When Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor met, a new Hollywood power couple was born. The town was stunned when this stable, down to earth marriage eventually broke down, but their love would live on throughout the years. Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.
Barbara Stanwyck was wary when her friends Zeppo Marx (of Marx Brothers fame) and his wife Marion wanted to set her up on a blind date in 1936. Having just gotten out of a traumatic marriage, she was content living with her adopted son Tony on her ranch. Still, she decided to go. There, she met the handsome Robert Taylor. He was four years younger than her and studio MGM’s latest asset. He had barely begun in Hollywood, while Barbara was already a star with movies like Night Nurse and Baby Face. But they turned out to have a lot in common: they loved the outdoors, hated pretentiousness and were both politically conservative. The pair became friends and this friendship quickly turned into a comfortable romance.
Robert even bought a ranch adjacent to Barbara’s.
Barbara mentored Robert in his bourgeoning Hollywood career. The actor was known as ‘the man with the perfect profile’ and Barbara helped him bring more depth to his career. He looked up to her and trusted her guidance. At the same time, he was an old-fashioned gentleman who knew how to treat a woman well. This was something Barbara longed for after her abusive marriage. They both craved stability and a life without pretense outside of Tinseltown and found that in each other.
Barbara and Robert would have been perfectly happy keeping their relationship as it was, living in their adjoining ranches. But in 1939 Photoplay Magazine ran an article titled ‘Hollywood’s Unmarried Husband’s and Wives’, about Hollywood couples who were basically living as a married couple without an actual marriage license. This would not matter today, but in 1939 this was not proper behavior. So their studio MGM arranged a wedding for the pair, which they reluctantly agreed to. Robert took marriage very seriously and Barbara was wary of marriage after her disastrous first try. Still, they decided to go for it and put in a serious effort to make it work.
The first few years were blissful: they lived together in their big ranch and loved to ride horses and be outdoors. Unfortunately, neither of them was a fit parent at the time and Tony was sent away to a boarding school and rarely seen again.
Barbara was still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and she was now joined by her husband. The press loved this new power couple and they knew how to use this to their advantage. Although this helped their careers, it changed the dynamics of their relationship. As Robert’s career gained momentum, he didn’t need Barbara’s help as much as before. His growing independence frustrated her and she would berate him and criticize him at parties and in front of friends. In 1941 Robert had an affair with his Johnny Eager co-star Lana Turner. Rumor has it, that Barbara was so upset that she tried to commit suicide. Still, they loved each other and wanted to make it work. There was a friendship beneath the romance that kept them together.
In 1943 Robert joined the Navy for the war effort. The pair did not see much of each other during this time, though they were avid letter writers. Their time apart only exacerbated their problems. When Robert came back, Barbara wanted all of his time and attention, while he wanted to fly his plane and go fishing or hunting with his friends. Robert had always hated confrontation and would walk away from these arguments. He did not need a mentor anymore, while Barbara desperately wanted him around. He was known to have affairs at this time and Barbara started to look for intimacy elsewhere as well. Robert supposedly asked for a divorce multiple times, but she would become so upset, that he backtracked.
In 1949, Robert started shooting Que Vadis in Italy. Here, he had a very public affair with Italian starlet Lia Di Leo. Enraged, Barbara flew over to confront him and ask for a divorce. It is said that she did it as a threat and was shocked when he agreed.
Eventually, she had to accept that their marriage had long been over. She stayed in Italy for six weeks to negotiate the divorce terms with Robert. Their divorce became final in 1951, after 12 years of marriage.
Barbara was incredibly upset over their divorce. Nonetheless, the pair remained friendly after going their separate ways. It is even said that they were still intimate. This changed when Robert married Ursula Thiess in 1954. Ursula and Robert would go on to have two children and remained together until his death. But Robert always spoke fondly of his ex-wife Barbara, later saying: ‘I respect her deeply and treasure her friendship’.
Over the years, they spoke to each other less and less. But in 1964 Barbara and Robert starred together in The Night Walker, which they both thoroughly enjoyed.
Their bond was so strong, that when Robert became ill with lung cancer and was deteriorating, his wife invited Barbara over to the hospital. When Robert passed away in 1969, Barbara was heartbroken. A lifelong workaholic, she took some time off to grieve. As part of their divorce settlement, she collected royalties from his estate until her death.
Robert would never be far from her mind. During their marriage the two had placed their hand- and footprints in cement in front of Grauman’s theatre on The Walk of Fame. Years after Robert’s death, the theatre offered Barbara a chance to replace it with a new one, since the old one had cracked. She refused because Robert wasn’t alive to join her and his hand- and footprints would be lost. She would never remarry and privately referred to Robert as the love of her life.