Barbara Payton's Short Life and Long Death in Hollywood
“City of Angels” implies a population not alive in the conventional sense. Barbara Payton, whose earthly sojourn ended in 1967 at age 39, is an Angel of Los Angeles. She may not fit the conventional seraphic image, but she has earned her title nonetheless. It’s February 1967. Above the seedy drugstore parking lot, a slate and pewter sky fades grudgingly toward dawn. Fog has condensed on a dumpster overflowing with soggy Valentine’s Day decorations; grimy water drools down its flank and drips onto the asphalt beside an inert form beneath a black plastic bag. Bruises and welts cover her arms and legs. A livid red worm of a scar, eight inches long, bisects her swollen belly. The fragile blonde hair shows two inches of dark roots matted with grime and blood, bitter truth reclaiming its terrain. The garbage men mistake the woman for a corpse, but this grim scene is merely another night on the town ending for Barbara Payton, once Hollywood’s fastest rising star; now and perhaps for always, its grimmest cautionary tale. Three months later, Payton finally succumbed to liver and heart failure, though many believe that her spirit had fled its battered shell years before. By the time she hit bottom, Payton, who had once earned $5,000 per week, was reduced to peddling her bedroom skills for $5 a trick in alleys and backseats. Stoned on cheap hooch, bloated and malnourished, victimized by whatever thug happened past, she trudged the meanest streets in Nathanael West’s “dream dump of Hollywood,” catatonic, profane, insatiable, and mad. In the end, all she had left was a caricature of herself, cannibalizing her life in the incoherent, nihilistic autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, which she dictated to a hack reporter for a few cases of cheap wine. The book, now considered a minor masterpiece of defiant rue and doomed bravado, withered and died in its paper chrysalis. In the genealogy of Hollywood scandal, Payton was the onetime wife of Franchot Tone, himself the former husband of Joan Crawford. Payton was also the inamorata of Tom Neal, perhaps the lowest-bottom-hitting actor in history next to John Wilkes Booth. Neal’s performance in Detour—for many the film noir that defines the genre—earned him immortality, while eerily foretelling his own dreadful fate. If Barbara Payton was the worst thing that ever happened to Franchot Tone, then the mesomorphic Neal was a far worse encounter for Barbara Payton. (However, Neal was truly the Asteroid strike for Payton’s successor, beautiful 29-year-old Gale Bennett, whom he married in 1961 and shot dead four years later in a jealous rage as she slept. A wraithlike, black-clad Payton was spotted in the audience at his trial. Though prosecutors sought the death penalty, Neal served six years for involuntary manslaughter, dying only months after leaving prison.) Today, the lovers flung about in these cyclonic affairs lead a second life of sorts on countless web sites, forever careening towards Armageddon, forever young, gorgeous, shabby, and totally, totally nuts. Like background radiation, the spirit of Barbara Payton still inhabits the flops and jails where she spent down her years. On the Internet, it’s open season on her for gleeful voyeurs and shock-shamming moralizers. If ever there was a sin left uncommitted in schizoid Hollywood—including that of interracial love—it couldn’t be attributed to Payton.
The Wild Child Barbara Lee Redfield was born an ordinary mortal in postcard-pretty Cloquet, Minnesota; her mother, Mabel, a beauty of Norwegian descent, and her father, Lee, a hard-drinking disinherited scion of the Weyerhauser lumbering dynasty. Barbara spent her early childhood suffused in small town midwestern life. Strikingly beautiful, the bright, sociable little girl celebrated Christmases and Easters, cut out paper dolls, tobaggoned and skated, attended school events and county fairs. When his precociously striking daughter was barely in her teens, and with WWII raging, Lee moved his family to Odessa, Texas, a hard-partying town overflowing with military men from nearby bases. Here, the parents managed a motel, giving their daughter a running start in flouting public mores. By 16, Barbara had developed the troublesome habit of eloping, earning speedy annulments and paternal beatings; at least three teen marriages took place, one of them to a shoe salesman she had met while shopping. In 1944, she married stonily right-stuff-handsome 22-year-old Air Force pilot, John Payton. The couple moved to a modest apartment near Hollywood, where John studied engineering on the GI Bill. Their only child, John Lee, was born in 1947. At this juncture, Barbara Payton was merely another small-town Hollywood hopeful, albeit of arresting natural beauty. No dream has ever exerted such irresistible traction as Hollywood stardom, dragging generation after generation of girls and boys westward to hurl themselves at studio ramparts against brutally short odds, with the single-minded drive of spawning salmon. Following a stint as a carhop, Barbara landed work as a fashion model. Magazine ads from the late 1940s reveal a stunning young woman whose prim poses and coyly conservative tea dresses can’t conceal a page-searing sensuality. When the agency sent her to perform a few high kicks in a comedy revue at Slapsie Maxie’s nightclub, Payton caught the eye of Bill Goetz, production chief at Universal-International Studios. A shrewd judge of potential, Goetz quickly signed her to a contract. Under the hot glare of Hollywood attention, the Paytons’ marriage softened and melted like wax, finally collapsing when John left wife and son to return to his parents in the midwest—always insisting that it was Barbara who had left him. Either way, she was now broke, alone, a single mother, and at the mercy of her own demons, which wasted no time in manifesting.
