Oct. 20, 2002
Barbara Payton reached the pinnacle of Hollywood in 1950. Blonde and beautiful, her libido was robust, her taste ribald; her lovers formed a who's who of Hollywood leading men from Bob Hope, George Raft, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Guy Madison to Tarzan -- with dozens and dozens of lesser lights in between. The tabloids feasted on her liaisons. When she flouted Hollywood's code by taking on a black lover in 1955, her career was over at age 27. She went from making $10,000 a week at Warner Brothers to utter destitution and ruin, turning tricks for $5 on Sunset Strip.
by John O'Dowd
At first the sanitation workers thought it was a bag of trash scattered beneath the dumpster in the parking lot behind a Thrifty Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, in the heart of Hollywood. As they drew closer they discovered instead the body of a woman lying on her side, clad only in a thin, cotton shift and a pair of slippers. With a smudge of dried blood caked thick around her nose and upper lip, the woman appeared, at first glance, to be dead. Standing over her, the men could see the mass of old bruises and welts that covered her arms and legs — like purple inkblots, vivid, even in the subdued light of dawn. The woman's brassy blonde hair, with two inches of dark roots, was bunched in knots atop her head, like some tangled bee's nest gone awry. So battered was her appearance that it made it almost impossible to determine what she actually looked like underneath all the layers of dried blood and dirt. One of the men later said that the sight of her crumpled body lying on the pavement made it appear as if she had been "dumped out of the sky." When at last they noticed that she was still breathing, the two workers rushed to get help.
Later that morning, word spread quickly down Sunset Boulevard and then across Los Angeles that the woman the men had found was none other than Barbara Payton, a former movie star and tabloid queen — and a longtime denizen of Hollywood's Skid Row. Those who remembered the name were not surprised, for despite the fact that her film career had ended 12 years earlier — in a blaze of sordid scandal and poisonous publicity — Payton had never really left Hollywood...at least not for long.
When Barbara Payton was found beside the garbage dumpster in February 1967, she had spent the last decade of her life in a self-imposed prison that spanned a 20-to-25-block radius of Hollywood — an area roughly the size of New York City's Central Park. That she had managed to survive the previous 10 years of her life had simply amazed those who knew of the unrelenting hell she had endured.
Barbara Payton's meteoric plunge from the pinnacle of Hollywood fame into the bowels of L.A.'s back streets and alleys had brought her to where she was now, lying in a contorted heap beneath a mound of rotting trash. Few others have fallen from its opulence to its squalor in such rapid and complete fashion...and fewer still, with the absolute determination she possessed, to completely self-destruct. When taking into consideration the many enemies she made during her 20 years in The Land of Lost Dreams, it is ironic that she would be found lying beneath a trash bin — for Barbara Payton truly had been chewed up by the Hollywood machine, and then spit out like so much garbage.
The path that led her to this place of such utter solitude and inner desolation had begun 39 years earlier, in 1927, in a small, Midwestern town — 2,000 miles, and a thousand lifetimes away, amid the towering pines and cold winds of Cloquet, Minn.
Barbara Lee Redfield was an infant of tremendous beauty, says longtime Cloquet resident Mildred Golden, who as a child remembers a baby "…with hair so blonde it was almost snow-white, and the deepest, most beautiful eyes." Her parents, Erwin "Flip" Lee Redfield, a construction worker, and Mabel, a housewife, were middle-class, solid blue-collar types, and by all known accounts, Barbara and her younger brother Frank had a decidedly average childhood. Several former neighbors of hers — all contemporaries of Barbara — recall a bright, outgoing and athletic little girl who seemed to derive a great deal of enjoyment from the state's many wintertime activities, including ice skating, skiing and sledding.
"I loved the winters," she later wrote of her childhood in Cloquet. "The cold, crisp Minnesota winters, with a blue-black sky at night and a billion stars you could reach up and grab by the handful. I think I made a wish on every one of those stars." Reared as a church-going Catholic in a conventional and typical small-town manner -- one that practically demanded good behavior and domestic aptitude in all female family members — she took an early interest in cooking and became quite good at it by her pre-teen years. It was a skill she kept intact throughout her life, and one she would later relish by preparing gourmet meals for her various beaus, husbands and friends.
As she reached her adolescence, she began to experience her powerful and seemingly effortless influence on the opposite sex. Years later, she would recall an incident that occurred when she was 11 or 12, when a famous actor appeared at a war-bond rally near her hometown. A star struck Barbara claimed she got to see the celebrity only after negotiating with an older boy to get her into the auditorium. He wanted to put his hands under her blouse and "cop a feel" in exchange for the ticket, she said, but Barbara would only allow him to rest his hand between her legs. She had gotten her way, however, and the lesson she learned was to bargain for what you want, play the game, and win.
In the late 1930s, the Redfield family moved to Odessa, a Texas oil town. The teenaged Barbara soon evolved into a striking, 5'4" beauty "with long legs like an antelope", remembers one elderly man who knew her. In contrast to her innate wholesomeness, she picked up a brazen and tough-talking persona at some point along the way, and was easily seduced by all the male attention she attracted at Odessa High School. She later wrote that she lost her virginity at 15 — to a schoolmate's 45-year old father, who had sexual relations with her in a dry bathtub in his home while the guests at his surprise birthday party celebrated downstairs. Barbara never reported what was, without question, a case of statutory rape.
