When Barbara Payton was at the peak of her success, earning $10,000 a week, starring in films with James Cagney, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck and with her picture “on the front page of every paper in the country”, she described herself as “boiling hot, the queen bee”. She looked forward to growing old in a mansion with “three swimming pools, 20 servants and a personal masseur”.
As it turned out, her fate was a hideous inversion of that dream. She ended up as an impoverished, drug-ravaged, alcoholic sex worker, living in what she called “a rat-infested apartment” in the seediest part of Los Angeles.
Her tumultuous life had more ups and downs than a melodramatic soap opera. After making 13 movies in four years, she was blackballed by Hollywood’s key studios and her life spiralled out of control. There were brawls, an overdose from sleeping pills, a lost custody battle for her son, beatings from her sex clients and a vicious attack from a knife-wielding psychopath. Payton also suffered numerous arrests – for passing bad cheques, shoplifting, using heroin, being drunk and disorderly conduct and for prostitution. Payton’s death in 1967, when she was just 39, was the dismal conclusion to one of the most tragic tales in Hollywood history.
It all began with a troubled upbringing in Cloquet, Minnesota, where she was born Barbara Lee Redfield, on November 16 1927. Her Norwegian immigrant parents, Erwin and Mabel, ran a restaurant and ice cream parlour; the girl with striking looks grew up to be the “small-town Goddess” of Odessa High School.
Although Payton’s story is certainly in part one of abject self-destruction, there is no doubt she was exploited and abused from a young age. In his compassionate, nuanced biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, John O’Dowd alludes to rumours of “inappropriate” events with her father (which he calls a “murky relationship”) and points to the life-changing experience of Payton losing her virginity. The 15-year-old was seduced by the 45-year-old father of a school friend, while his wife was hosting guests at his birthday party in the rooms below. As O’Dowd makes clear, this was statutory rape that went unpunished.
In November 1943, at 16, Payton eloped and married her high-school sweetheart William Hodge. When Erwin found out, he beat his daughter and threatened the boy – and had the marriage annulled after only seven days. The incident merely fuelled her determination to escape her small Midwestern hometown. A year later, she wed 22-year old combat pilot John Payton, after meeting him at a dance. Payton later noted drolly that her parents believed that “an Air Force Captain would keep me under control – and even he couldn’t do it”.
The couple moved to Los Angeles and within a year had a son, John Lee, who was born on Valentine’s Day 1947. Although Payton was a loving mother and fond of Payton – who doted on the woman he called “Queenie” – it was obvious that she was not willing to settle for life as a suburban housewife. Her modelling career took off in the wake of her son’s birth and she was soon spotted by Hollywood scouts. In January 1949, aged just 21, she was signed to Universal Studios.
After minor roles in Silver Butter and Once More, My Darling, she was picked to co-star with Lloyd Bridges in the noir film Trapped, playing a doomed nightclub cigarette girl. Her marriage was already unfolding and she was involved in affairs with Bridges, a seedy gangster called Don Cougar and the actor George Raft. She resisted the attentions of Howard Hughes, however, whom she dubbed “sloppy and strange”.
Her most controversial affair was with comedian and actor Bob Hope, one of a number of stars to use and abandon the young starlet. Neither come out of the episode well. Hope, 47 and married with two children, set the 22-year-old up as his mistress, in a furnished Hollywood duplex on Cheremoya Avenue. They were soon at loggerheads. She joked about his “lacklustre” skills in bed and complained about his lack of generosity, sometimes berating him on the set of his films.
“Boy was he tight,” she later said. When she tried to blackmail Hope – threatening to tell his wife Dolores about their affair – Hope paid her hush money. Universal were aware of the liaison and, with a hypocrisy characteristic of the time, cancelled Payton’s contract, citing a morals clause, while letting Hope off scot-free.
Payton was still a box-office draw at the time and Warner Brothers quickly signed her up for the 1950 film Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, starring alongside her screen hero Jimmy Cagney. The role was a prize one (it was said that she had to sleep with Cagney’s brother to get it) and marked her high point in Hollywood, earning her $10,000 a week. She enjoyed working with Cagney, who was encouraging (and chivalrous) towards the young actress. The casting director was struck by her bluntness when she walked into his office, fanning her legs with her dress and exclaimed: “S___! It’s a hot f______ day!” As well as her outspoken attitude, her fellow actors recognised her talent. Donna Martell, who worked at Universal at this time, told O’Dowd: “A lot of people in the industry believed Barbara had the looks and talent to be as big a star as Marilyn Monroe.”
