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Award-winning American actor, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), was in kinship and foster care as a child.

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, New York. She was the fifth child of Catherine McGee Stevens and Byron Stevens of Massachusetts. Barbara was four when her mother died after an accident. Byron left home two weeks after the funeral, and Ruby was cared for by her sister, fourteen-year-old Mildred or Millie as she was known. Because Millie was often on tour as a dancer, soon Ruby and her brother, Byron, went into the state foster care system.

In later life, Stanwyck strived to remain sanguine about this eventuality, saying that the foster care system was not “cruel,” just “impersonal” … “At least nobody beat me” (Callahan, 12).

With Millie often on the road working as a chorus girl, and her other sisters, Maud and Mabel, married and caring for their own families, Barbara had little contact with her family.

Ruby began working in a variety of jobs when she was about thirteen or fourteen. Her favourite was as a chorus girl:

In Texas Guinan’s nightclubs, fifteen-year-old Ruby would shake for sugar daddies and get bank notes stuffed in her scanties. She got an education in how to inflame a man’s interest and then give him the brush-off; her experience ensorcelling and then coldly denying men would later develop into one of her specialities in movies (Callahan, 13).

Willard Mack, a successful director and playwright, hired Ruby Stevens around 1926 as a chorus girl in his new show, The Noose, and persuaded her to change her name to Barbara Stanwyck (although she later claimed to have chosen the name for herself).

Barbara Stanwyck made her film debut in 1927 in a silent movie called Broadway Nights. She married Frank Fay the following year and the couple moved to Hollywood as Fay had a contract with Warner Bros.

After her first two — self-admitted — disastrous films she was cast by Frank Capra as the “party girl” in LADIES OF LEISURE [1937] and suddenly displayed all the vibrancy, toughness and vulnerability that would mark her performances from then on (AFI).

In addition to making films with Frank Capra—and Dan Callahan says he made her a star—she also made films with William Wellman including A Star is Born (1937), widely accepted as based on Stanwyck’s marriage with Frank Fay.

Stanwyck was first nominated for an Academy Award in 1938 for her performance in Stella Dallas (1937). Her second nomination was in 1942 for Ball of Fire (1941), the third for Double Indemnity in 1944—by which time and having made 10 films in 4 years, [she] was the highest-earning woman in America” (Watt). Stanwyck received her final Oscar nomination for Sorry, Wrong Number in 1948 and an Honorary Academy Award in 1982.

Barbara Stanwyck starred in Westerns from the 1940s, doing her own stunt work and eliciting the “admiration and respect of film crews and co-stars alike throughout her career” (Schackel, 45).

From September 1960 until July 1961, The Barbara Stanwyck Show aired on NBC for 36 episodes. There were few movie roles by then being offered to the fifty-three-year-old Stanwyck and she played a variety of roles in the anthology series, “including business women, scientists, a lawyer…” (Russell, 567) for which she won an Emmy Award in 1961. The show did not continue for another season, says Catherine Russel, because anthology series were “falling out of favor” with serials taking their place.

Barbara Stanwyck subsequently starred in the long-running television Western, The Big Valley (1965-1969), winning 3 Emmy Awards for her “Outstanding Continued Performance” from 1966-1968. This was her last role in a Western.

The final Emmy Award Stanwyck won was in 1983 for The Thorn Birds based on the Australian novel by Colleen McCullough.

Over her long career, Barbara Stanwyck received several other awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award AFI (American Film Institute) Award in 1987.

Femme fatale, cattle rancher, screwball comedian or melodrama queen: Stanwyck inhabited them all, but her best characters were always fighters who had tasted the bitterness of life. It’s that sense of hard-won authenticity that defines the Stanwyck brand, too. “I’m a touch old broad from Brooklyn,” she said. “Don’t try and make me into something I’m not” (Hutchinson).


Callahan, Dan. Barbara Stanwyck The Miracle Woman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Haas, Elizabeth. Performing Barbara Stanwyck, 1922-1964. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2000.

Hutchinson, Pamela. “From femme fatale to cattle rancher: how Barbara Stanwyck bucked convention.” The Guardian, 18 January 2019.

Russell, Catherine. “The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Melodrama, Kitsch, and the Media Archive.” Criticism, 55 (2013): 567f.

Schackel, Sandra. “Barbara Stanwyck: Uncommon Heroine.” California History, 72 (1993): 40-55.

Watt, Graham. “Barbara Stanwyck movies: a treasure trove.” British Journal of General Practice, 69 (2019): 302.

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