Fast Men, Fast Times Payton soon became a regular at Hollywood’s hottest clubs, showing the reckless exuberance and appalling judgment that characterizes young celebrities of any era. Her close friends included uber-shady dope dealer and trouble-magnet Don Cougar, 27, and sleazy, star-stalking paving contractor Jerry Bialac. (The archetype of these Mickey Cohen tyros was Johnny Stompanato, whose turbulent affair with Lana Turner—and his life—ended in 1959 at the point of a knife wielded by Turner’s teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane.) Payton also became a regular at the booze-drenched parties of the Mephistophelean Errol Flynn and began keeping company with womanizer George Raft, flaunting the full-length white mink he gifted her. Like Clara Bow, Payton radiated attitude, flouting conventional morality at every opportunity. But on closer inspection, something much darker was at work—a restless compulsion to dance ever closer to the scorching flames. Whether in life or literature; whether the Black Dahlia, Madame Bovary, Lily Bart, Messalina, or Katherine Howard, these women rarely make good ends. Payton’s relative idleness and availability for mischief made it inevitable that she and Bob Hope, a notorious hound, would find one another. After meeting in Texas on a promotional tour, they indulged in numerous trysts, with Barbara posing as the date of the married Hope’s longtime beard, Louis Shurr. Hope rented her an apartment. Soon, the smitten starlet began showing up at Hope’s sacrosanct golf tournaments, throwing herself into his arms in defiance of the rebarbatively wholesome image that Hope wore all his life. He discovered that getting Barbara Payton into his bed was a lot easier than phasing her out of it. Fuming, the notoriously cheap comedian eventually ransomed himself for a rumored $50,000. Hope’s role in the messy liaison was deftly hushed up, but Barbara Payton paid for her poor judgment with her Universal contract. Conventions that now seem quaint had sharp fangs in their day; it was all more than enough to summon the juggernaut of bad fortune.
At the Precipice Around this time, Luciferian boyfriend Don Cougar talked Payton into providing dope dealer Stanley Adams with a phony alibi for the murder of FBI stool pigeon, “Singing Abe” Davidian, who had been shot in the head in his mother’s home in Fresno on February 28, 1949. Naïve and anxious to please, Payton earned herself years of legal blowback that would blend with other bad cess to write finis to her career. But suddenly, fortuitously, Barbara Payton’s acting career hummed to life, and she was cast with Lloyd Bridges in the film noir, Trapped. Bridges, at 36, was already popular, with his own appetite for starlet favors, probably including Barbara’s. In 1950, producer William Cagney signed Payton to a $5,000-a-week contract to co-star with his brother James in what came to be her best-known film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Playing to type as the sultry yet gullible “Holiday Carleton,” Payton had a career breakthrough. Warner Brothers shared her contract option with Bill Cagney and raised her salary to a jaw-dropping $10,000 a week. Fans proliferated. MGM and 20th Century Fox competed to lure her away. This career momentum should have spawned countless opportunities for new dramatic roles, but Payton’s soaring trajectory inexplicably began to wobble and drift. Her next two films for Warner’s, Dallas and Only the Valiant, saw Payton’s performance land on the cutting room floor. Likewise with her next movie, the poor man’s Gone With the Wind knockoff, Drums in the Deep South. It was as if some malign unseen force were agitating against Payton. As indeed it was. That force was the vindictive, irascible Jack Warner himself. Payton’s lighthearted irreverence toward him had probably lit the fuse; now, her penchant for public ruckus set it burning briskly. Warner, working the phones with his trademark obscenity-laced marching orders, had set out to raze the career of his newest star. In early 1950, Payton caught the eye of actor Franchot Tone at Ciro’s nightclub, where he was judging a Charleston competition. Tone, who had a taste for troubled beauties. brushed aside the warnings that poured in. He was an educated, eastern-bred bon vivant with a classic profile and a drink constantly in hand. But he was fated to miss the first rank of stardom. The career of his wife, Joan Crawford, quickly eclipsed his, with Tone relegated to playing second male leads. Tone was still boiling in the soup of his 1948 divorce from Payton look-alike, actress Jean Wallace. Suicidal and incendiary, Wallace soon dragged him into a custody battle for their two sons during which she spattered Payton with all the mud in her copious arsenal. The couple became a favored target of columnists always on the sniff for dysfunction and profligacy. Their noses were true. Only a short time after announcing their engagement at a lavish party in New York’s Stork Club, Franchot surprised Barbara in bed—at the home he had rented for her—with the strikingly handsome young Guy Madison (TV’s future “Wild Bill