Barbara Payton: A Sad, True Tale of Hollywood
Hollywood Star to Hollywood Whore
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 200lbs, had a red, blotchy complexion, and most of her teeth had been punched out.
She was a street prostitute and an alchoholic. 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 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.
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.
In Hollywood Barbara earned a living from modeling 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 night life 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.
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 round the country requesting money, but was eventually completely rejected by him.
In 1949 Barbara was given a lead female role in the movie 'Trapped', as 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.
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.
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 were 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'.
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 teminating her contract. The sorry event should have been a lesson to Tone but he persisted with the relationship.
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.
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 preganancy. 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.