Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens; July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress, model and dancer. She was a film and television star, known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional with a strong, realistic screen presence, and a favorite of directors including Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra. After a short but notable career as a stage actress in the late 1920s, she made 85 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before turning to television.
Orphaned at the age of four and partially raised in foster homes, by 1944 Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress four times, for Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). For her television work, she won three Emmy Awards, for The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), The Big Valley (1966) and The Thorn Birds (1983). Her performance in The Thorn Birds also won her a Golden Globe.
She received an Honorary Oscar at the 1982 Academy Award ceremony and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1986. She was also the recipient of honorary lifetime awards from the American Film Institute (1987), the Film Society of Lincoln Center (1986), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (1981) and the Screen Actors Guild (1967). Stanwyck received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and was ranked as the 11th greatest female star of classic American cinema by the American Film Institute.
Ziegfeld girl and Broadway success
Barbara Stanwyck as a Ziegfeld girl (c. 1924)
In 1923, a few months before her 16th birthday, Ruby auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a nightclub over the Strand Theatre in Times Square. A few months later, she obtained a job as a dancer in the 1922 and 1923 seasons of the Ziegfeld Follies, dancing at the New Amsterdam Theater. "I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat," Stanwyck said. For the next several years, she worked as a chorus girl, performing from midnight to seven a.m. at nightclubs owned by Texas Guinan. She also occasionally served as a dance instructor at a speakeasy for gays and lesbians owned by Guinan. One of her good friends during those years was pianist Oscar Levant, who described her as being "wary of sophisticates and phonies."
Billy LaHiff, who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople, introduced Ruby in 1926 to impresario Willard Mack. Mack was casting his play The Noose, and LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl be played by a real one. Mack agreed, and after a successful audition gave the part to Ruby. She co-starred with Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. As initially staged, the play was not a success. In an effort to improve it, Mack decided to expand Ruby's part to include more pathos. The Noose re-opened on October 20, 1926, and became one of the most successful plays of the season, running on Broadway for nine months and 197 performances. At the suggestion of either Mack or David Belasco, Ruby changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck by combining the first name of her character, Barbara Frietchie, with the last name of another actress in the play, Jane Stanwyck.
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, of English and Scottish descent. She was the fifth and youngest child of Byron E. and Catherine Ann (née McPhee) Stevens, working-class parents. Her father was a native of Lanesville, Massachusetts and her mother was an immigrant from Sydney, Nova Scotia. When Ruby was four, her mother died of complications from a miscarriage after a drunken stranger accidentally knocked her off a moving streetcar. Two weeks after the funeral, her father, Byron Stevens joined a work crew digging the Panama Canal and was never seen again. Ruby and her older brother, Malcolm Byron (later nicknamed "By") Stevens, were raised by their eldest sister Laura Mildred (later Mildred Smith; born April 23, 1886 – died 1931), who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1931, aged 45. When Mildred got a job as a showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four in a year), from which young Ruby often ran away.
"I knew that after fourteen I'd have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that ... I've always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they're 'very' sorry for me."
Barbara Stanwyck, 1937
Ruby toured with Mildred during the summers of 1916 and 1917, and practiced her sister's routines backstage. Watching the movies of Pearl White, whom Ruby idolized, also influenced her drive to be a performer. At the age of 14, she dropped out of school to take a job wrapping packages at a department store in Brooklyn. Ruby never attended high school, "although early biographical thumbnail sketches had her attending Brooklyn's famous Erasmus Hall High School."
Soon afterward, she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for $14 a week, which allowed her to become financially independent. She disliked both jobs; her real goal was to enter show business, even as her sister Mildred discouraged the idea. She then took a job cutting dress patterns for Vogue magazine, but because customers complained about her work, she was fired. Her next job was as a typist for the Jerome H. Remick Music Company, a job she reportedly enjoyed. However, her continuing ambition was to work in show business, and her sister finally gave up trying to dissuade her.