Hickock”), now her co-star in Drums in the Deep South. Tone delivered the immortal line—arguably the greatest example ever of heroic restraint—“I’m engaged to this girl and I’m going to marry her. Are you?” The red-faced young actor leaped to gather his clothes, mumbling, “I can’t. I’m already married.” The ensuing 1950s incarnation of a viral feeding frenzy provided an abundant feast to the predatory Confidential Magazine and pushed choleric producer Jack Warner to scissor most of Payton’s scenes from the movie. Ironically, it was probably Warner who steered Barbara Payton into Jack Broder’s risibly titled Bride of the Gorilla, destined to become a camp classic. The sight of the strapless young Payton aswoon in the hirsute embrace of gorilla Steve Calvert inspired the lifelong crushes of countless boys. Payton even managed to wangle a co-starring role for her young friend, Raymond Burr—broke, unemployed and frustratingly obese. Years later, when Payton was on the skids, Burr tried to repay the favor, but his influence could not land her even a walk-on in Perry Mason.
Madness at Noon In July 1951, with Barbara filming Bride of the Gorilla, Franchot Tone departed for a short visit to New York. A few days later, Barbara attended a fateful pool party at the Sunset Plaza Apartments. Here, her destiny collided with that of Tom Neal, the impact throwing up a dust cloud that toxified both of their lives from then on. Neal, the only son of a wealthy banker, hailed from Evanston, Illinois. Though just five-foot eight, he had distinguished himself as a boxer at Northwestern University, where he also joined the drama club. In the fall of 1933, he arrived in New York, already a gigolo, and was soon engaged to showgirl Inez Martin, the former mistress of gangster Arnold Rothstein. Neal moved west in 1936, where he signed with MGM, maintaining dual affairs with both Joan Crawford and a studio executive’s wife. For many, Neal’s defining role—prior to Detour—will always be First Yank into Tokyo, in which he played an American Air Force officer who heroically sacrifices his whiteness for his country, undergoing supposed plastic surgery in order to pass as Japanese and spirit an atomic scientist out of Japan. Neal became by this role the most hilariously unrecgognizable incarnation of a homo sapiens—forget an Asian—ever concocted. The movie is impossible to watch with a straight face, but Neal quickly redeemed himself, starring in the Edgar G. Ulmer-directed film noir classic Detour in 1945, alongside Ann Savage who staked her claim for all time as cinema’s most psychotically fiendish harpy. Shot in just six days on a $30,000 budget, Detour is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece. But if Detour elevated Tom Neal, the fates conspired throughout the rest of his life to send him careening to hell. As he muttered prophetically in the movie, “No matter what you do, no matter where you turn, fate sticks out its foot to trip you.” The intersection of Tom Neal’s life with Barbara Payton’s at that fateful party could not have been more precisely calculated to deliver them both to madness. Besotted with desire, Payton was soon introducing Neal to family and friends as her boyfriend—almost as if her fiancé Franchot Tone didn’t exist. By the time Franchot Tone returned from his business trip, his life and Barbara’s had changed profoundly, with even greater upheavals looming. Tone discovered Barbara living openly with Tom Neal in the Hollywood apartment he had rented for her. As if under some lunatic spell, Payton bounced between one man and the other over the next months in an alcohol-fueled series of trysts, tracked by the press with slavering rapacity. On September 13, Barbara Payton borrowed Tom’s car and met Franchot at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a party that extended deep into the night, leaving Tom waiting—and drinking—alone at the Courtney Terrace apartment. He was raucously drunk by the time Barbara arrived home with Franchot in tow, both drunk as well. The two soused suitors quickly squared off, but to call the following encounter a fight would imply adversaries who were mentally competent by some broad interpretation of the term. Neal’s training as a college pugilist had been reinforced by daily weightlifting on that very patio; a pair of his dumbbells remained on the bloodstained concrete as silent witnesses following the brawl. Predictably, havoc ensued, with Tom Neal sending Franchot Tone aloft with a punch that landed the older actor twelve feet away. Delicately boned and drawing-room elegant at 155 pounds, Franchot Tone was never even a putative match for Tom Neal, who then got down to business, slamming the motionless Tone over and over with sodden punches that inflicted critical injuries. Payton, trying to intervene, was herself inadvertently punched and sent careening unconscious into a rhododendron bush. Franchot Tone emerged gravely wounded, with a cerebral concussion, broken nose, shattered left cheekbone and fractured right upper jaw. He hovered between life and death for days as the media entered a fugue state, disgorging hourly