We all know that for all the Cary Grants and Jessica Langes and Robert Redfords, who have known the heights of Hollywood fame, there are others who turned in their pop bottles and hitchhiked to Tinseltown with only their beautiful faces and a lot of hope. Some of those people are noticed by someone influential and make it into a few movies. We all know how often that happens. Favors get favors... a movie or two, maybe just a walk-on. Still others get a little more than that, a dozen or so movies, maybe, but they are never going to schmooze with the great gods and goddesses on Olympus. Most realize it ain't gonna happen for them and return to Anytown, USA, probably in the Midwest, and settle down with a childhood squeeze and have four children. Some stay in Tinseltown and continue to play at the Hollywood dream and burn out in the process. Here is one of those people.
John O'Dowd has written a compelling story. He was obviously fond of Payton and treated her with respect. I sensed he felt a great deal of sorrow for her although it didn't prevent him from writing a seeringly truthful piece that will be hard to shake. I read about her throughout the 1950s when news of her corrupted life reached the pages of Confidential Magazine and every other rag of the day. Barbara was big news in those magazines, garnering more space than she ever would in the dozen or so movies she made. Oddly enough, I have not seen one of them but I'm now looking to changing that.
She was born in 1927 in Cloquet, Minnesota, a blue-collar community, known in those days as a prosperous lumber-mill town and housing a great many Scandinavians. In 1949 it would see the birth of Jessica Lange. Barbara's folks were alcoholics their entire adult lives and she and her brother would join the ranks. Her mother never stopped loving her daughter but was incapable of rendering any assistance when she should have. It has been said that Barbara's troubles stemmed from her father and they lasted all through her life. From everyone's vantage point, he wanted nothing to do with her, didn't even want to hear about her. It was hinted that Barbara's life-long promiscuity and her strange relationship with her father may have been the result of an early sexual molestation by him. While it is not certain, what is is a statutory rape by a friend's father.
O'Dowd writes of the family's move to Odessa, Texas, where Barbara become a bit of a wild child, smart-mouthed but fetching and itching to see what adult ways she could make her own. She impetuously married but it was quickly annulled. Before long, she followed a dashing, full-of-himself military man to Louisiana where they married. Soon it would be a move to Illinois, where his family lived. During their short time there Barbara Payton would enjoy the only semblance of a normal life she would ever have.
Then it was a move to Southern California, where she would give birth to a son, and start to find domestic life a little dull. While she is known to have been crazy about her little boy and had become a champion cook, little else about her life appealed to her, especially after she began modeling. She bleached her brown hair and with her forever forward manner, it wouldn't be long before the Santa Ana winds blew her into Hollywood.
She left her husband, taking her son with her, but she would embark on a lifelong course of enjoying the nightlife... partying, drinking, drugs, sex. She also quickly fell in with lowlifes... mobster-types, druggies, those who wanted a hot blonde on their arms and in their beds. Barbara craved acceptance and love and her direct route for obtaining that was sex. She also found nothing whatsoever forbidding about hopping on the casting couch.
Even though her sordid reputation was beginning to build, the whispers were apparently not heard by Universal-International bigwigs who apparently put her under contract. It was likely based on seeing her bar-hopping at Ciros, Mocambo and the Trocadero, always with people swarming about her. She was known to be outgoing, witty and strong-minded. Everyone seemed to like her.
I've said before that Universal was no MGM but they seemed to use Barbara in the worse films they made. She appeared in some short features and films that would have been happy to be called "B." They were more like "D." She unashamedly and less than quietly slept with her fellow costars, often on the lot, sometimes in their costumes, when they weren't needed on camera. She became embroiled in an affair with the married Bob Hope. He set her up in an apartment but Barbara couldn't keep her mouth shut and soon all of Hollywood knew. It ended very badly. Universal fired her citing "morals charges." She went public, saying she couldn't care less.
In her endless quest for excitement, she garnered some of the first of her unsavory news reports due to her involvement with a druggie who was arrested with a large stash. Even though Jack Warner couldn't stand her, she was hired at Warner Bros by producer William Cagney to star with his brother James in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. For as long as the filming lasted, she carried on with William Cagney, who was apparently besotted with her, as were all of her conquests, at least in the beginning.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) was apparently a pretty decent film, certainly the most high-profile she would ever do. Cagney, on the heels of the terrific White Heat, was again a criminal. He and Payton's character's brother are inmates and she helps them escape and then they, of course, become involved. Cagney would speak favorably of his acting with Payton although, O'Dowd writes, he was not too crazy about his brother's affair with her.
The same year she would appear as the second female lead in the Gary Cooper western, Dallas, and would engage in an outrageous on-set affair with costar Steve Cochran, an actor not unlike Payton in the bed-hopping game. Her role was so small that one would have to question why she was being built-up by the studio only to end up in a part like the one in Dallas. The answer, of course, lies
in the continued headlines and gossip columns that reported about her party-girl ways. In the Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland tradition, it was also reported that Barbara was popping speed and taking downers to go to sleep. Her drinking increased, her outrageous flirting was at full throttle and she enjoyed extolling the virtues of sleeping with black men.