Payton, already labelled ‘Queen of the Night Clubs’ by gossip columnist Harrison Carroll, was the talk of Tinsel Town. In 1950, the year in which her first divorce was finalised, she also starred in Dallas, engaging openly in affairs with co-stars Steve Cochran and Gary Cooper. She also had flings in this era with Guy Madison, Errol Flynn, John Ireland, Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck, the latter guilty of double standards. After a reported affair with Payton during the making of 1951’s Only the Valiant, he claimed that her behaviour made him uneasy and arranged for an assistant director to ban her from the set when she was not directly involved in scenes. Payton later recalled that she was told, “your presence upsets Mr. Peck.”
Her Hollywood bosses finally turned against Payton after a catastrophic love-triangle that spilled over into brutal violence. In late 1950, 23-year-old Payton got engaged to 45-year-old Franchot Tone, the former husband of Joan Crawford and a man nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Tone, who had his own alcohol addiction problems, had fallen hard for the starlet when he saw her win a Charleston dancing contest at Mocambo, a glitzy West Hollywood nightclub. Crawford was said to have called him to advise him to steer well clear of “a cheap little chippie with the morals of a common tart”.
Payton was self-aware enough to recognise that she had a habit of blowing up her own life, admitting that, “I was torn between what was good for me and what I wanted. They never seem to be the same thing.” With a marriage to Tone looming, what she found she suddenly wanted was an affair with a violent, self-obsessed B-movie actor called Tom Neal. “Tom was a beautiful hunk of a man. He had a chemical buzz for me that sent red hot peppers up my thighs,” Payton recalled. She broke off her engagement to Tone, but continued to see both men.
She played the two actors off against each other for a time and, on September 14 1951, paid a heavy price for her chicanery. After a drunken night out, Tone and Payton returned to her Los Angeles home to find a drunk and belligerent Neal waiting for them. Tone threw a punch at the younger man. Neal, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion who lifted weights regularly, hit back with a flurry of devastating blows, nearly destroying Tone’s face in the process. Payton earned a black eye as she tried to break up the fight and Tone suffered a concussion, a shattered cheekbone, fractured jaw and a broken nose. For nearly two days, he was near death in a comatose state, his injuries later requiring extensive plastic surgery.
The vicious brawl made the front pages of almost every major newspaper in America. Screenwriter Michael B. Druxman, who wrote a play about the incident called B Movie: A Play in Two Acts, said that the “torrent of bad press” prompted the major studios to drop Payton and Tone. “They essentially became persona non grata in Hollywood.”
After Tone was released from hospital, Payton married him in September 1951, before embarking on a promotional tour for her film Drums in the Deep South. There is surviving archive audio of an interview she gave to a local radio station in Durham, North Carolina, in October that year, in which she talks about her hair colour and the plot of the film (“I get killed in the end and everything”). She comes across as modest and charming. There was no mention of the sorry love saga, which had a few more twists in store. Her reconciliation with Tone was short-lived. Soon after marrying, Payton took an overdose of sleeping pills then separated from him again in order to return to Neal.
Her fractious relationship with the former amateur boxer lasted another year, during which time Payton acted in shoddy, low-budget films such as Bride of the Gorilla. In 1952, she came to England to make Four Sided Triangle, a film directed by Hammer Horror master Terence Fisher. Payton, who was drinking heavily, using speed and swallowing lots of the diet pill Dexamyl, had violent confrontations with Neal in London, including after the time he found her in bed with wealthy night club owner Siegi Sessler.
It was no surprise when Payton and Neal finally parted ways in May 1953. “When I married Franchot I thought it would be forever,” she recalled ruefully. “Later when I divorced Franchot to live with Tom I thought that would be forever. But forever is just a weekend – more or less.” The last time she saw Neal was when she attended court in 1965, during a trial in which he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for murdering his third wife, Gail Bennett, whom he shot after a row.
