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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck

Steel-True 1907-1940
By Victoria Wilson

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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck

ONE

Family History


My grandparents on both sides were probably horse-thieves. No one ever told us anything about them. Therefore I suspect the worst. I imagine they were born and raised in Ireland. But wherever the family tree is planted, whether its branches are rotten or sound, I’ll never know.

—Barbara Stanwyck, 1937

It has been written about Barbara Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, that she was an orphan. Her mother, Catherine Ann McPhee Stevens, Kitty, died in 1911, when Ruby was four years old. Following Kitty’s death, Ruby’s father, Byron E. Stevens, a mason, left his five children and set sail for the Panama Canal, determined to get away and hoping to find work at higher wages than at home.

The story goes that Ruby and her older brother, Malcolm Byron, then six years of age, were passed from Brooklyn home to home, from tenement to tenement, to whatever family would take them in for the few dollars the family would be paid for their care. Ruby would earn her keep scrubbing toilets, doing whatever she could to stay alive. Her three sisters, who were much older, two of whom were married, were busy with their own lives. One sister was in show business, a dancer who frequently traveled and was barely able to care for herself, but who looked out for Ruby and Byron and earned enough money to keep both children off the street.

In and around that story is the notion that Ruby Stevens came from nowhere, that she was a tough Brooklyn girl, educated on the streets, who never finished high school, who became a showgirl as a young teenager, hoofing her way from one club to another, from one musical revue to another, until she landed a job in a play, got her big break, and was a sensation on Broadway.

And some of this story is true.

•  •  •

Ruby Stevens from the streets of Brooklyn, who danced in cabarets and clubs, a Broadway star at twenty, was a daughter of the American Revolution.

The Stevens family can be traced in America as far back as 1740. Ruby’s great-great-grandfather Thomas Stephens Sr. was from New England—Georgetown, Maine. Her great-great-grandmother Mary Oliver was from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and married Thomas Stephens when he was nineteen and she sixteen.

Stephens established a business in maritime shipping. During the Revolutionary War, his ships were used against the Crown in a massive seaborne insurgency that helped to win the War of Independence.

Thomas junior, Ruby Stevens’s great-grandfather, one of five Stephens children, was born in Georgetown, Maine, nine years before America won its war of independence. Her grandfather Joseph, one of ten children, was born on July 4, 1809, and married three times—first to Isabelle Morgan, who died soon after; then to her sister, Arzelia Morgan, two years later (together they had four sons); and then to a young woman from Derby, Vermont, living in Lowell, Massachusetts. Joseph Stephens, at almost six feet tall, dark with dark hair and blue eyes, was fifty years old; Abby Spencer, twenty-seven. The Stephens family bought farmland on the main road of Lanesville, Massachusetts, near Gloucester, which, with a voting population of 350, was the largest town in Massachusetts. The Stephens house at 16 Langsford Street between Lanes and Folly Coves was built with the compactness of a ship’s interior. Behind it was a carriage barn with an old cherry tree that dominated the Stephenses’ front lawn. Off to the parlor side the branches of a mulberry tree spread out over the wooden fence that surrounded the property.

Cod and mackerel fishermen used Lanes Cove, taking their pinkies and schooners out before dawn and returning by three to unload their catches. They kept their nets and tackle and pots in wooden sheds that faced the water along the curve of the beach.

•  •  •

In 1862, almost a year after the shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and at the age of fifty-three, Joseph Stevens (spelling now changed) traveled to Boston and enlisted in the U.S. Army, a private in Company L of the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Volunteers. Months later, Stevens, as a sergeant, was engaged in the Second Battle of Bull Run and was discharged in mid-October 1863, days before two of his sons, Melville and Sylvanus, enlisted.

Stevens returned to Lanesville and found work as a ship’s navigator and caulker, putting jute rope between the joints of the ship’s boards and sealing the joints with tar. His wife, Abby, gave birth on July 16, 1864, to their only child, Byron, Ruby Stevens’s father.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The people of Lanes Cove celebrated by blowing fish horns and decorating their ships. Six days later, a horse and rider galloped into the village with the shocking news of President Lincoln’s assassination. Churches were draped in mourning cloth. Mourning flags flew with black-and-white stripes and white stars on a black background. Women sewed black-and-white ribbon rosettes and wore them on the left shoulder as mourning badges.

