Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

How Violence Derailed the Life and Career of Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton circa 1950. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Barbara Payton was filming Bride of the Gorilla, a horror movie that became a camp classic, when she met actor Tom Neal in July 1951. Barbara was engaged to star Franchot Tone who was in New York. Despite this, she romanced Tom.

Franchot returned to California in August. Tom had moved into the apartment in which Barbara lived. Barbara and Tom set their wedding date for September 14, 1951.

On the morning of September 13, Barbara borrowed Tom’s car, saying she needed it for a “business appointment.” She drove to Franchot.

Franchot and Barbara walked into her apartment at 1:30 a.m. Tom and Franchot quarreled. Barbara urged Franchot, “Get rid of Tom.”

“Let’s settle this thing outside!” Franchot challenged.

John O’Dowd writes in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, “The threesome had moved to the front patio of Barbara’s apartment when an adrenaline-powered Tom delivered a punch that – literally – sent his opponent airborne, knocking him a distance of twelve feet before slamming him into the ground. . . . Tom then pounced on Franchot, battering him in a brutal and bone-crunching assault.”

Barbara intervened. Tom slugged her in the eye.

A bystander called police, Tom went to jail and an ambulance rushed Franchot to a hospital.

TOM NEAL KNOCKS OUT TONE IN LOVE FIST FIGHT! and similar headlines eclipsed news of the Korean war.

On September 23, Franchot and Barbara together gave statements to the district attorney. Four days later, Franchot told that D.A. that he would not press charges against Tom.

Franchot and Barbara married on September 28, 1951.

The apex of this triangle was born on November 26, 1927. In her early 20s, she decided on an acting career.

Barbara Payton’s big break came with her starring role in Trapped (1949) opposite Lloyd Bridges. Bridges played the leader of a counterfeiting gang and Barbara his girlfriend. O’Dowd notes, “Barbara seemed to infuse some of her real-life characteristics of wide-eyed innocence mixed with a kind of reckless self-assurance into the role.”

Barbara Payton and Franchot Tone outside the Mocambo nightclub in Los Angeles on July 8, 1951. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The positive reviews for Barbara’s performance in Trapped led to her being cast opposite Jimmy Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950). Her acting was widely praised. On the Internet Movie Database, one reviewer describes her as “realistic” while another asserts that “beautiful” Barbara’s “tension and wild lilting ferocity and fear” burns through the movie “like a fuse.” Another calls her “resonant and convincing.”

Franchot Tone announced their engagement in October 1950.

Barbara played in Drums in the Deep South (1951) with Guy Madison – with whom she also played off-screen.

In mid-1951, Franchot barged into Barbara’s apartment to find her making love with Guy. “I’m engaged to this girl and I’m going to marry her!” Franchot shouted. “Are you?”

Guy answered, “No, I can’t. I’m already married.”

Thrilled to see two men squabbling over her, Barbara punched a pillow, kicked her legs in the air, and laughed.

This quarrel might be seen as foreshadowing of the fistfight that would follow it.

Barbara and Franchot were in a nightclub on October 29, 1951 when Franchot spotted gossip columnist Florabel Muir who had lambasted Barbara and he in print. Franchot shambled to Muir and yelled. She said, “You talk as though you’re mad at me.”

“Yes, I am,” he replied. “So mad, in fact, that I could just spit in your face. In fact, that’s just what I’m going to do.” The wad of spit caught her in the eye.

Cops carted Franchot to jail. He paid a $400 fine for battery on December 11, 1951.

While still married, Barbara re-kindled her romance with Tom. Tom accompanied Barbara on a promotional tour for Bride of the Gorilla.

Tom was out of sight when Barbara hooked up with six drunken cowboys in town for a rodeo. She encouraged them to fight for her favors leading to some arrests.

In March 1952, Franchot divorced Barbara.

Barbara traveled to Britain to make two low-budget films, Four-Sided Triangle (1953) and The Flanagan Boy (1953). Both films tanked.

Tom and Barbara split in November 1953.

Barbara Payton and Tom Neal arrive at Idlewild Airport. Photo by Art Edger/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Barbara returned to Hollywood. She co-starred with Sonny Tufts in the comedy Run for the Hills. Sonny plays an insurance actuary who fears nuclear war. Barbara is his wife. The couple moves into a cave. The film failed but Barbara’s performance was good. O’Dowd writes that she “shows an endearingly flighty, almost Gracie Allen-like quality in her acting, revealing a natural flair in her comic delivery.”

Barbara starred in Murder is My Beat (1955), playing suspected murderer Eden Lane. O’Dowd writes, “Barbara’s wonderfully subtle performance” is “well-regarded today by a myriad of film critics.” Critic Dennis Schwartz states that the movie’s “slight narrative is enhanced by the edgy performance of Barbara Payton, who never tips her hand if she’s guilty or innocent.”

The film was a financial flop – and Barbara’s last performance.

Barbara vacationed in Mexico, returning home in October 1955. On October 14, she was arrested because checks she had written were returned for insufficient funds. A friend paid $1,500 bail and she was released from jail.

Barbara pleaded guilty to issuing a worthless check on December 27, 1955. The judge agreed to suspend a jail sentence if she paid a $100 fine. A friend paid it for her.

Barbara spent much time traveling from America to Mexico and back again.

Tanned, slim, and looking gorgeous, Barbara held an August 12, 1958 press conference to announce her comeback.

But filmmakers did not hire the scandal prone actress.

She was hired as a hostess at a restaurant in 1959, sometimes seating celebrities at whose homes she had once dined. She was fired for coming to work drunk. She worked at a dry cleaner’s in 1960 and was fired for the same reason. She worked at cocktail serving, hair shampooing, and gas pumping during the early 1960s.

She turned to prostitution, charging $300. When a customer left her $100, she was upset. He said, “Three hundred was a long time ago. I don’t want to hurt you, Barbara, but you’ve lost a little since then.”

When Barbara was arrested for prostitution on February 7, 1962 her price had dropped to $40.

On July 21, 1962, Barbara called police to report that the hotel room she shared with diaper seller Robert Sherry had been broken into and that the invaders had beaten Barbara. Sherry backed up her story.

An officer drove Barbara and Sherry to the police station. By the time they got there, their story had changed. They said a teenaged gang had dragged her to a lot where they beat her and attempted to rape her. Both gave vague descriptions of the attackers. Officers promised to investigate and paid for a cab to drive the couple home.

The next morning a cop found Barbara, wearing only a bathing suit and sweater, unconscious on a bench. He arrested her for public intoxication. She was soon released on $21 bail.

On July 28, 1962, police responded to a complaint of loud noise in an apartment in which a woman was “cavorting naked” before “an open window.” The woman was Barbara. She was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. A friend bailed her out.

In March 1963, a customer stabbed Barbara. She required 38 stitches from her stomach to a thigh. She later recalled, “Some filthy drunk got mad at me when I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”

Her price had slid to $5 for quick fellatio in parked cars.

On October 17, 1963, Barbara stood before Judge Bernard S. Seiber convicted of prostitution. Seiber admonished, “I find it wholly regrettable that a person of the obvious talents and capabilities of you, Miss Payton, has sunk to such low depths. I do hope, however, that there is still a germ of respectability somewhere within you that will enable you to be rehabilitated.” She paid a $150 fine.

The stabbing led publisher Holloway House to be interested in Barbara’s story. They enlisted columnist Leo Guild to ghostwrite it. She agreed to talk into a tape recorder so he could put the book together from the recordings.

Published in 1963, Guild titled it I Am Not Ashamed after something Barbara had supposedly said. There were reports that she was paid $1,000 or $2,000 or that she was paid not with money but with wine! The book was a poor seller.

Awhile after this book was published, Barbara was hired as a motel housekeeper. She lost the job due to drunkenness.

On April 1,1967, Tom Neal walked into a restaurant and informed the owners, who were close friends of his, that he had just shot and killed his wife Gail. His buddies laughed, thinking it was an April Fool’s joke.

But Tom, who had almost beaten Franchot to death, had really killed this time. Tom said he had accused Gail of infidelity and that had “grabbed a pistol from the coffee table and began waving it around.” He said it discharged accidentally when he tried to take it from her. He was charged with murder because the shot went through the back of her head. There are reports that Barbara was in the court on Tom’s November 1965 sentencing hearing.

Convicted of manslaughter, he was sentenced to one to fifteen years in prison. Barbara wrote him during the early years he was incarcerated.

In February 1967, two sanitation workers saw what they thought was a large bag of trash beside a dumpster. When they got closer, they saw it was a woman. Despite chilly air, she wore only a shift and flip-flops. Dried blood was caked around her mouth and nose and her limbs were covered with bruises. Her hair had two inches of dark roots below blond hair bunched into a disorderly bun.

To the men’s shock, she breathed. They rushed for help. Newspapers were soon filled with the story that the derelict was Barbara Payton who had been living on the streets for over a month.

Doctors determined that she had passed out from drinking. She was taken to the Los Angeles County General Hospital charity ward and diagnosed with “chronic alcoholism.”

After a brief hospital stay, she was driven to her parents’ home. She died on May 8, 1967.

In her later years, Barbara wrote poetry. Some was published in journals but only one brief poem is known. It is a haunting reminder of the star who crashed.

Love is a memory.

Time cannot kill

The cherished tune,

Gay and absurd,

And the music unheard.

Sources on following page. 

Categories
Advertisement