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.
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.
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.
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.
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.