Hollywood history is littered with riches-to-rags stories of great stars that fell on cruel hard times. However, few hard luck tales ever matched the severity of the decline and fall of Barbara Payton, the beautiful blonde actress who went from the glory of a Warner Bros. contract to life as a skid row prostitute within the course of a decade.
Barbara Payton literally had everything going for her. She hit pay dirt in a star-making role opposite James Cagney in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (1950), followed by performances opposite Gary Cooper in “Dallas” (1950) and Gregory Peck in “Only the Valiant” (1951). However, her reckless private life became more prominent than her movie roles. In 1951, she was at the center of a public brawl between actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal. Tone was badly beaten in the fight, but he won Payton’s heart and they were married – for seven weeks, when she left him for the violent Neal, with whom she lived in an open, unmarried relationship for four years.
Warner Bros. dropped Payton amidst the tabloid scandals of her racy and raucous behavior. She starred in several B-Movies, most notably “Bride of the Gorilla” (1951) and the British-lensed “Four-Sided Triangle” (1953), but her inability to differentiate between notoriety and popularity resulted in her career dying prematurely in the mid-1950s. Out-of-control alcoholism ruined her beauty and finances, and by 1960 she was destitute and forced to survive as a prostitute. She died in 1967 at the age of 39, barely remembered by the Hollywood elite who once made her the center of their attention.
Veteran film journalist John O’Dowd captures Payton’s tumultuous life and tragic death in his brilliant biography “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story.” Rather than wallow in “Hollywood Babylon” slime, O’Dowd investigates all aspects of Payton’s complex and often baffling self-destructive personality. The result in a compelling book, meticulously researched and vigorously written, that provides a sympathetic yet harrowing view of a beautiful woman on a one-way trip into hell. Published by BearManor Media, O’Dowd’s book is, hands down, the year’s best film-related book and the year’s best biography.
Film Threat caught up with O’Dowd at his New Jersey home to recall Barbara Payton’s life and legacy.
What inspired you to write a biography of Barbara Payton?
Actually, I believe the seed was planted many years ago, in my childhood. I first saw Barbara on TV in a Saturday afternoon viewing of “Bride of the Gorilla” and I will never forget the feeling I had when I first saw her on screen. I was no more than eight or nine at the time, but I was absolutely mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked perfect. I remember I was riveted to the TV and couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her beautiful lips and terrific shape. Even at that young age, I believe I knew what sexy was, and I also knew she was something really special.
I was raised on old, black and white movies on TV and I devoured many books on the subject, too. So by the time I was in my late teens I knew all there was to know, it seems, about “Old Hollywood.” That’s when I kind of reconnected with Barbara. I would read little snippets of information about her, in various books, and they all mentioned that her life had ended very tragically. I think that whatever light she had lit in me as a child somehow re-ignited again in my late adolescence and that is when I first started thinking that someday I would like to find out everything I could about Barbara, and document all of it. Finally, in June 1998, I was ready. It took me that long, but that’s when I finally began writing Barbara’s story. And I didn’t finish it until eight years later!
For those who never saw her films, was Barbara Payton a talented actress? And what were her best films?
I think Barbara showed a great deal of raw talent as an actress. She had very little training to speak of – some acting classes at Universal Studios and presumably, some at Warner Bros. as well – but she definitely didn’t have years and years of acting training under her belt when she came to Hollywood. She was really good in the James Cagney film, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (her best film and her best performance). Throughout the film, Barbara was natural, believable and in playing a somewhat naive young woman who is gradually corrupted, took a role that some people who knew her insist had closely paralleled the real Barbara. Watching her performance in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, you’re never once tempted to wince in discomfort at the quality of her work (unlike Marilyn Monroe, for instance, who is sometimes hard to watch in several of her films).
But I also think she could have eventually graduated to acting in straight-on “A” productions (dramas, comedies and the like) in Hollywood…you know, the kinds of mass-appeal, commercial films that people like Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor acted in. As for the handful of films she did make, Barbara showed an engaging glimmer of comedic talent in “Run For the Hills” (though the film itself is wretched) and she displayed nuance and a knowingness even in questionable fare like the horror film “Bride of the Gorilla.” At all times, in all her films, she definitely had presence. But with Barbara, alas, it was all over almost before it started. Within only six years of her first film work, Barbara’s acting career was over. As a result, one is left with a feeling of incredible frustration that she wasn’t allowed to really grow and expand as a performer.
Alcoholism fueled Barbara’s tragic decline – but wasn’t there anyone who made any attempt to get her help in battling that addiction? In reading your book, I get the feeling no one actually wanted to come to her aid.
