No one in Hollywood worked as hard as Barbara Stanwyck. The true definition of an actor’s actor, her appalling childhood drove her to seek the glory days of fame and security—yet her adult life was still full of immense tragedy and even more bedroom scandal. From marital heartbreaks to younger flings, here are 42 facts about Barbara Stanwyck.
1. Work It
No actor busted their butt like Barbara. She was constantly coming off a job, looking for a job, or in the middle of a job, resulting in a truly mind-boggling filmography. As one of her directors once put it, "She only lives for two things, and both of them are work". It's safe to say that they don't make them like Barbara Stanwyck anymore.
2. Bow Down
The actress’s nickname was "Missy" or, if you were feeling particularly fancy, "The Queen".
3. Of Mice and Men
Stanwyck’s most famous part was as Phyllis Dietrichson, the femme fatale of Double Indemnity. Many consider her role the definitive femme fatale—but it almost didn’t happen. Though she was director Billy Wilder’s first choice, Stanwyck was terrified of playing an "out-and-out killer" and she almost refused the part.
But Wilder had the perfect response. According to Stanwyck, Wilder "looked at me and he said, ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope I'm an actress.’ He said, ‘Then do the part.’"
4. By Any Other Name
Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t always "Barbara Stanwyck". On July 16, 1907, she was born Ruby Catherine Stevens to working-class parents Byron and Catherine Stevens. Her stage name came from combining the first name of one of her early characters, Barbara Frietchie, and the last name of one of her early co-stars, Jane Stanwyck.
5. Paradise Lost
Some actresses have hard-knock lives—but Stanwyck's childhood was truly heartbreaking. When she was just a little four-year-old girl, her mother died after a difficult miscarriage went awry. It gets worse. Her miscarriage happened when a drunken stranger unintentionally shoved her off of a streetcar while it was still moving.
6. Daddy’s Gone
Stanwyck's mother's end was tragic, but that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Two weeks after her mother’s funeral, Stanwyck’s father abandoned her and her four siblings, leaving for a job digging the Panama Canal and never coming back. If that doesn't give you trust issues, I really don't know what will.
7. If You Want Something Done…
Nothing got in the way of Barbara Stanwyck and her work, not even mortal danger. When she was 50 years old, her role in the Western Forty Guns requited her character to get their foot caught in a stirrup, fall, and then be dragged along behind the horse. It was so risky, even the stuntwoman refused to do it. So Stanwyck? She did it herself.
This and other feats led to her induction into the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.
8. Run Away With Me
Barbara Stanwyck had a notorious love life. On the set of her first play, she fell hopelessly in love with her much older co-star Rex Cherryman—despite the fact that Cherryman was already married. Desperate, the couple decided to take an illicit overseas voyage to Paris. It ended in absolutely tragedy. On the journey over, Cherryman perished from septic shock.
Stanwyck’s sister Mildred was the one who reluctantly got her into show business. Mildred worked as a showgirl, and the young Stanwyck idolized her and her independent life. Though Mildred didn’t want Barbara to follow her path, the little girl often toured around with the show and determinedly practiced their routines backstage.
10. Working Girl
Barbara Stanwyck never even attended high school; she dropped out at 14 years old to start making money for her family. It might have been the first and last time she quit anything.
11. Fostering a Grudge
After her mother’s demise and her father’s escape, Barbara Stanwyck and her brother generally stayed in foster homes as they grew up. It was nowhere near a stable environment. Sometimes the siblings would cycle through a whopping four homes in a year, and the young Stanwyck often ran away from her would-be authority figures.
12. Paging Mrs. Robinson
When she was in her 40s, Stanwyck was quite the naughty girl. During this time, she started an affair with her Titanic co-star Robert Wagner, who was only 22 at the time. Stanwyck eventually ended the relationship, but it gets even more scandalous. She also had a one night stand with young stud Farley Granger. Get it, Babs.
13. I Wanna Be Popular
True to her hard-working roots, Stanwyck was legendarily kind to crew-members and workers on set. She even made it a point to know the names of all their wives and children. As director Frank Capra, one of her frequent collaborators, said, "In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize, hands down".