Tragedy seemed to follow Payton everywhere. In 1954, a year in which she had no film contracts, she had an affair with playboy Serge Rubinstein. A few weeks later, Rubinstein, clad in silk pyjamas, was found strangled to death in his New York penthouse. Payton was vilified by powerful columnists such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and, with her reputation in tatters, the screen roles finally dried up. Nearly two years after her penultimate film, another Hammer production called Flanagan Boy, she finished her movie career with a role as a nightclub singer in the turgid crime thriller Murder Is My Beat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Payton looked spent at this point. She was now a Hollywood pariah.
The misery kept piling up. After falling for a 23-year-old furniture salesman called George A. Provas, she suffered an ectopic pregnancy that nearly killed her. She was so short of money that she resorted to bouncing checks at a liquor store. Shortly after Murder Is My Beat was released, she was convicted of check fraud and fined $100. On 12 March 1956, she suffered the biggest blow of her life when she lost custody of her son to John Payton.
The court ruling pushed her to the brink and she indulged in a frenzy of drinking and shooting heroin. “There was definitely a predisposition to her alcoholism,” wrote O’Dowd. “Both of her parents and her younger brother Frank were all alcoholics. So there was the heredity factor. But evidently, in the mid-1950s, Barbara started using heroin. The saddest part was actually losing her son. Her personal problems really snowballed after that and she never really recovered.”
Payton once estimated she had burned through a million dollars in her years of stardom and after her doomed marriage to Provas collapsed in 1958, she began selling her body for money. She started by accepting money for having sex with people in the industry she knew – she dubbed one man who gave her regular money as “Mister Shellout” – but gradually the fees men were willing to pay her for sex dropped from $300 a night to $5. “I refused to look at myself as I was… finally I was forced to see myself as a whore,” she later said.
“Whatever damage Barbara suffered in her youth left her with a ton of emotional baggage that only grew heavier and more burdensome through the years, even as she tried to shed it by drinking excessively, taking drugs and indulging in indiscriminate sex. After she lost custody of her son, her film career and her comfortable life in Beverly Hills, Barbara was consumed by such massive self-loathing that it totally obliterated whatever good thoughts she many have once had about herself,” wrote O’Dowd.
The years from 1957 to 1963 were truly horrible for Payton, who conceded that she had developed a “con woman’s mentality”. After working in a brothel in Chicago she returned to Hollywood, where she was arrested after soliciting an undercover cop. She was later fined for being drunk and disorderly and fined again in October 1963 – a penalty of $150 – for prostitution. One night she was found sleeping on a bus bench on the corner of Sunset Boulevard, clad only in a bathing suit. The LA police ignored her claims that she had been raped and beaten by a gang of teenagers and also did not pursue the client who brutally assaulted her with a knife, leaving a scar that required “thirty-eight stitches from my fleshy belly down”.
Payton’s son John Lee later described the attention around his mother as “ghoulish necrophilia” – and her life was turned into a publicity circus in that troubled 1963 when the mentally fragile star had the misfortune to become embroiled with a sleazy ghostwriter called Leo Guild. The former Hollywood Reporter journalist persuaded Payton to let him tape her anecdotes and turn them into a potboiler memoir called I Am Not Ashamed.
Guild exploited her at one of the lowest points of her life. “He plied her with cheap bottles of wine and audio taped her memories in the rundown Hollywood motel room she was living in at the time. I would say that 90 per cent of the material in the book was fabricated and nothing more than garbage conjured up by Guild himself,” said O’Dowd.
Robert Polito, whose father owned the Coach and Horses bar in which Payton regularly drank, transcribed the tapes for Guild, a man he described as “squat and mischievous”. Polito admitted the book was full of “implausible stories”, including false reports that she’d appeared in a film with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin called 4 for Texas.
Payton, a woman who had once created such a stir wearing mink coats and diamond necklaces, cut a sorry figure according to Polito, who described her as having “brassy hair; her face displayed a perpetual sunburn, a map of veins by her nose. Her feet swelled, and she carried an old man’s pot belly that sloshed faintly when she moved. Her gowns and dresses looked more like antique costumes than clothes, creased and spotted. She must have weighed 200 pounds.”
