Barbara Stanwyck, 'A Stand-Up Dame'
updated 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
Perhaps Stanwyck's death from congestive heart failure at age 82 was such a surprise because the public never saw her fall apart. She aged regally, always trim and stylish, with her broad shoulders, long waist, narrow hips and pantherlike walk. And that voice, like scotch on the rocks. But her last years saw a hard struggle to retain that star image. A robbery and beating at her Beverly Hills home in 1981, in which a cigarette case from her second husband, Robert Taylor, was stolen, started her decline. "The shock was tremendous to her," says her friend, Dynasty designer Nolan Miller. "I don't think she ever really got over it."
Breathing special-effects smoke while making The Thorn Birds in 1982, Stanwyck contracted bronchitis—an ailment compounded by a cigarette habit she began at age 9 and gave up only four years ago. She was hospitalized periodically to have her lungs cleaned out. "The last time I saw her was a couple of weeks ago," says Miller. "She said, 'How could this happen to me? I never expected to become an invalid. I always thought I'd be trampled by a wild stallion or run down by a stagecoach. But never this.' "
On Jan. 9, Stanwyck was admitted to St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., for back problems stemming from a slipped disk. Eleven days later her heart gave out. "She had been experiencing nausea from a medication she'd been taking and she just took a turn for the worse," says her publicist, Larry Kleno. "She had gone into a coma earlier in the day." Kleno, who had talked to her the night before her death, said Stanwyck was anxious to get back to her daily routines. "She liked to read mysteries," he says. "She always said, 'That's because I killed so wonderfully well onscreen.' "
Stanwyck's give-'em-hell manner was the product of a hellish childhood. Born in Brooklyn as Ruby Stevens, she was 4 when her mother was killed, pushed off a moving streetcar by a drunk. Destroyed by the loss, Ruby's father, a bricklayer, abandoned his five children. After a childhood spent in a series of foster homes, 15-year-old Ruby found work as a chorus girl in speakeasies, then advanced to Broadway. At age 18, she changed her name to the more glamorous Barbara Stanwyck.
While working on Broadway in the late 1920s, she appeared in two films made in New York. They were so bad, she said, they almost shut the door on her screen career. Undaunted, she went to Hollywood, where she eventually persuaded director Frank Capra to use her in 1930's Ladies of Leisure. She played a gold digger, and the role launched her on a steady climb to the top. With Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Stanwyck formed a triumvirate whose film portrayals of strong women defined a Hollywood era. She could be a tomboy, as in Annie Oakley, the ultimate femme fatale, as in The Lady Eve, or the hard-boiled seductress with a heart of stone, as in Double Indemnity. Whatever the role, Stanwyck had a feisty quality that overrode her weakest material, of which she had her share. Who can remember anything from The Thorn Birds miniseries except Stanwyck, at 75, lustfully defrocking Richard Chamberlain, the local priest?
Onscreen, Stanwyck could bulldoze strong men into rubble, as when she cold-bloodedly shot her lover boy, Fred Mac-Murray, in Double Indemnity. But offscreen, it was Stanwyck's heart that did the breaking. She was married twice, first, in 1928, to vaudeville comedian Frank Fay. His high living and heavy drinking reportedly plagued the marriage, which ended after seven years (he died in 1961). Her second marriage ended in 1951 when matinee idol Robert Taylor walked out after 12 years. He died in 1969, and Stanwyck broke down at his funeral. Even after they divorced she said, "There will be no other man in my life."
Calling herself a "bachelor woman," Missy, as she was called by her close friends, lived her later years alone. After Taylor, her name was never linked romantically to anyone. She preferred to work, saying that she hoped she could continue "until they shoot me." Her professionalism was legend. During her 1985 stint on ABC's The Colbys, her last work as an actress, Stanwyck had a showdown with a starlet. "I won't mention the actress," says producer Aaron Spelling. "But one day she was sitting outside the stage. Missy was getting ready to do the scene, and she said, 'Let's go.' The girl said, 'Well, I don't feel it right now. The vibes aren't right.' And Missy said, 'Screw your vibes!'—only she didn't say screw—'and get your butt in here and start acting!' " Not for nothing does Colbys co-star Stephanie Beacham refer to Stanwyck as "a stand-up dame."
While Stanwyck lived alone, she was not without friends. One of her closest was Linda Evans, her co-star from 1965 to 1969 in The Big Valley. When Evans's mother died during the production, Stanwyck became her surrogate parent. "She just took care of me the whole time," says Evans, who remained close to Stanwyck until the end. "There's never been a time that I've had a problem and come to her where she hasn't taken I time for me."
Evans considered Stanwyck the world's greatest acting teacher. She remembers Stanwyck telling her that a certain Big Valley scene needed more presence. When Evans asked what she meant, Stanwyck said she'd show her during the next take. "As the rehearsal went on, I waited for an explanation from Stanwyck about 'presence,' but she didn't say anything," says Evans. "I had to walk in this door and walk into the scene, but she didn't come over. Finally the director said, 'Action!' She came over behind me just as we were supposed to walk in the door. I thought, 'When is she going to tell me what to do?' Then, as I opened the door, she picked up her boot and kicked me in the butt! I went flying onto the set with my eyes wide open and she said, 'Now that's presence!' "
And now Stanwyck's particular presence is gone. At the actress's request, Larry Kleno planned to scatter her ashes from an airplane over an undisclosed California mountaintop. "She had seen too many of what she termed Hollywood funerals, and she didn't want one," he says. "No elaborate eulogy." Surely none could have been as eloquent as the memory she left behind, no testament as powerful as the legacy of her work.
—John Stark, Kristina Johnson and Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles