Barbara Payton was gracious enough to let Leo Guild into her apartment. That’s one way of looking at this sleazy/sad alliance, a union of two hustlers making a fast buck, pushing forward in spite of their scummy shambling lives and, in the end, perpetually losing. But as Guild reported later, Payton, though polite on the phone, was in person, gross: “pig fat” as he indelicately called her with a “red, angry scar coming from under the shirt and running down her thigh.”
Recalling their meeting to work on her 1963 autobiography, the shocker “I Am Not Ashamed” (more recently reissued through Spurl Editions, the cover photograph a weary and worn out Payton clutching a box of tissues, walking through court in her last mink coat) Guild in, 1967 (the year Barbara died), wrote in Pix Magazine:
"I left my typewriter at six o’clock and drove over to a broken- down apartment house (since razed) opposite a bar she hung out in called the Coach and Horses. The smell in the hall was of cooking cabbage. Her apartment was number six. I knocked and she yelled, ‘Entre vous.’”
“Entre vous!” Well, now that is gracious, aggressively so. And weirdly charming. Charming in the way we might imagine Beverly Michaels angrily letting in Percy Helton in Wicked Woman. Gracious in the way Shelley Winters might attempt to impress James Mason’s Humber Humbert in Lolita. Loud and obnoxious and scarily friendly, but, delightful, in her own way. And harder. And tougher. And sadder. Who the hell does Guild think he is? Payton just happened to be a Hollywood prostitute at the time, living with her pimp. What made Guild any more superior? Had Charles Bukowski been privy to this (and one wonders if Payton and Bukowski ever crossed paths – they were imbibing in nearby Hollywood watering holes), he would’ve lessoned Guild on manners regarding the proper slumming of winos. This is, in Bukowki’s words, a “distressed goddess” you’re dealing with here. A woman who went from once being married to intellectual, dapper Franchot Tone to knifed by a trick (“Thirty-eight stitches from my fleshy belly down.”) And then there was Tom Neal. Entre vous at your own risk.
Guild was the ghostwriter behind Payton’s infamous autobiography boasting the blazing, pre-hashtag anti slut shaming title, “I Am Not Ashamed” (which she did indeed, say, bless her) a man who exploited and recorded a wine soaked, washed-up, once-gorgeous ex-movie-star at the lowest point of her life. Guild also penned Hedy Lamar’s scandalous “Ecstasy and Me” as well as books on Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield and Fatty Arbuckle, and then, moving to Holloway House, cranked out titles like, “Street of Ho's.” Yes, “Street of Ho’s.” He’s an odd writer. Terrible, in some cases, but when merged with Payton, something interesting happened. There’s a hyper-drama and unaffected quality to the prose, likely as Barbara’s mental state at the time, the way drink and drugs crank you up and flatten you out. Yes, Guild was strange too. As described by The Stranger’s Paul Collins, perhaps the only writer who marked the ten year anniversary of Guild’s passing, the 1976 “Street of Ho’s” reads “like... well, like Bob Hope's assistant writing a novel about hookers. Representative sentence: ‘Sheila made him a ham and cheese sandwich and they made love while he ate.’”
Frankly, and perhaps out of context, that’s a good sentence. Weird, sexy, direct, and a little disgusting. Or a little delicious. Your choice. And interestingly, something Payton may have said while throwing her head back and cackling a laugh. And then there’s the joke about Bob Hope. He knew a thing or two about Barbara. Payton’s reported ex-lover, Hope allegedly slept with her, furred and jeweled her, and kept her in an apartment (while married of course). She later ratted him out to the tabloids. This did nothing to harm Hope and everything to bury Barbara – her burning of bridges did her no favors.
Hollywood does not like their beloved comedians to be revealed as, well, human, and a little sleazy. And Payton’s behavior, some might say unseemly, some might say she made her own bed, some might say rebellious, harmed her career. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but hell hath no fury like legions of Hollywood men, many probably given the brush-off by young, beautiful Barbara, watching and enjoying the decline and decay of a woman. Barbara created a lot of her problems, but she was also damaged, from childhood, from Hollywood, from drink and drugs. There's something beyond sexism when it comes to Barbara – sadism. And masochism. Baby Jane Hudson was treated nicer (and treated herself better) than Barbara. At least she had a maid and a house and a sister. But that was just fantasy.
Guild tapped out Payton’s tome quickly, serialized it in some scandal rags, and publisher Holloway House paid her 1,000 bucks -- money that dissolved in a bottle of booze or burned up on a bent spoon of heroin. The book came and went and then, through time, came back again, a cult curiosity. The ultimate downfall. Who had ever written a book this unabashedly unashamed? No one.
But here’s the thing, Payton’s drunken ramblings and recollections (who knows how much are true or truer than you could ever imagine?) melding with Guild’s jazzed-up pulp speak becomes something of a minor masterpiece (though minor is not exactly the right word here...). A dime store (in the best sense of the term) “Notes From Underground” -- the bellowing of the underground woman, telling us there is something wrong with her looks (and most certainly her liver), filled with regret, self doubt, black humor, pride and touching reassurance that it might work out one day knowing damn well it won’t. As she, via Guild, wrote with all the flavor of Horace McCoy: “Forever is just a weekend, more or less.”
Horace McCoy, in fact, fits within this story, a story he could have written, and a writer connected to Payton’s own stardom: Her big breakout came from a McCoy adaptation, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, a title so prophetic it’s almost too tragically perfect. After the gorgeous, buxom blonde impressed in earlier fare, most notably Trapped opposite Lloyd Bridges, Warner Brothers signed her and in, 1950, she acted her hard-boiled ass off opposite one of the biggest WB stars of all time, James Cagney. She had made it. As she wrote:
“This may seem conceited, but it’s true. I was first to use what now is called ‘The Method’ act. I felt my power before I even went before the cameras. Jimmy Cagney was the star. I played a girl named ‘Holiday’ in the movie Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
“I just talked and stumbled around and wasn’t formal – just had fun. The critics loved it. The word ‘natural’ was used in all the reviews. Sure, I was scared before I went before the cameras, but it all worked out perfectly.”