updates. Payton, looking gorgeous in a tight, strapless white dress and sporting huge sunglasses to hide her own black eye, soon arrived at the hospital where Tone lay comatose, carrying—with breathtaking ignorance and obliviousness—a pitcherful of martinis to “share” with the comatose man. Trailing hordes of paparazzi, she haunted the hospital staircases and hallways, begging exasperated nurses to let her visit Tone. All this time, she continued to issue oddly disjointed statements denouncing Tom Neal as a savage—despite soon being photographed dancing with him at Ciro’s and hosting him at Tone’s apartment. The hungry fates, not yet sated by this blood sacrifice, continued to wreak misfortune on all three addled lovers. No sooner had a skeletal Franchot Tone tottered from the hospital, his classic profile and his voie permanently altered, than he married Payton in a bizarre, hastily concocted ceremony in her home town of Cloquet, Minnesota, attended by Payton’s puzzled cousins and family. Soon, hounded by the media, spurned and booed by the public, the ill-starred couple began to crumble. The Hollywood establishment zeroed in on Payton for dragging down the once-genteel if bibulous older star. “Hag Columnists” Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, soon joined the baying pack and subsequently missed no chance—ever, ever—to savage Barbara Payton in print. After seven weeks, Franchot Tone filed for divorce on grounds of extreme mental cruelty; his seemingly unquenchable passion for Barbara Payton now vanished like smoke. In a final act of pure demolition, Tone hired a private investigator to secretly take graphic photos of Payton and Neal having sex. Tone then circulated these not only to every major studio in Hollywood but to Payton’s friends and family as well. Having obliterated any possibility of his former wife ever again obtaining work in Hollywood, Franchot Tone resumed his gentlemanly alcoholic conviviality, appearing on Broadway and on popular television series such as Bonanza, Wagon Train, and The Twilight Zone. One can only speculate on what went through his mind as Barbara Payton spiraled into homelessness, prostitution and death. He could not have wished on her any harsher or more prolonged retribution. Now, in 1952, time ran out Tom Neal and Barbara Payton. In an ironic last performance together, they played another doomed couple in The Postman Always Rings Twice. After Barbara collapsed on stage, probably from a combination of malnutrition and alcohol, Tom Neal departed to follow his own terrible destiny.
The Eyes of a Child Throughout these turbulent years, a small, quiet presence had waited for Barbara, usually at the home of her babysitter’s parents. John Lee Payton had continued to love his mother with a nonjudgmental acceptance that belied his years. Now, still only 26 years old, Barbara Payton resolved to settle down and resume her maternal responsibilities. She rented a large house near the Beverly Hills Hotel, furnished it elegantly, and brought her seven-year-old son to join her Paper Moon-ish lifestyle. Despite her good intentions, however, she left the boy alone a lot while she serviced her unrelenting demons. Constant parties filled the house with drunken strangers, albeit some of them the biggest names in Hollywood. Though John Lee wanted simply to be a part of his mother’s life, she lacked the ability to give him a stable, consistent home. She may also have been experiencing cognitive damage from the alcohol that impaired her ability to exercise parental judgment. When she wasn’t entertaining at home, Payton was a fixture at local hangouts Chasen’s, LaRue’s, and The Cock n’ Bull. Tricked out in furs and jewelry, she seldom left a place unaccompanied. She spent a lot of time dancing on tabletops at a landmark nightclub called the Garden of Allah. Her bedmates included Marlon Brando, but she was not particular when drinking and shared her favors with an unbroken stream of lovers that included small-time hoods, casual barroom acquaintances, and men picked up at gas stations and lounges up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. In 1954, Edgar G. Ulmer—the brilliant German-born director who had immortalized Tom Neal in Detour--starred Payton in what was to be her last artistically meaningful movie, Murder is My Beat. Ulmer seems to have understood how to draw out Payton’s inner conflicts to vitalize and validate her acting. Her strong performance is still well- regarded by critics, but despite its intrinsic quality, the film went unnoticed and remains obscure to this day. In 1955, Barbara drifted to Guaymas, Mexico on the Sea of Cortes, a popular hangout of stars like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, John Wayne, and Bing Crosby. Here, she met her future husband, Tony Provas, a young sport fisherman of Greek background whose family owned a pleasure boat business. Only 21, Tony fell hard for still-beautiful Barbara. Soon, the locus of her life moved to Guaymas, where she became a regular at the Playa de Cortez resort. At thirty, Payton was now a confirmed alcoholic, and the consequences were overtaking her.
