Stanwyck & Taylor – a Lavender Marriage?

When it came to questions about her sexuality, Barbara Stanwyck was the old studio days’ equivalent of today’s Tom Cruise. Any mention of her sexual preferences would immediately bring forth veiled threats of litigation should the subject be pursued. Cruise does the same thing today. Mention his name in connection with homosexuality or bisexuality and he will threaten to sue. I recently read a book in which he was continually referred to as ‘the heterosexual Tom Cruise’ throughout, perhaps a hundred times. The sarcasm was obvious but, apparently, the writers felt it necessary just to keep on the safe side.

Stanwyck & Webb in Titanic (1953)

There is enough evidence about Miss Stanwyck to be able to state with some certainty that she was either a lesbian or bisexual. Of course, that does not make her in any way unique in Hollywood. Far from it. Actor Clifton Webb described her as, ‘My favourite Hollywood lesbian’. Her husband, Robert Taylor, told Shelley Winters over dinner that Barbara was a lesbian and that they had separate beds. Theirs was just one of dozens of ‘lavender’ marriages in the movie community. Barbara’s own biographer, Axel Madsen, wrote that ‘people would swear that she was Hollywood’s biggest closeted lesbian’.

Looking back, it is perfectly understandable why these ‘marriages of convenience’ were necessary. Homosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism were illegal in every state of the union. Anyone publicly identified as gay would not only lose their career, but run the real risk of spending time in the ‘slammer, making little rocks out of big ones. It was a most serious issue. Like many lesbians, Stanwyck was not averse to experimenting with the opposite sex from time to time, especially in a community inhabited by so many ‘beautiful people’ of both sexes. She and Taylor probably consummated their relationship on occasion, but neither had much interest in the opposite sex. Having said that, after their divorce in 1952 she embarked on a four year affair with the much younger Robert Wagner, beginning when they appeared together in Titanic.

Wagner & Stanwyck in Titanic

Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, New York City, in 1907. Her mother died when she was four, and her father took off to help build the Panama Canal and was never seen again. He may have simply ‘shot through’, or he may have become one of the thousands of Yellow Fever casualties on the project. Of the 26,000 workers on the canal 21,000 were hospitalized for either Yellow Fever or Malaria. We will never know. Ruby and her brothers and sisters were fostered out several times. She left school at 14, gained work as a dance instructor at Texas Guinan’s lesbian speak-easy, where she met Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead who were regulars. Bankhead said she slept with Stanwyck in the 20’s. Crawford, Garbo and Dietrich were also lovers shared by Bankhead and Stanwyck.

In 1928 Barbara married vaudevillian Frank Fay. They left for Hollywood to try their luck. Whenever he beat her up, which was often, she found solace in the arms of Crawford. When Eddie Mannix referred to Barbara as Fay’s ‘dyke wife’ one night at the Brown Derby, a fistfight ensued and Mannix punched Fay out.

Frank & Barbara Fay

They adopted a son in 1932, Barbara lost interest in him almost at once, and they remained estranged throughout their lives. ‘Some kids are born with bad blood’, she said by way of explanation. ‘Just like horses. When a parent has done everything possible, the only solution is to save yourself.’ In truth, her career was all she cared about. When a drunken Fay threw the toddler in their pool during an argument, Barbara decided it was time to jettison her family. She divorced him in 1935.

Barbara & Joan Crawford

Robert Taylor was an only child, born Spangler Arlington Brugh, in 1911 in Nebraska. He was a coddled, spineless mama’s boy. When his music teacher, Hubert Gray, left for Hollywood he was inconsolable, telling friends ‘his world fell apart’. He soon followed, moving in with Gray. Before long, Taylor’s mother moved in with both of them.

Robert Taylor circa 1932

Joining the Pasadena Playhouse Repertory Company, he soon became a ‘favourite of notoriously gay director Gilmor Brown. Every year Brown chose a ‘protégé’. That year it was Taylor. A year later it would be Tyrone Power. Everybody in the company knew that ‘protege’ meant private ‘rehearsals’ in overnight stays at the director’s home.

Gilmor Brown

Throughout his long career at MGM, Taylor trusted LB Mayer implicitly. Consequently, Mayer took advantage of that trust, and Bob remained the lowest paid of all the studio’s major stars. He always felt fortunate to be on their books, however. Hence, he remained with MGM until the demise of the studio system in the late fifties, a record 24 years in all. He had only good things to say about his boss.

Stanwyck signed non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Bros, and freelanced with MGM. When rumours about Barbara’s and Robert Taylor’s sexuality became rife, MGM heads virtually ordered them to marry before their careers were permanently torpedoed. Taylor reluctantly agreed because he was afraid of losing his career. Stanwyck agreed because she knew not to cross LB Mayer. He could be extremely vindictive.

