Victoria Wilson should receive a medal, or at least a hug for what she’s accomplished with A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True. An over ten-year effort yielded a 1,000 pages of Stanwyck information in the first of a proposed series of biographies recounting the exploits, professional and personal, of the fantastic actress. If you’re going to read 1,000 pages it better be on someone interesting, right? The portions of the biography devoted to Stanwyck are detailed and provide an all-encompassing view on an actress who knew what she wanted and didn’t particularly care what others thought about it. Barbara Stanwyck lived a harsh life, losing her mother at a young age and being shuttled amongst family members and friends throughout the years. One comes to understand her ambivalence to relationships; they weren’t meant to last. Other biographers writing on Stanwyck tend to portray her as cold, predominately due to her estranged relationship with her only child, Dion, whom Wilson was able to interview for her book. Unlike prior works, Wilson’s Stanwyck is tough, but far from heartless. The amount of devoted friends interview provide a proper grounding of who Barbara was and the various facets of her personality. Wilson devotes much of her time to the various relationships in Stanwyck’s life which is rare in biographies nowadays. It’s very easy to discuss the person, but it’s another to do the work of interviewing people and actually using their quotes within the printed material.
The main issue with Wilson’s tome has been talked about frequently when this biography is brought up: the issue of divergence into other things. Some people love Wilson’s sense of place and time by discussing the issues of the time period, providing biographical detail on other people associated with Stanwyck and the like. I, however, found her divergence bordering on complete distraction. Yes, some elements require explanation like biographies on Capra and people Stanwyck worked with. But when a person decides to devote seven pages to a person, or go on three tangents in one, it becomes an issue. At one point, Wilson brings up a director Stanwyck works with and segues into talking about Jack Warner and his slate of films. By the time the section was over I was confused about what/who we were talking about and how everything connected back to Stanwyck. This wouldn’t be so problematic, but chapters start by discussing someone or something unrelated to Stanwyck, and section breaks end only to pick up with Stanywck later. If Wilson integrated these distractions and reminded audiences of why they were important maybe it wouldn’t feel so jarring? If you’re a stickler for just the person you’re reading about you can skim fairly easily.
The sheer amount of information is mind-boggling and Wilson needs a medal for her diligence in producing a body of work that feels as immense as it is. Compared to the last Stanwyck “biography” I read, which was just a recounting of her films, this broadens the field to let you in to see who Barbara, nee Ruby Stevens, was as a human being as well as an actress. Since the book only goes up to the 1940s there are plans for at least another two-books. (Don’t make plans to pre-order just yet. Volume 1 took over a decade to research and pen.) When the story is solely recounting Stanwyck’s life, it’s spellbinding; and when are you ever going to read 1000 pages on Barbara Stanwyck anywhere else? However, if you’re maddened by literary detours this might be worth picking up at the library and skimming.
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