Marilyn Monroe. Audrey Hepburn. Lauren Bacall. These are the midcentury super starlets that you’re already familiar with. But what if I told you there’s an old time Hollywood actress who was just as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, with an equally lurid story?
You may not have heard of Barbara Payton before. Her career was short-lived; Barbara only starred in movies from 1950 to 1955! But she was once described by the Hollywood Press as “the most beautiful woman in pictures.”
Barbara Payton understood her place in the world, and she took pride in it. Barbara gave Hollywood her all, but time was not so kind to her. Her career ended with drug abuse, prostitution, and a stint in Mexico as a madam.
Barbara’s short life ended in 1967, when she was found by a dumpster dying of liver failure. Barbara’s meteoric rise and fall is tragic, fascinating, and amazingly human. In this video, we’ll tell you the whole, uncensored story of Barbara Payton’s tragic life.
Barbara Payton came from humble beginnings. She was born in 1927 as Barbara Redfield, to working-class parents who immigrated from Norway.
In her 1963 autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, Barbara describes her childhood as tumultuous. She was an only child growing up in Odessa, Texas, and wanted nothing more than to get out. Her parents were controlling, limiting Barbara’s interactions and behavior as much as they could; something Barbara resented even as an adult.
Barbara became aware of her sexuality pretty early on; she says she was 12 or 13 when she realized the power of her femininity. Her femininity and sexuality were an asset, not a hindrance, and she could use them to get what she wanted.
Her teenage years were impulsive and dramatic. At fifteen, she began a sexual relationship with a friend’s father. At sixteen, she had a whirlwind romance and elopement with classmate William Hogue; they married impulsively in 1943, then swiftly annulled the marriage when Barbara’s parents found out. A few months after the annulment, Barbara dropped out of the eleventh grade and set her sights on Hollywood.
Through all these tribulation, Barbara knew one thing: she wanted to be in movies. Her goal was to get out of Odessa, Texas, and into Hollywood, no matter what it took.
What it ended up taking was another marriage, this time to an Air Force officer, John Payton. This time, her parents actively supported the marriage, even though Barbara was only seventeen; maybe they were tired of managing Barbara’s wildness themselves!
John and Barbara Payton married in 1944 and promptly moved to Los Angeles at Barbara’s insistence. Once there, she began a career in modeling, quickly landing gigs for high-fashion magazines and runways. She gave birth to their son, John Lee Payton, in 1947, and continued to work as a model and small-time actress.
However, balancing motherhood, a career, and a marriage proved to be too much for Barbara at the time. She and John Payton divorced in 1948, the first of many failed marriages for Ms. Payton. She kept the last name, however, and decided to try once and for all to become a big movie star.
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Now, let’s talk about what life was like for Ms. Payton once she made it in Tinseltown.
Hollywood men were quickly enchanted with Barbara’s beauty and affable demeanor. She cursed freely, drank wildly, and was impervious to judgement. Barbara was a confident, freewheeling single woman who would do anything for a role, and late 1940s Hollywood was truly not ready for her.
Barbara Payton figured out early on that the only way to really succeed as a beautiful woman in Hollywood was to weaponize her own sexuality. In her early acting days, she slummed it on casting couches, exchanged sexual favors, and even blackmailed producers to get what she wanted. Barbara even had an affair with an unnamed female co-star for a few months; whether this was a strategic move or simply done out of passion is unclear. But to Payton, life was for living, and her version of living involved a lot of sex.
In the late 40s, Barbara had developed an impressive modeling portfolio. She had established herself, too, as a great socialite on the Sunset strip. These connections are what earned her a role opposite James Cagney in 1950’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
This was Payton’s first big role, and it earned her instant notoriety. Audiences were spellbound by her wide eyes and golden hair; Hollywood men wanted to get a piece of her as soon as they could. By 1950, Barbara was earning over $10,000 a week modeling, acting, and being a woman-about-town. She even earned the nickname “Queen of Clubs”!
