In I Am Not Ashamed, the midcentury starlet recounted her heartbreaking descent into sex work and addiction.
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In 1963, Barbara Payton, former movie starlet and tabloid sensation, sat down with an opportunistic ghostwriter named Leo Guild to tell the story of her tortured life. “I always have a little too much wine in me, but you can bet your tootsies that every word is true,” she said. “I’m too old to bullshit the public.”
Her resulting autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, became a cult classic, legendary for its lurid depiction of 1950s Hollywood. Once Bob Hope’s mistress (a relationship that got her fired by Universal), Payton was infamous for her alleged flings with Gary Cooper, Guy Madison, Gregory Peck, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, John Ireland, George Raft, Marlon Brando, and Lloyd Bridges.
In between turning tricks for $5, she recounted her journey from the heights of fame—the Hollywood Press Association once named her “the most beautiful girl in pictures”—to becoming a drug-addicted sex worker. But as her biographer John O’Dowd notes in 2007’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, Payton was much more than she gave herself credit for. She was loving, gregarious, and generous; a voracious reader; an expert furniture maker, interior designer, and poet. But her demons—plus midcentury America’s misogyny and Hollywood’s patriarchal abuses—proved a toxic combination.
“I was torn between what was good for me and what I wanted,” she writes in I Am Not Ashamed. “They never seem to be the same thing.”
The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful
Born in 1927 to hardworking but alcoholic parents, Barbara was raised in Cloquet, Minnesota, and Odessa, Texas. A preternaturally beautiful child—whom her son John Lee believed to be the victim of sexual abuse, as O’Dowd wrote in his book about Payton—Payton recalled learning early that her looks could get her things she wanted. She writes about letting a boy fondle her in return for a ticket to see her movie idol, James Cagney, in person at a local theater; she also recounts a sexual encounter at the age of 15 with her friend’s father in a dry bathtub at a party.
Wild and rebellious, Payton had a difficult relationship with her own stern father, Lee. “I think the day my father realized I was a girl—a real, feminine girl—I was about 12 or 13—he became afraid of me,” she writes. Aware of her power over men and hell-bent on getting out of Odessa, she eloped with Air Force captain John Payton in 1945, at the age of 17. Perhaps surprisingly, her parents consented to the marriage. “I also think they felt it would take an Air Force Captain to keep me under control,” she writes wryly. “Even he couldn’t do it.”
When her husband asked where she wanted to honeymoon, Payton had one answer: Hollywood.
Once in Los Angeles, Payton quickly began booking modeling gigs. Her marriage fell apart shortly after the birth of her son, John Lee, and she threw herself into angling for acting jobs, networking through the Hollywood nightclub scene centered on the Sunset Strip.
Extraordinarily beautiful, fun-loving, and charming, Payton made an impact everywhere she went. As producer A.C. Lyles told O’Dowd, even hypercritical Joan Crawford was spellbound when they met at Ciro’s in the late 1940s:
Joan turned to me and said, “That is a very lovely, very sweet girl. Who is she? Where is she from? If her acting is as good as her looks, she is going to be big in this town!” Trust me, Joan Crawford rarely complimented another female…But she really thought Barbara was something else.
But like Crawford and thousands of starlets before her, Payton quickly learned that the road to fame was littered with casting couches and lecherous film executives. “I’ve got news for you baby—nobody’s civilized. You peel off a little skin and you got raw flesh,” she writes knowingly.
In I Am Not Ashamed, Payton recounts numerous casting-couch abuses and weaves fantastical tales in which she one-ups her abusers and blackmails a studio boss. She also admits to trading sexual favors to get auditions or parts, including her seduction of an unnamed female movie star:
She knew I wanted that part and she knew the price. I got the part and almost every lunch hour we made it in her dressing room. We were very discreet, and I doubt anyone had the slightest suspicion. They just thought we liked having lunch together. They should have known what we had for lunch!
But according to Payton, she used another tactic to score her biggest role: that of gangster moll Holiday Carleton in 1950’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, opposite her childhood hero James Cagney. “I heard Cagney Productions was looking for a blonde for something,” she writes. “Some madam told me this. I never questioned how in hell a madam plying her trade in Glendale would get such information, but that’s the way news gets around in Hollywood.”
Running late the day of her audition, a red-faced Barbara ran up the stairs to find a dozen other actresses waiting to audition—all cool, calm, and collected. Huffing and puffing, Payton decided to use her disheveled state to her advantage: “I went through the door into the casting director’s office, sat down on the couch, kicked off my shoes and fanned my legs with my dress and said ‘Shit! It’s a hot fucking day!’”
The Girl Can’t Help It
“In 1950…I was sitting on top of the world and going higher. My peculiar talents were worth $10,000 a week and I was in constant demand,” Payton recalls in I Am Not Ashamed. “Boy everyone wanted me. I know it sounds unbelievable but it’s true…Almost everything I did made headlines.…In other words I was the queen bee, the nuts and boiling hot.”
Nicknamed the “new queen of clubs” by a journalist, the hard-partying Payton was gaining a scandalous reputation as an actress and a sexpot. According to Payton, the “sensitive, hardworking” Gregory Peck, her costar (and reported bedmate) in 1951’s Only the Valiant, became so upset by her behavior that she was banned from her own set:
From the beginning something about me made him uneasy, uncomfortable. He couldn’t do his best work.…One day he said something to the assistant director. It was relayed to me in the kind of diplomatic language you get in Hollywood more than in Washington. What it amounted to was this: “When you are not in a scene would you please stay off set? Your presence upsets Mr. Peck.”
