When facing into the camera Payton scarcely moves, except her mouth to deliver her lines.
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.
Payton wed Tone upon his recovery. She divorced him 53 days later. Neal and Payton toured in a backwater road production of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but both careers derailed.
Connecting that Barbara Payton to the woman in the Coach and Horses demanded impossible time-travel. Our Barbara Payton 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 swelled, and she carried an old man’s pot belly that sloshed faintly when she moved. Her gowns and dresses looked more like antique costumes than clothes, creased and spotted. She must have weighed 200 pounds.
She didn’t resemble anyone two actors would fight over.
Barbara Payton was then 34 years old — younger than my father. She didn’t come across as bitter, or angry, or crazy. She clearly wasn’t rich, but she always carried $10 or $20 for her drinks.
Beyond the rosé, Barbara emanated a chronic self-abdication that outmaneuvered most humiliations. If a new customer of the Coach and Horses wondered whether there might be any regrets, she’d pause, taste her wine, and answer as though she had never considered the question. “You know, if I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same. It’s all in heaven in a little black book with neat lines. You are what you are and there’s no out. You do what you have to do.”
She was the first person I met who spoke like she lived in a movie. She conversed through hard-boiled maxims.
“I got news for you, baby — nobody’s civilized. You peel off a little skin and you got raw flesh.”
“But forever is just a weekend — more or less.”
She had a theory that different sleeping pills will give you different sorts of dreams. She couldn’t recall any brand names — only colors, red for passionate dreams; white for horror dreams. Barbara maintained she told this to Gregory Peck while they were filming Only the Valiant. He jotted it down.
She enjoyed washing men’s dirty shirts — said she liked it the way someone liked playing golf.
Barbara entered the Coach and Horses every Saturday afternoon at five o’clock, and she left at seven, as methodical as a stopwatch conductor. Fridays she would land around eleven and remain on her stool until we closed at one. Leo sometimes would escort Barbara home — Friday, anyway, but never Saturday, when she always insisted on leaving alone. Her apartment, it turned out, was right on Holloway Drive.
Ralph once joked that Leo could smell a book in a Hollywood toilet. Soon after my proofreading chores started for Holloway House, Leo advanced Barbara Payton $250 for her life story.
He loaned her a tape recorder to reconstruct her memories. A young woman Leo knew named Nancy — I heard later she dated, maybe even married one of the Wilsons, of the Beach Boys — would actually write the text. My job was to transcribe the tapes.
Leo titled Barbara’s story after a line she regularly used around the bar: I Am Not Ashamed.
I typed on a sleek Remington Portable (courtesy of Holloway House) up in the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” Barbara’s tapes came as a revelation — to me, though hardly, I suspect, to Leo and Ralph. If her Hollywood past loomed a distant mystery, her present amounted to an “other life.” Five minutes into the first reel Barbara was describing her practices as a hooker along the Sunset Strip.
On the tapes she compared her book to “a kind of detective story. I — or we — want to find out what happened that started me on the skids, down, down, down, down.” Yet Barbara was short on motive or responsibility. Even “the scandal” seemed less a life-transforming watershed than another spongy anecdote.
Barbara herself charted her fall as an inverse pyramid of declining cash. There was stardom and $10,000 a week. Then, all but inexplicably, no roles — instead $300 “gifts” tactfully deposited inside her purse by producers. Then, $100 gifts, left less discreetly on her dresser. She bounced a check at a Hollywood grocery store to purchase liquor. She slept with her landlady’s husband for the rent, and on Christmas Eve with an actor friend for $50, then $20 johns, then $10.
Now — her voice woozed from the speaker — “The little money I accumulate comes from old residuals, poetry, and favors to men.... I love the Negro race, and I will accept money only from Negroes.... White men don’t seem to go for me anymore.... Wine and bare bodies and nightmare sleep and money that was never enough to pay the bills…. One night I realized I was in bed with a Negro. He was gentle and kind to me…. He gave me five dollars…. Five dollars!”
The hooking explained Barbara’s meticulous timetable in the Coach and Horses. Friday she drank after she roused a few bucks. Saturday she braced herself against the evening ahead.