I Am Not Ashamed, which was published by Holloway House as a 75 cent paperback, included the lurid blurb “From $10,000 a week to $5 a night – the shocking story of a girl stripped naked by stardom. Barbara Payton paid the full price demanded by Hollywood, her body and soul!” The language in the book was deliberately sensational. “I know I’m an old coot now (almost 35)- dragged-out, wine-soaked prey for men’s five dollar bills. Today I live in a rat-infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much rosé wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favours to men. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I’m not ashamed,” she wrote.
The publisher included cruel photographs of her in a dishevelled state, and Guild later gave interviews describing her as a “gross and pig fat”, making jokes about the “red angry scar” left by the shocking assault. In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Guild even admitted that she had not received the $2000 she had been promised for ‘writing’ the book. “She didn’t want to paid in cash or check. She wanted to be paid in red wine. There were claims on her cash,” he wrote.
Although most accounts of her life focus on the sordid details – including the time in 1964 that she was charged with shoplifting clothing and also for possession of heroin and syringes – there were sweeter, more affecting sides to her character. In a touching foreword to O’Dowd’s memoir, her son John wrote that, “she looked deeply in her internal mirror and had found much there that was hateful. But she is no embarrassment to me. My mother was a strong woman, full of life… my mother was impossibly complex. She was my safe harbour… without her I was lost and very much alone for many years.”
As well as being a voracious reader, Payton was a talented furniture maker, interior designer and an enthusiastic poet. Her poem Love is A Memory Time Cannot Kill was included in her memoir (“time cannot kill the cherished tune, gay and absurd, and the music unheard”) and she admitted that writing verse was a balm for her conscience. “I decided it was all right to be a hustler as long as I wrote poetry,” Payton said. “Even in bed with a trick I could think of lines.”
Her son said he wished there had been “more compassion for this wondrous woman”. There has been some. In December 2020, Australian electronic band The Avalanches released a tune called Song for Barbara Payton. “Her story really resonated with me – it’s heartbreaking, really,” said lead singer Robbie Chater. “The lyrics in the sample we found seemed to sum up her life. I’d been looking at images of Payton for a possible album cover, but when we didn’t go down that path, it just seemed like a nice way to acknowledge her.”
John Lee Payton acknowledged that his mother made “so many mistakes, so many bad choices” – and these terrible decisions blighted the final years of her life on Sunset Boulevard, less than a mile from the clubs in which she used to dazzle. One former friend told O’Dowd about coming across Payton walking in the rain on Sunset Boulevard, looking filthy and bloated, with her front teeth knocked out. In February 1967, Payton was found passed out near a dumpster in the Thrifty Drug Store parking lot. Her battered, bloody body was clad only in a thin, cheap cotton dress and a pair of flip-flops. The garbage men thought at first that she was dead.
The most foreshadowing passage in I Am Not Ashamed is when Payton admits: “Alcohol in different forms takes the biggest toll. Narcotics create problems. Pills of all kinds enter into it. Sex is a compulsive thing.…They are all habits, habits, habits. I know I’ve suffered from them all down the line. And I have a record of 100 per cent failure, never having cured one habit in a lifetime.” O’Dowd believes that the combination of her own demons, “plus mid-century America’s misogyny and Hollywood’s patriarchal abuses”, all came together in what he called “perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale”.
With her liver and kidneys failing, Payton was sent home to her parents in San Diego, but she was beyond rescue. Her parents were both alcoholics by this point and simply enabled her to continue drinking. On May 8 1967, she collapsed in the bathroom. Mabel heard her screams of agony and rushed to her aid. The former actress died a few minutes later in her mother’s arms. Payton’s son was away fighting in Vietnam at the time and did not hear the news immediately. The Hollywood Star reported that she “died in obscurity”, adding that “it was two days before detectives investigating the death realised who she was”
A few months earlier, when the lost Hollywood star sat with her drink in The Coach and Horses Bar, she would sometimes, in a nostalgic mood, take out the miniature statue of Saint Jude from the pocket of her dress and “talk to it”. It’s a pitiful image. The Patron Saint of Lost Souls certainly went missing when it came to the life of Barbara Payton.