“Promising careers that don’t pan out, I always want to find out what caused it,” John O’Dowd told the Star Ledger. “Superstars [of today in particular] are written about all the time. I find that their [those whose careers were cut short due to tragedy or hardships] stories are more fascinating.”
O’Dowd is the author of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story (softcover - 480 pages, US$29.95), which has been recently published by BearManor Media. (O’Dowd’s Barbara Payton website includes a sample chapter of the book.)
Now, Barbara Payton?
According to O’Dowd, Barbara Payton was a star in the making in the early 1950s. While under contract with Warner Bros., Payton was earning $10,000 a week. She was James Cagney’s leading lady in Gordon Douglas’ crime drama Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), had the second female lead in Douglas’ Dallas (1950), playing opposite Gary Cooper and Ruth Roman, and was Gregory Peck’s love interest in the Western Only the Valiant (1951).
She ended her days performing menial chores and, at one point, working as a street prostitute in Los Angeles. In May 1967, Payton – her luscious beauty long gone – died of heart and liver failure at her parents’ home in San Diego. She was 39.
O’Dowd says he decided to write Payton’s life story because he could relate to some of her darker moments, as he himself had been involved with drugs in his youth. His interviews and articles have appeared in a number of publications, including Filmfax, Discoveries, and Glamour Girls: Then and Now.
O’Dowd is currently working in an interview project with actress Lane Bradbury, who played Baby June in the original Broadway production of Gypsy. He has kindly consented to answer a few questions about Barbara Payton for Alt Film Guide.
Photos: John O’Dowd Collection
Who was Barbara Payton? And what made you interested in writing a book on her?
Barbara Payton was a beautiful young actress who worked in Hollywood films from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. She was a sexy and charismatic blonde with a nice shape and gorgeous blue eyes, and she possessed a sizable amount of raw acting ability. Barbara had a lot of potential, but for several reasons she wasn’t able to parlay all these strengths into a successful career.
It was Barbara’s unfulfilled promise as a performer that initially intrigued me and motivated my interest in wanting to research and write her life story. She was absolutely riveting on-screen and she possessed all the ingredients necessary in those years to really succeed in films.
The things I later discovered about her life shocked and haunted me (and still do). Even now, after working on this project for nearly eight years, it is still almost inconceivable to me that there was actually a well-known actress who went from starring roles in “A” pictures at Warner Bros. -namely, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Dallas, and Only the Valiant – to living as a penniless and alcoholic prostitute on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
When I really stop to think about it, it seems impossible. How could something like that have happened? How could the people in her life allow it to happen? Barbara’s life is, by far, one of the most harrowing, “real-life horror stories” I have ever come across. At the risk of sounding grandiose, I believe her saga and its almost epic misery reads like a Greek tragedy or like something out of the Grand Guignol shows of the late 19th century. I mean, all the elements are there: a reckless and relentlessly debauched lifestyle that included all night bacchanals filled with lots of drugs and alcohol, a stabbing, beatings, mobsters, blackmail attempts, gang murders, several well-publicized arrests, losing custody of her son, a slow and horrendous physical deterioration, sexual degradation of the worst kind, severe mental illness … My God, it is almost unreal.
Everything that could go wrong in a person’s life seems to have happened to Barbara and it is almost overwhelming when one stops to really consider all that she endured. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and all those other troubled young girls in today’s Hollywood have nothing on Barbara! She was doing all they’re doing now – and more! – over 50 years ago.
But I don’t want to see any of those girls (or guys, for that matter) trying to outdo Barbara or even following the same path she took, because just look how she ended up. She lost everything. It’s a real sin, I think, to throw away one’s good fortune and the blessings in one’s life. It’s not fair to the people themselves or to those who love and care about them. I wish Barbara had cared enough about herself and about the people she loved to get help.
According to the IMDb, Barbara Payton appeared in only 14 films between 1949 and 1955. Why such a brief career?
Barbara’s personal life, tangled and screwed up as it was, always took precedence over her acting career. If she had been more focused and goal-oriented and had reined herself in more, she could have had a longer and much more meaningful career.
Barbara’s freewheeling, no-holds-barred lifestyle literally blackballed her in Hollywood. She became a pariah that people whispered about and delighted in raking over the coals. The town used her (as she used it) and then it threw her to the curb. She treated herself like a worthless piece of trash and the industry responded in kind. Barbara was under contract to both Universal and WB and if she had lived a different kind of lifestyle she could have acted in many more films. (In a perfect world, instead of making only 14 films she could have made 40 or 50, you know?) But for some reason she unwisely allowed her many personal excesses to get in the way of whatever career goals she may have had.
I believe that Barbara did take her acting career seriously – at least in the beginning, when she first started out. Some of her former co-workers insist that she really studied and worked hard at improving her craft. It’s a shame she never sought help to try to conquer her demons but as one person who knew her said in my book Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, “Barbara was having so much fun in the ’50s her attitude always was: ‘Why stop’?”
With that kind of flippant and careless attitude I don’t believe she ever had a chance at having a decent life or career. On the surface, Barbara didn’t exude the endearing vulnerability that Marilyn Monroe had and she was usually pretty ballsy and brash. Still, I feel sorry for her. Many people don’t, but knowing the damage that was done to her psyche as a child … I do.
What was Barbara Payton like as an actress? Any memorable film performances or was she just a screen presence?
