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Barbara Payton: A Sad, True Tale of Hollywood

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I love reading and writing about Old Hollywood - the actors and actresses, the directors and money men and of course the movies themselves.


Fall From Old Hollywood

When Barbara Payton died in 1967, aged just 39, her body was in such a terrible state it took the police two days to make an accurate identification. She weighed over 200 lbs, had a red, blotchy complexion, and most of her teeth had been punched out.

She was a street prostitute and an alcoholic. Twenty years previously she had started out as a glamorous starlet in Hollywood. She had co-starred in movies with stars like James Cagney, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, but she let it all slip through her fingers. This is her story.

Barbara aged 8

Barbara aged 8

Young Barbara

Barbara Payton was born Barbara Lee Redfield in November 1927, in Cloquet, Minnesota. She had a younger brother, Frank, and her parents ran a restaurant and ice cream parlour.

Her childhood was carefree and comfortable. She was very athletic, especially enjoying wintertime activities like skiing and ice skating. She also took a great interest in cooking and went on to become a gourmet cook. When she was 11 her parents bought a motel in Odessa, Texas, and Barbara started Junior High School there.

First Marriages

She was a stunning looking girl with piercing blue eyes and a beautiful complexion. She also had a wilful, independent streak and when she was 15, she eloped and married her boyfriend, William Hodge. Her parents found her and got the marriage annulled very quickly.

Barbara's restlessness continued and she married again at 17, to a 22-year old Air Force Captain named John Payton. They moved to California where Barbara gave birth to their son, John Lee Payton, in February 1947. Within a year Barbara had impetuously decided to pursue a career in movies. She left her husband and moved to Hollywood with their son.

Hollywood Starlet

In Hollywood Barbara earned a living from modelling assignments and her exceptional looks soon came to the attention of talent scouts at Universal International, who tested her and placed her under contract on their training program for young actors. She joined young future stars like Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, Jeff Chandler and Rock Hudson at acting school and took lessons from the resident acting tutor, Sophie Rosenstein.

She obtained a bit part as a nightclub photographer in a comedy, 'Once More, My Darling' in 1949, and walk-on roles in two Western musicals starring Tex Williams.

Barbara found the nightlife of Hollywood intoxicating. She was young, beautiful and vivacious and she revelled in the party and nightclub scene. She was popular and she dated many men including Howard Hughes, gangster Micky Cohen and actor John Ireland. The casting-couch system was in full swing in Hollywood whereby pretty starlets would sleep with producers and directors to get choice roles and Barbara almost certainly capitalised on her good looks in this way to get ahead.

Hollywood Success

One of the stars she got to know during her early Hollywood days was Bob Hope, whom she met at a party in Dallas in 1949. Hope set her up in an apartment in Hollywood and they carried on an affair for several months. Hope was a married man and Universal were concerned that his family image would suffer so they cancelled Barbara's contract. For a while, Barbara followed Hope around the country requesting money but was eventually completely rejected by him.

Barbara in 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye'

Barbara in 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye'

Rise to Stardom

In 1949 Barbara was given a lead female role in the movie 'Trapped', as a girlfriend of the leading man, Lloyd Bridges. Her performance was well received and as a result, she was offered a screen test for a role in James Cagney's 1950 movie, 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye'. She was interviewed by William Cagney, brother of the star, and it has been hypothesised, but never proven, that she slept with him. Whatever the truth, she was given a lucrative $5,000 a week contract with Warner Bros and Cagney Productions. Barbara was on her way to the top....or should have been.

Her Social Life and Love Interests

Barbara's star rose further during the following year and she appeared with Gary Cooper in 'Dallas' and with Gregory Peck in 'Only the Valiant '. Her pay gradually increased to $10,000 a week, a very large income indeed in 1951, and she found herself regularly in the company of such stars as Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.

Caught up in such a glamorous world she started to make her social life more important than her work and it was not long before her fledgling career started taking second place to a reckless, headlong plunge into a passionate love life involving rich and powerful men, many of them with wives and families.

Franchot Tone

Franchot Tone

Barbara met actor Franchot Tone in 1950. He was a genuine A-list Hollywood actor, ex-husband of Joan Crawford, and an accomplished movie star since the 1930s including an Oscar-nominated performance in the classic 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1935. He had married and acrimoniously divorced actress Jean Wallace during the 1940s.

His friends tried to dissuade him from becoming involved with Barbara, who was already seen as having a bad reputation but he was completely infatuated with her. In October 1950, he announced their engagement and he found and paid for an apartment for her on Hollywood Boulevard.

Barbara in the meantime carried on making a name for herself with what was euphemistically called 'dressing room visits', and was reportedly having an affair with Gregory Peck with whom she was working in the movie 'Only the Valiant'.

Guy Madison

Guy Madison

She started working on a new movie called 'Drums in the Deep South', co-starring James Craig and Guy Madison. True to form, it was not long before she was getting very friendly with Madison. Franchot Tone paid heed to the gossip about her promiscuous lifestyle and he kept watch on Barbara's apartment from a building across the road.