•  •  •

Byron Stevens grew up in the small fishing village of Lanesville and came to love the sea. His mother was a favorite of the fishermen who passed her house on their way home from Lanes Cove and offered Abby lobsters from their daily catches. The Stevens family wasn’t rich, but by 1870 Joseph Stevens had amassed a great deal of land, and they were comfortable.

The Stevenses were careful in their rearing of Byron. Joseph and Abby were formal people, strict Methodists. Each Sunday they traveled the mile by horse and carriage to the neighboring town of Bay View to attend the Bay View Church and often invited the minister to dinner.

Images

The Stevenses lived in Lanesville. Their house on Langsford Street was a short distance from the main harbor of Lanes Cove, pictured above.

By 1881, Byron had started college with the hopes of studying law. When his father died of consumption, Byron was forced to quit school and found employment a block away from his house, learning a trade in one of the great granite quarries as a mason and a stone setter. The towns of Bay View and Lanesville had grown up around the quarries.

During the winter months, the local fishermen worked at the Eames and Stimson (later Lanesville) Granite Company cutting paving blocks. Iron-rimmed wagons carried the blocks through the fields, up Langsford Street to Lanes Cove, where granite schooners and stone sloops were docked. Paving stones, as many as forty thousand, were loaded onto ships and delivered to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities being built up along the seaboard.

On a trip to Boston, Byron met a young girl from Canada who had come to visit her aunt Mary and cousin Mary Gallis.

Catherine Ann McPhee, from Sydney, Nova Scotia, was of Scotch-Irish descent. Her forebears had left Scotland in the seventeenth century like thousands of other Scottish Lowlanders who migrated to Ulster for a grant of land and a long lease. They were Presbyterian in faith and stayed in Northern Ireland until the mid-eighteenth century, when, with thousands of others who left in waves during the famine of 1740–1741, they came to the United States and Canada.

Kitty McPhee grew up in a large family that included a twin brother, Malcolm, who died when he was a boy. Their father, George, died when both children were young, and their mother, Elizabeth, remarried and had another family.

Byron Stevens and Kitty McPhee married in 1886 and stayed in Lanesville, boarding at 876 Washington Street, half a mile down the road from Byron’s boyhood home. Byron was twenty-one years old; Kitty was fifteen and carrying their child. On April 23, six weeks after their marriage, Kitty gave birth to a girl, Laura Mildred. After Mildred was born, Abby Stevens frequently visited Byron and her daughter-in-law to make sure things were done properly.

During the next four years, Byron and Kitty had two more daughters: Viola Maud in 1888 and Mabel Christine in 1890.

Byron found temporary work as a mason in New York City, but once the work was completed, the family returned to Massachusetts and decided to leave Lanesville to follow his older half brothers who had moved to the town of Lynn, on Massachusetts Bay.

•  •  •

Chelsea, Massachusetts, eight miles south of Lynn, had originally been part of Boston until it became a separate township made up of Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop. The city of roughly thirty thousand people boasted of being fifteen minutes by iron steamboat from Boston as well as a twenty-minute ride from the sea along Revere Beach Reservation.

Lumber warehouses, rubber works, and bone-black factories lined the industrial heart and main street of the city, Marginal Street, which ran along the Charles River. Shipyards still produced schooners there as well as pilot boats and steamboats. The Stevenses lived in the rear of 106 Essex Street, a brick two-family building, like many of the houses of the city, a few blocks north of Marginal Street.

Each summer the family traveled the thirty-five miles to Lanesville to spend a portion of July or August with Byron’s mother, who stayed in the house on Langsford Street after Joseph’s death. The sun and sea air of Lanesville felt different, and the three young Stevens girls were happy to be in the village where they had grown up and in their grandmother’s house with its daunting parlor of horsehair-and-mahogany-backed chairs used only for special occasions and its marble-top tables displaying family albums. In the winter the parlor was heated by a small round stove at the room’s center.

