pm - The Man with a Cloak (1951) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, Leslie Caron, D: Fletcher Markle
  • 3:15 pm - These Wilder Years (1956) starring James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, D: Roy Rowland

Barbara Stanwyck in promotion of SO BIG on a vintage 1932 promotional still photo

The marriage to Fay was not a good one and ended in divorce in 1935. They had adopted a son, Dion, in 1932, and Stanwyck was given custody, but the relationship with her only child eventually became estranged. Stanwyck later married MGM leading man and former co-star Robert Taylor in 1939. After divorcing Taylor in 1951 Stanwyck would not remarry.

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in promotion of His Brothers WifeStanwyck received four Academy Award nominations during her film career, but her only Oscar was an honorary award received in 1982. Her nominations for Best Actress all fell between 1938-49 and were received for her work in Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number.

Emmys came a lot easier than Oscars for Stanwyck though. She'd win three during a television career that kept her especially busy in the 1960s.

The first of those awards came for The Barbara Stanwyck Show in 1961. As The Big Valley joined the TV Western craze in the mid-1960s Stanwyck found herself responding to criticism anticipating that she'd be nothing more than a "Ma" Cartwright:

"Fine, let them compare us to 'Bonanza' ... I'll tell you this, though. We get mad at each other in our show and make mistakes. Lorne Greene is the Loretta Young of the West. That's not for me" (Humphrey).

Barbara Stanwyck 1949 Turf brand tobacco cardShe picked up her third Emmy years later for The Thorn Birds miniseries, a true television event at the time it originally aired. Stanwyck's final television work came in Season 1 of The Colbys, a 1985 series spun off of Dynasty, in which she had appeared in a few episodes earlier that same year.

Stanwyck died January 20, 1990 at age 82.

The December 2012 TCM Star of the Month schedule is absolutely packed. 55 Barbara Stanwyck movies. A few I need to see, but no more than one or two that I cringed over (The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Lady of Burlesque if you must know).

It took me about three or four minutes to type the first day of TCM's big Barbara Stanwyck schedule. Those movies that air beginning this Wednesday at 8 pm EST. When I got to the end of that first 24 hour Stanwyck movie marathon I found myself thinking, There's more?

No, my fingers weren't tired, but after listing Stella Dallas, The Miracle Woman, Baby Face, Golden Boy, Meet John Doe and Executive Suite, to rattle off less than half the December 5-6 schedule, I had a hard time believing TCM hadn't spent all of Stanwyck's best titles on opening night.

Barbara Stanwyck 1935 Carreras Tobacco CardBut there was still Remember the Night, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number, Forty Guns and a bunch of Westerns I haven't seen, Night Nurse and a bunch of pre-Codes that I've watched over and over.

I can't really speak to the Westerns. For me they make up the most interesting part of TCM's December schedule as personally undiscovered territory. But I expect to find more of the Barbara Stanwyck I know from all of those other films tucked inside those Westerns.

I know Baby Face gets a lot of play, but I think it's Stanwyck's truest performance and consider it her key role. I never see as much of the Stella Dallas character or Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson in Stanwyck outside of those movies, but Lily Powers of Baby Face emerges in some degree from most of Stanwyck's portrayals as I watch them. The other performances may require more skilled acting, but Stanwyck seems to reveal herself most as Lily Powers. Lily even seems to break through in her performances in Stella Dallas and Double Indemnity where, respectively, Lily's social aspirations and manipulative powers are on display in ways that trigger memories of Baby Face.

Years faded away when I read that 1955 Stanwyck quote excerpted at the top of this page: "We were alert, precocious and savage," she had said. How could I not think Lily Powers, one of the most savage screen characters of them all? Pretty alert and precocious too!

Barbara Stanwyck 1930s era 5x7 Fan Photo


  • Humphrey, Hal. "Barbara Stanwyck Shrugs Off Critics of New Show." Beckley Post Herald 4 Aug 1965: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 2 Dec 2012.
  • Shearer, Lloyd. "Barbara Stanwyck: She's Indestructible." Independent Press Telegram 7 Aug 1955: 266-267. NewspaperArchive. Web. 2 Dec 2012.
  • Wilson, Victoria. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Barbara Stanwyck circa 1936 R95 8x10 Linen Textured Premium Photo


  1. Patricia (Caftan Woman) says

    “And starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley” When I was a kid watching “The Big Valley” that billing gave me chills. It said that here was someone special. Shortly after I started sneaking up to watch the late show (even on school nights) and though I admire the talents of many actresses, no one can topple my favourite, Miss Barbara Stanwyck.

    • says

      Was very surprised at all of the 1965ish nastiness as “The Big Valley” was getting ready to debut. It’s Barbara friggin’ Stanwyck, you’d think the TV journalists would have cut her some slack and realized something good was coming! I love Stanwyck’s reaction (“Lorne Greene is the Loretta Young of the West. That’s not for me”). Awesome!

  2. says

    Love all the great pictures, as usual. I’m a big fan of Stanwyck’s movies, but I didn’t know all that much about her. Great post. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of her films that I haven’t seen before.

  3. says

    Stanwyck is my favorite actress, and this is a great review. My mom has been telling me to watch The Big Valley for years. I’m much more a fan of her Pre-Code work, but on your recommendation I’ll have to track it down!

    • says

      I’m with you, Danny, on pre-code Stanwyck, but she’s a winner in any era. I’ve found she’s a good one to use when trying to win over folks who think they ‘hate old movies’ too–Stanwyck remains modern no matter the era.

Leave a Reply