The poems, though, appeared to scratch a remnant of pride amid the drift. “I decided it was all right to be a hustler as long as I wrote poetry,” Barbara declared on the tapes. “Even in bed with a trick I could think of lines.” Her poems zigzagged like her stories — the few poems she showed us. Fragments, essentially: some phrases about Tom Neal, followed by an image from her Texas childhood, ending on a hymn to rosé wine. A writer friend, she mentioned, sold them to a “way-out beatnik journal” for her.
I asked my father if he knew about Barbara’s secret. He laughed. Anything she did was okay, he said, assuming she didn’t do it in the Coach and Horses — and provided she stayed away from me.
He did allow Barbara to take me to the movies, twice, each occasion one of her old films. While we were working on the book, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye played at the Oriental, a few doors down Sunset. Another afternoon we rode the bus over to the Encore at Melrose and Van Ness for Trapped.
Watching seated alongside Barbara, I was startled by her glamour — slim, blonde, beautiful — and the strangeness of actually knowing someone who made movies.
Seeing those films again, and some others for this history, I’m struck more by her obvious disquiet as an actress. Barbara Payton starred in roughly 11 features between 1949 and 1955, but she flashes anxiously from the margins of her movies. Her presence is fleeting — even when she attained top billing for Only the Valiant or Bride of the Gorilla her on-screen time amounted to staggered cameos; her command of role is hesitant, uneasy. As Holiday Carleton in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Payton wobbles from ingenue to she-devil. When facing into the camera she scarcely moves, except her mouth to deliver her lines. Her transitions roll as a succession of production stills, a flip-book of faltering moods.
She does not so much inhabit a character as impersonate a starlet — an act, I suppose, she merely extended to the Coach and Horses, or the Sunset Strip. In her movies Payton is a doll dropped into a scene to insinuate sex. Directors took to filming her from the side, her breasts vaulted in silhouette.
Only Edgar Ulmer understood how to spin her anxiety into an advantage. For Murder Is My Beat — Payton’s last film — he cast her as Eden Lane, a nightclub singer convicted of murder. On the way to prison, Lane is convinced she sees the supposed victim from her train and escapes. For much of the action the viewer is uncertain whether Lane committed a crime. Payton’s tension plays as suspense, her hesitations as possible instability, the intimation that she might indeed be a murderess.
On the tapes Barbara asserted she bankrolled the completion of Murder Is My Beat by sleeping with a prosperous stockbroker. “Mr. Shellout,” she christened him.
She even put me — or someone like me — into the book. “One night when a friend brought over another friend,” she suggested, “and the first one left leaving me with this kid…. He was so awed by me I went to bed with him and then wouldn’t take his money. That’s how lousy a hooker I was.”
This never happened. But many of Barbara’s implausible stories weren’t so readily dispelled. She also clutched secrets — her first husband, their son in Texas.
Nancy and I probed and verified what we could; then we camouflaged the rest against lawsuits. The whole process took us about a month.
I Am Not Ashamed finally appeared in 1963. When Barbara Stanwyck read Payton’s autobiography, she apparently quipped, “Well, she damn well should have been!”
Tom Neal married, and his wife died of cancer. He remarried and opened a landscape business in Palm Springs. During a domestic dispute his new wife was shot to death. Like his character Al Roberts at the conclusion of Edgar Ulmer’s film Detour, Neal maintained the killing was an accident. Barbara attended the trial wearing dark glasses. Neal served six years in the California Institute for Men at Chino before being paroled.
On her way back from Mexico in 1967, Barbara Payton died of complications from alcoholism in the bathroom of her parents’ San Diego home. “A blonde movie actress in Mexico,” she once said, “is always cause for celebration.”
My parents divorced, and my mother never discovered the Coach and Horses. But my father sent me as far East from the bar as possible — to Catholic Boston College. By then he had moved on to the more upscale Firefly Lounge.
Holloway House discovered Iceberg Slim, and everything changed.
Polito is the author of A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, as well as a book of poems, Doubles. He is director of the writing program at the New School in New York.