Re-reading Barbara Payton's I Am Not Ashamed
"Well, I could do all sorts of things, and to do them right, and it might look like they would lead to fame and fortune but... down, down, I skidded with nothing to hold onto."
--From I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton
Forget all these namby-pamby film starlets currently clogging our multi-plexes. And please, forget all their notorious lives (Winona shoplfiting, Courtney's drug battles, Nicole, Paris, Lindsay and the like). If you're any self-respecting fan of the film starlet in all her gory glory, no one holds a candle to the beautiful, later ravaged, Barbara Payton. A gorgeous, sexy, pouty-lipped blonde who starred alongside James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Lloyd Bridges in the impressive noir Trapped, her real life was not only stranger, but more dramatic and certainly seamier than any fiction she starred in.
Chronicled in her long out-of-print 1963 memoir I Am Not Ashamed (which has to be THE greatest star bio title EVER), Payton (or a ghost writer) tells of a life so tumultuous, you can't believe she got out of it alive. Well, in actuality, she didn't. Affairs with actors to producers to shrinks to pimps; violent, troubled relationship to Tom Neal (star of the seminal sleazy noir Detour who later served time for offing his third wife) and Franchot Tone (whom Neal memorably brawled with); a notorious incident with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner during which an enraged Frank Sinatra walked in (Payton, cleverly, hot-footed it before Frank found her) shoplifting, prostitution (she was arrested in a bar on Sunset Boulevard—so perfect) and loads of drinking—the gal did it all. (I've heard much of this is apocryphal but I'm sure just as much is true.)
In blunt prose that reveals a con-artist's take on Hollywood (this lady knows a wolf), Payton is all at once, funny, wise, vain, humble, pathetic and very, very educational. Though a star in the late '40s and '50s, her insights remain fresh today. Her book should be required reading for all aspiring actress' placing their dreams in this dirty, lonely town. Just read her introduction:
"I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their names for success. There was my picture on the front pages of every paper in the country... Today I live in a rat infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and I will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed."
Even after the book was published, Payton remained a handful--knifed by a trick, drinking ever-heavily and finally, tragically dying at the tender age of 39 of heart and liver failure. A sad way to go for such a charismatic and stunning star, who participated in, but was nevertheless swallowed up by that monster called Hollywood. Again, It's tragic but at times Payton pisses you off (it's a tough business, but why did she throw it away so early? Did she have to sleaze up every situation?) but you'll leave the read respecting her brassy, noir-like take on this town. And if you've lived here long enough, you might possibly relate.
To my delight, the hard-boiled tome was finally re-released a few years ago after being long out of print. And though sometimes sparse, with Payton leaving out enough stories to frustrate, it's a brave page turner. It's no surprise the book was an inspiration to actress Jessica Lange while she prepared for her role in the re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visit Holloway House Books and order a copy for a mere $6.39. Or grab a copy at L.A.'s great Samuel French Bookstore on Sunset Blvd (I demanded they order the thing!). This is money well-spent on a gal who deserved millions for telling it like it was and how she wanted to tell it--even if some of it may have be made up. Who cares? In the end she's tragic but unforgettable. There will never, ever be another Ms. Payton.
Note: Look for John O'Dowd's bio on Barbara, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" to be released November 2006.