Stanwyck, Barbara (1907–1990)
Stanwyck, Barbara (1907–1990)
Stanwyck, Barbara (1907–1990)
American actress who spent 55 years in front of the camera playing saucy dames. Born Ruby Katharine Stevens at 246 Classon Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, on July 16, 1907; died on January 20, 1990, at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, of congestive heart failure and emphysema; daughter of Byron Stevens (a construction worker) and Catherine (McGee) Stevens; married Frank Fay (a song-and-dance man), on August 26, 1928 (divorced February 1936); married Robert Taylor (an actor), on May 14, 1939 (divorced February 1952); children: (adopted) son Dion Fay.
Broadway Nights (1927); The Locked Door (1930); Ladies of Leisure (1930); Illicit (1931); Ten Cents a Dance (1931); Night Nurse (1931); The Miracle Woman (1931); Forbidden (1932); Shopworn (1932); So Big (1932); The Purchase Price (1932); The Bitter Tea of General Yen (based on a novel by Grace Zaring Stone , 1933); Ladies They Talk About (1933); Baby Face (1933); Ever in My Heart (1933); Gambling Lady (1934); A Lost Lady (1934); The Secret Bride (1935); The Woman in Red (1935); Red Salute (1935); Annie Oakley (1935); A Message to Garcia (1936); His Brother's Wife (1936); Banjo on my Knee (with dialogue by William Faulkner, 1936); The Plough and the Stars (1937); Interns Can't Take Money (1937); This Is My Affair (1937); Stella Dallas (1937); Breakfast for Two (1937); Always Goodbye (1938); The Mad Miss Minton (1938); Union Pacific (1939); Golden Boy (1939); Remember the Night (1940); The Lady Eve (1941); Meet John Doe (1941); You Belong to Me (1941); Ball of Fire (1942); The Great Man's Lady (1942); The Gay Sisters (1942); Lady of Burlesque (1943); Flesh and Fantasy (1943); Double Indemnity (1944); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Christmas in Connecticut (1945); My Reputation (1946); The Bride Wore Boots (1946); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946); California (1947); The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947); The Other Love (1947); Cry Wolf (1947); B.F.'s Daughter (1948); Sorry, Wrong Number (1948); The Lady Gambles (1949); East Side, West Side (based on Marcia Davenport 's novel with a screenplay by Isobel Lennart , 1949); The File on Thelma Jordan (with a rewrite by Ketti Frings , 1950); No Man of Her Own (1950); The Furies (1950); To Please a Lady (1950); The Man with a Cloak (1951); Clash by Night (1952); Jeopardy (1953); Titanic (1953); All I Desire (1953); The Moonlighter (1953); Blowing Wild (1953); Witness to Murder (1954); Executive Suite (1954); Cattle Queen of Montana (1955); The Violent Men (1955); Escape to Burma (1955); There's Always Tomorrow (1956); The Maverick Queen (1956); These Wilder Years (1956); Crime of Passion (1957); Trooper Hook (1957); Walk on the Wild Side (1962); Roustabout (1964); The Night Walker (1965).
"The Barbara Stanwyck Show" (NBC series, 1960–61); "The House that Wouldn't Die" (ABC movie); "A Taste of Evil" (movie, 1970); "The Letters" (ABC movie, 1973); "The Big Valley" (ABC series, 1965–69); "Dynasty II: The Colbys" (ABC series, 1985). Also many stints on "Lux Radio Theater."
Barbara Stanwyck, whose childhood was off-limits during celebrity interviews throughout her life, reluctantly admitted in her 80s, "All right, let's just say that 'poor' is something I understand. … I just wanted to survive and eat, and have a nice coat."
Born Ruby Stevens at 246 Classon Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, on July 16, 1907, Stanwyck was not quite three when her pregnant mother was knocked down by a drunk while exiting a streetcar, and hit her head against a curb. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and mother of five, Catherine Stevens died a month later. Two weeks after that, Stanwyck's father joined a work crew digging the canal in Panama and never returned. At the time of his flight, Barbara's sisters Maud and Mabel were teenagers, sister Mildred was eight, and brother Byron was six. After the older sisters married, the upbringing of Byron and Barbara fell to Mildred, then 14, who had become a showgirl. When Millie went on tour, she boarded the children with relatives or neighbors, or dumped them in sundry foster homes. Stanwyck had a predilection for running away, her brother Byron told Axel Madsen, but he always knew where to find her, "on the stoop on Classon Avenue, where she'd be sitting 'waiting for Mama to come home.'"
