American screen legend Barbara Stanwyck was
born on this day in 1907. The lesbian starlet spent many years of her life as
the highest paid woman in the U.S. and as an icon for the LGBT community.
In her heyday, Barbara Stanwyck was famous for her film noirs, and in her later years, she rose to prominence once again for her western films (x).
Barbara was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907
in Brooklyn, New York. She was the fifth child born to working-class
parents and would experience a traumatic childhood after the death of her
mother and the mysterious disappearance of her father – two weeks after Barbara’s
mother died from complications from a miscarriage, her father took a job digging
the Panama Canal and was never seen again. Barbara’s older sister Mildred did
her best to raise her younger siblings, but Barbara and her brother Byron were
eventually placed into foster care. Barbara ran away from the foster care system at the age of 14 and joined her sister Mildred
working as a showgirl.
Her big break came to Barbara just two years later; when she was 16-years-old, she auditioned for and was given a part with
the Ziegfeld Follies, one of New York’s premier theater groups of the 1910s and
1920s. Later in life, Barbara would say, “I just wanted to survive and
eat and have a nice coat,” but it was with the Ziegfeld Follies that she
made a name for herself choreographing dance numbers at the Texas Guinan gay
and lesbian speakeasy and where she met the famous director Willard Mack. Willard cast
Barbara in his play The Noose, which
was a breakout success and eventually found its way onto Broadway. It was also
Willard who gave her the idea to change her name from Ruby Stevens to Barbara
Stanwyck – Barbara for the name of her character in The Noose, and Stanwyck
was stolen from another actress who was in the production. And just like that,
the Barbara Stanwyck we know today was born.
Between her starring roles in films such as Breakfast for Two (1937) and A Message to Garcia (1936), Barbara earned a reputation as a more masculine leading lady compared to many of her contemporaries (x)(x).
The 1927 silent film Broadway
Nights was Barbara’s very first film role; although she played a minor
role, she would go on to star in over 40 films and 4 television series throughout
her career! Some of her most iconic films include Double Indemnity, The
Lady Eve, and Night Nurse,
and she was awarded two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and three different Lifetime
Achievement Awards before her death. One role that secured Barbara’s legacy in
film history was that of the very first out lesbian to be shown in American
cinema – Jo Courtney in Walk on the Wild Side. Despite the film’s portrayal
of Jo Courtney being far from progressive, the film did earn Barbara a huge
lesbian following and piqued the media to her own not-so-secret lesbian past.
was married twice, the rumors of the day said that they were both “lavender
marriages” – a term coined in the theater community to mean a gay man and
lesbian who married each other to avoid media speculation into their sexuality.
When a journalist named Boze Hadleigh famously asked Barbara about these
speculations in 1962, she reportedly kicked him
out of her house. There are stories about Barbara sleeping with almost every other
popular actress in her day; from Greta Garbo to Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. However, in Barbara’s later years, her
serious partner was her live-in publicist Helen Ferguson, whose “friendship”
with Barbara lasted almost 30 years.
Barbara and her longtime “gal pal” and publicist, Helen Ferguson (x).
died on January 20, 1990 due to congestive heart failure.
According to her will, no funeral service was given and instead her ashes were
scattered over Lone Pine, California, her favorite destination which she had
come across while filming several of her western films. In the book
Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Popular Culture by Luca Prono, Barbara’s legacy
and importance to the LGBT community is summed up with: “Stanwyck acquired the
status of icon within lesbian communities…Stanwyck was a woman…whose screen
persona challenged respectability because of the strong and independent women
she embodied in the 1940s.”