Barbara Payton died in San Diego — on the bathroom floor of her parents’ Mission Hills home at 1901 Titus Street — on May 8, 1967. Her death certificate listed cause of death as “acute pulmonary congestion with focal pulmonary hemorrhage due to portal cirrhosis” (heart and liver failure). She was 39 years of age.
Perhaps Payton’s most celebrated film is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), also starring James Cagney. Her other films include Trapped (1949), Only the Valiant (1951), Drums in the Deep South (1951), Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Bad Blonde (1953), The Great Jesse James Raid (1953), and Murder Is My Beat (1955)
But Payton is mainly recalled today for the tabloid scandals that exploded her Hollywood career — the notorious brawl involving actors Tom Neal and Franchot Tone; her tumultuous drinking; the arrest for prostitution…
The following “memoir” of Barbara Payton, written by Robert Polito, appears in O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors (Pantheon), coedited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson.
For a few years during the early 1960s my father tended bar at the Coach and Horses on Sunset, in Hollywood. Weekdays he inventoried the sale of stamps, money orders, and Pitney Bowes Machines as supervisor of a Santa Ana Post Office, close to where he lived in a tidy dingbat studio. But I was about to turn 13, and he hoped to send me to a “real college.” The post office discouraged second jobs for government employees of his rank, so my father moonlighted only at bars, all transactions cash.
The Coach and Horses lured patrons with the natty coat of arms of a British pub, but inside the landscape registered saloon. This was residential Hollywood. Cocktail lounges unattached to hotels or eateries still tended to be rare in Los Angeles and survived on local drunks who could swing the tab — well drinks 65 cents. Fourteen stools along a runty bar, half as many booths strung in a miniature railroad, the vibes at the Coach and Horses read dark: dusky paneling, blackout drapes, shaded lamps. Haul in a couple of slot machines and you might feel transported to Vegas, even Barstow.
The summer of 1962 my father let me join him for his Saturday stints. My parents already were separated, and he took custody of me weekends. In the beginning I was too shy to connect with anyone but him, but I loved the overheard chatter, wisecracks, complaints, the provocative fragments of confessions. The silent drinkers, draining the day over the Citizen-News, I also admired, because they were harder to figure out. I read novels and music magazines sitting at a desk in the ruins of an office that the staff tagged the “Black Hole of Calcutta,” up a shaky flight of stairs at the back; or sometimes I moved to the last booth, where we covertly replaced the mood lighting with a 40-watt bulb — still too dim to menace the perpetual twilight. We made a day of it, before heading off to supper and a movie. The whole experience was a lot like going to a loud library.
We were about three or four weeks into our routine when a day manager, probably Rodney, an occasional deejay at Hollywood High dances, started to lecture my father. He felt sorry for me, he said, rotting away doing nothing on another beautiful L.A. afternoon. His concern could also have betrayed the sodden departure the previous night of his latest barback — a 50ish ex–race-car driver fleeing overdue alimony. (The Coach and Horses rotated help nearly every payday.)
Rodney suggested I could better occupy myself. For exactly a dollar less than minimum wage, he put me to work retrieving bottles and splits, sweeping cigarettes off the black-and-red carpeting, soaking glasses. My father and I opened the bar Saturdays at noon. Quickly I graduated also to Friday evenings.
I was too thrilled to tell my mother about my secret employment but lied cautiously.
* * *
Ralph and Leo from Holloway House stopped at the Coach and Horses evenings after work, and Leo usually returned Saturday. Back then, Holloway House — situated up on Holloway Drive — published bottom-feeder Hollywood autobiographies along the lines of Jayne Mansfield’s Wild, Wild World. Earnestly sensational scientific exposés, such as Psychodynamics of Unconventional Sex Behavior by Paul J. Gillette, Ph.D., and unexpurgated classics — Satyricon: Memoirs of a Lusty Roman — rounded off the list.
Leo was an old columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, a squat mischievous man. He would discover me with a book at the bar during the ordinarily vacant afternoons, and he started to joke with me about school. Leo could talk to anyone.
One day he arrived lugging a fat brick of loose pages — “What’s your spelling like?” he quizzed me. His company needed a person to fix galleys. Leo said he was sick of doing everything himself. For exactly a dollar more than minimum wage I signed on as the exclusive proofreader at Holloway House.
This was perfect, since I would now be paid double for reading at the Coach and Horses. The first titles I remember were Hollywood Screwballs and The Many Loves of Casanova.
* * *
The Coach and Horses swirled with legends of famous lushes who boozed there — Hitchcock, Jason Robards, Richard Harris, William Holden. But the only star — if star’s the right name for her — we ever saw was Barbara Payton.
Someone, no doubt Leo, told me about “the scandal.” Back in the early 1950s Payton was coming off a leading role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, when she met B-movie actor Tom Neal at a party. Within days she ended a relationship with Franchot Tone, proclaiming her engagement to Neal. But believing marriage to the more prominent and accomplished Tone might advance her Hollywood stature, Payton ditched Neal — only to return again. “He had a chemical buzz for me that sent red peppers down my thighs,” she subsequently explained to Confidential. But the night before Payton was to marry Neal, she contrived a date with Tone. Neal waited up for them. The former boxer smashed Tone’s nose and sent him to the hospital with a concussion and fractured cheekbones. Tone secretly underwent plastic surgery.