During her junior year at Odessa High School, Barbara, then 16, eloped with a local boy, William Hodge, but her parents quickly annulled the marriage. The following year, she wore a low-cut dress to a dance at a military base and attracted the attention of a handsome, 22-year old Air Force Captain named John Payton. They were married within weeks, and Barbara — who, like so many, harbored vague dreams of movie stardom since childhood — convinced him to take her to Hollywood for their honeymoon. Enraptured as he was with his sultry young bride, Payton agreed. As she soaked up the town's glamorous ambiance, she decided this was the place for her and amazingly made enough contacts during her initial stay there to obtain a screen test with RKO Studios. It didn't lead to much at first, but Barbara had her foot in the door and wasn't about to let the opportunity slip away.
Back home, she gave birth to a son, John Lee, and, in rapid succession, ditched her husband, left her baby with her parents, and with a single suitcase, headed back to Hollywood. She got a job as a carhop at Stan's Drive-In, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and used the tips she made to gain entree into the town's nightclub scene. With her sweet-but-sexy looks and her ribald sense of humor, she quickly became a popular figure at such plush Sunset Strip hot spots as Ciro's, Mocambo and the Trocadero, and was dubbed "Queen of the Nightclubs" by a local newspaper columnist.
Though untrained in acting, Barbara Payton nabbed a starlet's contract with Universal Studios in late 1948 and did a few bit parts, but the studio dropped her the following summer after word got around that she was having an affair with married man Bob Hope. She had met Hope in March 1949 at a hotel party in Houston, becoming something of a Hope groupie by following him around the country for several weeks as he made personal appearances. Upon their return to Hollywood, the actor allegedly set her up in a little love-nest on Cheremoya Avenue, for which he promptly purchased all the necessary furnishings, including, in the words of one tabloid, "... a king-size double bed that was the set for many rollicking good times." The couple's sex fling, however, would last just six months — ending abruptly when Payton began pressuring him for large amounts of money to help cover her living expenses. Hope's advisors reportedly paid her off with a handsome sum — with the stipulation that she keep quiet and disappear. Payton happily bowed out and went through all the cash in a matter of months. The foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, "hot-to-trot hoyden with an angel's face" quickly evolved into a hard and mercenary little number with a cunning brain. She went back to partying at Mocambo, where she was photographed over the next several months dining with billionaire Howard Hughes, huddled in a booth between movie tough guy John Ireland and mobster Mickey Cohen, and downing shots with wealthy L.A. paving contractor Jerry Bialac.
Veteran B-movie actor Mickey Knox also dated Payton during this time. In an interview with author Patrick McGillan for the book Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (co-authored by Paul Buhle), he recalls a compulsive and passionate lover who "...kept me in bed once for three days and nights, even feeding me (there). She wouldn't let me get out of bed! I had to crawl out on my hands and knees. A helluva girl!" Payton was moving so fast she even managed a brief affair with actor George Raft, and an even shorter engagement to high-powered entertainment lawyer Greg Bautzer. Kicking up dust like a wild mustang on the loose, she was playing the entire field. Reminiscing about the young Payton, legendary film producer A.C. Lyles fondly recalls, "Barbara never had an itch she didn't scratch!"
At 22, she got her first starring role as a doomed nightclub cigarette girl in the well-received 1949 film noir, Trapped, with Lloyd Bridges — and her first set of unsavory headlines that September when the L.A. Times reported that her new boyfriend, a 28 year-old movie extra (and part-time drug dealer) named Don Cougar, beat up Barbara's elderly landlady in a 3 a.m. dispute over the amount Payton owed on her rent. With his bullying ways and propensity for using strong-arm tactics, Cougar was just one of the many shady characters to whom an excitement-craving Payton had gravitated. She was also running with Hollywood party girl Lila Leeds and with several members of the notorious Sica mob, and in early 1950, there were more lurid headlines when she and Cougar were called before a Federal Grand Jury in the perjury trial of their friend Stanley Adams, a heroin dealer already serving time for killing pusher-turned-informant Abe Davidian. Payton and Cougar supported Adams's testimony that he was dining with them in Payton's apartment at the time of the hit, but apparently their alibis were so weak and unconvincing that Adams was found guilty of perjury and remained imprisoned on the murder charge.
Payton was signed to Warner Brothers Studios in 1950 — at $5,000 a week — and immediately co-starred with James Cagney in the violent crime drama, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Playing a good girl gone bad through her association with a sadistic gangster played by Cagney (she ends up killing him after he beats her), Payton turned in her finest screen performance. She acquitted herself so well in the film, the studio doubled her weekly salary and gave her a featured role as the conniving prairie tramp "Flo," in the Gary Cooper Technicolor western, Dallas. Over the years, it's been widely alleged that Payton had sexual episodes with both Cooper and another co-star, Steve Cochran, during the making of the film. A former scene-still photographer (who worked for another studio) knew Payton in the 1950s and asserts, "(I know) she and Steve Cochran fooled around with each other when they were making Dallas. They used to go behind the western sets on the WB back lot and grab a 'quickie.' And, she and Gary Cooper had, what might be called a 'dressing-room romance.'" This photographer also recalls an amusing — if pathetic — homage to Payton's increasingly trashy reputation: "There was a story going around town at the time that the crew would celebrate the end of each day's filming by sending Payton's petticoats up a flag pole, flying them over the WB lot at half-staff! Barbara Payton was one hot-looking and raunchy broad!"
Payton followed her small but decorative role in Dallas with the female lead in a Gregory Peck film, Only the Valiant (in which Army officer Peck and cavalryman Gig Young vie for her virtuous Cathy Eversham character), and once again, she reportedly had a sexual fling with her leading man during its production. By this time, Payton was being squired around town by a new sugar daddy — the classy movie star, Franchot Tone, a distinguished and wealthy man 22 years her senior. Tone had spotted her holding court at Ciro's and was immediately captivated by her beauty and highly irreverent nature. An ex-husband of Joan Crawford, Tone lavished daily gifts of champagne, flowers and expensive jewelry on Payton — while she cooked him gourmet meals — and they were soon engaged. The debonair actor publicly announced plans to purchase a ranch for Payton in Pomona, and with her film career ascending, it's clear that the woman whom WB had recently named "the white diamond with blue eyes" was sitting on top of the world.