Byron Stevens was a strict father with a fierce temper and frequently lashed out at his daughters. The girls would have preferred he beat them than punish them with such harsh scolding. Abby expected her daughter-in-law to be equally strict with the girls. Kitty tried to follow Abby’s dictum when her mother-in-law was around, but on her own, when Byron left for work and his mother wasn’t in the house, Kitty, who had talent and dreams of being on the stage, would sing and put on playlets with her girls. She longed to be a dancer.

•  •  •

Byron and Kitty were soon able to afford a house on Spruce Street, a step up, a modest two-family structure away from the water, closer to the center of town.

Byron found work in New Hampshire, and the Stevens family closed up their house and took the Boston-and-Maine train to Dover, a small but once busy port with ships from all over the world traveling the ten miles up the narrow Cochecho River to tie up at Dover Landing. Brick schooners carried cargo from the twenty-three Dover brickyards that stood along the clay banks of the Cochecho and Bellamy Rivers to eastern cities like Philadelphia and Boston. Dover brick was being used to build row houses along Copley Square. Dover was also a mill town, supplying cotton for soldiers’ uniforms and blankets during the war. Now, thirty years later, the town’s mills produced dress cloth—organzas, sateens, ruffles, and calicoes. The largest of the mills, the Cochecho Plant Works, employed more than a thousand people and produced eighty million yards of cotton a year.

Images

The Stevens family, Chelsea, Massachusetts, circa 1901. Left to right: Mabel Christine, age ten; Catherine Anne (“Kitty”) MacFee Stevens, thirty-three; Viola Maud, twelve; Byron, thirty-eight; Laura Mildred, fourteen. (COURTESY GENE VASLETT)

A year before the Stevenses’ move to Dover, the town was devastated by the worst disaster in its history. In March 1896, a late winter storm came in, bringing rain so driving that the Cochecho River rose more than six feet, causing huge ice floes to break loose and destroying the town’s five bridges as well as its central avenue and a row of stores. Carloads of lumber were swept off the wharves at Dover Landing; more than a thousand barrels of lime ignited a fire that raged through the buildings.

Dover as a port was devastated. The silt that had taken fifty years to be dredged out of its harbor was swept back in by the furious waters in thirty-six hours. The harbor’s 140-foot schooners were destroyed.

Byron had been hired to help rebuild the town, and the Stevenses lived on a street of white clapboard houses that ended a block from the Cochecho River. During the days, Millie, Maud, and Mabel, eleven, nine, and seven, played hide-and-seek in the storage trunks of a factory that was close to the house.

Images

Maud Stevens, age ten, circa 1898. (COURTESY JUNE D. MERKENT)

Soon the family returned to Chelsea, and Abby Stevens, sick with heart disease, died on February 14, 1898. She was sixty-six years old.

Kitty and Byron and the three girls traveled back to Lanesville for the funeral but were barely able to make it through the February southwester that had started the night before. Snow squalls were raging through the town; the main street was strewn with live wires and downed telephone poles. Coasters, sloops, and fishing vessels still in the water made a tangled chain.

Abby’s funeral was held later that day at 16 Langsford Street with the service led by the Stevenses’ pastor, the Reverend Nicklin of the Bay View Church. The snow was so deep it was impossible for a horse pulling a carriage with a casket to make its way to the Lanesville Cemetery; the burial was postponed a day. Abby was buried in pastureland that had once belonged to the Stevens family.

•  •  •

Kitty Stevens was free. With the death of Byron’s mother, she no longer had to withstand her mother-in-law’s instructions on the correct way to raise children, keep her house, comport herself and her family. Kitty had lived through twelve years of Abby’s iron rule, and she could now give her daughters the things she wanted for them.

Dancing classes topped the list. She worried that Byron would disapprove, knowing that his mother would have been aghast at the idea that her granddaughters were learning to dance. But her resilience and spirit were hard to resist, as was her determination. Finally, she had her way; Byron agreed to let the girls attend dancing classes, and Kitty, an expert seamstress, sewed dresses for them of organdy, challis, and Lansdowne silks in case they should be asked to attend any balls.

The Stevens girls gathered in their kitchen to rehearse their dance lessons as Kitty whistled the songs and Byron accompanied them on the violin. Millie danced the “French dance”; Maud, the “Highland Fling”; and Mabel, “the Sailor’s Hornpipe.”

