This year I am dedicating myself to reading (and rereading) books from my collection of over 900 volumes. I thought I would start with John O’Dowd’s biography on Barbara Payton, the only biography on the troubled blonde starlet. You may remember my previous article on O’Dowd’s second book, which was deemed one of my best books from 2019.
“She was a pig’s ear Cagney had the hots for, and everyone tried to turn her into silk. She was a pig with a pig’s attitude about life.”– Unknown Producer, p. 492
It’s well known that O’Dowd loves his subject matter, and that’s evident in producing a book that’s over 600 pages on Payton. O’Dowd interviewed everyone under the sun who could claim even the slightest connection to Payton (more on that in a bit) to produce a voluminous tome dedicated to covering every facet of her life. Some parts are simply never going to be filled in, and no one can hold that against the author. However, it does get a bit tedious to double check the notes and see a story is unlikely or that there’s no documented proof. I believe O’Dowd’s book is in need of a bit of a sifting to get some of the untrustworthy accolades out; however, I also understand their inclusion when people with positive memories even years after her death were sparse in addition to trying to fill in periods where her whereabouts were unknown. Very few people seemed, even nearly 50 years after her death, willing to acknowledge that she’d been in their lives in any capacity, and the few that did produce some questionable stories.
I will give O’Dowd credit on not blatantly leading readers. This happened often in fan biographies. O’Dowd simply throws everything at you, and your conclusions are your own. For me, I feel a mixture of sympathy and disgust with Payton. Yes, she got used and abused by people around her which robbed her of both her sobriety and mental health; however, she also doesn’t seem to have ever held any empathy or gratitude for those that aided her either. Instead, she seems to have looked at life as her buffet, and she simply gorged until it killed her. Barbara Payton was never going to become a movie star and stay at the top. It wasn’t in her DNA.
Raised by alcoholic parents, the devoted Mable and distant Lee, Payton and her brother, Frank, simply had to fend for themselves. At a young age, Payton discovered sex as currency, and wasn’t afraid to give herself in exchange for something she wanted or as a toke of gratitude. Payton herself admits to being sexually abused by a friend’s father in a bathtub in her memoir I Am Not Ashamed. O’Dowd builds on this abuse even further, playing around with the possibility that Lee sexually abused his daughter as well. I do know out of respect for Payton that O’Dowd does withhold certain things from his books (such as pictures of her performing oral sex taken in the early 50s), so I don’t know if there’s information he’s chosen not to share in the book; however, I don’t personally feel the case was made for Lee committing an unthinkable act on his only daughter. What seems more likely to me is that he witnessed her burgeoning sexuality from a young age, possibly got wind of her trading her body for things, and simply mentally checked out from raising her, becoming more distant and bitter with each passing year until getting to a point where they could hardly communicate without fighting. Lee seems to have physically and emotionally abused his daughter. This caused her to develop an overreliance on those she viewed as more powerful than her and giving into their whims without question in an effort to please.
Payton’s small film career was heavily dominated by her personal life, culminating in actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal getting into a physical altercation at Payton’s apartment over her affection in 1951. The fight ended with Tone in a coma for 18 hours, a shattered cheekbone, and a broken nose. At this point in her life, Payton’s sexual freedom was well-known around Hollywood, and studios weren’t looking to cash-in on the blonde beauty; however, papers were more than happy to cover her tumultuous love life. Likely in an effort to salvage her career and protect Neal from prosecution, Payton married Tone, only to run back to Neal’s arms within weeks of the wedding. The back-and-forth antics became too much for Tone, who tricked and blackmailed Payton into a divorce without a major settlement in 1952 (read the book for the whole saga).
By 1953, Payton’s career was firmly going downhill. Originally working for $10,000/week through a joint partnership with William Cagney Productions and Warner Bros., Payton found herself dropped by the studio and eventually Neal (who she’d lived with, unmarried, openly since 1951). She did find work in some B-movies made in the U.K. and U.S.; however, even these cheap studios began to look at Payton as more trouble than she was worth, with her last film being 1955’s Murder is My Beat. I’m not going to go as far as to say that Payton wasn’t a talented actress; however, I can see why her studios weren’t bending over backwards to work with her. Payton’s face was her selling point, and when she began to put on weight and drink to excess, her figure and face quickly showed the wear-and-tear. Payton would go on to become a high-price sex worker before marrying for a fourth time in 1957 in Mexico.
However, the Payton saga doesn’t end there, and O’Dowd delivers her downfall to her death at 39 over the course of a couple hundred pages. Payton simply could not get the acting bug out of her body, and she believed up until a few months before her death that a grand return was right around the corner. Unfortunately, she ended up turning to street walking, becoming a $5 hooker willing to do anything to feed her alcohol and (supposed) heroin addiction. This led to an assortment of arrests through the years, with each confirmed booking making the headlines, and numerous beatings from unsavory tricks.
In 1963, writer Leo Guild approached Payton about her life story, offering her $2,000 for more information on her rise and downfall. Payton took Guild up on the offer, detailing her life through recordings for several days. The resulting book, I Am Not Ashamed, died at the bookstands, with very few people wanting to read about an actress whose heyday was over a decade before publication. O’Dowd shares family members’ claims about the book’s accuracy while also giving credence to some of it. I have to agree with O’Dowd that the book is likely a hodgepodge of quotes and stories from Payton mixed with Guild’s fantasies (he later found himself in hot water over Hedy Lamarr’s book which he’d ghostwritten). Regardless, O’Dowd does seem to recommend reading the Payton/Gould book, and I think readers should too.
Eventually, Payton’s life became too much of a shit show, and she had to go live with her parents in San Diego in 1967. Her distant father took precautions to get Barbara on the right track, banning her from drinking alcohol and preventing a local liquor store from delivering to the home. It was all too little, too late for Barbara, who passed away after using the bathroom, her mom cradling her head next to the toilet. She was 39-years-old but looked at least 50.
O’Dowd doesn’t leave any stone unturned, presenting everything he could on Payton. Her life story is both traumatic and heartbreaking, but it’s a worthy read to see how far addiction can pull someone. Alcohol and sex seem to have been Payton’s coping mechanism from a young age, and one killed her body while the other killed her soul.