As was her wont when things were running too smoothly in her life, Payton undermined herself by sneaking around with handsome Guy Madison, the co-star of her latest film, the big-budgeted Civil War drama, Drums in the Deep South. Madison, then married to troubled, alcoholic actress Gail Russell, quickly fell under Payton's irresistible spell and began joining her after work for late-night dates in her new apartment. It didn't take long for Tone to learn of his fiancée's cheating ways, and one night, while spying on her, he allegedly caught Payton and Madison in bed together. The story spread rapidly through Hollywood and was exposed to the public in a steamy article in Confidential magazine, the top exploitation rag of the day.
Despite her embarrassing indiscretions, Payton and Tone remained engaged, but WB Studios was not pleased with Payton's antics and punished her by tossing her to "Poverty Row" for the now-famous cult film, Bride of the Gorilla. The picture (written and directed by The Wolf Man's illustrious Curt Siodmak and co-starring Raymond Burr and an alcohol-wrecked Lon Chaney) was the typical low-budget, jungle melodrama of the day, but Payton's appearance in it proved memorable. First seen dancing alone under a slow-moving ceiling fan, Payton -- wearing sexy espadrilles and with her shapely hourglass figure encased in a tight sarong -- looks stunning. Her near-perfect physical countenance and sensuous undulating movements in this scene were mesmerizing, and helped disguise the fact that the film itself was a trashy affair. During the making of Bride of the Gorilla rumors bounced around town that Payton was carrying on in more sleazy "dressing room encounters," this time with two of the film's supporting actors, aging, alcoholic Tom Conway and black actor/ex-L.A. Rams football star Woody Strode. In an interview with author Tom Weaver in 2002, the late Herman Cohen, the film's producer, stated none to kindly that "Barbara Payton was a gorgeous gal, (and) she was a fun person. She liked to laugh…and she was a little crazy. (You might say) she was a whore who got lucky."
In July 1951, Franchot Tone was in New York City on business when Payton attended a Hollywood pool party at the Sunset Plaza Hotel and met Tom Neal, a hard drinking, unemployed, cowboy actor who had starred some years before in the renowned film noir classic Detour. Legend has it that Barbara spotted the 37-year old Neal on the high-diving board (sporting an impressively muscular build in a tight pair of bathing briefs) and later uttered a statement to the press that was not only unintentionally comical but also a keen example of her flighty romanticism: "Honey, I took just one look at him and I absolutely flipped!" she gushed. "It was love at first sight. He looked so wonderful in his trunks, I knew he was the only man in my life!" The sexually predatory Payton evidently met her male counterpart that day in the macho Neal, and the couple dove headfirst into an affair. The actor's son (Tom Neal Jr.) reveals that his father was "...intrigued by the way Barbara acted and thought like a man. She was extremely aggressive and went after what she wanted, with absolutely no fear whatsoever. Dad said she loved playing games with men and could never get enough attention. She apparently drove the men in her life nuts and took great pride in her lovemaking skills. My father told me once that Barbara was like 'an alley cat in heat' and was always ready, willing and able to have sex at any time, anywhere..." Although engaged to Tone, Payton proposed marriage to Neal and invited him to move into her lavish duplex apartment (for which Tone was paying the rent). Her neighbors later told the press that they often saw a shirtless Neal working out with barbells on Payton's patio, while she lay nearby, drinking champagne and sunbathing in the nude. When Tone returned to Los Angeles that August, Payton did an about-face and tossed Neal aside for her wealthier fiancé.
No less than half-a-dozen engagements to both Tone and Neal — sometimes taking place concurrently -- followed over the next several weeks. Driven by too much booze and her active libido, Payton devoted more and more of her time and energy into pitting her two boyfriends against each other. She announced plans to marry Neal in Las Vegas on Sept. 14, 1951, but on the eve of their wedding, dumped him for an afternoon tryst with Tone at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Upon their return to Payton's apartment after a night of bar-hopping, the triangle finally exploded when an enraged Neal assaulted Tone on Payton's patio, leaving the older actor comatose for 18 hours and hospitalized with severe head injuries. During the melee that made international headlines, Payton sustained a black eye. A series of bizarre news stories followed, detailing everything from Payton's climbing the hospital's outside fire escape to visit her battered boyfriend, to her bringing him shakers of ice-cold martinis, "...to help soothe his nerves."
In the staid societal climate engendered by the McCarthy witch-hunts, Payton's freewheeling lifestyle shocked America's bourgeois sensibilities. The press responded by crucifying her in print. Soon after the row irate WB president Jack L. Warner invoked the dicta found in the morals clause of Payton's film contract and immediately dropped her from the studio's roster. A.C. Lyles remembers Payton telling him, "I know I'm getting bad publicity, A.C., but I couldn't care less. I'm havin' so much fun!" Though she and Tone wed after his release from the hospital, the marriage was an alcohol-fueled nightmare that ran aground in just 53 days when Payton walked out on him and returned to Neal.
