Envious kids used to ask me in those days, “How do you become a star? Is it talent? Pretty face? Is it body? Is it who you know? Who you sleep with?” well, it’s a little of each and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Barbara Payton was, to put it mildly, a hot mess. The once beautiful twenty year-old – who acted opposite James Cagney and Gregory Peck – saw her star value not so much plummet but shatter. Her final years were spent destitute, drunk and turning tricks in seedy apartment, surrounded by rats and empty wine bottles. Payton did it all, saw it all, and lost it all.
In 1963 Payton’s perfectly titled memoir “I Am Not Ashamed” (ghost written by Leo Guild) was released. The book is perfect Hollywood memoir – hugely more satisfying than any number of gossip columns that flood the Internet and fill today’s newspaper shelves. Early on when she brazenly declares, “I was the queen bee, the nuts and boiling hot,” you know this is going to be a treat.
Simply put, Payton was a bombshell, she knew she was a bombshell and she lived her live according to these rules. She did everything and I mean everything! She went from the glamour-puss ‘iced in diamonds’ at film premieres to turning tricks in her seedy apartment where she was knifed in the stomach by a client. Her affair with the actor Tom Neal – while she was married to the French star Franchot Tone – resulted in a fight between the two men and Franchot’s hospitalisation. She was even arrested for stealing liquor on Sunset Boulevard.
Yet she did not suffer fools gladly and knew how to hustle with the best of them. In some instances we see her assume the role of the fairy Godmother for younger co-stars, calling out inappropriate male behaviour and protecting girls as no one had done to her. She wanted to help out those on their way up, only too aware of an industry that would gobble you up and spit you as soon as looks fade or they grew bored of you. If only she had taken her own advice….
The inevitable happened: she got older and weight gain was part of her problem. No doubt this was aggravated by her bottle-of-wine-a-day habit. She failed to care for herself as she had cared for others. Instead, she plunged into a Rosé wine addiction that only added to – and addled – her downfall.
Despite her numerous mistakes you cannot help but want her to succeed; to have made the comeback she talks about and instead of falling into the tragic Hollywood trap of addiction and sleaze. You wanted her to be guided, as she wanted to guide others, and to stage that epic comeback that she talked about instead of dying of heart and liver failure at the tragically young age of thirty-nine.
“I Am Not Ashamed” is a fascinated read that exposes Hollywood in all of its sordid glory. Payton’s memoir could be a blueprint for all future young female stars: don’t let them suffer and follow in her footsteps.
“I Am Not Ashamed” is available now from spurleditions.com