“Barbara Payton, A Life in Pictures” by John O’Dowd (published by BearManor Media)
Doomed actress a femme fatale on screen and off
Among the gallery of Hollywood “bad girls” she ranks highly. Her film career began in 1949 and got off to an encouraging start, but it eventually totalled just 14 patchy appearances between 1949 and 1955. Her rampant libido led her into affairs with many married men, and the bad tabloid headlines about her tumultuous life and drug and alcohol abuse led Warner Brothers to sack her. She was reduced to starring in schlock such as “Bride of the Gorilla” and by the 1960s was living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a penniless and booze-ravaged prostitute.
It’s a sordid story that adds up to one of the saddest tales ever to come out of Tinseltown. But it is one that deserves a measure of sympathy too, with men only too willing to accept her pleasures. Author John O’Dowd is an understanding chronicler, and his biography “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story” of 2007 is now followed by this image-driven sequel with almost 1000 photos spread over 550 pages. It is an immense and hugely impressive volume, a small tombstone in fact, requiring a sturdy coffee-table.
While the two volumes aim to provide a deeper understanding of what was basically a self-inflicted and degrading collapse, “A Life in Pictures” commendably avoids hagiography, and all the warts and worse are here. In truth, take them away and there wouldn’t be much left. As O’Dowd has revealed, everything that could go wrong in a life seems to have happened to Payton: a reckless and relentlessly dissolute behaviour that included all-night bacchanals filled with drugs and alcohol, a stabbing, beatings, mobsters, blackmail attempts, gang murders, several well-publicised arrests, losing custody of her son, a slow and horrendous physical deterioration, sexual debasement of the worst kind and severe mental illness.
The author has collected his material over two decades from both inside and outside the United States for a stunning and seemingly complete collection of family photos, posed studio portraits and stills, contracts, candid behind-the-scenes shots, costume tests, pressbook material, news photos, magazine covers and movie ads.
Alongside the photos and their captions are more than 170 quotes culled from newspapers of the day, headlines (“Narcotic Slaying Probe May Call ‘Babs’ Payton”!) and reminiscences from people who knew the actress well. If O’Dowd has missed anything it can’t be of much importance, and the odds must be against any significant new material turning up all these years later. It adds up to a life that began promisingly but crashed off the rails, spectacularly. No wonder we straight folk have a morbid fascination…
Payton was born Barbara Lee Redfield on November 16, 1927 in the blue-collar, lumber town of Cloquet, west of Duluth, Minnesota, on the banks of the St. Louis River. Obviously this would be the most difficult period for an author to dig back into, but photos provided by her family and the personal collections of those who knew her best show an innocent tot, a beautiful and happy child, Mum and Dad and younger brother Frank, her friends, homes and schooldays. It was a typical Midwestern middle-class environment. Significantly, Mum and Dad are described as having “a bit of an alcohol problem”.
Payton’s first marriage at 15 years old to high school sweetheart William Hodge was annulled, and she soon married Air Force pilot John Payton. By 1946 the couple was living just outside Los Angeles, and the second of the book’s 34 chapters is devoted to John Lee Payton, Payton’s son, born in February 1947.
Here we see a devoted and loving mother with a domestic streak in sharp contrast to the tragic figure she became. But her wild life saw her lose custody of him when he was a nine-year-old in 1956. O’Dowd was in direct contact with John Lee and other members of Payton’s family, and more than 70 years later the son remained fiercely loyal to his mother’s memory.
She began to pursue a modelling career and did an eight-week gig as a variety performer at Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub in Hollywood. Payton became a regular patron of some of Sunset Strip’s most popular and elegant restaurants and clubs, and she and Payton grew apart and split. In early 1949 Universal Studios signed her and she appeared in a 30-minute western short, “Silver Butte”, a B-film. Another minor production, “The Pecos Pistol”, followed.
After a bit part in 1949’s “Once More, My Darling” Universal dropped her contract after learning of her affair with Bob Hope. The nourish crime thriller “Trapped”, an independent production, found her at the height of her beauty and sex appeal, before she reached one of her career peaks at age 22 alongside tough guy James Cagney in Warner Brothers’ “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (1950). It was quickly banned in several Midwestern states due to its excessive violence.
“Barbara Payton, A Life in Pictures” reproduces an excellent collection of photos from the Warner Brothers’ stills gallery. Oddly, after her acclaim for “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”she was billed fifth as the prairie tramp in “Dallas”, a 1950 Gary Cooper feature, then second billed in “Only the Valiant” with another big name, Gregory Peck, in 1951. Payton reportedly had a fling with the married Peck, as well as many other men, and her behaviour on set was allegedly bad. Much of her role in these two features is said to have hit the cutting-room floor.
Enter Franchot Tone. The elegant leading man and the bawdy, profane, full-throttle platinum blonde, 22 years his junior, were instantly smitten, sharing a liking for booze and the nightclub scene. Warner Bros loaned out Payton to RKO Pictures to play a plantation belle in the 1951 adventure film “Drums in the Deep South”, her eighth film, and Tone caught her and “Drums” co-star Guy Madison in bed together. The affair ended in a blaze of sordid headlines.
Payton also entered into a series of “sexual explosions” with brash B-movie actor Tom Neal, resulting in one of her most infamous episodes. Loaned out again to film “Bride of the Gorilla”, Payton was at her most beautiful on screen but she was seeing both Tone and Neal. On the eve of her wedding to Neal in September 1951 Payton spent the day with Tone in a room at The Beverly Hills Hotel, leading to a brutal fght between the two men. Neal pummelled Tone into a coma and his injuries were initially life-threatening. Payton got a black eye and bruises and the papparazzi went wild during her hospital visits to Tone.
Need we continue? “Tone lost the battle but won the whore”, one film historian wrote. Payton married Tone but they were quickly estranged. She kept seeing Neal. She went to England to make a couple of films, where she was an absolute conniving femme fatale in “Bad Blonde”. In three years she went from the A-film with Cagney to the Grade-Z “Run For the Hills” (1953), a box-office bomb. She was arrested for passing bad cheques. She was on the path to an early death,
In 1963 she published a ghost-written autobiography, “I Am Not Ashamed”. It contained the words: “There a lot of broken promises. I was from a small town; I believed everybody. But no one was telling the truth.”
Barbara Payton destroyed her film career and she destroyed her life. She would barely be remembered today if only for her films. Far greater film stars have not received such a dedication as this tremendous huge volume. She is remembered for her excesses. She died on May 8, 1967, aged just 39 but looking much older. Her ashes and a plaque can be found in the Chapel of Promise at the Cypress View Mausoleum and Crematory in San Diego, California, US.
Rest in peace, Barbara Payton.