Stanwyck

Just married

They married on May 13, 1939 in San Diego. Taylor declined to kiss his bride for the photographers. He went home to his mother’s that night. She had to be sedated when she learned he was no longer single. Barbara went back to her ranch. They were rarely together. Taylor spent his weekends with his gay pilot chum flying planes. When they were together Barbara called the shots. Taylor was just too timid. She bullied him in front of his family and friends. One evening he was drinking with John Wayne and others, when she came down the stairs and said: ‘Send your friends home. It’s time for bed.’ He meekly complied. Even so, she had feelings for him, which explains why they remained together for 13 years.

Stanwyck

Turner & Taylor in Johnny Eager

In 1941, he made Johnny Eager opposite man-eater Lana Turner, who was at the peak of her beauty. She went after him with a vengeance. Most historians (and Barbara) believed she got him into the sack. Surprisingly, Barbara slashed her wrists over the affair. MGM told the press she was attempting to open a stuck window and it shattered, cutting her arms. The couple were rarely (if ever) intimate, but they did grow closer together over the years.

Stanwyck

Joan & Barbara

Barbara’s publicist, Helen Ferguson, lived with her for 27 years, being paid just $400 a month. The amount never varied in all that time. They both swore like troopers, told similar risqué, foul jokes, but nobody knows for certain if they were intimate. Barbara, a chain-smoker, died in 1990 from emphysema. No funeral, no grave, as per her instructions. Taylor was also a chain-smoker. Lung cancer claimed him at 57 in 1969.

25 Comments on Stanwyck & Taylor – a Lavender Marriage?

  1. Thanks for your response, Alan. Gary Cooper? He sure got around, Mr. Kiss-and-Tell, the heel.

    In any event, Barbara Stanwyck has to be on the short list of the greatest Hollywood performers to never win an Oscar. I suppose the closest she came was for Double Indemnity in 1944, when Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight.

    • I watch ‘Double Indemnity two or three times a year. I love the atmosphere of the picture and all three principals are fabulous. I have never thought much of ‘Gaslight’. Babs wuz robbed.

  2. What about Frank Capra? Stanwyck and Capra supposedly had a hot affair during the early 30s, when they worked together on The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

  3. Richard Burton said “All actors are bi-sexual.”

    • An odd thing for him to say. He openly confirmed that he experimented with homosexuality himself, but just once. He did not enjoy it, he said, so surely he could not class himself as bisexual.

  4. John Curran // April 27, 2017 at 12:25 am // Reply

    My Uncle Jack Burke was Mickey Redstone’s attorney for 30yrs. He litigated the government breakup of the studio-theatre monopoly. The Jewish Communist infiltration of movies,……etc. What he did behind the scenes was squash blackmail of gay pedophiles, underworld gambling debts, arrests on morals charges by vice cops and on and on.My mother was his legal secretary. Connie Hines of ‘Mr Ed’ worked in his office for a while before leaving for Hollywood. The studios were afraid of Hoover and the new medium of TV. When my great uncle died in 1974. My mother took custody of his files with no instructions as to what should be done.My mother died in 2008 and I currently possess them. There are 66 cases from mediations to bag jobs. Fred Otash background checks and photos used quite often for 6 yrs to a falling out.LB Mayer’s leased safe house under an alias for ailing stars and families while they dried out or electroshocked to cure ‘Homosexual pedophilia’ at nearby ‘Westwood Lodge’ where Judy Garland was treated. Much is coded for obvious reasons.Many of the troubled high earners would be blackmailed by studio heads.My uncle noted that this action could backfire .I couldnt help think of Taylor taking less money for 24 years!!!!! I am researching what to do with. All clients are deceased

    • Thank you for your most interesting comment, John. You appear to be in possession of data that would make for a fascinating and revealing book should you decide to use it. I hope you do. Few of us get the opportunity to alter history (or at least the world’s perception of it), and you seem to be in a position to do so. I truly hope you do it and I wish you every success. I feel certain that any major publishing house would jump at the chance to utilise what you have and pay you handsomely for the privilege.My one piece of advice would be – tread carefully and be sure to deal with someone you can genuinely trust.

  5. Very interesting article. I saw Barbara at the Governors Ball after the 1977 Oscars. She sat at a table near the dance floor, staring across the room at William Holden, whose career she saved when he was about to be fired from Golden Boy. I will always regret not walking over and talking to her. I was 32 and shy.

    No matter what, she was a great actress and a fascinating person.

  6. Thank you Alan for your considered and gracious responses to posts to your website. Linda

  7. I don’t know where the mention of Helen Ferguson living with Stanwyck was originally made but it’s not true. After the divorce from Taylor, the only person that lived with her was her “Uncle Buck,” James Mack, who had known her since her days as a chorus girl in NYC. He lived with her until his health deteriorated to the point that he had to be moved to an assisted-living type place. After that, she always lived alone; she didn’t even have a live-in maid (she had a couple of bad experiences with them and didn’t try again). I’ve researched Stanwyck extensively and would say that the most reliable resource on her is Victoria Wilson’s biography. I assume you got most of your information from Axel Madsen’s biography; most of the stories in it have been heavily disputed by those who actually knew Stanwyck.
    Just so I don’t come across as a know-it-all, I’ve gotten most of my information from Wilson’s bio and from a good friend of Larry Kleno, who was Stanwyck’s publicist and close friend for the latter 25 years or so of her life.

