Barbara Payton: Die in Black and White

Few combinations are as potent and captivating as glamour and tragedy. Sad tales of beautiful people who meet a sad end, always makes an enduring story. Old Hollywood has always been a great source of style, sex appeal and sorrow; so here is the tale of one of her most tragic starlets. Barbara Payton.

Born Barbara Lee Redfield on 16 November 1927 in Cloquet, Minnesota. Her childhood was a far from happy time, both her phone arents were alcoholics; her father was noted for his bad temper. She eloped with her high school boyfriend William Hodge; party an act of teenage rebellion and likely an escape from her miserable home life. Like many acts of youthful impulsivity, this marriage did not last. After leaving school, she married pilot John Payton in 1945. If she was an other young woman, this would likely have included some kids, see them grow up and just become another post WWII housewife. This was not the path for Payton; after growing bored with being a housewife, Payton decided to pursue a career as a model/actress.  With her sultry good looks, modelling work came easily. She posed for Sudebaker catalogs and publications suchs as ‘Charm’ and ‘Junior Bazaar’. Marriage to John Payton lasted for four years (including a son, John Lee). Free from the conventions of domesticity, Payton gained herself a reputations as a party girl around the Hollywood club scene (a trait that would prove to be her undoing). Short term, this worked out well for her. Here she spotted William Goetz, an executive for Universal Studios, signing her to a contract of $100 a week.

Her big screen debut came in 1949, in the noir feature ‘Trapped’. Her 2nd film, which happened to be her biggest feature ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’. So impressed was co-star James Cagney, that Payton got a contract with Warner Bros and $5,000 a week salary. Her next feature was the western ‘Only the Valiant’, not exactly the vehicle to take Payton to the next stage of her career. Basically she was eye candy in western attire. Three years, those were the halcyon days of Payton’s career. ‘Bride of the Gorilla’ was the beginning of the end of her Hollywood dreams.

Where there is great success, there is greater potential to lose everything. Temptations were and will always be present in Hollywood; the cliches about young starlets such as Lindsey Lohan who succumb to the fringe benefits of stardom, were no less true in 1950s. Ironically Paytons’s partying initally helped her climb the ladder of Hollywood. Now instead of focusing on her acting, Payton became just another party girl who happened to be an actress. In addition to her love of glitzy shindigs, Payton was juggling multiple romantic interests. Now messy love lives, infidelities and juggling lovers was nothing new and will never change. Where Payton fell short was that she was far from for discreet. Especially since plenty of her beaus were married, the image of a home wrecker back in 50’s America was more disasterous then it would be today. Two of Payton’s boyfriends were Franchot Tone and Tom Neal, were in competition for Payton’s attention. 13th September 1951 will go down in infamy for Payton’s public image. Both men were involved in a vicious brawl that needed up with Tone suffering a concussion and multiple broken bones. Payton ended up with two black eyes and her career in the mire. Once Tone recovered from his injuries, he and Payton married. To the romantics who thought Peyton had found her Prince Charming. No she did not, she left him after 7 weeks. Taking up with Neal, who was abused Payton for another four years. I have no doubt that like many women who grew up with an abusive father. She sadly repeated that pattern at the very least with Neal, maybe flattered that a muscular man would be willing to fight for her. Instead of protecting and caring for her, Neal just liked to hurt Payton.

After ‘Murder Is My Beat’ in 1955, Payton was unable to to find any acting roles. No matter how minor or sleazy the picture. To complete her descent into the inner circles of hell, Payton started turning tricks. Eventually her downfall became so humiliating, she ended up changing a mere $5 on the Sunset Strip. One can only imagine her desperatation. Addiction to both Heroin and Alcohol took a toll on Payton’s radiant beauty. In 1963, Payton published her autobiography ‘I Am Not Ashamed’. Not actually by written by Payton, Leo Guild ghost wrote the book instead. Her final act contained her final insult. Payton was found unconscious in a skip in a car park. After two weeks in hospital, Payton’s body has been depleted for such a long time that she just could not fight anymore. She died on 8th May 1967 aged only 39.

Such a desperatly sad ending to a life that had so much promise. Some may wish to use Payton’s story as a precautionary tale for young actresses to not become a tabloid figure. Personally I don’t think it would make a difference, when people are exposed to such lofty luxury. Some simply get sucked in and never recover.

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