During the summers of 1916–17, approaching age ten, Stanwyck tagged along with the touring Mildred, watching from the wings and learning the routines. Lacking interest in school, she quit at 13, and took a job wrapping packages at Abraham & Straus. "The plain wrapping, not the fancy," she said. Occasionally, Millie would take her little sister to the movies to see Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline. Recalled Stanwyck:
It was not money wasted. Pearl White was my goddess and her courage, her grace and her triumphs lifted me out of this world. I read nothing good, but I read an awful lot. Here was escape! I read lurid stuff about ladies who smelled sweet and looked like flowers and were betrayed. I read about gardens and ballrooms and moonlight trysts and murders. I felt a sense of doors opening. And I began to be conscious of myself, the way I looked, the clothes I wore. I bought awful things at first, pink shirtwaist, artificial flowers, tripe.
Stanwyck signed on as a typist at the Jerome H. Remick Music Company, the next best thing to being in show business. By 15, she was performing in the back row of the chorus, pulling in $35 a week. She would remember her days as a chorus girl with fondness. That same year, she was hired for the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies, starring Gilda Gray . Moving into a cold-water flat on 46th Street with fellow chorines Mae Clarke and Wanda Mansfield , Stanwyck also worked midnights for Texas Guinan . By 1924, she was an experienced hoofer, appearing in the Keep Kool Revue and Gay Paree, and dancing the Black Bottom in George White's Scandals of 1926.
It was in 1926 that Ruby Stevens changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck and landed a part in her first straight play. The Noose opened at the Hudson Theater on October 20, 1926, and ran nine months; the following year, Stanwyck made her film debut with Broadway Nights, a silent with sound effects. Her Broadway breakthrough was Burlesque by Arthur Hopkins and George Manker Watters, which opened on September 1, 1927, at the Plymouth Theater.
On August 26, 1928, Stanwyck married Frank Fay, a Broadway song-and-dance man whose career was also on the rise. Flush with their New York success and Stanwyck's United Artists' contract to appear in The Locked Door, the young hopefuls arrived in Hollywood by train in March 1929. The Locked Door proved an inauspicious beginning, however, since the movie was director George Fitzmaurice's first talkie, and he paid more attention to the sound equipment than to performances. Fitzmaurice, who had worked with a galaxy of gorgeous stars, kept griping that he couldn't make Stanwyck look beautiful no matter how hard he tried. "He kept arranging all kinds of drapery and tapestries behind me," she said. Finally, in that wry delivery that was to be her trademark, she told him, "They sent for me. I didn't send for them."
The 5'3" actress with the husky voice (Richard Chamberlain dubbed it "a million-dollar case of laryngitis") made her breakthrough, finally, with Lady of Leisure, her fourth movie, in 1930. This time, director Frank Capra appreciated his leading lady. "Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces," wrote Capra. "She knew nothing about camera tricks, how to 'cheat' her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped."
Stanwyck made three more movies that year, but her two-career marriage—one partner ascending, the other descending—was falling apart. The hard-drinking Fay was abusive physically as well as mentally in the face of a plummeting career; their marriage would subsequently be fodder for a movie classic. In 1931, David Selznick found the script A Star is Born so close to the Fay-Stanwyck alliance that he checked with his lawyers about possible litigation and was promptly presented with 20 pages of similarities. Selznick then brought in a team of writers, including Dorothy Parker , to camouflage the story. The script remained a notorious film à clef and sat on the shelf for years.
Meanwhile, Stanwyck stuck with Fay, trying to get him to stop drinking and renew his career. In December 1932, she adopted a boy, Dion Fay. That same year, she made Forbidden, based on Fannie Hurst 's 1930 bestseller Back Street. The picture was Columbia's top moneymaker, but for Stanwyck the filming was a disaster. Her angry husband had returned to New York to resuscitate his waning career, while she fought a bitter court battle to get out of her Columbia contract; then a fall from a horse during shooting resulted in a dislocated tailbone. "It hurt," she said in 1984. "It still hurts." Stanwyck spent her days on the set and her nights in a hospital, in traction.
