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.
Barbara Stanwyck was a self-made actress like no other. Considering how tragic her childhood was, it seems almost miraculous that such a brilliant star could grow out of so much turmoil.
Born Ruby Catherine Stevens in 1907, Stanwyck was the youngest of five siblings. However, at the age of three, a fateful streetcar ride changed her life forever.
Reportedly, while taking the streetcar with her mother and brother, Stanwyck witnessed a nightmare come to life. An inebriated man brutally kicked her pregnant mother in the stomach. But that wasn’t all. Stanwyck’s mother tumbled from the streetcar and miscarried her baby…She didn’t survive. Still, there was more heartache to come.
As though losing her mother wasn’t enough, Barbara Stanwyck also lost her father. Only two weeks after her mother’s burial, her father abandoned the family. He decided to find work in the Panama Canal, but he never returned. It was an awful betrayal that set Stanwyck and her siblings on a terrifying new path.
Now orphaned, Stanwyck had a new ordeal to face: the foster care system. Living in up to four different homes a year, with zero stability in her life, she became something of a troublemaker. Not only did she run away from home on multiple occasions, but she was also a terrible student with a penchant for picking fights.
In the midst of her dysfunctional upbringing, Stanwyck found a way to escape.
Barbara Stanwyck fell in love with movies, especially those starring Pearl White. Witnessing such a strong heroine on screen, Stanwyck began dreaming of a career in show business. Luckily, her rebellious nature was just the ticket.
Stanwyck cut her schooling short, dropping out at just 14. It was a huge risk to take—but it was also the beginning of something so much bigger.
Barbara Stanwyck broke into show business in 1923. She was just about to turn 16 when she began performing in a nightclub in Times Square. But something about the young girl stood out from the crowd, because only four years later, she landed a small role in the Broadway production, The Noose. Sadly, this early success came with its own dark backstory.
Reportedly, Barbara Stanwyck fell head over heels for her co-star, Rex Cherryman, on the set of The Noose. Scandalously, Cherryman was a married man—but that’s not what doomed this illicit affair. You see, in 1928, Stanwyck’s lover fell ill. His doctor recommended a sea voyage for his health. Cherryman took this sage advice, planning to meet Stanwyck in Paris. But it all went so wrong.
There would be no “happily ever after” for Barbara Stanwyck and Rex Cherryman. After the actor boarded a boat to Le Havre, he never saw Stanwyck again. While on board, disaster struck. Septic poisoning got the better of Cherryman—and he tragically passed once he reached France. He was only 31. That same year, however, Stanwyck tied the knot with a different man.
In the wake of Cherryman’s awful demise, Stanwyck grew close to Frank Fay. There were many attractive things about the vaudeville star. Ten years older than Stanwyck, he was a mentor to her—but also represented a sense of security she’d never experienced before.
As we know, Stanwyck grew up only relying on herself, and so Frank Fay must have seemed like a safe haven. What’s more? He was her ticket to Hollywood. Unfortunately, he was not her ticket to happiness.
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Stanwyck’s marriage to Fay may have seemed ideal on paper, but behind closed doors, it was a disaster. Though Fay may have opened some of the right doors for Stanwyck in Hollywood, he soon realized that his wife demonstrated a star power that he simply didn’t have. While her career began flourishing, his plummeted—and the consequences tore them apart.
When Barbara Stanwyck first came to Hollywood, she struggled terribly. She wasn’t considered to be a ravishing beauty and she was awfully miscast in her first films. In fact, there was a time when all she wanted to do was throw in the towel and return to New York. That is, until her husband urged the legendary director Frank Capra to give Stanwyck a real shot.
Frank Capra had no faith in Barbara Stanwyck until he saw one of her tests for The Noose. It was then that Capra realized that he had a genuine and natural talent on his hands. But while Stanwyck’s working relationship with Capra was a match made in heaven, her romantic relationship with Fay headed straight for the rocks.
Sure, Frank Fay wanted his wife to succeed, but he didn’t want her to overshadow him. Unfortunately, this was exactly what happened. Fay began to feel increasingly bitter about Stanwyck’s success in Hollywood, and his discontent began to poison the marriage.
Stanwyck thought that having a child might repair the growing rift between them—but she was terribly mistaken.