The Stevenses were a proud family. Byron was a man whose bearing bespoke austerity, strength, and formality, but things weren’t right in the house. Byron’s drinking was unsettling, and one day he left and didn’t return. Kitty had three daughters to care for and no money. Her eighteen-year marriage was all she had known.

Kitty soon learned that Byron was living in Brooklyn and sent sixteen-year-old Maud, the second of the three daughters, whose authority and fierceness made her seem as if she were the oldest, to bring him back. Maud made her way to Brooklyn, found Byron living in a boardinghouse, and persuaded him to return with her to Chelsea.

Shortly after, Kitty gave birth to a son, Malcolm Byron, on February 26, 1905, the name Malcolm from Kitty’s twin brother who had died as a boy in Nova Scotia. Millie, Maud, and Mabel were eighteen, sixteen, and fifteen.

The Stevens girls had grown into proper young women, each as accomplished a seamstress as her mother. Millie, the oldest, had a tender fey quality, a softness that surrounded the even features of her face. Her blue eyes were large and sharply defined. Millie was a dreamer like Kitty and, with her mother’s prompting, intended to be an actress and a dancer.

Maud was practical and grounded, proud and haughty. She made sure things got done in a way that Millie never quite could. Maud was proud of her family heritage, of her handsome papa and stalwart mother, and proud as well of her own position as a clerk in a dress shop. Maud cared about the way she looked and loved to wear the finest dresses and suits with fur stoles, fur muffs, and grand hats that were adorned with veils, feathers, and flowers.

Mabel, the quietest of the three, was soft-spoken and shy but a hard worker.

The family was back together, but work was hard to find in Chelsea. Byron realized that employment was available in Brooklyn, New York, where buildings were being constructed in brick. Within the year he and Kitty left Chelsea with Millie and her husband, Maud, Mabel, and Malcolm to make a new life across the river from Manhattan.

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Flatbush, circa 1900.

•  •  •

Flatbush in 1906 was a small town, similar to Lanesville and Chelsea, with row and clapboard houses and narrow tree-lined streets. Thirty years before, large farms ran along the avenues to Coney Island.

With the opening of the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad in 1878, the area began to be developed. Sixty-five acres of land that had been a potato farm of the Vanderveers was transformed into a grid of streets. By 1906, when the Stevenses moved to Brooklyn, Flatbush was becoming a fashionable section that included Vanderveer Park, Ditmas Park, Fiske Terrace, Manhattan Terrace, and Slocum Park. Landowners had resisted dividing their fields into city lots, and the lush green lanes and country roads of Flatbush turned into wide avenues and boulevards, but once it became part of the City of Brooklyn, new tax rates made it impossible for farmers to hold on to the land.

Within thirty years Flatbush was transformed from a small village into a busy, thriving town.

The Stevenses moved to 312 Classon Avenue between DeKalb and Lafayette Avenues. Millie, Maud, and Mabel, twenty, eighteen, and sixteen, and Millie’s husband were living with their mother and father and year-old brother. Classon Avenue was a narrow, quiet, dark cobblestoned street of three-story brownstones two blocks south of Myrtle, with its grocery shops and vegetable stores crowded together.

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The Stevens girls, now young women, Brooklyn, New York, 1907. Millie Stevens, age twenty-one (left), Maud Stevens Merkent, age nineteen (center), Mabel Stevens, age seventeen (right). (ALL COURTESY GENE VASLETT)

Malcolm was two years old when Byron and Kitty had another child—a girl, who was born on July 16, 1907, the same birth date as her father, who had been born in 1864.

Maud and Mabel were employed as sales clerks at the Abraham & Straus dry goods store on Fulton, Hoyt, and Livingston Streets. Maud had befriended one of the other clerks there, a woman her age called Ruby Merkent Joppeck, and Maud wanted her mother to name the baby girl after her friend Ruby. Kitty and Byron liked the name and called their fifth child Ruby Catherine Stevens.

Millie, Maud, and Mabel, now young women, were embarking on their own lives.

In December 1907, Maud Stevens and Albert Merkent were married and moved to a house at 1330 Rogers Avenue. The Merkent family owned a well-established butcher shop, Merkent’s Meat Market, but Albert took a job as a chauffeur and was considered an excellent driver.

