October 02, 2008
When I read that actor Robert Wagner had had a four-year-long affair with Barbara Stanwyck back in 1952, my first reaction was that of envy and more envy. Wagner is 77 this year and Babs would have been 101, so when they were canoodling together he was 22 and she was 47. Excellent. Perfect. Young men need older women for sex as much as older men need younger ones later on. It is nature’s fit, a perfect combination which carries the eloquence of the unspoken.
I am now 72 but 50 years ago I would have given two legs and an arm to bed Babs. She had made her name playing Brooklyn-bred, regular-gal toughies, but although as American as apple pie, she always had an air of mystery about her. Plus a pair of gams to drive schoolboys to onanism for life. Barbara Stanwyck played ‘loose’ women, which in the repressed morality of the times drove men even crazier with desire. Take for example Ball of Fire, the Howard Hawks 1941 black and white comedy written by the great Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Babs is Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer and gangster’s moll. Gary Cooper is Bertram Potts, a college professor writing the entry for slang in a new encyclopedia. He thinks Sugarpuss implies a certain sweetness in her, he tells his colleagues with a straight face. (She is assisting him with his research in slang.) When it’s over he bids her adieu thus: ‘Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.’
Told like a real absent-minded prof. Of course they fall in love and everything ends hunky-dory, the way those things should end. Babs was not a classical beauty, far from it, but she had S appeal, street appeal, that drove randy young men nuts. She met Wagner on the set of Titanic, a very good movie far closer to actual events than the blockbuster of 45 years later which cost ten times what the real ship had cost. Clifton Webb, whose Norma Desmond-like delusions about his dead mother had driven Noël Coward mad (Oh, Clifton, do shut up), played Barbara’s hubby, an inveterate womaniser (Clifton was as gay as they come and then some), who had driven her away and back to America. Every schoolboy knew that Webb was a gent, but a gent that preferred gents, so when I saw the movie while in boarding school I thought I’d die with frustration. What the hell was Babs doing being upset with a man who liked men when she could have Taki, who’d give his right arm for her.
The men go down with the ship, the women are saved by the Carpathia, and Bob Wagner, an extremely good-looking young actor who later on twice married the tragic Natalie Wood, began his affair with Mrs Robert Taylor, as Babs was at the time. Taylor was among the best-looking men in Hollywood when Hollywood employed only handsome people (Pacinos, Hoffmans did not need to apply). He was a bit wooden and held conservative political views, which made him a target for the lefties behind the woodwork. He left Babs for a German babe, Ursula Thiess, and she took up with RJ, Wagner’s nickname. I never suspected a thing, because it would have killed me. That and boarding school combined would have been the end of me. For four long years RJ and Babs did beautiful music together, while I rotted away in school. By the time I got out, their romance was finished, or so I read now. I saw Sorry, Wrong Number late in 1949, in Greenwich, Connecticut. I was 12. The movie terrified me. It was all long shots of fedora-wearing men and shadows. The sense of doom and danger was overwhelming. Babs wanted her husband, Burt Lancaster, to stay at home with her and be a sort of man slave. He wanted to branch out, make it on his own, and, inevitably, he gets in with the wrong crowd. She is marked for death, and is strangled in her sick bed. I remember thinking at the time what a fool Burt was. ‘Why didn’t he just stay home and screw her to death…’
Here’s Fred MacMurray, her co-star in four memorable film noir, on la Stanwyck: ‘Once I sent her to jail, once I shot her, once I left her for another woman, and once I sent her over a waterfall.’ Fred was a perfect foil for Babs. He looked nervous and guilty around her, like a schoolboy playing hooky. Double Indemnity is as noir as a film can get, and it has beaten the test of time and tastes. All in all she made close to 100 films, countless TV ones, and remained an attractive and sensual woman until the end. She died in 1990, aged 82. Although I am not of the bean-spilling persuasion , and have not read Robert Wagner’s memoirs, I am sure there are no lurid details in them. Wagner comes from a good background and has always conducted himself well. Five years after his romance began with Barbara Stanwyck, I began one myself with a lady who was 33 to my 19 years. She was the wife of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, and an actress herself. It lasted two years. Then I began another one, with another star, but she got rid of me pronto. Then, aged 28, a real romance began with a married lady aged 47. On and off it went throughout my two marriages until the lady’s death about five years ago. Wagner was right to go after Babs, and I was always right to go after older women when I was young, but now I’m old and we all know what the doctor ordered, and it’s not a blue pill either. Viva older women. (And young ones, too).