The Stanwyck described by Axel Madsen was a tough, no-nonsense woman on-screen and off, but while her film characters triumphed over adversity or came to deservedly bad ends, the real-life Stanwyck muddled through two bad marriages and an ill-conceived motherhood.

Orphaned when she was three and raised by a sister only slightly older than she, Brooklyn-born Ruby Stevens followed her sister onto the stage, married vaudevillian Frank Fay, and saw her marriage crumble when the couple moved from Broadway to Hollywood as her career soared and his faded. According to Madsen, also biographer of directors John Huston, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler, the Fay marriage inspired the first incarnation of A STAR IS BORN. Even adopting an infant son failed to save the union. Uninterested in the boy, Stanwyck farmed him out to boarding schools and saw him as an adult only once.

Madsen makes much of Stanwyck’s apparent bisexuality and of how she and the primarily homosexual Robert Taylor were forced into a marriage of convenience by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). While Stanwyck tormented her younger husband by calling him “Junior,” she seemed genuinely to love him. He preferred hunting, fishing, and flying with his male friends and, after service during World War II, refused to have sexual relations with his wife.

Madsen is good at capturing the social life of Hollywood during its golden age and provides impressive background about the making of Stanwyck’s films, although the plot summaries could have been briefer. Stanwyck’s unhappiness, especially the loneliness and ill health of her last years, is in sharp contrast to the star who eagerly embraces life in such films as THE LADY EVE and BALL OF FIRE.