Sadly, Barbara Stanwyck struggled with infertility. According to one biographer, the actress couldn’t have children for a heartbreaking reason.
Reportedly, Barbara Stanwyck had had a botched abortion when she was only 15—and it ultimately haunted her for the rest of her life.
Though Stanwyck could never have biological children, she and Fay adopted a baby boy named Anthony. But not even a beautiful child couldn't save this family.
You see, Frank Fay was also a heavy drinker. Reportedly, this caused him to become physically aggressive toward Stanwyck. And soon, the emotional and physical abuse became too much for her to handle.
Interestingly enough, Stanwyck and Fay’s marriage was so turbulent—many believe it was the inspiration for the A Star Is Born, written by the couple’s friend William Wellman. That said, it's no surprise that, in 1935, the couple reached the end of the line and divorced.
Her next romance would be of a completely different nature—but sadly, equally as heartbreaking.
When Barbara Stanwyck first met actor Robert Taylor in 1936, she was still in a dark place. Later, she reminisced on that time of her life, saying it was like “coming out of an emotional Black Hole of Calcutta”. Taylor, however, was like a ray of light in the darkness. In fact, her first impression of him was that he was “a lot of fun”.
After the breakdown of her first marriage, he was exactly what Stanwyck needed.
Not only was Robert Taylor a gentleman, but he was also incredibly handsome. Moreover, he was four years younger than her—a stark contrast to her domineering, older ex-husband. Stanwyck had far more experience in Hollywood than Taylor. Now, instead of being the helpless fledgling, she was the mentor—the big star. But there was trouble brewing on the horizon.
Stanwyck and Taylor’s relationship was not some passionate love affair. On the contrary, it was more like a friendship that grew into something more. Right under everyone’s noses, the two actors began spending a lot of private time together. Not only that, but their ranches were right next to one another, and eventually, the press began to take notice of this hot new item.
This all led to a very scandalous climax.
In 1938, Photoplay published an eyebrow-raising article titled “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives”. It morally critiqued many high-profile stars that were in romantic relationships and not married. Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor were among them.
The article essentially put a target on their backs, saying, “They’re always invited together [to events] just like man and wife…They spend a quiet evening together at either one or the other’s place”. This sparked the next big chapter of Stanwyck’s life.
The studios feared that Stanwyck and Taylor’s unmarried status might cause a scandal and pressured them to marry. At that time, most actors were at the mercy of their studios—and so, in 1939, they tied the knot. Years later, however, Taylor made a chilling confession about his marriage to Stanwyck.
Though Taylor benefitted from his relationship with Stanwyck, he wasn’t exactly ready for “to death do us part”. When the studios pressured him to marry, he felt completely conflicted. He even said, “I wasn’t sure I was in love. The only thing I was allowed to say about the whole thing was ‘I do’”. This, of course, was a recipe for disaster.
The story of Stanwyck and Taylor’s wedding day was the opposite of romantic. Not only was there no honeymoon, but there was also no wedding night. Instead, Taylor stayed at his mother’s house because he needed to spring the news of his nuptials on her before the public found out.
The couple was off to a rough start before they even began. As you can imagine, this did not bode well for their future together.
There were some rumors in Hollywood that Stanwyck and Taylor had a lavender marriage—and that one, or both, of them might be queer. For Barbara, whispers that she might be a lesbian had roots in the theater work she did in New York. There, she’d spent a lot of time with women who were openly gay. But that wasn’t all that fueled these speculations.
Barbara Stanwyck was never the picture of femininity. There was always a solidness to her—she didn’t have the glamorous image other actresses had, and her looks certainly weren’t her first priority. Robert Taylor, on the other hand, had such a gentle beauty and easygoing personality that rumors about his sexuality also flourished.
However, when it came to actual evidence of this, there was almost none to be found. Still, that didn’t mean that the marriage wasn’t deeply flawed.
WWII created a huge chasm between Stanwyck and her new husband. While he went off to serve in the US Navy, she threw herself into her work. They barely spent time together, and when they did, they had to put on a big show of being a happy couple. But was any of it real? Not really.
Though they posed as man and wife for magazine covers, any real romance between began to spoil. Fate, however, had another twist in store for Stanwyck.