She was filming movie after movie in the 1930s: Shopworn, So Big, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies They Talk About, Baby Face, Gambling Lady, The Secret Bride, The Woman in Red, Red Salute, and A Lost Lady. (The last of these, an adaptation of Willa Cather 's 1923 novel, so outraged Cather that a codicil in her will forbade any future dramatizations of her writings.) From 1933 to 1935, Stanwyck shot five of these movies for Warner Bros., but her husband was making so much trouble for studio heads—complaining about her hours, brawling at the Brown Derby restaurant—that Warner's dropped her. That, and one more personal assault, convinced Stanwyck to file for divorce in November 1935. Six months later, the IRS garnisheed her wages for non-payment
of her husband's taxes. (Fay would eventually revive his career in Mary Coyle Chase 's Harvey.)
But Stanwyck was financially shrewd and secure. She was a savvy businesswoman who founded the Athena National Sorority in 1933 for young professional businesswomen. Unlike other stars who were tied by the contract system to one studio that loaned them out, Stanwyck freelanced after her Columbia court battle. She was able to pick and choose, to negotiate stronger contracts, signing one- or two-picture deals as she went, hopping from studio to studio.
In 1935, she signed with RKO to do Annie Oakley (directed by George Stevens), A Message to Garcia, and The Bride Walks Out. She then went to MGM for His Brother's Wife, co-starring Robert Taylor. Though Taylor was reputed to be gay, the two hit it off so well that he bought a ranch next to hers in Northridge.
When A Star is Born finally began filming in 1937, a child custody suit involving Fay and Stanwyck hit the newspapers, sending producers scrambling for another screenwriter to give their script further distance. The custody battle was an odd anomaly, since neither Fay nor Stanwyck ever devoted much attention to the young Dion. "Barbara tried to teach Dion to be tough," wrote Madsen. "As a child she had hated discipline. … She recited a poem she had learned by heart. … 'When comes the eaglet's time to fly/ No mothersoftness robs him of his sky'. … He had to learn to be responsible for himself. He sure couldn't count on Frank Fay." (When the boy turned six, he was shipped off to boarding school. In 1946, age 14, he would be sent to Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and later claim that he did not see his mother for the next four years.)
She has played five gun molls, two burlesque queens, half a dozen adulteresses and twice as many murderers. When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was terrific.
Ironically, in 1937, Stanwyck was about to start filming the remake of the Olive Higgins Prouty novel Stella Dallas, to be directed by King Vidor. In this consummate movie about mother love, Stella Dallas is so successful in preparing her daughter for high society that the daughter is mortified by her low-class mother. The famous fadeout has Stanwyck standing in the rain outside an iron gate, watching through the window as her daughter marries into the upper crust. Samuel Goldwyn's 1924 silent version had starred Mrs. Leslie Carter and Edward G. Robinson, with a screenplay by Frances Marion . This time Stanwyck fought for the part, even putting up with a detested screen test. "I was spurred by the memory of the magnificent performance of the late Belle Bennett in the first movie version," she told the Saturday Evening Post. "Also, there was unusual stimulation in the dual nature of the part; it was like playing two different women simultaneously. Always Stella has to be shown both in her surface commonness and in her basic fineness." Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her performance, Stanwyck lost to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth.
Taylor and Stanwyck were not in love, though they enjoyed each other's company. But the Hollywood studio's morals squad was diligent. When Photoplay magazine ran an article by Sheilah Graham , under the pen name Kirtley Baskette, entitled "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands and Wives"—naming Stanwyck and Taylor along with Lombard and Gable—the studio shotgunned the wedding. Stanwyck married Robert Taylor on May 14, 1939, with studio publicists in attendance. Although there was a solid gay community in Hollywood during the 1930s, homosexuality was against the law and could ruin careers at a time when drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity were winked at. Gays routinely went through with the nuptials known as "lavender" marriages engineered by studios to protect the stars.
Stanwyck's relationship with her lifelong publicist Helen Ferguson was long a cause for speculation. Whether or not it was sexual, it was a major relationship for nearly 30 years. Owner of the Helen Ferguson Agency, the twicemarried, twice-divorced Ferguson handled all of Stanwyck's publicity, advised her on career moves, protected her, and even lived with her, off and on, for extended periods. Ferguson came into Stanwyck's life during the last days of her marriage to Fay, and acted the role of a mother hen, limiting press access to the star, sitting in on interviews, and always being there in a crisis. At one time, Joan Crawford lived directly across the street from Stanwyck, in Brentwood, and Crawford's bisexuality notwithstanding, these two actors also became lifelong friends.