A highly-publicized reconciliation several weeks later at the Warwick Hotel in New York City ended disastrously following a fiery argument in which Tone reportedly discovered Payton talking to Neal on the telephone, and responded by throwing Payton's jewelry box out the 15th floor window of their hotel suite. The high-pitched drama continued with Payton swinging the phone at her husband's head, nearly hitting him, and then locking herself in the bedroom where she swallowed a handful of Seconal. Her bungled attempt at suicide was resolved in an extremely messy fashion with an emetic administered by the hotel doctor. The circus-like atmosphere surrounding his marriage to "Hollywood's Hell-Raising Hussy" finally convinced Tone that he had had enough. He divorced Payton in July 1952, using some sensational photographs taken by a Hollywood private detective to prove his allegations of infidelity. The photos, shot through the transom of a Sunset Strip motel room, showed Payton (naked but for a black garter belt and beads) engaging in oral sex with Neal. Incensed and vengeful over this latest betrayal, Tone made dozens of duplicates of the shots and then distributed them around Hollywood in sealed, unmarked envelopes, hoping the sexually explicit images would destroy Payton's chances of getting any future film work. The Tone/Payton divorce trial found Payton once again being paid off to disappear, much like she was in the Bob Hope affair. She reportedly received a "cash consideration that was satisfactory" in the settlement, and subsequently moved into a beautiful, 15-room mansion (with servants) in Beverly Hills.
Now objects of intense ridicule, Payton and Neal high-tailed it out of town and traveled to England, where she had star billing in the B-films Bad Blonde (a dismal melodrama that found Payton camping it up as a sex-crazed murderess) and the Terence Fisher-directed sci-fi yawn, Four-Sided Triangle. Neither film furthered her standing in the business. After five months abroad, Payton and Neal returned to Hollywood in December, with Payton sporting a faux British accent, "…so thick, the Duke of Windsor might have envied it," as acid-tongued gossip maven Sheilah Graham reported in her column. In her newly acquired -- and soon to be cast aside -- British accent, Payton formally announced that Neal had taken over the management of her career, and vowed that she would only be accepting "really strong film roles." Later that month, Payton capitulated on that pledge by donning a cave girl outfit to co-star with Sonny Tufts -- another alcohol-sodden performer on a career slide -- in a ridiculous comedy entitled Run for the Hills (Jack Broder Productions). Directed in broad slapstick style by B-movie war-horse Lew Landers (The Raven, The Return of the Vampire), the film's banal plot concerns an insurance actuary's paranoia over what he believes to be an impending nuclear holocaust, and his attempts to escape it by moving into a desert mine with his wife. Peppered with walk-ons from several lower-rung, if dependable, performers such as Jean Willes, Richard Benedict, and Byron Foulger, Run for the Hills had the look and ambiance of a Three-Stooges short, minus the charm and the energy. A tired, old vaudeville sketch in search of an audience, the new release went the way of Payton's two previous films: straight to the bottom-half of double bills across the country.
Neal and Payton, both appearing wrecked and dissipated from too many late nights carousing on Sunset Strip, wound up next at Lippert Studios, where they acted in a dreary, bottom-of-the-barrel western, The Great Jessie James Raid. (Payton, her tumid body packed into a tight vest and jeans, had the part of a tough, buxom, saloon singer). In June of '53, the couple toured in a quickly slapped together summer stock production of The Postman Always Rings Twice. During the play's opening-night performance at the Drury Lane Theater in Chicago, Payton allegedly went on stage blitzed, and passed out in Neal's arms. Revived moments later only to collapse again, she was finally carried offstage and taken to a local hospital for observation. The duo finished the tour in a series of dead-end, backwater towns — where rumors floated that Neal was physically beating Payton — and in late 1953, their sadomasochistic relationship finally dissolved in a storm of booze and violence. (In the mid 1960s, Neal was accused and convicted of shooting his third wife to death in a jealous rage, and spent seven years in a California prison).
In the wake of her well-publicized split with Neal, Payton hit the town fast...and hard. During this time, she dyed the front half of her platinum blonde hair a flaming red, drew bizarre-looking tattoos on her face, and became a nightly barstool fixture at such top local spots as Chasen's, LaRue's, and the Cock and Bull Bar. Bedecked in her finest jewelry and furs, Payton was always friendly, frequently drunk, and reportedly seldom — if ever—went home alone. Veteran celebrity interviewer Skip E. Lowe says, "By this time, she was pretty much 'damaged goods.' She had gotten into really wild behavior... (like) picking up strange guys in gas stations and in two-bit lounges up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. She frequently stayed at the Garden of Allah on Sunset, and there were rumors that she was propositioning the young bellboys at the hotel and taking them back to her bungalow." Payton's libertine lifestyle was hot copy, and local journalists began referring to her in the gossip columns as "Glitterville's Top Tramp" — that is, when not running blind items on her more sensational escapades. She was still maintaining a high profile on the Hollywood party circuit and was dating celebrities — married and unmarried, openly and secretly — in a somewhat frantic display of activity. While vacationing in Las Vegas, she bedded hotel lifeguard (and soon-to-be movie Tarzan) Gordon Scott. A 6'3" Adonis with 19" biceps and curly hair, Scott was ripe for the picking. He later recalled "...an exciting roll-in-the-hay. Barbara hadn't gone completely around the bend yet...she still 'had it'. She was hot."
Payton was delighted when one of her suitors, a well-known film star, bought her a new, $6,000 Cadillac convertible for "services rendered." "The second time he came back, I asked him what he was going to give me this time", she later wrote. "He got mad at me and I never spoke to him again. Enough of memories. They hurt." Payton, no longer particular in her choice of companions, went from stuntman to bit player to gigolo, generously bestowing her favors on all. Carrying on with punks and riffraff as often as she was with Hollywood celebrities, she was cutting a mile-wide swath through a town that was using her up even quicker than she was using it.
