Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, New York on July 16, 1907. She was the fifth and youngest child of Catherine Ann (née McPhee) and Byron E. Stevens. The couple were working-class, her father a native of Massachusetts and her mother an immigrant from Nova Scotia, Canada. Ruby was of English and Scottish ancestry, by her father and mother, respectively. When she was four, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving streetcar. Two weeks after the funeral, Byron Stevens joined a work crew digging the Panama canal and was never seen again. Ruby and her brother, Byron. were raised by their older sister Mildred, who was only five years older than Ruby. When Mildred got a job as a John Cort showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in a series of foster homes (as many as four different homes in a year), from which 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
During the summers of 1916 and 1917, Ruby toured with Mildred, 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 age 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 attend Brooklyn’s famous Erasmus Hall High School.” Soon after, she took a job filing cards at the Brooklyn telephone office for a salary of $14 a week, a salary that allowed her to become financially independent. She disliked both jobs; her real interest was to enter show business even as her sister Mildred discouraged the idea. She next took a job cutting dress patterns for Vogue, 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. But her continuing ambition was to work in show business and her sister finally gave up trying to dissuade her.
In 1923, a few months before her 16th birthday, Ruby auditioned for a place in the chorus at the Strand Roof, a night club 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.”
In 1926, Ruby was introduced to Willard Mack by Billy LaHiff who owned a popular pub frequented by showpeople. Mack was casting his play The Noose and LaHiff suggested that the part of the chorus girl be played by a real chorus girl. Mack agreed and gave the part to Ruby after a successful audition. She co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. 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 Stanwyck, after the name of another actress in the play, Jane Stanwyck.
Stanwyck became a Broadway star soon after when she was cast in her first leading role in Burlesque (1927). She got rave reviews and it was a huge hit. Film actor Pat O’Brien would later say on a talk show in the 1960s, “the greatest Broadway show I ever saw was a play in the 1920s called ‘Burlesque’.” In Arthur Hopkins‘ autobiography To a Lonely Boy, he describes how he came about casting her: “After some search for the girl, I interviewed a night-club dancer who had just scored in a small emotional part in a play that did not run (The Noose). She seemed to have the quality I wanted, a sort of rough poignancy. She at once displayed more sensitive, easily expressed emotion than I had encountered since Pauline Lord. She and (Hal) Skelly were the perfect team, and they made the play a great success. I had great plans for her, but the Hollywood offers kept coming. There was no competing with them. She became a picture star. She is Barbara Stanwyck.” He also describes Stanwyck as “the greatest natural actress of our time,” noting with sadness that “one of the theater’s great potential actresses was embalmed in celluloid.”
Around this time, Stanwyck was summoned by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights. She lost the lead role because she could not cry in the screen test but got a minor part as a fan dancer. This was Stanwyck’s first film appearance.
While playing in Burlesque, Stanwyck had been introduced to her future husband, actor Frank Fay, by Oscar Levant. Stanwyck and Fay were married on August 26, 1928, and they soon moved to Hollywood.
Stanwyck’s retirement years were active, with charity work outside the limelight. She was robbed and assaulted inside her Beverly Hills home in 1981. The following year, while filming The Thorn Birds, the inhalation of special-effects smoke on the set may have caused her to contract bronchitis. The illness was compounded by her cigarette habit; she had been a smoker from age nine until four years before her death.
Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990 of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 82 at Saint John’s Health Center. She had indicated that she wished no funeral service. In accordance with her wishes, her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California, where she had made some of her western films.