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Barbara Stanwyck—Woman of Steel, or Abused Punching Bag?

Barbara Stanwyck—a dynamo in the film industry—was abused by the man she loved.

I read a positive review of Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, and, just as I was unprepared by reviews of a memoir by chef Gabrielle Hamilton for a treatise on her hatred of her husband, I was unprepared by this review for Barbara Stanwyck as the ultimate abused wife.*

Stanwyck has been married to Frank Fay, an abusive alcoholic, for six years.

Barbara came to work one day with her back taped ... ”I fell down the stairs.”

[The director] didn’t say anything more about it. He figured that Fay had probably thrown her down a flight of stairs.

[Reader’s note: Stanwyck had had a series of skeletal injuries leaving her with one leg significantly shorter than the other on her 5’3” frame and a weak back. Several of her injuries were caused by falls in stage performances she was obligated to do by Fay, who had no movie career and relied on Stanwyck to draw fans to his live “revues.”]

"During production on Gambling Lady, Barbara was strapped onto a board each night at home to relieve the pressure on her hip and to prevent any movement as she slept. During the day at work, between story conferences, gown fittings, and shooting, she was put under quartz lights for four hours at a time to lessen the pain."

Wow! No wonder the title of the book refers to the steel in Stanwyck.

But, as always, Stanwyck lauds her marriage and her man to fellow actor Joel McRae: “I’m still nuts about him. That’s a man’s life. And the girl he picks up out of nowhere is not gonna walk away from him.”

Stanwyck was raised without parents, although she had a large and nurturing family. As a result, she was sometimes placed in foster care in Brooklyn, where she grew up (not far from where I'm writing this). She wasn’t formally educated, although she read constantly. But she was a confident performer, didn’t take guff from directors or studio heads, and had risen to the top of the Hollywood heap.

Which was a good thing, since Fay lost money in his elaborate live review shows, often disrupting them with his drunken fights or missed performances. Meanwhile, Stanwyck, "while publicly coming to Fay’s defense," no longer felt that she could be in the house alone with him. So she invited a friend and co-worker to live with them:

Now that he was living with Barbara and Frank ... he saw how Fay drank (Frank had been in and out of sanatoriums, the rehabs of the day), often nonstop for days, sometimes weeks ... He saw how Fay yelled at their 2-year-old son, how his uncontrollable rage could be set off at any time, in the midst of an ordinary conversation if something favorable was said about someone Fay didn’t like.

Wow! Endangering their child! Fay refused to show up at the hearing required to adopt the child, which he only did when Stanwyck threatened to leave him. Then Fay came home drunk and almost smothered the baby in his crib. (The boy was to become deeply troubled.) Stanwyck married Fay—who was 15 years her senior—in 1928 when she was 20, and they remained married until 1935, or shortly after the events described herein.

What else could Fay do to threaten Barbara, her livelihood, her safety, her child, her peace of mind? Well, how about this? Despite earning the fantastic sum of $50,000 a film, paid out at $3500 a week (McCrae received $7,500 for the film they were in together):

The federal government claimed that the Fays owed more than $6,000 in back taxes ... [and] a lien was put on Fay and Barbara’s earnings ... Faye was still overseeing the remodeling and rebuilding of Bristol Avenue and spending money recklessly. He’d put in a tennis court, a bicycle track, and added a party house to the gymnasium.

Barbara looked through her purse one day and realized she had no money. Frank had taken it. She was going out that night and had to borrow $5 from her maid. (Stanwyck was very generous to her personal employees and those who worked on her films.)

So I guess Stanwyck was ready to walk out on Ray. Not that you’d notice. Moreover, more amazingly, Stanwyck continued to be a woman of steel when it came to the studio and her career. Despite her last film “barely making back its cost of just under a quarter of a million dollars" and that Barbara was "in the doghouse with the studio" for turning down script after script, she didn’t care. "I worry night after night over stories," she said, and not about studio pressure.

Stanwyck was clear about what would make her a better actress and bigger star. After reading a book she liked that was turned into a script, Stanwyck felt she would be playing second fiddle to the lead male in the film, and turned it down, as she had a number of previous scripts offered her. “I see no reason why I should play second fiddle to anyone. I’ve worked too hard to get to the top to give up top billing for no good reason ... In a few years, I suppose, I’ll have to resign myself” to supporting parts (not really—her greatest roles lay ahead of her). But she wasn’t going to surrender readily to such a fate.

So how does a gutsy, gifted woman with great power in the industry submit herself to physical abuse, abuse of her child, and financial abuse by the man she loves?

You know love is the hardest addiction to quit, don’t you?