In 1950, A-list actor Franchot Tone became infatuated with Barbara. They became official quickly, capitalizing on their whirlwind romance for the tabloids. However, this marriage quickly exploded a year later, when Barbara fell in love with B-movie underdog Tom Neal. Neal and Barbara began an affair, and apparently weren’t great at hiding it, because Franchot Tone found out after only a few months. In September 1951, the two men got into a brawl in which Neal damaged Tone’s face, almost irreparably, giving him a concussion.
The tabloids had a field day with the fight, and Barbara certainly fanned the flames.She craved the attention, basked in it. This fame and name recognition served her career well: after 1951, every director wanted Barbara in their movies.
Barbara’s vivaciousness and enthusiasm was a double-edged sword, though. She was a heavy drinker and drug user; as she continued to get roles, her partying and general behavior led to tensions on set. Actor Gregory Peck requested that she be banned from the set of Only the Valiant; Frank Sinatra refused to allow his then-wife Ava Gardner to hang around Barbara after catching them blackout drunk and half-naked together. Barbara made friends everywhere she went, but she also made enemies.
Audiences loved Barbara. Men loved Barbara. But after 1955, her life took a difficult turn.
Lovers, Drugs, and Tricks
The drama with Franchot Tone and Tom Neal was not over in 1951. She married Tone soon after he was released from the hospital, but never cut off her affair with Tom Neal. “I was torn between what was good for me and what I wanted”, she writes about this time in her life. A year later, she divorced Tone and married Neal; but that marriage was short-lived as well, lasting only a weekend.
By 1953, both men decided they were done with Barbara and her drama. Neal and Tone both cut her off for good. Barbara responded in typical fashion: partying.
Now the gossip columnists, no longer enchanted with her beauty, turned nasty. The paparazzi would retell her wild nights with gusto, passing judgement on her sexual proclivity and party-girl ways. As her drama aired to the world, Hollywood lost its fascination with her looks.
Barbara’s last official Hollywood film, Murder is my Beat, was released in 1955. After that, she had difficulty finding gigs due to her reputation as an alcoholic and drama-monger.
She tried to turn to the strategy that served her so well in her early days: sleeping around. Barbara would call up powerful producers and directors she had connections with and proposition them, offering sexual favors in exchange for a job.
But this time, producers refused to bite. When they did, they would sit down and be honest with her: they weren’t going to cast her, but they’d pay her for her favors. One producer offered her $300 for a session.
Barbara was desperate. She was broke, still had a son to take care of, and hadn’t gotten a gig in years. She turned to prostitution out of desperation, hoping that selling her sex would help pull her out of the hole.
For the latter half of the fifties, Barbara worked as a high-end escort and prostitute in Chicago. She got involved with powerful men who could not resist her allure; businessmen, gangsters, and producers alike, all of whom wanted a piece of Barbara’s movie-star beauty.
But as the fifties ended and the sixties began, Barbara’s life went downhill. The years of drinking and partying were wreaking havoc on her figure, and the powerful men who had been funding her lifestyle began to lose interest. She left Chicago, spending the next few years bouncing around California and Mexico, writing poetry and working with smaller artists between sleeping with clients.
She continued drinking and partying, but her body just couldn’t keep up. Barbara became the specter of Sunset Boulevard; she would walk the streets late at night, dishevelled and drunk, looking for some sort of purpose or guidance.
Unfortunately, she never found it.
In 1967, a passerby found Barbara Payton collapsed in an alley. She was immediately taken to the hospital, where they diagnosed her with acute liver failure. Barbara was delirious, possibly still drunk or high, and passed away the next day.
Thus the story of illustrious, impulsive, and beautiful Barbara Payton comes to an end. Her life was a rollercoaster, but she maintained an optimistic and kind outlook through it all. From humble beginnings in Odessa, Texas
Some may say that Barbara Payton weaponized her sexuality. Others say that Hollywood failed her. But one thing is true through the whole story: Barbara’s legacy is as fascinating as it is outrageous.
What do you think? Was Barbara Payton a seductress, or was she another victim of mid century Hollywood misogyny? Leave your opinion in the comment section below!
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