“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.”
But over a decade later, things had changed:
“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 will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed.”
But was she ashamed? One is not so sure, giving the book an extra dose of pathos. If you read John O’Dowd’s impressive, indispensable biography of Payton, entitled, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” Payton was not simply the tough tootsie the autobiography made her out to be. She was an early rebel, she played by her own rules, she fucked off and fucked up, but she wasn’t a terrible person --- she loved her son, felt awful about losing him (and her son still loves her), was often a loyal friend and was, quite clearly, deeply alcoholic. She was also shooting heroin. O’Dowd has nothing nice to say about the Payton/Guild collaboration and, as empathetic as O’Dowd is, one can easily see why.
But there’s a raw power to “I Am Not Ashamed,” that, even with and because of its questionable veracity, stuns with a harrowing account of that timeless struggle so many face in Hollywood – keeping a firm grip. And adding to the struggle – keeping a firm grip as a woman in Hollywood. The book works as real documentation of a downfall but also allegorical – mythic in its observations of just how hard some women can fall. And how much men can want women to fall. And how women can even embrace that fall. The shelf life of an actress was terrifying then, and terrifying now. Barbara’s demise reads like a horror movie for any actress losing one too many parts as time marches on. The roles are drying up. What to do? The world twists to make them seem a grotesque – Barbara actually became it.
Barbara, in her own words, only knew how to act. She tried to employ herself, wash hair, work at a hotel, move to Mexico (which she enjoyed) but that was short lived. This is an actress and, so, even her bedtime escapades became something of a show; she’s still the star of her own movie (as detailed in O’Dowd’s book she often left the shades open with clients, so those outside world could get a proper screening). She was the big, peroxide, blonde star lead in her seamy little world, with all its ups and downs, bounced checks, stolen purses, court appearances and police pick-ups -- she would continue to make money pleasing her public. Once they were fans, now they were Johns. And they were as worshipful and as critical as the public and the writers and the lovers ever were. And nasty.
The judgment of her seems especially harsh, twisting her beauty into continual ugliness and the (gasp!) horror of growing old and not just blousy, bloated. The way people viewed Payton (though some friends felt for her) is with the underlying sense of “she deserves it.” Franchot Tone can mess up his life and relationships three times over, but once Barbara took up with Detour actor Tom Neal after marriage to Tone (Neal almost killed Tone in a beat down that was the scandal of Hollywood – something you can’t even imagine today, and Neal didn’t fare much better than Payton in the end) the limited but powerful actress (she really had it on screen – even up to her last film, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder is My Beat) was done for.
There’s an account in O’Dowd’s book of a Payton friend observing Barbara on the street from his car during her downbeat days, running through the rain in the night. She’s wearing short shorts and sopping weight. What a sight. That blonde, wet and rushing through the darkness, her hair glowing. He was horrified by what he saw, but, he could still see that movie star there; the confidence of her gait. She walked like a goddess. Looking at Payton through various police snaps and older sexy shots, the reader can see it too, even in the supposedly ghastly photos taken of Payton for “I Am Not Ashamed.” Yes, she looks bloated and busted with her chintzy little fur and shoved down top, but there’s a beautiful woman in there (even Guild, as mean as he was, could see it). She really was a stunning creature – good bones, luscious lips, a defined jaw –it’s still there – just puffed up and drunk and, for lack of a better word, trashy. So what? How dare she age? How dare she suffer and not stay pretty?
Thinking of her battered body, jumping into all of those stranger's cars, how is she supposed to look? That image of her running down the street in wet shorts, it's so sad and sick and insolently sexual. One can see how men would gravitate to her, even in that debased state and exactly for that debased state. She’s not just a diamond in the rough but a diamond you'd find lying in a gutter, covered by a wet mink – you’d have to look closely to see it glistening. And she must have.
One can imagine Payton still looking like a hot mama in some of those bars. Internally, though? Men go through hard times in life, indeed, but women, women have wombs. There’s pain there. Staggering down the street, too many men, too many hard sex encounters, one involving a knifing, it’s hard not to think of that that wounded womb, almost as if Payton’s mixture of pride and self-loathing is the ultimate, dramatic symbol of a self-flagellating movie star saint. Her sex as stigmata. By the end of “I Am Not Ashamed,” no matter how sordid and check-cashing both Barbara and Guild were in exploiting her sorry state, one can only feel empathy. As she opined:
“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."
Payton died at 39. Kidney and heart failure. Just got up, staggered across the room, walked into the bathroom and dropped dead in her parent’s house. Never made it to 40, that dreaded age for actresses. Could she have turned it around? Maybe. But probably not. And would she have wanted to? Who knows? She was excited at the end of the book – she was called to be an extra in the Robert Aldrich picture Four For Texas. Aldrich, he of Baby Jane, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Autumn Leaves and The Legend of Lylah Clare. Ironic that Aldrich excelled at the feminine grotesque while managing to be quite sympathetic towards the perils of women aging (see Autumn Leaves). On screen anyway. Movies of lonely women and wrecked movie stars are easier to stomach. Facing those lines, cheaply bleached hair and drunken, lost eyes in the flesh -- that’s too close to the truth. It’s not amusing, it's not entertaining. As she wrote of her colorful, tragic, short life: “It was joke-like. But I couldn’t laugh.”