Payton's name once again made outrageous front page headlines in May 1954 when it was alleged that she gave two of her fur coats (valued at over $12,000) to the owner of a downtown Los Angeles tavern — in exchange for the dismissal of a $200 bar tab she owed! Legendary cinematic bad girl and genre film icon Yvette Vickers recalls the only time she met Payton in the summer of 1954. "I was 18 and dating Norman Levin, who was then the CEO of Thrifty Drugs (the well-known drug store chain at whose Sunset Boulevard location Payton's unconscious body would later be found)," recalls Vickers. "He and I were dining at this nice restaurant in town when Barbara came in alone and sat at the bar. Norman knew Barbara and introduced us. I can't begin to tell you just how stunning she looked that night. Barbara Payton was, without question, one of the most gorgeous women I've ever seen! She also seemed like a very warm, friendly person, but sort of preoccupied...and sad. Soon after Barbara arrived, a man came in and sat down next to her, and after about five minutes, they left together. I remember Norman telling me that the man was a well-known drug dealer in Hollywood and that he had heard from quite a few people in town that Barbara was using heroin and that this guy was her supplier. I was absolutely shocked."
Payton's substance abuse had started several years earlier, in the late '40s, when she was the main squeeze of L.A. dope pusher Don Cougar, and a frequent escort of playboy-turned-junkie Stanley Adams. From smoking pot to popping speed (which she used almost daily to keep her weight down), to her constant use of sleeping pills, and now, to shooting heroin, Payton had traveled down that long, winding road 1950's junkies called, "the route." However, as Vickers notes, Payton's stunning looks had yet to wane. "I can't understand it...Barbara was still very beautiful. It's just mind-boggling to me that despite looking so gorgeous and healthy, she was actually using heroin! But, in a way, I suppose it makes perfect sense. The town had completely turned its back on her by then, and that had to have made her very depressed. What happened to Barbara is just so sad."
The following year, Payton's final motion picture was released, an underrated film noir entitled Murder Is My Beat, directed by cult movie maverick Edgar G. Ulmer. Payton played a jaded nightclub singer and convicted killer who joins forces with a hard-boiled cop (played by Paul Langton) to try to prove her innocence. Though Payton's performance was convincing, the film was not a success. That same year, she took a new lover — a black man from the other side of town who made his presence known to her neighbors by roaring through the grounds of her sumptuous Beverly Hills estate on a motorcycle. Payton continued thumbing her nose at convention by moving him into her home and orchestrating the couple's splashy arrivals at several Hollywood parties. Her reckless flaunting of their biracial relationship aroused the industry's fury, making her persona non grata once and for all.
Carlo Fiore, a struggling L.A. screenwriter (and recovering heroin addict), was renting a studio apartment in Payton's pool house at the time, and, in his 1974 memoir of his close friendship with Marlon Brando, entitled Bud: The Brando I Knew, he recalls "...riding down Sunset Boulevard in Barbara Payton's red Cadillac convertible with her and her friend, a Las Vegas showgirl named Mickey...two gorgeous lookin' broads." In the book, Fiore, a onetime actor, tells of wandering over to the main house one day and inadvertently seeing his landlady and her new boyfriend making love on the living room floor. He also claims that Payton once propositioned him during the time he lived there, by appearing unexpectedly in his apartment at 2 a.m. and suggesting her "specialty." He writes, "Apparently she was interested only in oral sex. There was something off-center about this girl — not sexually, but in some strange fashion she seemed to drive men insane." Fiore maintains that Marlon Brando visited him often at Payton's home during this time and says that he and Payton watched the Academy Awards on her television the night Brando won the Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. In conclusion, Fiore laments the day when he was forced to leave the estate after only a few months, "...when Barbara's finances suddenly collapsed."
Later that year, Payton lost her Beverly Hills mansion under a mountain of unpaid bills, and was arrested that October for passing bad checks at Hollywood's Liquor Locker in order to buy booze. Newspapers reported that, "A messy and double-chinned Payton was at least 40 lbs. overweight and wearing skin-tight black toreador pants and a bulging blouse when she was carted off to the police station to be booked." Once there, she "mugged" for news photographers, laughing and kidding around as if the arrest were a huge joke to her. She appeared drugged at her trial and snickered when she was fined $100 and given a 60-day suspended jail sentence after pleading indigence. In 1956, a female gossip columnist named Virginia MacPherson— a woman who hated Payton — staged a campaign to destroy what little was left of her reputation by exposing many of the actress's character flaws in a series of scathing columns. The negative publicity that followed brought Payton's ex-husband John Payton out of the woodwork with an accusation that she had been neglecting their 8-year old son (who had been living with her since the early part of the decade). Among Capt. Payton's long list of complaints was that his ex-wife had routinely exposed the boy to "profane language, immoral conduct, notoriety, unwholesome activities and no moral education." An ugly, courtroom custody battle for John Jr. followed, with the judge blasting Payton as "...an unfit mother, not to mention a thoroughly confused and misguided young woman."
Her name continued its rapid slide into the gutter when she lost custody of her son and was granted rights of monitored visitation only. Now 29, Payton took off for Mexico with an unidentified male companion, where they spent the next several weeks as guests at the plush Playa de Cortes Hotel in Guaymas. When Barbara's suitor decided to return to the States, she stayed behind and promptly met her next husband, George Anthony Provas, at the hotel's pool. The 23-year old Provas, the manager of a local sport-fishing business, was instantly smitten. "We spent the next couple months walking on the beach, fishing for marlin and sailfish, and partying at night," he said. "And of course, making love every chance we got. Without question, Barbara was the most beautiful girl I ever saw."