Millie had been married for three years and was struggling as an actress. She had always been thought of as the beauty of the family, with a softness and light that drew people to her. Her mouth was full, and the set of it with its slight smile was both an invitation and a warning of a determined spirit. The fullness of her face and violet eyes were similar to those of her mother, her proud stance that of her father.

In October 1907, Millie found work in a show and was on the road in the Midwest, appearing in a political comedy called A Contented Woman by the successful Broadway playwright Charles Hoyt. Millie Stevens was being singled out in reviews and was soon on tour in a production of The Road to Sympathy and traveling with the show as far as Columbus, Ohio.

In April 1910, Maud, age twenty-two, gave birth to a boy, Albert Mortimer Merkent. While Maud was being a new mother, Kitty, forty-one, and Byron, forty-six, were rearing two young children. Malcolm Byron was five years old and had just started kindergarten at P.S. 45; Ruby was three. Work was steady, but times were not easy: Byron drank, and money was scarce. And in 1911, Kitty became pregnant with her sixth child.

•  •  •

Toward the end of July, the intense summer heat had settled in the city. Kitty was late into her pregnancy. She and Ruby and Byron were on a trolley when a drunk fell and kicked Kitty in the stomach. She lost her footing and was thrown from the car. Byron and Ruby watched as their mother fell to the street and people rushed to her side. A mounted policeman moved through the crowd and helped Kitty to her feet, and she and the children were brought home.

Kitty had started to hemorrhage. Five-year-old Malcolm saw blood everywhere as he waited for what seemed a long time before Mabel came to help. The doctor was called. Kitty had gone into labor. During the day and throughout the night she continued to lose blood and was overtaken by fever and chills. Byron, Millie, Maud, and Mabel were with her. Blood poisoning set in from an incomplete miscarriage. She fought to stay alive, but by the following evening septicemia had overtaken her body. Kitty was dead at age forty and was buried two days later in Green-Wood Cemetery.

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Ruby Stevens, age four, with her brother, Malcolm Byron, age five or six, circa 1911. (MARC WANAMAKER/BISON ARCHIVES)

Byron and Kitty had been married for twenty-five years, had raised a family together first in the village of his childhood and then made a new life in a small city. They had raised three girls and made a fresh start in a strange new place with a new family. Without his wife, Byron was lost, undone.

He couldn’t take care of his young son or daughter. Six-year-old Malcolm didn’t return to school in September. Byron Stevens moved out of the apartment. What happened next to Byron, Malcolm, and Ruby is unclear; there are variations to the story.

In one version, Malcolm, then six, and Ruby, four, were placed in orphanages and were moved to a series of institutions. In another, Millie took Ruby, tightly holding her hand and carrying a box that contained what bare essentials Ruby owned, to a tenement flat and, unable to care for her sister, left her with a family. Malcolm and Ruby were taken in by friends of the Stevenses. In another version, the children were taken in by a series of strangers, families who were paid to care for the children as they were moved from house to house. And in yet another version, Malcolm went to live with one sister, Mabel, and her husband of two years, Giles Vaslett, an accountant from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Ruby went to live with Maud and her husband, Bert Merkent, and their year-old son, Al.

Byron Stevens took a room in a run-down hotel, similar to the one he was living in when he had left Kitty years before. He continued to work through the early fall and into the winter until he was laid off. He wept for the loss of his wife, continued to drink, and found himself in one brawl after another.

During Christmas 1911, six-year-old Malcolm Stevens was brought to his father’s room. The boy sat on the edge of the steel bed, with father and son having little to say to each other. Malcolm was frightened and became even more so when his father left the room to go down the hall. The room was dark. One corner housed a pole for clothes with nothing on it but a few hangers. A chest of drawers had cigarette burns on it.

The boy sensed his father was going to go away, but he didn’t know what to do or say to stop him.

•  •  •

Byron Stevens left Brooklyn after the New Year. There were extra dollars to be made on a massive U.S. government project south of Costa Rica with food, living expenses, and medical services being paid for and written off to national defense. U.S. military engineers had taken over from the French government the massive construction of a waterway that was to be a new route joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by way of the Isthmus of Panama.

Stevens found work on a freighter going south. He was headed for Panama, a long way from Lanesville, Massachusetts, and a longer way from the wife who had died and the children he was leaving behind.

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