I asked John Payton, Barbara’s son, what he thought of this question. Although Barbara lost custody of John when he was only nine years old, and he never saw her again, he tells me that he has given a lot of thought over the years to the disease that helped, in great part, to take him away from his mother forever. He offered the following observation to me: “Alcoholism moves a person into another world, a place away from family, friends, lovers, and society. It’s a place where an alcoholic becomes comfortable, and where others who are not alcoholics often are unwelcome. Over time, visitors stop coming by, you might say, not because they don’t care, but because they know that they’re no longer a part of what has become a new reality for the alcoholic. This is a place and time where it is difficult for any communication between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic, where love may be a memory but no longer a possibility, where words like ‘help’ become a threat. More could have been attempted to help my mother, absolutely. Whether it would have been accepted by her, however, one cannot know.”
If Barbara had not passed away at such a young age, would she have been able to get her life in order and resurrect her career?
I seriously doubt it. Not without a major overhaul of her lifestyle, that is, or without a drastic change in how she saw herself and how she chose to deal with her pain. Even before the fight over her between Tom Neal and Franchot Tone, Barbara had gotten a lot of bad publicity in 1949 and 1950 for hanging out with drug dealers and petty thugs in Hollywood, and she was definitely going down the wrong road. And when you realize that not even the loss of her son (whom she absolutely loved and cherished and trusted more than anyone else) was enough of a wake-up call for her, then I think it’s pretty clear that a big part of Barbara was determined, for some reason, to ruin her life.
Another certain obstacle to Barbara ever resurrecting her career in the 1960s was surely the tabloid press of that era. The powers-that-be at those magazines had categorized (and damned) Barbara early on, and they were unrelenting in their quest to keep her ostracized in the industry. The tabloids were not like today’s media, which expose and then almost glorify a celebrity’s personal problems and weaknesses. Forgiveness is granted much more liberally today, which I also think is as it should be if a person has made a real effort to change and improve their life. But I think that at the outside chance that Barbara had been able to stop drinking and drugging back then and had gotten her life in order, she still wouldn’t have been allowed back into the industry.
In researching and writing this book, what did you discover about Barbara that you were not previously aware of? And how did this newly-discovered information reshape your opinion of her?
I discovered that beneath Barbara’s tough-talking and promiscuous party girl exterior was an extremely warm and nurturing human being that was always looking for someone who would love her and validate her and take away that vast internal void in her soul. In previous books and magazine articles on her life, she had never been portrayed with even a glimmer of dignity or as anything other than a thoroughly vulgar creature. Some writers, such as Darwin Porter and John Gilmore, have even gone so far to write about her as if she were the most evil and unlikable woman ever to walk the face of the earth.
On the contrary, I learned from talking to dozens of people who knew Barbara in varying degrees, from close family members and lifelong friends to co-workers that knew her briefly and acquaintances who met her no more than half a dozen times, that she was in essence, a gracious, sweet and very kind-hearted person. She was also brave and headstrong and perhaps far too idealistic for her own good, but I admire the fearlessness she showed throughout her life and the absolute belief she always had that she could conquer just about any challenge or obstacle the world threw at her.
She had a huge capacity to love and to take in all the riches and rewards the world had to offer her and she filled her cup over and over with everything she could find. You might say that she drank up life till the well went dry.
What lessons can today’s Hollywood elite learn from Barbara’s life? And how should Barbara be remembered by today’s film industry?
We are living in such a different world than the one Barbara lived in, where the very things she was persecuted for (her wild sexual antics, constant drinking and drugging, and endless troubles with the law) are routinely written about and almost glorified by today’s media, that I’m not sure that what happened to her would even resonate with today’s so-called “Hollywood elite.” In fact, “young Hollywood,” in particular, would probably be more surprised than anything else that Barbara’s outrageous public behavior had caused such a widespread uproar in the first place.
In a weird way, Barbara’s story, as shocking and tragic as it remains to a lot of people, particularly those in America’s heartland and more sedate, bourgeois section of society, is probably no longer considered all that shocking to the media, or to today’s jaded Hollywood.
I think that Barbara should be remembered by today’s film industry as someone who possessed tremendous talent and promise, not only as a performer, but as a human being. She was a gourmet cook and excelled in interior design, and if she had left acting willingly (and if her inner demons hadn’t gotten the best of her), she could have easily made a mark for herself pursuing either one of those talents. It’s true that Barbara brought on most of her problems herself, but Hollywood absolutely contributed to her downfall in its unwillingness to forgive her and its refusal to offer her another chance.
More than anything else, I want my book to change the way the industry remembers Barbara. Instead of remembering her as “that actress who later became a prostitute on Skid Row,” I hope Hollywood will think of Barbara as a talented and intrinsically decent person with value. Despite her flaws, Barbara Payton was a worthwhile human being. I am grateful that it has now gone on record, with the publication of my book, that there was a lot more good in Barbara than what was previously thought and written about. I was given an opportunity to reveal. And isn’t that what every human being wants and deserves – dignity?