As a star, Stanwyck always had a large gay following. "When Stanwyck confronted men there was no subliminal I'm-Jane-you're-Tarzan glint," wrote Madsen. "Stanwyck was mocking and emotionally honest, and the way she related to the opposite sex was different from that of the screen's other tough ladies." But Stanwyck was also uncomfortable going outside the norm. She had problems of intimacy not just with men, but with everyone. In her later years, when a gay activist asked about her sexual preference, writes Madsen, "he was nearly thrown out of her house."
Once their stars were nicely married, the studios expected the couples to be seen doing the town two or three evenings a week—hair and gowns dutifully supplied. Stanwyck and Taylor hated the circuit, but they conformed. "I'll go to Ciro's or the Trocadero with Bob some evening," she said. "I'll be wearing a lovely gown, and my hair all doozied up. No sooner do I get there when I think, gee, I look awful."
High-caliber Stanwyck releases dominated the year 1941. In her first light comedy, The Lady Eve, she co-starred with Henry Fonda, trendily decked out by costume designer Edith Head , who also became a good friend. "Like Bringing up Baby," wrote Pauline Kael 40 years later, The Lady Eve "is a mixture of visual and verbal slapstick, and of high artifice and pratfalls. Barbara Stanwyck keeps sticking out a sensational leg, and Henry Fonda keeps tripping over it. … [N]either performer has ever been funnier." The discovery of Stanwyck's comedic powers made her a prime contender for Meet John Doe, co-starring Gary Cooper and directed by Frank Capra. Another classic comedy, Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks and also starring Gary Cooper, opened in December. Nominated for an Academy Award for Ball of Fire, Stanwyck lost to Joan Fontaine for Suspicion.
Stanwyck continued making comedies, notably Lady of Burlesque based on Gypsy Rose Lee 's successful novel The G-String Murders, directed by William Wellman. Always the professional, always on time, Stanwyck was a far cry from some of the demanding stars of her day. Beloved by crew and cast, she championed those with less power; she was friendly with electricians, camera assistants, makeup and wardrobe crew. Cecil B. De Mille once wrote that he never worked with an actress "more cooperative, less temperamental, and a better workman. … [W]hen I count over those of whom my memories are unmarred by anyway unpleasant recollection of friction on the set … Barbara's name is the first that comes to mind."
On the set, she was known as Queen Babs. "There is the same air of cool detachment, casual assurance," wrote Frank Nugent. "She sits on the doorstep of her dressing room—knitting occasionally, or reading a book, or sipping one of the 14 cups of coffee she consumes in the course of a studio day. She looks more like a housewife listening to the radio while shelling peas than an actress about to take off into the emotional stratosphere. Then the bell rings—and it's Killer Stanwyck in the ring, knocking the audience dead." (When the fledgling actress Marilyn Monroe was two hours late for her first scene with Stanwyck while filming the 1952 movie Clash By Night, Stanwyck never said a word. When Monroe proceeded to blow her lines 26 times, resulting in 26 takes, Stanwyck never said a word.)
Though Stanwyck was compliant, she would not hesitate to fight for others. On the 1949 shoot of To Please a Lady in Indiana, she requested adjoining rooms for herself and her longtime maid, Harriett Corey . When told that Indianapolis' best hotel would not accommodate blacks, Stanwyck suggested that MGM make reservations for her and Corey in the best "colored" hotel. MGM quickly resolved the problem with Indianapolis' best hotel.
She also championed fellow players. When Golden Boy began shooting on April 1, 1939, her leading man was the extremely nervous neophyte William Holden. The powers that be wanted to replace him during the first week. "My God, he's only had a week," she told Harry Cohn. "I don't know what you want. None of us can walk on water." She then coached Holden throughout the shoot. From that time on, every April 1, Holden sent her two dozen roses and a white gardenia. As they stood side-by-side as presenters at the April 1978 Academy Awards, Holden made an impromptu speech, surprising Stanwyck and delighting the audience, thanking her once again.