The couple was married in Nogales, Ariz., and lived for a time in the tiny coastal village of Kino Bay, an enclave of tin-roof cannery shacks on the Gulf of California. "Barbara was happy at first," recalls Provas, "but then we both started drinking way too much and everything went to hell in a hand basket." While Provas struggled to keep his business going in Kino Bay with a ragged fleet of sport-fishing cruisers, Payton got suntanned and bummed around the village...a barefoot bohemian in a bikini top and blue jeans. Spiritually strapped and drowning in rotgut whiskey, Payton and Provas began arguing — each blaming the other for their mounting misfortunes. "In retrospect, I should have tried harder, not given up on her so quickly," Provas says. "But in those days I was young and unworldly. I didn't understand Barbara's illness...or my own. I eventually stopped drinking, but of course, Barbara never did. After we split up, her life became a total shambles."
In 1958, Payton left Kino Bay and Provas, moving to Palm Springs with the hopes of landing herself "a big one". Bob Lippert Jr. remembers seeing her one evening, sitting at the bar at the Palm Springs Riviera Hotel. Old friends from her days at Lippert Pictures, Payton and her former boss spoke only briefly. "It was obvious to me she wasn't there to socialize," said Lippert. "Barbara looked terrible — very coarse and haggard and heavily made-up. I looked at her hands, and there was dirt under her fingernails. I remember thinking, 'What happened to this girl?' Later that night, the bartender told me that Barbara was working out of the hotel bar as a $100-a-night hooker." Shaking his head in disbelief, Lippert added, "Barbara blew it. She had everything going for her, the world at her feet...and she blew it."
Barbara's stay at the Palm Springs Riviera was short-lived, as her hard and puffy appearance prevented her from obtaining much trade in a town overflowing with beautiful women. Once hotel management heard about her tax-free business venture, she was promptly booted off the property.
Like the proverbial phoenix, Barbara rose from the ashes of her latest disaster and hitched a ride north on the hot, desert winds. A modern-day prairie harlot wandering the Wild West, she touched down again in Nevada, seeking solace for a while in the dusty gambling town of Searchlight, located several miles outside Las Vegas near the California border. Barbara dated a gambler with mob ties (a man she demurely refers to in her autobiography as "Dick Fortune"). In order to survive, she again turned tricks — though this time not in the lush environment of the Palm Springs Riviera, but in a tiny, furnished apartment over a casino. For Payton, it was a long way from Beverly Hills to what surely seemed the loneliest spot on earth. Searchlight and "Dick Fortune" ultimately proved to be little more than momentary blurs on Payton's twisted road map of memories. Within months, she was back on the road — with Hollywood, again, her destination.
In August 1958, at 31, a revitalized Payton reappeared in town and called a press conference to announce her divorce from Tony Provas, and to put the word out that she was officially resuming her acting career. Tanned, thin, and looking stylish in a tailored suit, she had managed somehow to pull herself together to face the openly hostile reporters. Sitting on a tiny table with her skirt hiked-up, she handily dodged their more acerbic barbs and pushed the cheesecake quotient for all it was worth. When asked by one newsman what had brought her back to Hollywood, her response was fatuous, at best. To a round of derisive and rib-poking laughter, Payton waved her movie-star sunglasses, crossed her legs and declared, "The ants in my pants were crawlin' again!"
Unfortunately, Payton's plans for a film comeback died aborning. Unable to find work, and with her pride shattered, she took a series of low-paying jobs — working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy strip joint, then as a shampoo girl in a West Hollywood beauty shop, even pumping gas for a while on Hollywood Boulevard. Frustrated that she had been barred from making the comeback she had hoped for, Payton quickly upped her alcohol intake, gained back the weight she lost, and watched her beauty disappear...this time for good. Tailored suits and bikinis soon gave way to filthy caftans and dressing gowns she left on for days. Finally rendered unemployable — and destitute — due to her alcoholism, she at last gave-up the fight and descended on the streets of Hollywood.
By 1960, the 32-year-old Payton found herself hopelessly adrift in an after midnight world of seedy dives and back street bars, living in filthy, flea-bitten motel rooms overlooking asphalt courtyards in downtown L.A. With her platinum-blonde hair bleached whiter, and her lips and fingernails painted the color of blood crimson, a bloated Payton was often seen driving up and down the Sunset Strip in her rusted, red convertible, cruising for "dates." The woman who once earned $10,000 a week as a bona fide Hollywood movie star, was still in Hollywood, dispensing crude, curbside sex. Her asking price fell from $100, to $50…and finally to $5 a trick in cars parked with their motors running.
On Feb. 7, 1962, Payton was busted for prostitution when she approached an undercover cop in a bar on Sunset Boulevard and invited him to her apartment for sex. Reporters from the L.A. Times were waiting to photograph her arrival at the police station, and the rather startling images they caught that night show a life completely out-of-control. Clad in a secondhand mink coat, and with her sad, doe eyes resembling those of a hunted animal that had been cornered, Payton appears drawn, distraught and "spaced-out."
Payton, 34, resurfaced in the headlines that summer with her complaint that she had been beaten and raped in a vacant lot by a gang of teenage thugs. Accompanied by her witness, a middle-aged man in a bolo tie whom the police report described as, "a diaper distributor and companion of the victim," a heavyset Payton arrived at the Windsor Hills police station, reeking of booze and wearing only a bathing suit, a sweater and a pair of gold slippers. She was reportedly covered with bruises and human bite marks, and was missing several front teeth. No arrests were ever made in the attack the newspapers would only call "a mystery beating." The next day, her name made the papers again when she was found passed-out on a bus stop bench on Sunset Boulevard. Barefoot, and in the same white bathing suit, she was, according to news accounts, "incoherent and in an agitated state when awakened" and was arrested for public drunkenness. Incredibly, another arrest followed a week later when she threw a wild, afternoon party in her apartment — while naked — and tussled with two police officers when they showed up to investigate. She was charged with drunk and disorderly conduct and was later released on $21 bail.
