Today in Gay History: The Inimitable Barbara Stanwyck
By Andrew Belonsky
We can't say with absolute certainty that Barbara Stanwyck was a lesbian, but there are enough innuendo and rumor about the iconic actress's personal life that it seems pretty likely Stanwyck was at least open to girl-on-girl action. And even if she weren't a lesbian, her brassy and butch nature, both onscreen and off, garnered her a loyal following from lesbians and gays alike.
So, for today's Today in Gay History, we celebrate Stanwyck's July 16, 1907 birth with seven bits of trivia that, when taken together, paint a pretty good picture of Stanwyck's life, career, and legacy.
1. During the late-1920s, Brooklyn-native Stanwyck taught dance at a gay and lesbian speakeasy owned by Texas Guinan, a butch impresario described as a lesbian. Texas very may well have been the inspiration for the "wicked" saloon girl deep-voiced and often hoydenish Stanwyck played in 1947's California.
2. Lesbian singer Tallulah Bankhead once said she slept with Stanwyck, whose roles in Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and Night Nurse helped make her into one of Hollywood's first mega-stars. Though nominated for four Oscars between 1938 and 1949, it wasn't until 1981 that Stanwyck would get an Academy Award: a special statue honoring her contribution to film.
3. Biographer Axel Madsen says "unearthing the truth about [Stanwyck's] sexuality would remain impossible," but also notes "people would swear she was…Hollywood's biggest closeted lesbian." And most Hollywood historians admit there's something to rumors that Stanwyck's marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor were studio-backed "lavender marriages" created to keep the closet sealed tight.
(A scene from Wild Side, in which she and on-screen love interest Hallie Gerard, played by French model Capucine, argue.)
4. Though she played lesbian Jo Courtney in 1962's Walk on the Wild Side (one of the first portrayals of lesbians in Hollywood, and not a very good one), Stanwyck refused to discuss her own sexuality. In one of the more infamous examples of her reticence, Stanwyck reportedly threw journalist Boze Hadleigh out of her house after he asked whether she had ever partaken in lesbian sex, as Greta Garbo and Marlene Deitrich had done.
Here's how that exchange went:
Q: Do you think bisexuality was very widespread among female stars during Hollywood's heyday?
A: ... I heard that Dietrich, Garbo, most of the girls from Europe, swing either way. Then I found out it's true.
Q: You found out...?
The lady doth protest too much.
5. Of all the people Stanwyck was close to, her most consistent relationship was is with her very loyal, sometimes live-in girl Friday, the prototypical actress-turned-publicist Helen Ferguson. The women never defined their relationship, but if Stanwyck's marriages to men were described as lavender, Stanwyck and Ferguson's union may very well have been of the Boston variety. Ferguson was by Stanwyck's side for the bulk of her career, from the Hollywood heyday to the 1960s, when Stanwyck began portraying a series of pioneering women on television shows like Wagon Train and The Big Valley.
6. In the book Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Popular Culture, Luca Prono notes that in the 1960s, 1970s and even into the 1980s, Stanwyck was seen as a cultural and personal template for lesbians."Stanwyck acquired the status of icon within lesbian communities," he writes. "Stanwyck was a woman…whose screen persona challenged respectability because of the strong and independent women she embodied in the 1940s."
Later, after Stanwyck's transition to television, The Big Valley would lend her lesbian cred, too. Madsen says her character, Victoria Barkley, "was a woman in full possession of her powers - no man needed." Willa Cather would be proud.
7. If lesbians appreciated Stanwyck's independent nature, gays loved the glamor the actress brought to these tough-as-nails roles. There's nothing like a formidable woman in an evening gown. And if her Hollywood pedigree weren't enough, Stanwyck cemented her gay icon status in the 1980s, when she signed onto Dynasty spin-off The Colbys.
She may have played Constance Colby Patterson for one season, but Stanwyck played it with the same ball-busting fortitude that had made her a star in the first place. It was her final role. She died in 1990.
Here's a scene from The Colbys that is awfully similar to the one Jo and Hallie have in Wild Side. In it, Stanwyck's Constance bawls out Stephanie Beacham's Sable.