Enter: Lana Turner. Turner was a blonde bombshell, but more importantly, she was also a wrench thrown right in the middle of Stanwyck and Taylor’s marriage. When Taylor met Turner on the set of 1941’s Johnny Eager, he became utterly infatuated with her.
According to Taylor’s biography, he said, “She became an obsession. I had to have her, if only for one night”. It gets worse.
Apparently, Robert Taylor was so consumed by his desire for Turner, he asked Stanwyck for a divorce. This was all the more embarrassing because Turner wasn’t even love with Taylor and tried to dissuade him from ending the marriage. But even darker rumors abounded.
According to some sensationalized stories, Stanwyck didn’t take the news of Taylor’s affair with Turner very well. Some claimed that she went so far as to cut her own wrists, but this turned out to be a complete fabrication. Stanwyck denied all allegations. But this wouldn’t be the end of Taylor’s bad behavior.
In 1929, Barbara Stanwyck starred in East Side West Side, alongside Ava Gardner. But the film chillingly mirrored her own life. While Stanwyck played the role of the betrayed wife, Gardner played the role of the other woman. Shockingly, offscreen, Gardner was indeed sleeping with Stanwyck’s husband.
According to Ava Gardner’s memoirs, she enjoyed a red-hot affair with Robert Taylor behind Barbara Stanwyck’s back. As well, she spilled some salacious details, expressing how wonderful Taylor was and that he was an excellent lover. Somehow, the reach of Taylor’s infidelity knew no bounds; he had even further to fall.
In 1950, Taylor traveled overseas to film Quo Vadis, and a gorgeous Italian actress caught his eye. Lia De Leo had a shockingly small part in the movie—but her piercing, dark features aroused Taylor’s reckless side. Now, so far away from his wife, he pursued De Leo. This time, he had zero discretion.
For Robert Taylor, distance certainly didn’t make the heart grow fonder. He began having an affair with Lia De Leo and it wasn’t long before the gossip mill caught wind of the scandalous story. Once the tabloids began spreading Taylor’s sordid secret around, it was only a matter of time before it reached Los Angeles—and the ear of Barbara Stanwyck.
When Stanwyck learned that her philandering husband had unabashedly pursued another woman on the set of Quo Vadis, she was enraged. That’s when she presented him with a daunting ultimatum: She threatened him with a divorce if he didn’t stop sleeping around. Unfortunately, she didn’t exactly get the answer she hoped for.
Robert Taylor agreed to divorce Barbara Stanwyck—but she didn’t let him off easy. Oh no, despite the fact that she was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, she made one, jaw-dropping final demand. She wanted Taylor to pay alimony—to give her a slice of his salary until either of them passed. Taylor response was the nail in the coffin.
Stanwyck’s husband was never one to put up a fight, so when she made her demands, he simply gave in—to the tune of 15% of his income. In 1951, this iconic couple finally separated for good. But that didn’t mean Stanwyck ever forgot about Taylor. She kept a part of her heart reserved just for him.
Despite the rocky conclusion of their romance, Stanwyck and Taylor managed to remain friendly after their break-up. They even starred together in the actress’s final feature film in 1964, The Night Walker. She even said, “We became friends again. Time does take care of things”.
So, when Robert Taylor succumbed to cancer in 1969, Stanwyck’s pure devastation was undeniable.
One of Stanwyck’s good friends, Linda Evans, claimed that the actress considered Taylor to be the love of her life. His death completely consumed her. Moreover, according to biographer to Dan Callahan, “Barbara went to his funeral and wept. It was not usual behavior for her. She didn’t show her emotions in a public setting. She also kept photographs of him when she was older”.
After Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck never married again. But that didn’t mean she gave up on romance. In fact, Stanwyck held the key to one of the biggest secrets in Hollywood. Two years after Taylor’s death, she caught the eye of a new man and embarked on a wildly passionate affair.
The truth about this affair, however, didn’t come to light until after her death.
In 1990, Barbara Stanwyck passed away from lung disease and congestive heart failure. Her lifetime of smoking had finally caught up to her. But Hollywood wasn’t quite done with her. In 2008, a famous heartthrob stepped out of the shadows—and published a memoir that dished on the secret Stanwyck took to her grave.
