When I was a kid I loved the show Big Valley and for me Barbara’s Stanwyck’s character was the epitome of grace and strength. She reminded me very much of my grandmother Pat and I can remember thinking clearly that I wanted to be a woman like her when I grew up. Fast forward to a few days ago and Lee mentioned that he had learned the RV park we are staying at was once part of the original Stanwyck ranch. Her house was less than a mile away and since it was bought by the city (during the recession in 2001) the grounds were now a public park. That was exciting enough but the very next day I learned that were going to have docent led tours of the house on Saturday for $15 admission. I immediately signed us up and thankfully on Saturday the rain held off during our visit.
The house has quite the history because it was originally built by Barbara in 1937 when she was 29 and the housing/ranch development it was a part of was a joint venture between Barbara and Zeppo Marx (her manager). The story goes that Barbara was orphaned at the age of 4 and grew up in multiple foster homes. When she became a teenager she went to live with her older sister but her early life was one of poverty. So she built her dream house, an English Tudor style home that was 6,500 sq feet and had five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, four fireplaces, and a swimming pool. Because it was so far (at the time) from the studios she even had her own gas pump in the garage.
One of the reasons the house was so remote was Barbara was getting a divorce from an abusive husband. They both traveled from New York where they met when she was working in the theater. Her career took off in Hollywood but his did not which seriously strained the marriage. After divorcing him she lived in the house with her adopted son until 1941 when she remarried and moved back to Hollywood. The house’s second owner was Jack Oakie who was a famous comedic actor and whose wife raised afghan dogs. Eventually they sold off the ranch portion but his second wife lived in the house for many years. I mention this because the tour was a mix of what the house looked like in Barbara’s day and then in Jack’s so it was a bit confusing from that standpoint. Still it was cool to see the house although since it sat empty for 8 years until the city bought it (and was broken into several times) it is not in the greatest of shape.
The downstairs had a guest suite, large living room with built in bar, and a huge kitchen. It also had a guest house that previously served as Barbara’s work out area. The bathroom in the guest house was done in this very cool can-can girl wallpaper (with matching toilet seat) but unfortunately no one knew who put it up. They have tried to compile information through old records and talking to people who are still alive but its been a rough go finding information.
The grounds also had a swimming pool and later Barbara’s second husband built her a tennis court for a birthday present. Jack used to roller skate on the court and they had a cool picture of that.
My favorite though was the upstairs. The master bedroom was absolutely huge (perhaps the largest I have ever seen) and there was a second bedroom for her son. My favorite though was the huge (for it’s time) marble bathtub which is original to the house was the one thing Barbara always dreamed of having when she was in foster care. I also really liked the dressing room which had beautiful built in shelves and a circus theme. The circus theme was redone by Jack’s wife but I imagine the shelving is all original. Super cool.
One sad thing we learned was that Barbara was estranged from her adopted son. By all accounts she was incredibly strict which I have no doubt was due to her upbringing. One biographer even stated that she couldn’t naturally have children because of a botched divorce when she was 15 which considering her childhood wouldn’t surprise me.
The fact that she had a complicated history though contributed to the woman she became. I am really glad we got to tour the house and was equally glad to learn that funds had been set aside to ultimately restore it. One of the cool things about staying here is that almost everywhere we turn there is a piece of Hollywood history which Lee and I both really appreciate.
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This post was a favorite. I loved her movies.
I loved that show too! Neat house.