The Bottle and Barbara Payton

The sad, wasted life of starlet Barbara Payton (Barbara Lee Redfield,1927-67) is usually told as a footnote in the lives of bigger stars. Despite having seen her in a couple of films, I’m sure I first learned about her while reading about Franchot Tone, her third husband. Her meteoric rise lasted only a couple of years; her fall more like fifteen, with a long stretch at the absolute bottom, and when I say “bottom” I mean not for a Hollywood actor, but for a human being.

Of Minnesota Norwegian stock, she moved to Los Angeles with her second husband John Payton in 1945. While her husband attended USC, she launched a modelling career, and began working the Hollywood social scene, becoming widely known as a party girl. Blonde, blue-eyed, buxom, fun-loving and pleasure seeking, she seemed heedlessly willing to try everything and do everything.  She took speed and sleeping pills, in addition to the drinking and late-night partying. When she maintained this lifestyle even after giving birth to their child John Jr in 1947, Payton separated from her. The divorce was final in 1950.

By then she’d become a movie actress. In 1949, she’d signed with Universal. Her first film was the western musical short Silver Butte (1949). She then landed a bit part in Robert Montgomery’s self-directed vehicle Once More, My Darling, also 1949. In Trapped, her third film, also that same year, she is already second billed to Lloyd Bridges. It is a role that exploits her offscreen notoriety. She is even spotlighted in the poster:

This performance led to two important screen tests. John Huston read her for The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but the part went to Marilyn Monroe. But her test for James Cagney DID land her a part opposite him in the noir thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).

Payton was now acting opposite Hollywood’s top stars, like Gary Cooper in Dallas (1950) and Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant (1951).

She is rumored to have slept with both of those co-stars, and also Bob Hope, George Raft, John Ireland, Guy Madison, and several lesser known actors during this period, as well as millionaire Howard Hughes and gangster Mickey Cohen. And also African American actor Woody Strode,  which was said to tarnish her reputation further in the predominately racist culture of the time. Glimmers of her future fall were already arriving in 1949. A movie extra and drug dealer named Don Cougar, her boyfriend at the time, beat up her landlady over a money dispute. The pair were also called upon as alibi witnesses for drug dealer and convicted murder Stanley Adams in 1950.

The crucial turnaround happened when she began juggling two men in serious relationships at the same time: “A” list star Franchot Tone and B movie actor and former boxer Tom Neal, best known for Detour (1945). In September 1951, Tone and Neal had it out but good, and Neal naturally got the better of his less experienced opponent, breaking his cheek and nose, giving him a concussion and sending him into an 18 hour coma. Payton felt bad and married Tone, but she hadn’t stopped seeing Neal, so Tone divorced her the following year. And, after the scandal, Hollywood broke up with Payton. (Tone is said to have paid detectives to get incriminating photos of Payton sleeping around, which he then distributed to all the studio heads).

Fortunately there were a couple of movies already in the can when all this went down, so the fallout wasn’t immediate. There was the Civil War snooze Drums in the Deep South (1951). And she got star billing in the Curt Siodmak B movie horror outing Bride of the Gorilla, with Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr, and Woody Strode.  Now anathema in Hollywood, she fled to England where she appeared in two Hammer films in 1953: Bad Blonde and Four Sided Triangle. Her other card to play was to trade in on her notoriety. She starred opposite Neal in a stage production of The Postman Always Rings Twice and co-starred in a western with him, The Great Jesse James Raid (1953). The couple broke up the following year. In 1955, she had her last proper role in a film, Edgar Ulmer’s Murder is My Beat.

That same year she was arrested for check kiting at a Hollywood store called the Liquor Locker, but was let off due to her claim of indigence. Amazingly, it wasn’t until the following year that her ex-husband sued for custody of their 9 year old son John Jr, who’d been living with her all this time! The judge found in favor of the dad of course, and labeled her an “unfit mother.”

There was much further to fall, and she did. In 1962 she was arrested for prostitution and stabbed by a drunk in a bar, requiring 38 stitches.

The following year she published her autobiography I Am Not Ashamed, for which she was rumored to have been paid in red wine so that creditors could not attach her fee. The same year (1963), she had a walk-on role in the western Four for Texas, her last film credit of any kind. But the book and the film work did not translate into a rebound. In 1964 she was arrested for shoplifting clothes. In 1965 she was busted for heroin possession.

By 1967, she was homeless. She moved back in with her parents, who were both alcoholics on the scale of their famous daughter. She died of multiple organ failure later that year, at age 39. She had literally drunk herself to death.

In 2007, Bear Manor Media, the folks who published my book Chain of Fools, released Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, by John O’Dowd. And for a ripping good (if tawdry) read, see Kim Morgan’s essay here.