Robert Wagner’s memoir Pieces of My Heart revealed that he had had a meaningful love affair with Barbara Stanwyck. They met in 1953, on the set of Titanic. The moment they set eyes one another, something special sparked between them. But there was a reason these two besotted actors had to keep their love under wraps.
At the time, Stanwyck was 45 while Wagner was only 22. This staggering age gap would undoubtedly cause an uproar, so they had no choice but to be as discrete as possible. But though they were quiet, their feelings for one another were incredibly deep.
In an interview, Wagner confessed, “She was a wonderful woman. She was so kind and so loving and so generous, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me…I’ll never forget it”.
In a way, Stanwyck and Wagner were doomed from the start. That 23-year age gap would never fly in Hollywood, and inevitably, the studio began to pressure Wagner to marry someone else. During the affair, studio heads blindsided Wagner by releasing an infuriating story.
The studios wanted Wagner to be married to the young actress Terry Moore. He, of course, had no intention of doing so. So when the studio put out the story that Wagner was an engaged man, he couldn’t believe it. In his memoir, he wrote, “They never called, they never told me they were going to do this, it just appeared in the papers. I was livid…”
Stanwyck, was also upset—for good reason.
Stanwyck was incensed that the studios wanted her lover to be with a woman so much younger than herself. According to Wagner, this tiny detail hit a nerve with Stanwyck. Nevertheless, Wagner still felt devoted to his woman, writing, “I would always have been Mr Stanwyck, and we both knew it”.
But though they spent four, unforgettable years together, this romance was destined to fizzle out.
Barbara Stanwyck never let age get in the way of getting her kicks. In addition to Robert Wagner, one other actor had some dirty secrets to spill. According to Farley Granger’s autobiography, he and the actress had a one-night stand: “We enjoyed each other’s company to the fullest”.
But though Stanwyck may have been a wonderful lover, she was not a wonderful mother.
Barbara Stanwyck may have seemed like the picture of elegance, grace, and resilience on screen—but she definitely had some skeletons in her closet. Remember her adopted son Anthony? Well, it wasn’t long after she adopted him that Stanwyck realized that was not cut out for motherhood at all. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was an awful mother.
Little Tony was not the perfect child Stanwyck wanted. He was a troublemaker in school and a bit overweight, and to make matters worse, he was a chilling reminder of her abusive, first husband, Frank Fay. With such a child on her hands, Stanwyck’s unyielding personality came out to play.
She had strict parenting techniques and high expectations. Anthony could never measure up—and the fallout was heart-wrenching.
When Anthony was 12, he suffered an injury at summer camp—one serious enough that he ended up in the hospital. But though doctors tried calling Stanwyck, she never got back to them. In fact, she never came to his bedside at all. But her betrayal went even deeper than that.
Eventually, Barbara Stanwyck washed her hands of Anthony and sent him to military school. The end of Anthony’s childhood marked the end of the relationship with his mother. They became estranged and barely saw one another going forward.
Film critic Richard Corliss made an astute observation about Stanwyck and her son, writing that Anthony “resembled her in just one respect: both were, effectively, orphans”. Somehow, it gets even more heartbreaking.
When Anthony eventually married, his mother didn’t even bother to show up to his wedding ceremony. Instead, she sent them a bathroom set. Similarly, when he welcomed his son, Stanwyck refused to make an appearance. Even more upsetting? She never met her grandson.
She sent the family $100 and a gift, and stayed as far away from them as she could.
Even when her son came up in conversation, Barbara Stanwyck was known to brush the subject matter off, saying he was “long gone”. Anthony was a ghost from her past that she just wanted to forget.
On one chilling occasion, Anthony called his uncle, asking if he could see his mother. In recalling the incident, he said, "He told me to forget it, to forget that Barbara Stanwyck was my mother. He said, 'She wants nothing to do with you'". But that wasn’t all. Stanwyck really knew how to twist the knife.
On her deathbed, Stanwyck laid out some brutal instructions in regard to Anthony. She banned him from visiting her, no matter what. Heartbreakingly, Anthony had always held out hope that he and his mother might mend their relationship—but her final wishes destroyed their bond, once and for all.
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