By Doug Gibson
Recently, at Plan9Crunch, I reviewed John O'Dowd's biography of the ill-fated 1950s movie star Barbara Payton (seen above), "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story." (Buy) You can read the Plan9Crunch review here. (I also wrote a review for my newspaper, The Standard-Examiner, here.)
The reviews were popular reads, and O'Dowd was kind enough to agree to my request for an interview. I asked him 10 questions. The first five questions and answers were published several days ago (here). Here is part of the interview, which focuses more on Payton's slide into a hellish existence as an addict and a street prostitute in the 1960s. So read on, and enjoy! Photo above is courtesy of O'Dowd.
6) Plan9Crunch: Why didn't anyone from "the business," former lovers, co-stars, friends, lawyer, anyone, help this woman, particularly when that tragic "autobiography" came out in 1963?
O'Dowd: By that time in her life, Barbara had become extremely resistant to accepting anyone’s help. I am convinced of that. Barbara was immersed in her feelings of self-loathing, and sick as it sounds, I believe she felt a sort of comfort in that lonely and isolated place. She was stranded on a very stony path that she may not have even wanted to leave, as it justified her feelings of wanting to punish herself. Barbara’s life by then was all about hating and hurting herself, and trying to destroy her health, and I know that sounds sad and gruesome, but I believe it to be true. Barbara’s sister-in-law and best friend, Jan Redfield, told me that she tried to help her many times, as did a few other friends and family members, but most times, Barbara would not allow it. She would often disappear, or, she would listen to these people, and agree to seek help, and then would never follow through afterward. Dealing with her back then grew to be maddening to Jan and a few other people who really loved her, and many of them told me they finally had to walk away to keep their own minds and lives intact. No matter how you look at it, Barbara’s life is a huge tragedy…not only to her, but also to all the people who loved her and couldn’t save her.
7) 7) Plan9Crunch: Why didn't her family, so close to her in Southern California, never make an effort to have her committed?
O'Dowd: Barbara’s younger brother, Frank Redfield, has admitted to me that he was locked in his own prodigious battle with alcohol abuse at the time, and that as a result, he wasn’t able to fully comprehend how badly Barbara needed help. Their parents, Lee and Mabel Redfield, were also severe alcoholics, and maybe they too, couldn’t see past themselves to help Barbara. I know that might sound incredible to many people who read this, but one needs to understand that this was a family who were deep in the throes of a longstanding addiction to alcohol. Frank’s wife, Jan, was not an alcoholic, but being the only sober person in the family, she had her hands full trying to raise her and Frank’s four children, as well as being a caretaker to her husband and her in-laws. That woman deserves a medal for all she endured back then. I know that if things had been different, Jan would have moved heaven and earth to help Barbara…she loved her very much (and she still does).
8) Plan9Crunch: Was the faux morality, predatory media coverage that Payton received the norm back then, or was she a particular target of venom?
O'Dowd: All you have to do is read some of the front covers of the tabloid rags of the 1950s (like Confidential and Exposed) and you’ll see that society’s faux morality, and its insatiable need to punish those celebrities who misbehaved in their private lives, was a very potent force in those days. Barbara was absolutely a kind of fall guy back then for the tabloids and media’s wrath; mainly, because she wasn’t a big star…and mostly, because she was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention by openly leading a very unconventional lifestyle. Barbara became totally expendable to WB Studios when she refused to rein in her personal life, and in time, the media followed suit and crucified Barbara in print. With the kind of life that Barbara insisted on leading back then, she never stood a chance.
9) Plan9Crunch: Describe the key events in her life that turned Payton into a person who hated her self so much that she slid downhill so fast and for so long?
O'Dowd: The single most damaging event in Barbara’s life, in my opinion, was her losing custody of her son (and especially, of her being kept away from him afterward, and never seeing him again). I think that compounded Barbara’s guilt and self-loathing one hundred fold, and caused her to disconnect even further from any desire she may have had to lead a respectable life. Earlier, the brawl between Franchot Tone and Tom Neal had laid a huge guilt trip on Barbara. (Immediately after it happened, Barbara cut her hair very short, and I have long felt that she did that as a response to what had happened. I think she was trying, in a way, to make herself less desirable to men, as she knew that was the source of most of the problems in her life, and especially, the cause of the brawl.) Barbara’s completely thoughtless shuffling of Tone’s and Neal’s affections, and the anguish it had caused them, probably also added to her feelings of self-hatred. I have come to believe that Barbara was not just troubled, but severely emotionally ill. And I think her emotional illness only grew stronger as the years (and her other personal problems) progressed.
10) Plan9Crunch: What are some unanswered questions about her life?
O'Dowd: One of the things I often wonder about is what happened to Barbara in her “lost years” (from about 1959, right up to her death in 1967). We know about some of those events, but I have long had the feeling that the rest of what she experienced is probably far worse than anyone of us could ever imagine. What we do know is pretty horrific, but I think the rest of her story might actually be even uglier and sadder. (And if that’s the case, maybe it’s best that we don’t know.) I would also like to know why she felt she was so unworthy of help. How could she feel that bad about who she was? I am also confused about her father’s treatment of Barbara. Was it due to something inappropriate happening between them, or was it that he was sickened by (and ashamed of) her rampant promiscuity? I’m pretty sure we will never know the answer to that question. Barbara and her father know, however, and I believe that wherever their souls exist now, that healing between them has taken place. That’s one of the things I really believe. Another is that Barbara is now in a place of perfect peace and comfort and enlightenment. Her life was not for naught. After all she went through, here on earth (most of which, she put herself through), Barbara has experienced healing, and I know her story has the ability to heal others, too. At least, that’s what I’ve always hoped for (and will continue to hope for).
Thanks so much, John O'Dowd, for this really interesting interview about the life of Barbara Payton, who remains iconic despite the tragedy of her life.