In keeping with her ongoing flirtation with catastrophe, things got even worse in the fall of 1962 when Payton was knifed by one of her johns and received 38 stitches for the stab wound. ("Thirty-eight stitches from my fleshy belly down," is how she put it). Her observations were downright chilling in their apathy. "It isn't very clear to me, but I think it happened in a cinder block shanty, somewhere in the Valley... Some filthy drunk got mad at me when I wouldn't do 'what he wanted.' Guess I gotta be more careful in the future." After news of the incident spread through Hollywood, a paperback publisher named Leo Guild tracked Barbara down to audiotape her memoirs for a book project. Unfortunately, the resulting "autobiography", titled I Am Not Ashamed, was a muddled and untruthful piece of junk that did little to counteract Payton's emotional and financial troubles. The book was published in 1963 to minimal public reception, but did receive some criticism from industry observers, many of whom had little sympathy for a life they believed Payton had actively chosen. Following a brief blast of noise, it sank without a trace.
Payton soon moved into what proved to be one of the worst of her latter-day Hollywood addresses. Her new home was the shabby Wilcox Hotel, a monument to ruined lives on the corner of Yucca and Wilcox — an area of town described cryptically by underground film maker Nick Bougas as "...the seediest spot in the universe." A foreboding and desolate block of burned-out and boarded-up buildings, it is the same Skid Row section of Hollywood where infamous, cross-dressing film director Ed Wood and former "Little Rascal"-turned-junkie Matthew "Stymie" Beard lived at the tail-end of their lives. Bougas, well known on the West Coast for his series of graphic crime and scandal documentaries, describes the area as being akin to the kind of wasteland left standing after an atomic war. "It's where (elderly actor) Victor Killian was chased down and beaten to death by junkies for his television set," he remembers. "And in that very same area, two hookers were found beheaded at the Motel 6. That area of Hollywood is the absolute bottom of the barrel. Wilcox and Yucca. YUCCA is right! Poor Barbara!"
While living at the Wilcox Hotel, Payton began a brief affair with a down-and-out TV character actor named John Rayborn, an ex-Marine sergeant who earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained while fighting the Japanese on the island of Saipan during World War II. The Chicago-bred Rayborn had amassed over 300 television credits during the fledgling medium's golden years in the 50's, but by the early 1960's had fallen on hard times. "I was a drunk," he says now. "A lying, thieving, no-good son of a bitch, hooked on cheap cigarettes and 151 rum. For several months, Barbara and I holed up in that godforsaken Wilcox dump where we drank all day, screwed, wrote poems and talked about religion. I laid around on my ass like a bum while she turned tricks to support us. I remember the room smelling like booze, dirty bodies and even dirtier sex. Real nice life, huh?"
Many midnights later, an unflinchingly candid Rayborn recalls, "Barbara thought she deserved everything bad that had happened to her in her life. She believed all those things the papers had always said about her — that she was this wicked, evil woman — and she wanted to punish herself. By then, it was all about her carrying on in a sleazy and demeaning way in order to reinforce her feelings of self-hatred. And she seemed desperate for attention...any kind of attention (good or bad), just as long as people noticed her. I can remember her sometimes standing at the window of our room and pulling off her top to display her breasts to all the people down on the street. And we'd both laugh about it! I mean, is that pitiful, or what? Barbara once told me that Hollywood had used her all up, and then when it was all finished with her, threw her out to the curb, 'like yesterday's trash.' You know, over the years there have been a lot of bad things that have been said about Barbara Payton — and granted, she often showed a terrible lack of judgment, but I think it's important to let people know that she was an extremely intelligent person who just gave up. Barbara had a lot of problems and was quite cynical by the time she came into my life, but she had a good heart [pauses]... I loved her."
Rayborn's short-lived affair with Payton was obviously doomed from the start and he eventually left her behind at the Wilcox Hotel and found a far better life, away from show business and Hollywood. (He has been in recovery from his alcoholism since 1976.) "To this day, what happened to Barbara still haunts me," he says, ruefully. "I remember her telling me once, 'My life is so messed up and I don't know what to do...' How I wish now that I could have helped her."
This photo of Barbara Payton was taken on Sunset Boulevard two or three years before her death.
Following the end of her association with Rayborn, Payton continued her journey through a kind of twilight world that with each passing day grew ever darker and more surreal. Finding herself firmly entrenched in a bone yard of boulevard psychos and derelicts, Barbara watched an endless stream of bodies cut a path to her bed in a gray, faceless parade. A human receptacle for the worst kind of sexual acts imaginable, she handled it by drinking non-stop until she was nearly comatose. The nightmare continued when she was picked up for shoplifting an outfit from a clothing store, and arrested again for prostitution. Then, in 1965, 38-year old Payton turned a dark corner in her ever-present downward spiral when she was jailed on drug charges. Clad only in a men's pajama top, she was seen stumbling down a hallway at The Hollywood-Palms Motel and was later busted by an LAPD Sheriff's detective when he found drug paraphernalia in her room. Swearing profusely and appearing totally out-of-it, Payton was charged with possession of heroin and a hypodermic syringe.