Barbara had a kind of casual and intuitive acting style that was nonetheless very effective, and in my opinion she could have developed into a really strong performer. That said, her performances in the 14 films she made are, alas, rather a mixed lot. She was totally believable in the James Cagney film Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (her character, a naïve blonde [named Holiday Carleton] that Cagney shacks up with, was both wild and innocent, which many people who knew Barbara insist was her real persona) and in the Lloyd Bridges film noir Trapped, but she seemed completely adrift in her two British films, Bad Blonde and Four-Sided Triangle [above, with Stephen Murray], among others. She delivered an irritatingly abrasive and one-note performance in the former and just seemed disconnected in the latter.
I don’t know if she would have fared any better with different and mores skillful directors, but I tend to think that the quality of her performances was always contingent on what was going on in her personal life. For instance, she and her boyfriend Tom Neal [the star of the classic B film noir Detour] were allegedly drinking and fighting a lot when she was filming in England and I believe these distractions negatively impacted her ability to concentrate on the job at hand.
Barbara Payton was briefly married to Franchot Tone in the early 1950s [1951-1952]. What was their marriage like? And how was Payton’s relationship with B-movie actor Tom Neal?
Barbara and Franchot Tone were totally ill-suited for one another and I believe their marriage was doomed from the start. While they initially had a respect and a genuine affection for each other, this quickly disappeared after Franchot realized that Barbara couldn’t remain faithful. Later, their relationship was filled with duplicitous and vengeful acts fueled by obsessive jealousy and game-playing, and an almost sadomasochistic feeding off of each other’s weaknesses and most fragile emotions. Simply put, their relationship was a mistake from the get-go and highly dysfunctional (with a capital “D”).
Barbara’s relationship with Tom Neal was another exercise in masochism, I believe. They were both externally rough and irreverent, and they seemingly had over-the-top sex drives that they indulged often with not a thought (or care) to the possible consequences. Neal was also said to have an explosive temper – easy to anger and to react in an often physically aggressive manner – and for some inexplicable reason Barbara seemed to enjoy needling him and invoking his anger.
Barbara had serious self-worth issues as well as some heavy psychological baggage and severe emotional problems. I have no doubt that she was mentally ill. I don’t think Barbara ever stood a chance at succeeding in relationships with either Franchot Tone or Tom Neal – or with anyone else, for that matter. She needed intense, long-term psychotherapy, something that she, sadly, never received.
What did Barbara Payton do once her film career came to a halt?
Barbara lived a kind of aimless and almost nomadic existence after her film career ended. She wandered about – from California and Nevada to Arizona and Mexico and God knows where else – trying to find herself, I guess. She worked a series of menial jobs in the 1960s, and earlier had tried her hand at running a few businesses, including a combination restaurant and nightclub in California.
When things were really bad, she took whatever job she could find. Cleaning motel rooms on Skid Row, working as a shampoo girl in a beauty parlor and waiting on drunks in a strip club, scrubbing toilets … Barbara always did whatever she had to do to survive. She showed tremendous fortitude. Unfortunately, every job she ever held was ruined by her personal problems and the often tumultuous events in her life.
Barbara Payton died in 1967, at the age of 39. Why so young?
Barbara suffered from a longstanding battle with alcohol and drug abuse, and both diseases played a part in her early demise. Near the end of her life she also experienced several prolonged bouts of homelessness where she often went days without eating, and I believe her spirit and her desire to live declined hand-in-hand with the steady decline of her physical health.
By the time that Barbara died at 39 she was extremely worn out – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Although she officially died of heart and liver failure, I personally believe she had also lost the will to live years earlier and sort of just “faded away.”
Anything you’d like to say about her 1963 autobiography “I Am Not Ashamed”?
The book’s content has been criticized a lot over the years, and while it’s clear that Barbara [above, with Tony Wright in Bad Blonde] didn’t “write” it herself I feel that she likely shared a lot of anecdotes from her life with the book’s real author, Leo Guild, who wound up putting his own spin on them. I think you have to kind of weed through it to separate the wheat from the chafe, but there are definitely little nuggets of information in there that help explain who Barbara was. I tried like hell to find out if the reel-to-reel audio tapes of Barbara’s and Guild’s interview still exist – I even hired a private detective to search for them – but unfortunately I came up empty handed. I’m sure they would have revealed a lot about her state of mind at the time and the extent of Leo Guild’s influence on the finished product.
During your research, did you uncover much new information on Barbara Payton? Could you provide us with an example?
Yes, thanks to her family and friends I learned a lot of things about Barbara that had never been documented before. For instance, she was an excellent cook going back to her adolescence, and in fact she was described by several people who knew her as actually being “a gourmet cook.” She was also adept at interior decorating and design, and she had the true temperament of an artist.
Barbara was also a very warm and nurturing person – which is something of a revelation as it flies in direct contrast to the widely held notion that she was a selfish and cold-hearted bitch. I’m not saying she couldn’t be tough – believe me, she could – but her normal, every-day demeanor (especially when she wasn’t feeling threatened or frightened or attacked by the press, etc.) was very kind and affectionate. She was compassionate, loathed any kind of mistreatment or injustice, and had a deep affinity for the underdog – things that totally won me over.
Barbara loved affection: giving it and getting it. She craved love, affection, and attention, and she was probably as needy as any one person can be. She was a most fascinating creature and I hope the book will help reveal some of her very special inner qualities. As someone said about her, “She was a worthwhile human being and I only wish she had believed that.” I couldn’t agree more.