14. Don’t Cry for Me
Stanwyck’s first film was a bit part in 1927’s Broadway Nights—but it ended up going horribly wrong. She had actually screen-tested for the lead role, only to find that she couldn’t cry on cue for the director. The failure demoted her to the minor part of a "fan dancer" in the film, and the over-achieving Stanwyck was bitterly disappointed in herself.
Determined to make a buck, the young Stanwyck took up a series of odd jobs while she was trying to break onto the stage. From a telephone office to cutting dress patterns, nothing was beneath her. As she said, "I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat". Struggling starlets: They really are just like us.
16. No Fake Friends
Stanwyck’s first job in show business was as a nightclub chorus girl, where she would perform from midnight to a grueling 7:00 am closing time. Though she flounced around on stage in front of decadent high rollers, Stanwyck maintained her characteristic cool. As one friend noted, even then she was always "wary of sophisticates and phonies".
17. Teen Mom
At just 15 years old, Stanwyck received some terrifying news. Without meaning to be, she was very much pregnant. With few options open to her, she went to get an abortion. Unfortunately, it took an even darker turn. According to her biography, the doctors botched the operation and left her unable to have children.
18. (Not) Meant for the Stage
Barbara Stanwyck got her big break in the play The Noose and then in Burlesque, both parts that traded on her showgirl experience. She won enormous acclaim, and soon enough, Tinseltown was calling. Not everyone was happy about this; as Broadway director Arthur Hopkins said, "I had great plans for her, but the Hollywood offers kept coming".
19. Mad Man
In 1928, the 21-year-old Stanwyck married Broadway star Frank Fay. The couple soon adopted a son, Anthony Dion, in 1932. Yet despite this appearance of wholesome, nuclear-family happiness, their union had a chilling dark side. Fay was intensely jealous of Stanwyck’s Hollywood success, and he often took it out on her physically, especially when he was drinking.
20. Joke’s on Her
During Stanwyck’s marriage to Fay, there was a cruel running Hollywood joke. "Who's got the biggest pr*ck in Hollywood?" It went. The punch line? "Barbara Stanwyck".
21. Most Foul
Double Indemnity was the first Hollywood movie to explicitly explore the motives and means of plotting someone's demise in detail, which was no small feat in the days of Hollywood’s restrictive and moralistic Hays Code. In fact, when producers optioned the picture, most insiders thought the content was totally un-filmable.
22. Boss Lady
At her peak, Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t just the highest-paid actress in Hollywood—she was the highest-paid woman in America, full stop.
23. Mommy and Me
Though she was an extraordinary actress and a generous co-star, Stanwyck's maternal instincts were deeply disturbing. While raising her adopted son Tony, she was reportedly demanding and even authoritarian. After Tony grew up, the relationship only got worse. The pair became estranged, and only saw each other a handful of times for the rest of their lives.
24. On the Straight and Narrow
Stanwyck’s role as a sultry con woman in the classic kooky comedy The Lady Eve was an instant hit, especially with lusty young men. As one critic wrote that she gave off a charge "that would straighten a boa constrictor".
25. Wigging out
Throughout Double Indemnity, Stanwyck’s character wears a wig that's so objectively bad, some consider it the film’s single flaw. Director Billy Wilder claimed he chose it to highlight her character’s "phoniness," but studio heads weren’t so keen on the creative license, either. One production head was overheard sneering, "We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington".
26. An Extension of the Truth
In time, Wilder finally confessed his secret about The Infamous Wig: He did realize it was a bad choice, but by then it was too late to do anything about it. As he said, "After I shot for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake". But instead of fessing up, Wilder just acted like it was all a part of his plan to save face. Justice for WigGate!
27. An Indecent Proposal
In 1939, Barbara Stanwyck married her second husband, the younger actor Robert Taylor. Like so many of her dalliances, the union had a juicy secret. The studio actually "arranged" the wedding after Stanwyck and Taylor had already begun a scandalous live-in relationship. After all, stars in the Golden Age had to adhere to strict moral codes—and that meant no flings without a ring.
28. Smokin’ Stanwyck
Like everything else in her career, Barbara Stanwyck was a dedicated and lifelong smoker. She started at the tender age of nine, and didn’t stop until four years before she passed on.
