John Kobal Foundation/Getty
Stephen M. Silverman
November 26, 2013 10:55 AM

Tough-talking, yet sensible. Earnestly sincere, yet hip to bull. Sandra Bullock in Gravity?

Well, sure. But the same was said (and much earlier) about screen legend Barbara Stanwyck – “A Stand-Up Dame,” as PEOPLE called her in 1990, when, after a four-decade career, the formidable star of Annie Oakley, Stella Dallas, Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, 1953’s Titanic and TV’s The Big Valley, among other popular vehicles of their day, died of heart failure at age 82.

“She wasn’t a great beauty like Dietrich or Garbo or an actress with the range of a Bette Davis or a Katharine Hepburn,” said PEOPLE, which splashed Stanwyck on a 1985 cover. “But she had grit, sex appeal and vulnerability, in spades.”

Now the ball of fire is again causing a stir, this time thanks to Victoria Wilson’s first installment of a two-part biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940.

Lauded by The New York Times as “860 glittering pages” even “bigger and splashier” than the actress herself, the book places Stanwyck’s personal and professional life within the context of her times, in both the movie colony adjusting to sound and a country adjusting to Prohibition, the Depression and the threat of a Second World War.

So, too, would the former Ruby Stevens of Coney Island adjust – to the death of her mother (in a trolley accident) when Ruby was 4, her father’s departure soon after, a series of foster homes and an abortion when she was 15. There was also a troubled first marriage to Frank Fay, the vaudeville star whose delivery and presence would inspire Bob Hope and Jack Benny, and whose out-of-control drinking would have even appalled the gang from The Hangover. Fay not only mentally and physically abused Stanwyck, but their young adopted son, Dion.

“Lots of actresses are getting by with good looks and practically nothing else. And there are other actresses who have brains and no beauty,” said director William Wellman. “But when you get beauty and brains together, there’s no stopping her – and the best example of that is Barbara.”

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, by Victoria Wilson

Besides admirable staying power and utmost professionalism – Stanwyck copied her scripts in longhand four or five times to memorize every line, not just her own dialogue – the star who emerges from Wilson’s pages is independent, outspoken and fearless, let alone one of contrasts.

Though shy to the point of hating Hollywood parties, even claiming to hate Hollywood, Stanwyck still had it in her to tell the fearsome boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, when he offered her a contract she found unacceptable, “Nuts.”

Fay soured her on marriage, yet when a fan magazine published the news that Stanwyck and MGM heartthrob Robert Taylor lived together, the studio forced the couple to wed. (Taylor’s pathological devotion to his narcissistic mother is an eye opener.) And while Stanwyck knew every studio grip and handyman on a first name basis, she also was capable of cutting old friends dead and out of her life.

The result? Perhaps the greatest role of Ruby Stevens’s long and envied career was something no one movie could contain: Barbara Stanwyck.

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