    • Thank you for your interesting views on Miss Stanwyck, Rhonda. You may well be right about Miss Ferguson. I read so many pieces and books on Stanwyck, it is quite possible I have erred on the issue of Ferguson living with her. I honestly cannot recall the origin(s) of that data, but I expect it came from more than one. I generally settle on a minimum of three sources before deciding what I believe to be true or not. Then I make my assessments. Like all historians, however, mistakes are almost inevitable, so if I am incorrect I truly apologise. It occasionally occurs. Of course, you do not ‘come across as a know-it-all’. I appreciate and respect your input and your comments. Thanks again.

  8. ken standing // May 9, 2016 at 2:48 am // Reply

    It seems an open question but I’ve come across the comment that, then, in Hollywood, if it moved ….. Lots of experimentation and it sounds as though they all had an interesting time …….

    • I think if you put hundreds of physically beautiful men and women together, many of them devoid of a great deal of intelligence or character, pay them more money than they ever dreamt of, send them off on organized dates, have them attend booze-laden parties where drugs are often available, and then have studio ‘fixers’ clean up whatever mess they get themselves into, then of course conduct issues will occur. And they did. Add to that a gullible, adoring public ready to swallow whatever BS the studios threw at them, and you have the fully-fledged fantasy world known as Hollywood. And I am not saying all actors are stupid or without character. Far from it. A great number of them are most impressive individuals, but an equal number live the fantasy to the brim and indulge themselves with little care about reputations or consequences. And these are the ones that make the headlines. Of course, the studios COULD have kept the industry clean from the outset by exposing and removing these individuals but, as we know, that never happened. Why? Because many of the worst offenders were making a fortune for the movie companies AND providing sexual favours to boot.

  9. I don’t believe Taylor was ever gay. I meet him as a child. He had a good friend in N.M. and my family knew them well. I know Taylor loved horses and the family I’m talking about gave him a black stallion that he rode in his movie Billy the Kid. My grandmother knew Miss Stanwyck and met her on a train in the 30’s. My grandmother named me after her, and they stayed in touch for many years. I have kept quite the whole time, and I do believe that Stanwyck really loved Taylor, and I think her career was more important to her than anything.

    • Thank you for your response. You may very well be right. My research has uncovered a great many sources that would disagree with you on this, but that does not necessarily make them right. As with most issues in history we can only investigate as carefully as possible, then formulate an opinion based on an assessment of what we have found. History is at best educated guesswork based on piecemeal information. Unfortunately, the studios lied so consistently about most of their stars that we tend to think EVERYTHING they said was untrue. Taylor and Stanwyck may well be victims of this. Thank you again for your interesting comment.

  10. Linda Alexander // September 10, 2015 at 7:38 am // Reply

    I cannot say for certain whether or not Barbara Stanwyck was bi-sexual but I can tell you that she & Bob Taylor consummated their marriage, & then some. I can also tell you that he was not gay … after interviews w/Harry Hay, Ursula Thiess (his 2nd wife), Lia DiLeo (the very public affair which finally broke up his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck) & many others, I’ve no doubt these folks knew the truth more than any whispers from here-&-there. Read: “Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, & Communism” to be re-published next year (2016), by Linda Alexander.

    • Thank you for your informed comments, Linda. Actually, I never said Taylor was gay. Like many Hollywood stars of both genders he appeared to be bisexual. Mayer insisted on he and Barbara marrying, simply to ward off the rumours about both of them. Although many Hollywood insiders claimed that Barbara was a ‘closeted lesbian’, I believe she was bisexual as well. There was certainly affection between the two of them, and she was deeply hurt by the Italian affair that ended their marriage.

  11. In addition to my previous comment about Stanwyck, I refer to
    Ms. Lauren Bacall on her private life vs her public life.
    ‘What I do in my private life is my business, what I do in my public
    life is anyone’s business.’ She was FIRM in this when responding to
    C. Rose’s questions about Frank Sinatra. This discussion had to do w/
    the media being in the bedrooms of presidents, and others.

    • Well, there are arguments both ways, I guess. People in the public eye are generally considered to be public property. The price of fame. As for the media being in the bedrooms of presidents, well, my personal opinion is that most presidents (and politicians) tell lies whenever it suits them. They treat us with disdain and that makes them fair game in my book. No doubt you disagree which is, of course, your prerogative.

  12. I read that Taylor was Stanwyck’s one true love, and if I’m correct,
    she visited him when he was close to death?
    Whatever Stanwyck was, she was one hell of an actress, and knew all about proper lighting i.e. technical stuff.

    • I am a HUGE Stanwyck fan. I think I watch ‘Double Indemnity’ about 10 times a year! I do think that she and Taylor became great friends in the end, but I also think her true loves were women, not men, in particular Crawford and her publicist Helen Ferguson.

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