Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bio of ill-fated starlet Barbara Payton is a horrifying Hollywood tale

Review by Doug Gibson

"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story," 2007, Bear Manor Media, by John O'Dowd, is a horrifying story. It's very tough to read, particularly if one knows the very public fate of the very beautiful early 1950s Warner Brothers starlet Payton, who rivaled Marilyn Monroe in beauty. The actress, who was once earning several thousand a week, was a mere 10 years later a street hooker in the shabby sections of Hollywood, perpetually intoxicated, frequently stoned, and dispensing blow jobs to derelicts for $5. Payton didn't live long; her heart and liver gave out at 39.

As mentioned, it's a horrifying tale; author O'Dowd has chronicled Payton's life in an interesting manner. He deserves credit for compiling a tremendous amount of information. Payton's remaining family members, an ex-husband, a former booze and sleeping partner, film executives, former lovers, people who only knew the ill-fated actress a few minutes, all are eager to share their memories. (This can be carried to a fault. Did we really have to hear from the scuzzy former low-low level employee of the old Hollywood Citizen-News newspaper who recalled paying Payton $5 for oral sex outside the newspaper office?)

Nevertheless, O'Dowd is fond of his subject, even as the disgusting details of Payton's unfortunate life are splayed on the pages. The author sees Payton's life as a morality tale, in which the subject is both perpetrator and victim of her own downfall. Barbara Redfield, born in Minnesota and later raised in Odessa, Texas, was blessed with tremendous beauty. Her life seemed to be moving toward success. She married John Payton, an World War II pilot and a war hero. The attractive couple moved to Los Angeles County, and had a baby.

Not long after, Barbara, who had began modeling, left her husband, taking the baby with her. She began a successful quest in films, earning roles in western shorts and bit parts in larger studios. She was a contract actress. She also began what would be a long series of affairs with stars. Her first major lover was Bob Hope, who set her up in an apartment with an allowance.

Eventually, Payton's beauty and acting talent led to a major role with James Cagney in the film "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." That led to the Warner Brothers deal and wealth for the 20-something Payton. That should have meant a long, prosperous acting career. Instead, it was the peak of Payton's career. While she would become far better known over the next several years, it was bad publicity, that gradually destroyed her career. Warner Brothers loaned her out for minor films, including the cult film, Bride of the Gorilla.

As described in her biography, Payton liked to party, and she liked to hook up. She might have survived the occasional bad publicity if she had not met Tom Neal, a low-budget acting "hunk" with a bad temper. Payton initiated an affair with Neal when she was engaged to actor Franchet Tone. One day Neal savagely beat Tone, who was hospitalized. Despite the aggression, Payton continued her affair with Neal, even after she married Tone. After the divorce, Payton and Neal tried to be a team, making a few films and doing plays, but they eventually broke up. (Neal would eventually go to prison for the manslaughter death of his later wife.) (The much-older Tone would spend the rest of his life not thinking about Payton. He would die 17 months after Payton.)

That was it for Payton's career. She stayed beautiful for the rest of the 50s, living a bohemian life, marrying a much younger man and living in poverty in Mexico. In LA, she was Vampira's neighbor in a roach-infested apartment complex. She may have plied a trade as a high-priced hooker in Chicago. She lost custody of her young son, John Lee Payton, and only saw him once more.

In the late 1950s, Payton, slimmed down, made a final attempt to get back in pictures. It was a failure. The only star who tried to help her was Raymond Burr, whom she had helped get a role in "Bride of the Gorilla." Burr wanted her to guest on his TV show "Perry Mason," but the producers said no. At that point, Barbara Payton slipped out of respectable society and drowned in the filth of the streets.

Except for a pathetic, exploitative, mostly fictional "autobiography" "I Am Not Ashamed," published in 1963, and the recollections of bit movies actor John Rayborn, who lived with Payton in the mid-1960s, there's not much insight into what caused Payton to choose a life of degradation. She had family in southern California, her parents and her brother's family as well. She would make occasional stops at her parents' home in San Diego but return to the streets, where she could earn money for booze by prostituting.

Her body finally gave out, and she was discovered early one morning -- next to a drug store/market -- unconscious. After several weeks in a hospital, she was sent to her parents' home. Not long afterwards, she died there in May 1967.

Payton likely suffered mental illness, exacerbated by her alcoholism and periodic drug abuse. Much of her intellect -- she had been an intelligent woman, a talented actress, and a superb cook -- was likely destroyed by her addictions. O'Dowd theorizes that Payton hated herself and believed that her fall was appropriate, that she had lived a wicked life.

The seeds of Payton's problems may have began early. Her family was dysfunctional. Both her parents, Lee and Mabel Redfield, were severe alcoholics. Barbara suffered from a lack of warmth from her father, who acted as if she disgusted him. Some wonder if Barbara was abused by her father. There's strong evidence that Barbara was statutorily raped by a middle-aged man in her teens. She also eloped as a teenager with a friend. It was quickly annulled. It's possible that these crises engendered deep self-loathing in the actress.

If Payton had been born a generation or two later, she might have received help. Instead, the gossip magazines, forerunner of cheap reality shows, exploited her. The top gossip columnists, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and others, savaged Payton with glee, often ignoring the male celebrities she coupled with. The 1960s was not a great time for celebrities' redemption.

O'Dowd's biography is superb, even if I criticize him for throwing in even the kitchen sinks of the sordid details. According to the Bear Manor Media website (here) it will become a movie. If it has a capable director and a strong star, it could be Oscar material. The story is that compelling, and tragic.

What happened to Payton happens all the time to hundreds of thousands of others every decade. But her story is unique. She was a Hollywood star, and she was so very beautiful. Find one of her films of the early 1950s and you'll see. Cult film fans might enjoy Bride of the Gorilla. The hell this beauty descended into was far worse than a quick overdose death or even a violent end. Those would have been merciful compared to the last several years of her life.

1 comment:

John O'Dowd said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to read Barbara's story and for sharing your thoughts about it. I appreciate your constructive criticism about the book's rough content, and I agree with you. I wish now that the book didn't read as sordid as it does, but I wanted to stress how horrific Barbara's slide was to hell, and I guess I wanted to make sure that people understood that. Believe it or not, there were other things about Barbara's final years that I kept out of the book...far worse things that I will never print, or repeat, anywhere. Her life truly was horrendous at the end (and for several years leading up to it). I appreciate you getting what I tried to do for Barbara, and I thank you again for covering the book in your blog.
All the best,
John O'Dowd