A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940
Release Date: November 12, 2013
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 1044 pages
The word “exhaustive” gets thrown around quite a bit when talking about biographies. But never has that term been more aptly used than when referring to Victoria Wilson’s stunning recent biography of film legend Barbara Stanwyck.
How “exhaustive” is this new tome? It’s over a thousand pages … and this is only part one, covering Stanwyck’s life and career from her 1907 birth (107 years ago today, to be exact) through 1940, just as the actress started filming what would become Frank Capra’s classic Meet John Doe (released in 1941).
It’s safe to say that Steel-True puts all other recent biographies of Stanwyck to shame. The depth of research that Wilson has undertaken in crafting her history of the beloved actress, who was born Ruby Catherine Stevens, is astounding in its breadth. Written with the cooperation of Stanwyck’s family and longtime friends, utilizing hundreds of documents including private correspondence, photographs, and interviews with those who knew and loved the legendary star, Wilson draws a honest, multilayered portrait of Stanwyck, one that feels at once intensely personal and exceedingly grand in scope.
Because Stanwyck had a difficult, complex childhood, the tendency in some recent biographies about her has been to gloss over that period of Stanwyck’s life as just another inscrutable part of her mystique–an attitude that does a great disservice to our understanding of her foundation as not only an actress, but a human being. Wilson corrects this by delving deep into Stanwyck’s genealogy, tracing her lineage back to the pre-American Revolution days (revealing that Stanwyck’s ancestors were probably not the “horse-thieves” she jokingly assumed they were) and exploring the early years of her life after the tragic death of her pregnant mother when Stanwyck was four years old.
In building her portrait of the actress, Wilson does not shy away from addressing the more difficult aspects of Stanwyck’s personal life, but there’s no sense of salaciousness about it. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to Steel-True, whether Wilson is discussing Stanwyck’s romantic travails or mentioning, almost as a casual aside, a complicated abortion that rendered Stanwyck sterile at the age of fifteen. Wilson strikes an effectively moderate tone throughout the book–neither completely removed from her subject nor gushingly enthusiastic, the author is respectful and yet incisive in her examination of Stanwyck’s life.
When it comes to discussing Stanwyck’s career, Wilson focuses on the actress’s many roles and performances–both the notable and the not-so-much–with an almost poetic sense of analysis. Wilson conveys Stanwyck’s dedication to her craft with great care, drawing on quotes from the actress and anecdotes from the set to build convincing recreations of the filming atmosphere on certain productions. Whether it’s a moving examination of the final scenes of the melodrama Ever in My Heart (1933) or an impressively detailed recounting of the making of one of the actress’s best films, Stella Dallas (1937), Wilson thoroughly immerses her readers in Stanwyck’s cinematic world.
If there is any fault to find in the book, it’s that Wilson seems to almost lose herself at times in extraneous details. It’s not to say that some of these moments aren’t fascinating on their own, like the many asides about the careers of some of the legendary directors with whom Stanwyck worked, or the numerous bon mots about Stanwyck’s Hollywood colleagues (including one cheeky reference to the disappointing size of Clark Gable’s genitals, courtesy of Zeppo Marx’s wife, Marion). As entertaining as these bits are, however, they admittedly tend to distract from the predominant narrative of Stanwyck’s life, and it’s these diversions that likely contributed to the need for two volumes.
Still, don’t let the length of the book scare you away from reading it, because there has never been a more dedicated examination of the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck. Victoria Wilson’s genuine labor of love is a worthwhile tribute to the actress’s remarkable life, and we honestly can’t wait to indulge in the second half of this well-crafted biography.
True Classics thanks Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of Steel-True for the purposes of this review.