29. Flair and Foul
Stanwyck’s time on The Lady Eve was utterly bizarre. The director, Preston Sturges, was a flamboyant character as zany as the screwball comedies he helmed. True to form, he wandered around set wearing vibrant berets, feather caps, and billowing cashmere scarves to enliven his actors—but that was just the beginning.
When it came time to film Stanwyck’s lusty bedroom scene, Sturges decided to wear a bathrobe to…get everyone in the mood? Stanwyck later described the whole experience as "a carnival".
30. My Weeks With Marilyn
Barbara Stanwyck was a genuinely good friend to the people who needed her, even when those people were Hollywood babes threatening to eclipse her career. None other than Marilyn Monroe worked with Stanwyck in 1952’s Clash by Night, and once said that Stanwyck was the only actor in Hollywood’s older generation to show her any kindness.
In October 27, 1981, a 74-year-old Barbara Stanwyck experienced everyone’s worst nightmare. In the middle of the night, a strange sound woke her from her bed. Before she knew what was happening, an unknown intruder smacked her on the head with an object, stuffed her in a closet, and took thousands of dollars in jewels from the legendary actress. Sadly, he got away with it; the authorities never caught him.
32. Stand by Me
Stanwyck and fellow legend Joan Crawford were lifelong friends and one-time neighbors. Crawford was also her fiercest protector. Reportedly, when fights started getting physically violent during her marriage to Frank Fay, Stanwyck would escape her house, climb the fence into Crawford’s building, and wait there until it was safe to go back to her home.
33. Director’s Choice
Famed director Cecil B. DeMille had a favorite in Barbara Stanwyck. In his autobiography, he confessed that she was his most beloved actress he ever worked with, saying that, "Barbara's name is the first that comes to mind, as one on whom a director can always count to do her work with all her heart". Talk about high praise.
34. Not My President
Coming from her difficult childhood, Stanwyck was a staunch supporter of the "American Dream". She didn’t think that anyone should get government handouts, and criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency because of his opposing beliefs.
35. Irreconcilable Differences
Robert Taylor and Stanwyck’s marriage was happy, but only for a time. Though they enjoyed a mentor/mentee relationship, after more than a decade of marriage Taylor insisted that Stanwyck file divorce papers. According to the official record, Taylor wanted to move out of Hollywood and Stanwyck didn’t, but the real reason was even darker.
Taylor indulged in multiple affairs during the marriage—and some say Stanwyck did too.
36. Holding a Flame
After divorcing Robert Taylor, Stanwyck never remarried; she even told friends he was the love of her life. When he passed on in 1969, she mourned him so deeply that she took a break from Hollywood. Yep, you read that right: Barbara Stanwyck actually took a break from work. That's how you know she was totally devastated.
37. Last Wishes
At 82 years old, Stanwyck passed on from pulmonary disease in 1990 at a California hospital. In a move that surprised exactly no one, the frugal diva banned anyone from giving her a funeral.
38. Not-So Golden Girl
Shockingly, though she was nominated four times, Barbara Stanwyck never won an Academy Award. She’s often called "The best actress who never won an Oscar".
39. The Golden Boy
Stanwyck did, however, win an honorary Oscar in 1982. On stage, her speech was utterly heartbreaking. She gave a heartfelt tribute to her recently deceased friend, actor William Holden. "I loved him very much, and I miss him," she said. "He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so, tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish".
40. A Piercing Blow
Though Joan Crawford and Stanwyck were close friends, Crawford still dealt her a cold-hearted betrayal. When the title role for the classic Mildred Pierce was up for grabs, Stanwyck was planning to get the part. Crawford, however, was quicker on the draw and nabbed the character instead. The kicker? It earned Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress.
41. It Ends Now
In the 1930s, Stanwyck and her first husband Frank Fay’s rocky marriage came to a horrific end. They got into a heated argument, which climaxed when a drunken, enraged Fay hurled their little boy Tony into the swimming pool. It was the last straw for Stanwyck, and she officially filed for divorce in 1935 and took custody of Tony.
42. Stranger Than Fiction
Frank Fay and Stanwyck’s marriage was so dysfunctional, insiders say that A Star Is Born lifts portions of its dialogue directly from their blowouts; their friend William Wellman wrote the script.