Two men came into her life around this time with disastrous effects. The first was actor Franchot Tone. He was not exactly in the glory of his acting days but he was rich and as big a drinker as Barbara was. She said after their brief marriage that she never loved him and that he was no Tarzan in the sack. It is assumed she simply wanted to be taken care of and she would certainly not be faithful to him. As for him, I suspect he married her partly because she looked a great deal like his former wife, actress Jean Wallace.
She had also met B-actor Tom Neal, a muscular, boozing, sometimes-menacing thug with whom she fell madly, crazily in love. (She would claim he was the only man she ever loved.) For the doubting Thomases on that love part, no one denied that they fell in lust. All they did was drink and fight and make love, all of which was done in public as well as in private.
They were quite a pair, Barbara and Tom. Unfortunately so much of their outlandish behavior was reported in the press and both of their nothing careers suffered badly. She liked to say they enjoyed rough sex, with a particular propensity for him beating her up while having a go at it. It was during a terrific fight with Neal that she upped and married Tone but she was back to her tough guy in days. She likely taunted the two men until they wound up on the front lawn of Payton's apartment, taking only minutes for Neal to dispatch Tone quite handily. It didn't take long for the glaring headlines. It is, I'm quite sure, the first time I had ever heard of Barbara Payton or Tom Neal. It wouldn't be the last.
Somehow Barbara managed to make a film with Gregory Peck, Only the Valiant, not one of the actor's best. Peck, in between marriages, also managed a quickie with Barbara. And just as quickly, her time at Warners came to an end. No great surprise. There were more headlines when she was called as a witness in a murder trial. More still came when Jean Wallace took Tone to court over his having custody of their two sons with someone of Payton's moral fiber in the same home.
What of her young son, you may ask. Through all this he still lived with her and he saw and heard more than a young child should have. He was often left alone at single-digit ages, including in hotels where he was savvy enough to call room service or the front desk if he needed to. Even though she would soon lose custody of him, he always said that he loved his mother very much and thought she did the best she could.
She would make a few more movies after WB but they were all the bottom of the dung heap with titles like Drums in the Deep South, Bride of the Gorilla, Bad Blonde (!), Four-Sided Triangle (?) and Murder Is My Beat. With her movie career in the toilet, her marriage to Tone over and her relationship with Neal about to finally end, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would completely turn its back on her. If there's anything Hollywood is good at, it's using people up. Of course, she was certainly a piece of work. She once slept with rich men she hardly knew for a mink coat and would soon do it for a stranger's unfinished bottle of cheap wine or a place to spend the night.
She would spend some time in Mexico, some of it quite happily for her. She enjoyed most of a six-year marriage to a younger Mexican man. Years later, with a short time to live, she married a man who was likely a stranger.
From childhood Barbara brought two traits to her adulthood... she could never be told what to do and she had a self-hatred that was blazing. We could add a third when considering writer O'Dowd's assertion that Barbara was quite likely bipolar... and obviously untreated. So much of her story would be different today. She was never as interested in acting as she was the perks that movie stardom brought. So, keeping all this in mind, it isn't surprising that it all slipped away from her. Not just Hollywood and her career but homes, security, safety, money, sanity. Her self-hatred made the transition quite easy.
For whatever reasons she would not turn to anyone for help, sometimes because she still regarded herself as a movie queen. The men she slept with wouldn't help. Her so-called Hollywood friends wouldn't help. Her parents did little, her father virtually nothing. What they didn't personally know, they could easily read in Confidential. Soon there was no money and only flophouses to live in... or make that stay in. She did what she always did... she turned to prostitution. Only now she was not performing her duties to be in a movie or to get a diamond necklace but for $5 or a bottle of wine.
Several of her front teeth fell out. She acquired a number of diseases. She owned a scant number of clothing articles. She often cleaned up in restrooms of businesses or not at all. She began a heroine habit... another trade for her favors. She was arrested numerous times for all the obvious reasons... whoring, drugs, public drunkenness, public indecency, vagrancy. In the middle of it all, in an effort to make a few bucks, she hauled out her Bob Hope affair and sold it to a rag. And she still had hopes of a Hollywood comeback. She also provided her life story to some ghost writer. It was called I Am Not Ashamed and Hollywood was. They couldn't believe they ever knew such a person.
She would normally be so drunk she couldn't stand up. What few, piddly little jobs she could muster she couldn't hold on to. Booze was the main culprit, although telling Barbara what to do was always risky. Finally, one day in 1967 she went to stay with her parents who had been living in San Diego for years. There you are... a drunk returning to live with two drunks, one of whom practically hated her guts.
She wasn't there long before she quietly died. The years, of course, had taken their toll. Drink and drugs had ravaged her body and her mind and she did a good job on her spirit. From the time as a young girl when her father told her she was no good, she was determined to live a life proving it. She may not have seen her name on movie marquees any longer but she had an addiction to notoriety and a craving for approval and she did what she had to to feed them. Through it all, Payton never complained.
I thank John O'Dowd for a fine, fine book. It needed to be written. Everyone in Cloquet didn't turn out to be Jessica Lange. Everyone in Hollywood didn't turn out to be Jessica Lange either. Oddly, Lange beautifully played Frances Farmer, another of Hollywood's lost souls and I wrote earlier of one more, Gail Russell and there are countless others. But one would be hard-pressed to come up with a life more unapologetically, tragically and sadly lived than Barbara Payton.