He saw Guy Madison enter the building, and after waiting a while, Tone barged in and found the couple in bed together. A shouting match ensued and the whole drama was reported in Confidential magazine. It was another black mark for Barbara and Warners were very close to terminating her contract. The sorry event should have been a lesson to Tone but he persisted with the relationship.

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

Barbara with Franchot Tone

Barbara with Franchot Tone

Whilst she was engaged to Tone, Barbara met Tom Neal at a Hollywood pool party. Neal was an ex Golden Gloves boxer and a part-time 'B' movie actor. Barbara began an affair with Neal and even told friends she was engaged to him.

She alternated carelessly between Tone and Neal until things came to a head with a violent fist fight between them. Tone was badly injured and lay in a coma in hospital with a fractured left cheekbone and upper jaw, and needed subsequent plastic surgery. Amazingly he still was not put off and he and Barbara married on September 28, 1951. Predictably, the marriage foundered after less than eight weeks and Barbara returned to Tom Neal.

The sorry, sordid saga contiued with a brief reconciliation, an overdose of sleeping pills by Barbara, another separation and finally she and Tone divorced in May 1952. She went back to Neal but he walked out on her in 1953.

Even by her own standards Barbara had reached a new low. Warners gave her one more chance in a movie called 'Bride of the Gorilla,' and it was as low budget as its title suggests. Barbara's once-promising career was coming to an end. Warners lost patience with her and cancelled her contract. Barbara was now on a slippery downhill slope. Her self-destruction was gathering pace.

In 1965 her ex-lover Tom Neal was sentenced to 6 years in jail for shooting his wife in the head, killing her instantly. Although Neal maintained that the killing was an accident, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He died from heart failure in 1972, aged 58, shortly after his release from prison.

After his successful movie career, Franchot Tone co-starred in the "Ben Casey" TV series 1965-66 and he retired shortly after, as ill health overtook him. He could be seen, wheelchair bound, visiting his ex-wife Joan Crawford in her New York apartment. Tone was a chain smoker, and he died of lung cancer at the age of 63 in September, 1968.

A Life Cut Short

The loss of the Warners contract meant no income and Barbara's money started to run out. She couldn't or wouldn't stop her excessive drinking and after one party she collapsed in a pool of blood, apparently the result of an ectopic pregnancy. She was arrested in 1954 for passing bad checks in a supermarket. The following year she lost custody of her son to her ex-husband John Payton and she married again to a 23-year-old called Tony Provas. The marriage ended in divorce 3 years later.

In 1957 she went into business in Chicago with an old actress friend called Lila Leeds. The business was a call-girl operation for which Lila was sent to jail. Barbara narrowly escaped. Thereafter her life became a succession of arrests for drunkenness and prostitution.

She began to haunt the seedy bars of Hollywood picking up tricks, getting money and then spending it on drink. Her face was bloated and her hands dirty and her once beautifully manicured nails were cracked and broken. In 1962 she was found, covered with bruises, sleeping on a Sunset Boulevard bus stop bench in a bathing suit and a coat, and was charged with public drunkenness. In the Spring of 1963, she was knifed by a trick and received 38 stitches for the wound. In 1964 she was arrested for shoplifting. The following year she was charged with possession of heroin and a hypodermic syringe. The charges were dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

In all Barbara spent about 7 years destitute and making a living as a skid row prostitute. On May 8, 1967, she collapsed on the bathroom floor in her parents’ home and died in her mother’s arms. She was 39 years old.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Sgt. Dave on June 29, 2020:

I've seen three of her movies, and she seemed mainly relegated to

just "the girl in the story," usually a character that didn't affect the action

much. She seemed a pretty good match with Tom Neal, since they both

had such troubled lives. I'd heard the prostitution gossip, but thought it

was just heresay, to sell magazines. This article made it very clear, but

it shows where addiction can lead us. I hope young people listen to

this cautionary tale. A beautiful girl, with everything ahead of her, fell

into that bottomless pit of substance abuse. A sad ending, for someone

with such promise, in the beginning.

Steve B on December 23, 2019:


Well, this was a movie star from Cloquet. Tragic story. This was a story about her my mother used to love to tell:

Barbara Payton came back to Cloquet to marry Franchot Tone, then an A-list movie star. My mother and dad walked down to the house they were going to be married in over by Pinehurst Park. In the dark shadows they happened upon somebody peeking into the windows...Well who could THIS be?…. I was my great aunt Ethel Brown, a spinster English teacher, slinking around in the dark in the bushes, trying to catch a glimpse of the famous couple. My mother always used to laugh when she told this story. : )

Rene A Valtier on March 09, 2019:

In the 1950's, my parents met Barbara Payton at a Hollywood party & for a brief while, she became freinds with them They all used to drink a lot together/

Dr.R,Meher Ali on June 06, 2018:

Wonderful article-a lesson to younger artists,,,is this the actress Barbara

who was one of the four heroins in a Hollywood movie directed by four different directors with different episodes? I forgot the title of the movie which was released in early seventies in India,,???Help me to get the name of the movie.....