The Wheels Come Off Returning briefly to L.A. that year, Barbara Payton wrote three personal checks to Hollywood’s Sun-Fax Market totaling $129.54, which subsequently bounced. Though she had spent thousands at that very market in better days, the owners pursued her unrelentingly. Unable to make good on the checks, Payton was arrested in front of John Lee, handcuffed and taken away in a police car. The debt was eventually retired for old times’ sake by Herman Hoven, the owner of Ciro’s nightclub. Now, having run through her funds and lost her rented home, Payton found washed up against the cleak shore of abandonment. In March 1956, ex-husband John Payton, who had spent 18 months as a POW in Korea, finally filed for custody of his eight-year-old son. The courtroom battle, infested with voyeurs and tabloid hacks, had a predictable outcome. Whisked off to the air base in Germany where his father was stationed, the boy never saw his mother again.
Absence of Control With the last vestiges of accountability gone, Barbara Payton now slipped her moorings completely and began a decade-long free-fall to death. Whether from alcoholic toxicity or encroaching mental disease, Payton recognized no further boundaries, no restraints whatsoever. It challenges comprehension to realize that she still had eleven years to live—years of uninterrupted deterioration and physical and mental anguish that would have shamed an Elizabethan torturer to inflict. By now, the alcohol had blasted her delicate beauty and doubtless her cognition. She began to wear coarse, unbecoming makeup, and her bloated figure contrasted shockingly with the graceful contours of only a few years ago. Payton’s parents, themselves alcoholic, had moved to San Diego but were no meaningful resource for Barbara. The persistent hostility of her father endured, while her mother, suffering from botched breast cancer surgery, was herself drunk most of the time. Old friends and lovers watched helplessly as Payton drifted beyond Hollywood’s klieg lights toward the infinite darkness on the other side of the street. Payton’s friend, perennial naughty beauty Lila Leeds, had recently moved to Chicago to work as a torch singer and call girl. Leeds was the unfortunate 20-year-old starlet busted with Robert Mitchum in 1948 for marijuana possession. While the studio protected Mitchum, it had thrown Lila under the bus and and incinerated her film hopes. Now, Barbara Payton, with her son gone and her own career in ruins, joined Lila in prostitution in 1957. The two worked from a suite at the Drake Hotel until Lila was arrested, with Barbara making a narrow, doubtless cinematic escape. Sent to prison, Leeds eventually sobered up and became a minister, preaching with credibility to the alcoholics of Los Angeles. By 1958, Barbara Payton was back in Los Angeles after a stint as a prostitute in Las Vegas. She was living with a B-movie actor named Bobby Hall, a six-foot-four-inch, 250-pound mesomorph with a wicked temper. Before long, she landed in the seedy Valencia Apartments. Set adrift, she found work as a restaurant hostess, a cocktail waitress in a strip joint, a shampoo girl at a beauty shop, and a gas pumper on Hollywood Boulevard. Sometimes she scraped together the money for a bus ticket to Palm Springs, where she rented a room at the Riviera Hotel, working out of the bar as a hooker. Evicted, she traveled to Searchlight, Nevada and turned tricks from a tiny studio apartment over a casino. By 1961, she was back at the Valencia, her hair dyed carrot red, her body ballooning from the booze. Her tricks were a depressing cohort of failed actors, drifters, hustlers; fellow alcoholics and rootless wanderers. Always drunk now, missing many teeth, her hair matted and unwashed, she began to wander the streets of Hollywood in ragged castoff dressing gowns. When she could afford it, she rented a room in a rat-infested building (now a gas station) at 7655 Sunset Boulevard. Stabbed by a trick, she received thirty-eight stitches, which resolved into a shockingly livid scar that she did not even bother to cover. She was now charging $5 for sex, surreptitiously performed in parked cars on Sunset Boulevard, their motors running. Arrested again for prostitution on September 23, 1963, Payton remained in jail for the next 22 days.
