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How Stars of the Pre-Twitterverse Honed Their Public Images

Today’s celebs covet followers, but bio reveals Barbara Stanwyck mastered media manipulation

Movie stars (and wannabes) are obsessing more and more these days about their social-media presence. Many, like Channing Tatum, Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus, have hired gurus to design sites and manufacture tweets that resonate: consultants whose job it is to lure new Twitter followers or simply to buy them in bulk on the open market.

Counselled by digital advisers and phalanxes of press agents, celebrities today are fiercely committed to building their careers and product lines into distinctive brands.

It wasn’t always thus. In talking with Barbara Stanwyck biographer Victoria Wilson, I was reminded of that period in Hollywood’s past when movie stars sought to project themselves as people, not brands — indeed, they even poured their hearts out to interviewers to “sell” their stories. Wilson, a VP and senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf publishers who normally presides over literary manuscripts, has just published a 1,044 page biography of Stanwyck (with a second volume on the way), exhaustively probing the star’s personal crises but also depicting the demanding times that shaped her personality. Much of the lengthy tome relies on personal interviews with colleagues, but it also includes clips from fan magazines and newspapers of that period.

“Fortunately, there are still enough of her old friends and co-workers around to double check every account,” Wilson says. Hence a lurid story of Al Jolson pressing a burning cigar against Stanwyck’s breast was checked for veracity with two eyewitness sources as well as several gossip columns. It passed.

A true superstar of her era, Stanwyck often played the sullen bad girl in films like “Stella Dallas,” “Double Indemnity” and “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in 1907, and her story was one of personal transformation. As a struggling young actress, she became the classic victim, married to a wife-beating drunk who had promised to advance her career.

A smart, feisty woman, Stanwyck transformed herself into a shrewd Hollywood player. She later married a gawky kid from Nebraska named Arly Brugh and helped him become pretty-boy superstar Robert Taylor, guiding his way through the intricacies of studio politics. (Frank Capra piloted Stanwyck in her best roles, noting, “I just let this chorus girl grab your heart and tear it to pieces.”)

Surely Stanwyck and her contemporaries, dependent as they were on gossip columnists, would have coveted social media and the direct access to fans it offers. Today’s digital advisers, like LaQuishe Wright or Jim Vidmar, work with stars to turn out epiphanies for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, providing moment-by-moment insights about their red carpet encounters or their vacation jaunts or their new film roles.

If the stars start to fret about a lack of followers, their advisers can generate thousands of new ones. Vidmar boasted to the Wall Street Journal that he bought 1,000 fake Twitter accounts for $58 from an online vendor in Pakistan, then programmed the accounts to “follow” rapper Dave Murrell (better known as Fyrare). During the most recent presidential election, Mitt Romney’s team was accused of buying followers en masse. Twitter maintains that fake accounts represent less than 5% of its 230 million active users.

Whatever the numbers, the social media today provide celebrities with the illusion that they can project images of their personalities, and brands, directly to their public, thus avoiding the nasty “filters” of bloggers and the paparazzi.

Stanwyck would have loved to convey the intelligent, tough-minded persona that lay behind the chorus girl image. From reading her biography, I am sure her tweets would have been spirited.

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