Ferguson, Helen (1901–1977)
Hollywood press agent. Name variations: Helen Hargreaves. Born in Decatur, Illinois, on July 23, 1901; died in March 1977 in Florida; married William "Big Bill" Russell (an actor); married Robert L. Hargreaves; no children.
One of Hollywood's best-known publicity agents, Helen Ferguson got her start playing bit parts in 13 Essanay two-reelers in Chicago; she made her stage debut in 1926. In 1930, she ditched acting for her first public relations job and eventually managed the Helen Ferguson Publicity Agency, at 321 South Beverly Drive in Los Angeles, with associate Jewel Smith . Among the stars they handled were Loretta Young , Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, and Barbara Stanwyck , with whom Ferguson was close friends for almost three decades. Ferguson died in 1977 after a lengthy illness. Her filmography as an actress includes Miss Lulu Bett, Hungry Hearts, The Famous Mrs. Fair, Within the Law, and The Unknown Purple.
But Stanwyck was always generous with fellow actors. She thrilled to a good performance. In a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, she chanted: "I wrote a fan letter to Olivia de Havilland for The Snake Pit, to Bette Davis for Jezebel and Dark Victory. I'll never forget Victor Mature's scene at the foot of the cross in The Robe. … I'll buy Claire Trevor , period. And what about that Ida Lupino ? … I lack the words to express the last but not the least of my memories—no words are worthy of the unforgettable, the incomparable—Hell, I need only one word anyway. Here it is—GARBO ."
Having been supported by some excellent scripts, Stanwyck also had great respect for writers. "To me the words come first. If it ain't on paper, it ain't ever gonna get up on the screen." She had good reason; her writers included Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Herman Mankiewicz, and Viña Delmar .
In the 1940s, however, American politics began to split the Hollywood community. Stanwyck, like her husband, was a right-wing conservative, and she and Taylor were founding members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPA) against the aims of left-wing unions, guilds, and intellectuals. MPAPA members included Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand , and Hedda Hopper . The organization stood for the if-I-can-pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps-so-can-you school of self-reliance. "In our special field of motion pictures," went the MPAPA premise, "we resent the growing impression that this industry is made up of, and dominated by, communists, radicals and crackpots." Put in historical perspective, Stanwyck was in the national mainstream, in step with the fearful mood that would result in the witchhunt for subversives led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1946–47, Robert Taylor was to testify as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in Hollywood and in Washington; before the Committee, Taylor named three "suspected communists": writer Lester Cole, actor Howard Da Silva, and Canadian starlet Karen Morley . Though Stanwyck was known to give patriotic lectures at Hollywood parties, she wisely sidestepped such public hangings. Much of the talent she had worked with and admired for years was ideologically on the other side.
Ironically, once it was decided that political conformity was essential for the nation's security, sexual conformity became part of the same outlook. "You can hardly separate homosexuals from subversives," Senator Kenneth Wherry told the New York Post. "Mind you, I don't say every homosexual is a subversive, and I don't say every subversive is a homosexual, but [people] of low morality are a menace to the government."
For Stanwyck, meanwhile, another career shift came in 1944, with the Raymond Chandler/Billy Wilder screenplay Double Indemnity. Adapted from a novel by James M. Cain, the movie was directed by Wilder. In it, Stanwyck played an unredeeming, conniving malcontent who convinces Fred MacMurray to kill her husband to collect on his insurance; all that and in a blonde wig. Stanwyck remembered thinking, "This role is gonna finish me." Instead, the critics uniformly praised her performance. Said Stanwyck:
When I mention "atmosphere" in Double Indemnity—that gloomy, horrible house the Dietrichsons lived in, the slit of sunlight slicing through those heavy drapes—you could smell that death was in the air, you understood why she wanted to get out of there, no matter what. And for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter's apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles—all that helped my performance.
Nominated again for Best Actress, Stanwyck lost to Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight.
By 1947, the silvery streaks had arrived in her hair. While Stanwyck was shooting B.F.'s Daughter, the front office ordered her to dye the gray out; Stanwyck refused. The year 1948 brought Sorry, Wrong Number, a tour-de-force about a bedridden neurotic who hears over crossed telephone wires the arrangements for her own murder and spends the night trying to get help. Nominated for an Academy Award, Stanwyck lost to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda, but she remained popular at the box office, making movie after movie: To Please a Lady, The File on Thelma Jordan, The Furies.