Mark M on January 27, 2018:

I am crying Frank. It seems beauty without strength can be a curse.

Jack Wilson on April 20, 2017:

An addict in the classic sense. Accordingly, addiction ruled every aspect of her short life. With this in mind its hard to believe her upbringing was as carefree as the article substantiates. Daddy issues?

AP Petty from America on April 05, 2017:

You have an engaging and smooth style! I had never heard of Barbara Payton until now, and you did a phenomenal job bringing her to life again!

c. e. Jordan on January 06, 2017:

Just curious about one detail... If Barbra died at home in her mom's arms why did it take police two days to make an accurate identification??

bill on November 10, 2016:

I am the illigitmate son of Bob Hope and Barbara Payton.12/17/45. She met him in Palm Springs looking for Louis as she Honeymooned in Hollywood.I found out through Santa monica church which they both attended Barbara refused an abortion as she was catholic .at that time St. Monica's had The Family Theatre; Father Patrick Payton ran it.. my uncle was Louis Shurr the agent, his brother adopted me. When I was 5 years old we moved into Bob Hopes' 10 room mansion on 262 Central park West.Barbara came up to the house when I was 11. Wearing a Mink coat and tissues in her hand.A week later Patrick Payton came over tomy house to take me to the movies,The following week he Baptized me. I went to Catholic school that Jack Kennedy Bob Hope's best friend went too.I met Hope backstage at Loew's Capital in 1960;"Bachelor In Paridise". and the next day I was in the visitor field box at Yankee Stadium , meeting all the Yankees. Hope enterprises owned the box as well as the Clevland Indians.Hope hugged me and kissed me backstage.

Steve on August 23, 2016:

My mother and dad were from Cloquet, MN and I grew up there. My mother was 1 year younger than Barbara Payton and talked about her. When she came to town years later with her new husband Franchot Tone they snuck up to the Redfield's house to spy on the couple.. They came across someone hiding in a bush, peeking through the windows...It was my spinster great aunt Ethel, an English teacher .

McKenna Meyers on July 24, 2015:

Very sad but not uncommon in Hollywood. She packed a lot of living into 39 years.

Sherry H. on December 16, 2014:

" How sad a bright shining Star" who it seems just couldn't keep it together.

Oswalda Purcell from Los Angeles on April 21, 2014:

Great research! Great article!

crissyred on March 26, 2011:

i'm so thankful for all this attention and recognition for a woman who's life, as it was, is something to never forget.

Gregory on November 04, 2010:

her Story wont make one hell of a movie!!!

MegLust on October 31, 2010:

She was a scorpio, so am I. I would love to have the beginning of her life. I am also looking to become a Hollywood Starlet, but don't believe in drinking or doing drugs, and sex, what a joke that truly is.... I honestly believe she had her addictions with her when she had money, and just hid them well, and when she found herself broke...well, she did what she had to do when she found out that her looks only got her so far, and men wouldn't help her out any longer. My advise to her would have been to stick with Franchot, leave Tom right where she found him and never touch the drink, i.e. the poison. What a waste. Ya, and I'm surprised Ms. Lohan isn't dead already.

Syd on September 29, 2010:

Somebody should tell this story to Lindsay Lohan.

gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on September 28, 2010:

You're right, cretiakay, it would make a good movie, and an object lesson in what not to do in Hollywood.

cretiakay on September 26, 2010:

This SHOULD BE A MOVIE! I cannot believe someone with historical knowledge of Hollywood hasn't already done a screen play. What a waste of a life. At least her errors could "count" for something through a biographical movie.

frank on May 20, 2010:

God, that one HURT. I'm nearly crying. Bob Hope was that big a jerk? And why would Ms. Payton do that to herself?

John on November 03, 2009:

gunsock, the above article you wrote is concise, dramatic, and flows like a dream. Believe me, you captured Barbara's story perfectly.

When you have a moment, please email me at:

Thank you, gunsock.

John O'Dowd

gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on October 31, 2009:

Thank you John. That's praise indeed, from a master.

My effort pales into insignificance beside your wonderful work.

John O'Dowd on October 30, 2009:

Dear gunsock,

I am Barbara Payton's biographer and I want to commend you on writing a very powerful article on her life and career. I think you did a wonderful job on it and the article is beautifully written.


John O'Dowd

gunsock (author) from South Coast of England on September 29, 2009:

Thanks fastfreta. It is an incredible story, you couldn't make it up!

Alfreta Sailor from Southern California on September 29, 2009:

WOW, what a story. As before, you completely drew me in on this one. Now that's how I like stories like these, short and sweet, please continue. Very good hub.