Retired Lt. Joe Lesnick recalls the sad, tormented woman "...looking very bad. That place she was staying at was a real rat trap, the worst in 20 miles. And, Barbara, she was just a wreck...She was missing a lot of teeth and had numerous open sores all over her face and hands, both telltale signs of heroin abuse. Let me tell you...I was in the 'pool' a long time and I saw a lot of things, but I don't remember ever seeing anyone sink as low as Barbara Payton did." Due to 'insufficient evidence' and some swift legal maneuvering, the heroin possession charges against Payton later mysteriously disappeared in a morass of red tape, allowing her to resume her unwavering march toward disaster.
Payton now spent most afternoons cloaked in darkness, nestled in a corner nook at the Coach and Horses Bar. A solitary figure hunched over a shot glass, she sat in the shadows beneath the bar's blackout drapes, and drank herself into oblivion. The bartender's son, author Robert Polito, remembers well the lonely woman in the oversized muumuus, and describes her pitiful and shocking physical appearance in the book O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors [Barbara Payton: A Memoir]: "Barbara's face displayed a perpetual sunburn, (with) a map of veins by her nose. Her feet were very swollen and she carried an old man's potbelly that sloshed faintly when she moved. She must have weighed 200 pounds." Clinging to the barest fragments of her Catholic faith, Payton kept a tiny statue of St. Jude in the pocket of her housedress and would often take it out and talk to it — laughing one minute, and crying the next.
Amazingly, though completely addled by her daily intake of booze and drugs, Payton still harbored dreams of returning to her glory days. Those who saw her hitchhiking on Sunset Boulevard in the mid 1960s recall a woman consumed by an incongruous mix of bitterness, naiveté and hope. It was almost as if she had wrapped herself in a protective blanket of self-delusion, one that precluded any chance for honest introspection or recovery. Former burlesque entertainer Skip E. Lowe frequently spotted her panhandling in town during this time and would sometimes stop to talk to her. He remembers a venomous anger in her that was tempered by a heartbreaking plea for reassurance. "Barbara blamed Hollywood for everything that had happened to her, and was pissed off that she had been forgotten," Lowe says. "And yet, despite this, she seriously believed she could be a star again and was constantly asking for advice on how she could 'make it back to the top'!" As her former attorney, Milton Golden, once asserted, "To those who have basked in fame, anonymity must seem a form of slow death."
When Payton was found unconscious in the parking lot of Thrifty's Drug Store in February 1967, she had been living on the streets for several weeks, languishing in the wreckage of her destroyed life. After it was determined by the LAPD that there had been no foul play involved in the incident, and that Payton's bloody face and bruises had resulted from her hitting the pavement beneath the garbage dumpster after an all-night bout of drinking, she was admitted, as an indigent, to the charity ward at LA County General Hospital. Filthy and with her stomach badly distended from her failing liver, she was diagnosed as suffering from "chronic alcoholic psychosis, malnutrition and over-exposure to the elements." Following her hospitalization, Payton was taken by a county social worker to her parents' home in the beautiful Mission Hills section of San Diego.
Unfortunately, Flip and Mabel Redfield had long battled their own problems with alcohol abuse and thus felt helpless against the sheer magnitude of their daughter's rapidly deteriorating condition. As a result, upon her arrival at their home, Payton's self-destruction continued unabated, helped along by her parents' willingness to get drunk with her. A man named Lee Wiseman, whose mother lived next door to the Redfields, remembers not only that Payton's parents were unemployed and living off their savings when she came to live with them, but also that the trio seemed to be on a constant bender. Wiseman recalls that it was clearly obvious that in addition to her physical disintegration, Payton's mental health had been grievously affected by the many years of unrelenting self-abuse. At once, paranoid, combative — and completely despondent, Barbara's addictions had exacted a bitter toll on her state of mind. While in her parents dubious care and with no restraints in place, her drinking soon accelerated to the point where she was drunk from morning to night.
On April 25th, Payton was involved in an automobile accident when she hit a parked car at the corner of Fort Stockton Drive and Stephens Road, just a few blocks from the Redfield's home. The San Diego Police Department traffic investigation report noted that she was neither unharmed in the 3:15 p.m. crash — nor charged with drunk driving.
Thirteen days later her end would come. According to the San Diego County Coroner's report, Barbara had been sleeping on the living room couch for several hours when she awoke at 1:50 p.m. and complained to her parents that she wasn't feeling well. Sensing that there was something terribly wrong going on inside of her body, she staggered to the bathroom, and was soon heard moaning in absolute agony. Her mother found her slumped over the toilet. By the time an ambulance and the San Diego police arrived at the Redfield's Titus Street home, Payton's long, circuitous journey had ended violently with her painful death from heart and liver failure.
It was two days before the authorities realized who the deceased was — or had once been — due to her bloated and gruesome appearance. Although she died six months shy of her 40th birthday, one officer noted that, in death, "Barbara Payton looked like a woman 20 years older than her reported age." Her 20-year old son, John, whom Payton had seen infrequently over the years, was serving in the Vietnam War at the time of his mother's death. Her death was tactfully reported in her back-page obituary that she had died from natural causes.
No show business tragedy more than Barbara Payton's illustrates with greater force the unforgiving wrath 'Old' Hollywood inflicted on those who challenged its cast-in-stone, unwritten code of behavior. Once she came up against the industry's top guns and revealed herself to be a rather ballsy and irreverent woman whose unconventional lifestyle held little regard for the social norms of the day, she was blackballed for life. By the 1960s, when she desperately needed help for her addictions — and salvation from her miserable existence — there would be no help forthcoming from anyone in Hollywood.
John O'Dowd is the author of the Barbara Payton biography, entitled: "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story," which contains over 250 photos of the actress. It was published in December 2005 by BearManor Media. Payton's life story is also the subject of a theatrical feature film currently in development in Los Angeles. O'Dowd's e-mail address is: Jod6cindy@aol.com.