I Am Not Ashamed That year, a Hollywood public relations flack named Leo Guild contacted Barbara about writing her autobiography. For $2,000, Payton recorded a series of interviews; the money was doled out to her in periodic instalments, quickly spent on liquor and drugs. Guild would send a check to Barbara at the Coach and Horses—a no-questions-asked hideaway also frequented by William Holden, another heavy drinker. I am Not Ashamed is a pitiable cry of defiance, painful to read the way a missed jab from a punch-drunk boxer on his way to the mat is painful to watch. She stares from the cover, coarsened and bleary, her gaze accusing the Dream Machine and all who betrayed her, including herself. Guild ungraciously described Payton in a 1967 article for the men’s magazine Pix: “I knocked [on the door] and she yelled, ‘Entre vous.’ Barbara stood alone in the center of a room of unbelievable chaos. She was pig-fat and wore a man’s shirt and that’s it. The shirt just made it past her crotch. There was a red, angry scar coming from under the shirt and running down her thigh. ‘Of course, I remember you,’ she smiled. I noticed she was unsteady on her feet.” Lacking credibility and continuity, I Am Not Ashamed rambles through 190 pages of disjointed stream-of-consciousness recollections. The 86-cent paperback generated only a small blip of media attention before disappearing into the remainder bins. Shortly afterwards, Payton was busted for heroin and placed in a locked detox unit at L.A. County Hospital. Released to a halfway house, she was back on the streets within a day. She was legally eligible to be treated at the Motion Picture Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills. But the public poison had been injected deep by tabloids, vengeful executives, casually jealous competitors, the fickle public—and her own actions. No meaningful help was offered her. As time passed, Barbara Payton became a familiar fixture of the streets, dragging herself up and down the grimy, decaying skid rows behind Hollywood’s tourist façade, deteriorating visibly. Incredibly, her insatiable need to debase herself continued to gather momentum. She associated now only with those tortured souls on their own respective journeys to oblivion, some dangerously, helplessly psychotic and violent, the detritus of an unforgiving, tough-minded culture. The filthy dives that she called home, nests of depravity and suicidal torment, existed like a parallel universe alongside the slick, vigorous and dazzling Los Angeles of the early 1960s. The energy pulsed and flowed as fortunes and careers soared, innovations were launched. People she had known on her way up continued to succeed, or at least to endure, as Payton lay dying in a boneyard of lost souls, condemned to live out the bleak side of the Hollywood story. At the seedy Coach and Horses bar—now a minor landmark—she nursed shots in her own shadowy corner. The bartender’s son, author Robert Polito, in his book, O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors: “She oozed alcohol even before she ordered a drink. Her eyebrows didn’t match her brassy hair . . . Her face displayed a perpetual sunburn, a map of veins by her nose. [Her feet were swollen], and she carried an old man’s pot belly that sloshed faintly when she moved. She must have weighed 200 pounds.” Soon, even the undiscriminating Coach and Horses banned her as a difficult drunk, too hard to get rid of once she became situated. Harassed constantly by police, Payton often sought refuge in dark movie theaters or in the old Hollywood Public Library, a silent, solitary figure at a back table.
Last Days Barbara Payton’s quest finally delivered her to the home of her parents in San Diego; it should have been a sanctuary, but lifelong conflicts with her father had made the place only one more locus of pain. Payton’s stony path ended on May 8, 1967, in the early afternoon. Her final agonies unreeled unattended; nobody in her parents’ household seemed to have taken the obvious step of bringing a desperately ill woman to the hospital or even calling an ambulance. The official cause of death was “acute pulmonary congestion with focal pulmonary hemorrhage due to portal cirrhosis.” She was six months short of her fortieth birthday. Following her death, Barbara Payton’s father grimly gathered up her few pitiful belongings and set them outside at the curb to be hauled away by the garbage truck. Even from the grave, Barbara Payton has the power to bring us up short against our own dreams and demons—the archetypal girl who threw it all away, loving always unwisely and far too well. But the overwhelming emotion she elicits, along with deep sadness, must be bitter perplexity. Even as she delivered lines onscreen that aimed straight for the heart, she treated her own heart with self-destructive fury. It is the tragic destiny of this beautiful, once hopeful woman to serve as a reminder of the depths to which we can fall, and the suffering we are capable of inflicting on ourselves and those we love, all with the best of intentions.