In 1950, Robert Taylor was in Italy on the shoot of Quo Vadis when their 12-year-marriage hit the rocks. Gossip drifted out of Italy about Taylor's dalliance with a 25-year-old divorcee named Lia de Leo , but Stanwyck put on her usual front. When Hedda Hopper called to confirm that Taylor wanted a divorce, Stanwyck drawled, "He didn't say anything about it at breakfast, but wait a minute, I'll ask him." Even so, she headed for Rome, with Helen Ferguson in tow, but it did no good. Divorce papers were filed in 1951, and from then on, she preferred the company of her friends Joan Blondell and Nancy Sinatra . By 1964, Ferguson, now wheelchair-bound, had faded from her life.
In the 1950s, Stanwyck's career began to slide. "The characters she was offered were one dimensional," wrote Madsen, "usually women with guns locked in deadly battles of the sexes. Flaunting her white hair …, she lent her sneer and throaty laughter to wayward, evil women who, by the fade-out, were usually dead, unless they shared the reins with the one man who
dared stand up." She made her last movie, The Night Walker, in 1965, with ex-husband Taylor, who died four years later.
Television meanwhile had come calling. On September 19, 1960, "The Barbara Stanwyck Show," an NBC anthology series, made its debut; Stanwyck starred in 32 of 36 episodes and was awarded an Emmy, but the show was canceled the following year. "As I understand it from my producer, … they want action shows and have a theory that women don't do action. The fact is, I'm the best action actress in the world. I can do horse drags, jump off buildings, and I've got the scars to prove it." She begged to play authentic frontier women, like Belle Starr , Pauline Cushman , Poker Alice , or Calamity Jane . She came close, playing the matriarch of a prominent ranching family in ABC's "The Big Valley" (1965–69), appearing in 105 of the 112 episodes. Before signing, she warned the producers: "I'm a tough old broad. Don't try to make me into something I'm not. If you want someone to tiptoe down the Barkley staircase in crinoline and politely ask where the cattle went, get another girl." Stanwyck enjoyed working on the show; she was less thrilled doing ABC's 1985 "Dynasty II: The Colbys." "I say the same line every week," she groused.
Stanwyck was acting her age; her stark white hair was a trademark. "The misguided ladies I've seen have made me think all the fretting, fussing, stewing, lying, and dyeing, all the tensions created by wanting to be forever young, age one faster. They look what they are—battlescarred veterans of their lost war against time. I decided not to enlist in that war three years before I turned forty."
In 1981, she had begun to endure a string of misfortunes. On the night of October 27, when she was 74, Stanwyck was awakened in her home on Loma Vista by a flashlight in her face. Behind it stood a gun-toting robber in a ski mask, who hit her and threw her in a closet, where she lay bleeding. Afterward, Stanwyck became reclusive. She made a rare social appearance was at the 1982 Academy Awards, when she was awarded an honorary Oscar.
That same year, she ventured forth to play another matriarch; this time in the ten-hour ABC miniseries "The Thorn Birds," based on Colleen McCullough 's novel, for which the actress took home another Emmy. But Stanwyck suffered from chronic emphysema, and in a house-burning scene during the filming she ingested more than a whiff of smoke, causing her to end that day at St. Joseph's Hospital. The bronchial aftereffects lingered for about a year, causing four emergency trips to hospitals.
In May 1984, she was diagnosed with cataracts; on June 22, 1985, her house was gutted by fire (newspapers reported that she dashed back in to save letters from ex-husband Taylor); and the day she received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award (April 9, 1986), she had to check herself out of St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica; in constant pain from a sprained back, she returned to the hospital the same evening. On January 20, 1990, at age 82, Barbara Stanwyck died at St. John's of congestive heart failure, complicated by emphysema. By request, her ashes were scattered over the desert in Lone Pine, California.
In 1965, while gazing out the window of a New York hotel room with another friend, Detroit newspaper columnist Shirley Eder , Stanwyck had commented, "You know, Shirley, I can remember when I was poor—oh so poor and so cold because my coat was too thin to give warmth. But as cold as I was, I loved being outside when the first snow fell on New York City. It was magic time for me then, and it's still magic, except now, with my feet on the radiator, I'm so nice and warm."
Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.