Whether you knew her as the tough mom on The Big Valley or the passionate woman talking Gary Cooper out of suicide in Meet John Doe, Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most gifted actresses the silver screen has ever known. Although quiet and introverted in real-life, she dug deep in front of the camera. The depth of her pain, her experience and her imagination burst forth in the first take and only the first take of the eighty-four movies she made during her long and successful career.

Frank Capra fell in love with her. Robert Taylor married her. But it was her first husband, renowned vaudevillian Frank Fay, who reveals the most about Barbara Stanwyck.

You see, he was a quintessential narcissist. She was a quintessential codependent. It was a marriage made in Hell.

Frank Fay: The Father of Stand-Up Comedy

Before radio killed it, there was vaudeville. If you’ve ever seen re-runs of the Ed Sullivan Show, it was kind-of like that. Singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, dog acts…any and every kind of talent toured the nation by rail entertaining in towns large and small. You had “made it” as a vaudevillian when you were invited to play The Palace theater in New York City.

Frank Fay came from a family who made their living as stock company players. By the age of twenty-two, he was playing the Palace. And not just doing his shtick, but held over for over one hundred consecutive performances, holding the stage for an unprecedented 20 minutes…and more.

Audiences loved him…and so did Barbara.

The Fateful Meeting

Fay “played” Stanwyck from the first time he set eyes on her. Perhaps he sensed that this young woman, orphaned at four, kicked around from one foster home to another and raped at fourteen, was needy and desperate for a place to belong. He took her needs and played on ’em like a fiddle.

It was the perpetually depressed Oscar Levant who played matchmaker, bringing Stanwyck backstage to Fay’s dressing room after his performance at the Palladium. Fay greeted her, announced he was hungry and talked up this wonderful restaurant. Naturally any girl would think this was the lead-up to an invitation to dinner.

Au contraire, mon ami!

Instead, a beautiful woman waltzed into Fay’s dressing room and said, “Are you ready for dinner, Frank?” And off he went.

Later, Stanwyck learned it’d all been a set-up, a gag. A gag he played over and over. Oh, he had every intention of marrying Stanwyck. Instead of dating her, he squired a constantly revolving bevy of beauties to dinner, making sure to always nod and say “hello” to Stanwyck as she platonically dined with Levant. How sadistic, you say.

Fay was a quintessential sadist. Audiences noticed how he smiled happily whenever stage direction called for him to “stab” a fellow actor. Fay was known for his love of making people suffer.

In Stanwyck’s case, it worked. On August 26th, 1928 they tied the knot.

Pleasing Faysie

As Stanwyck’s friend Walda said, “She would be anything to please Fay.” And, like any good narcissist, it took a lot to please Fay. In fact, it was impossible.

Fay dictated that Stanwyck could not wear green. Saints and begorra! What an odd thing for a bonnie wee Irish comedian to insist upon! Surely, he didn’t hate the color!

Of course not. It was his favorite color for his suits made by the private tailor who traveled with him as part of his entourage. Ah, now we’re getting someplace. The Great Faysie brooks no competition!

As Victoria Wilson wrote in A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, “Fay preferred [Stanwyck] without [makeup.]…He suggested she not wear nail polish; she removed it. Fray didn’t like it when she smoked; she quit, except to light his cigarettes…He preferred her in clothes that were black and white…”

Basically, there was only room for one in their relationship. The ever-colorful Fay reduced Stanwyck to a colorless workhorse. And how she worked!

Living Off the Little Woman

Fay gave Stanwyck one great gift: he launched her Hollywood career. He believed in her abilities as an actress. He brokered the deals that clinched her big break in the flicks.

Then, he hated her for it.

As her career spread its wings and soared, his fizzled. Perhaps his style of comedy just didn’t play well on the screen. Perhaps he was too abusive, too cruel, too constantly inebriated and psychotic for even the elastic sensibilities of Hollywood to tolerate. In any case, while Stanwyck was nominated time and again for the newly-created Oscar award, Fay was in and out of sanitariums.

When he wasn’t committed, Fay traveled the country with various shows, often too drunk to take the stage. At home in Hollywood, he squandered Stanwyck’s $50,000-per-movie paychecks building on more and more rooms, outbuildings and gardens to their home. In the end, the IRS froze their assets, forcing Stanwyck to accept movies she loathed merely to pay the back-taxes and keep food on the table.

Quintessential Codependent

“I love you just as much as it is possible for a woman to love a man,” Stanwyck wrote Fay. “If I was born with anything fine in me, and I choose to think I was…you have brought that fineness to the surface. I cannot image life without you…”

Meanwhile, Fay’s episodes were getting worse. He raged horribly. Screamed at the baby-will-fix-everything son they adopted together to save their marriage. Set fire to the nursery rug. And yes, physically abused Stanwyck, although she never admitted it.

Finally, even the long-suffering quintessentially codependent Stanwyck had enough. In 1935, their marriage ended in divorce.

End of an Icon

Frank Fay passed away in 1961 at the age of 69. Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted that long.

As Victoria Wilson wrote, “Damon Runyon said that the word for Fay was ‘puckish,’ and that Fay ‘ had always been an addict and a master of whimsy on the stage and off,’ that he lived ‘in a world of fantasy pretty much his own, starry-eyed…” She also wrote, “Fay was known to look in the mirror and say, ‘Who do I love? Me.”

He left behind only two things of value. One, was the brilliant career of Barbara Stanwyck. The other is his legendary Broadway performances of Harvey, the huge white rabbit that only Elwood P. Dowd can see. But it was James Stewart who gave it life on the screen.

The sad story of Frank Fay and his disastrous marriage to Barabara Stanwyck proves yet again that narcissists have a sixth sense for good-hearted, needy codependents and exploit them shamelessly.

Like this article? Please subscribe to my e-newsletter!

Photo by classic film scans