According to Payton, her presence also disturbed Frank Sinatra, then married to Ava Gardner:
I became good friends with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. We three were in Palm Springs together. We were drinking and laying around with not many clothes on and talking about things. Well, he didn’t approve of the way we were carrying on like that and one night he came in and caught us all together. Well, I jumped out the window and into the bushes, but he caught Lana and Ava together and was mad as hell…I was always in scrapes like that.
From the time he set eyes on her winning a Charleston contest at the Sunset Strip nightclub Mocambo, debonair movie star Franchot Tone was enraptured with Payton. His ex-wife Joan Crawford, now wise to Payton’s reputation, told him, according to O’Dowd, “If I were you, Mister, I’d leave that cheap little chippie alone. She has the morals of a common tart.”
But Tone paid no heed. The two were engaged in the fall of 1950. In I Am Not Ashamed, Payton praises the older, alcoholic Tone, whom she calls a “lovable, honest, irascible, masochistic man who loves beauty for beauty’s sake.”
Her cushy future as the wife of an A-lister was shattered when she met her true love, the violent, vain B-movie star Tom Neal. “He was a beautiful hunk of man. He had a chemical buzz for me that sent red peppers down my thighs,” she writes.
While Tone was working in New York, Payton moved her new flame into their home in Los Angeles. She broke up with Tone and became engaged to Neal. The love triangle exploded on September 14, 1951, after a night of heavy drinking, when Tone and Payton returned to the home they had shared to find a wasted Neal. Payton recalls:
Franchot tripped on one of Tom’s barbells and that did it. Not that it hurt his foot, but it was a steel reminder that Tom had been in my house. Then—atomic bombs! Franchot had to be crazy drunk to throw a punch at Neal. It was like throwing a pebble at an elephant. The elephant roared and speared Franchot to the wall with his tusks. Tom threw about ten fast punches and got him a free ride to the hospital.
Tone’s face was nearly destroyed; according to O’Dowd, he suffered a concussion, shattered cheekbone, fractured jaw, and broken nose. The fight was a tabloid sensation, and Payton (who had gotten a black eye in the fight) egged on paparazzi by appearing at the hospital every day in skintight dresses, giving flippant interviews and sneaking martinis to Tone in a thermos. Not to be outdone, Neal also gave countless ill-advised interviews.
“I didn’t do anything wrong like being named a Communist,” he told one publication, per O’Dowd. “I just fought for the woman I loved.”
The Slide Down
After Tone was released from the hospital, Payton married him, before reuniting with Neal. “When I married Franchot I thought it would be forever,” she recalls in I Am Not Ashamed. “Later when I divorced Franchot to live with Tom I thought that would be forever. But forever is just a weekend—more or less.”
By the end of 1953, Payton was done with both men—but her reputation was in tatters. Relentlessly lambasted by powerful gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, Payton’s last movie was 1955’s Murder Is My Beat.
Broke and constantly drinking, Payton lined up dates with power players she hoped could get her jobs, including an unnamed producer who had once been her boyfriend. According to her, the producer suggested that instead of getting her a small part, he could simply pay her cash for sex.
“We went to his place…I drank until I was stoned,” she recalls in I Am Not Ashamed. “Next day I found three hundred dollars in my purse. Transaction complete.”
Bouncing around the West and Mexico, Payton spent time as the mistress of a gangster she calls “Dick Fortune,” in the gambling town of Searchlight, Nevada. When she learned he was about to be busted, she slept with enough men to earn money for a return trip to L.A., where she called her producer friend. After they slept together, she noticed there was only $100 waiting for her. The next night she confronted him at Chasen’s, asking why he hadn’t given her the usual $300.
“It was a year ago that I gave you three hundred dollars. I don’t want to hurt you, but Barbara, you’ve lost a little since then,” he told her. “To me, you are worth about a hundred dollars.”
Humiliated, Payton realized the truth. “I had refused to look at myself as I was,” she writes. “Now I was being forced into it. I was a whore. I excused myself and went to the powder room where I cried in solitary. My attitude, I decided, should be—alright, I’m a whore and by god the men are going to pay dearly for me!”
Shadow on the Sunset Strip
“There’s a saying among the hip set in Hollywood that if the pressures don’t get you the habits will,” Payton says in I Am Not Ashamed. “I guess alcohol in different forms takes the biggest toll. Narcotics create problems. Pills of all kinds enter into it. Sex is a compulsive thing.…They are all habits, habits, habits. I know I’ve suffered from them all down the line. And I have a record of 100% failure, never having cured one habit in a lifetime.”
By the early 1960s, Payton had gone from a high-end sex worker in Chicago, entertaining johns with fellow former starlet Lila Leeds, to a heroin addict living in horrific conditions on Sunset Boulevard, less than a mile from the clubs she used to command. One former friend told O’Dowd about finding her walking in the rain on Sunset Boulevard, filthy and disheveled—bloated, her front teeth knocked out—but still with the bearing of a movie star.
According to O’Dowd, during the ’60s, Payton wrote poetry and spent many nights alone at the Coach and Horses, a dive bar on Sunset Boulevard. On the opposite end of the bar sat William Holden, still a superstar but also suffering from addiction. Payton still believed she had a shot in Hollywood; according to O’Dowd, a young Dennis Hopper once had a sexual encounter with her, and cruelly promised to try and get her a part. She was also spotted at Tom Neal’s trial for the murder of his wife in 1965—he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter—and haunting the crowds at film premieres.
In February 1967, Payton was found near a dumpster in the Thrifty Drug Store parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, passed out. Her liver failing, she was eventually sent home to her parents in San Diego, and died on May 8, 1967, at the age of 39. “How, or why, had I fallen?” she asked rhetorically years before. “What had happened? Yet, somehow, I wasn’t ashamed. It was in the cards. I played them as best I could.”
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