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STARR LIGHT Barbara Payton
by STEVE STARR
2004-01-07

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Pictured Payton circa 1950.

The garbage workers thought they had found a bag of trash lying under a dumpster in the lot of a Thrifty Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard. When they realized it was a woman, they assumed she must be dead. She was filthy, caked with blood, and glazed with bruises. When they noticed she was breathing, the once beautiful golden girl named by Warner Brothers Studio 'The White Diamond With Blue Eyes,' and now a $5-a-trick streetwalker, was rushed to the hospital.

Barbara Lee Redfield was born Nov. 16, 1927, in an apartment above the restaurant run by her parents Erwin and Mabel, in Cloquet, Minn., a town that had been burned to the ground nine years earlier. Barbara was exceedingly pretty with white-blonde hair and deep blue eyes. She wrote 'I loved the winters. The cold, crisp Minnesota winters with a blue-black sky and a billion stars you could reach up and grab by the handful. I think I made a wish on every one of those stars.' When she was nine, Barbara's family, which included her younger brother Frank, moved to Odessa, Texas. She excelled in tennis, swimming and water skiing, and was raised as a strict Catholic. She adored cooking, and loved to prepare gourmet meals throughout her life.

At 15, Barbara lost her virginity with her schoolmate's 45-year-old father, while his guests were celebrating his birthday party. At 16 she eloped with William Hodge, but her parents had it annulled. At 17, she met 22-year-old Air Force Captain John Payton, and married him within a few weeks. Always a movie fan, Barbara begged John to take her to Hollywood for their honeymoon. She wrote to various studios, and was thrilled when she obtained a screen test with RKO Studios. But Barbara, newly pregnant, fainted on the set and the test was cancelled.

Barbara dreaded her trip back to Odessa. There, she bore a son, John Lee. She ditched her husband, grabbed her infant and her babysitting mother and headed back to Hollywood. She got a job as a carhop, and used her tips to gain entry into the Sunset Strip's most famous nightclubs such as Ciro's, Mocambo, and the Trocadero. Her beauty and provocative nature became the talk of the town. In 1948, Barbara landed a contract with Universal for $100 a week.

In 1949, a columnist called her 'Queen of the Nightclubs.' She began an affair with married man Bob Hope. When word got around, Universal dropped her. Hope set her up in a cozy apartment with beautiful furnishings and, in the words of the tabloids, 'a king-size double bed.' The affair lasted six months, and ended after she kept pressuring him for large amounts of money. Barbara was heard to complain, 'I never got more than a hundred dollars out of him at a time.' Hope paid her off with a large sum under the stipulation she keep quiet about everything and leave him alone. Barbara went through all the cash in a few months, and the foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, sexually obsessed female returned to partying at the Mocambo, where she dated dozens of Hollywood celebrities.

That same year, Barbara won her first starring role in the praised film Trapped, co-staring Lloyd Bridges. Payton gained more notoriety when her new 28-year-old boyfriend, movie extra, and sometime drug dealer Don Cougar beat up her elderly landlady during a 3 a.m. argument over the amount of rent Barbara owed. Don helped Barbara calm herself with marijuana and keep her weight down by popping speed daily. Later, heroin eased her pains. The pair created more publicity for the tabloids when they were called before a Federal Grand Jury to testify in a perjury trial of a heroin dealer, Stanley Adams, who was already serving time for murder of an informant. They testified that Adams was dining with them at Barbara's apartment at the time of the killing. The testimony was not convincing, and Adams remained in prison.

In 1950, Warner Brothers signed her for $5,000 a week, and she starred opposite James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Barbara was so terrific the studio doubled her salary to $10,000 and placed her opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas. It is alleged Payton had sexual flings during the filming with both Cooper and handsome co-star Steve Cochran.

Her next film was Only The Valiant with Gregory Peck. She allegedly had a fling with her leading man, and found a new sugar-daddy, Franchot Tone, one of Joan Crawford's ex-husbands. Franchot lavished Payton with gifts as she practiced her culinary skills on him until they were engaged. But her sexual compulsions propelled her into a fling with movie hunk Guy Madison. who was co-starring with her in Drums In The Deep South (1951). When Tone caught them in bed, the papers had a grand time. The couple remained engaged, but Payton's studio was displeased and they placed her in a B film, BrideOf The Gorilla (1951), now a cult movie. Payton looked spectacular, almost elevating the movie from its trashy script. During the filming she had an affair with her co-star Tom Conway, once famous for his Falcon movies, but by then an alcoholic has-been.

While Tone was in New York on business, Payton attended a pool party at the Sunset Plaza Hotel where she spotted actor Tom Neal (Detour) on the diving board in his revealing bathing suit. Drifting back and forth between the two men, Barbara had at least six wedding engagements. She announced plans to marry Neal Sept. 14, 1951. On the eve of their wedding Barbara dumped Tom and spent the afternoon with Franchot. That night when the couple returned after dining at Ciro's, Tom attacked Franchot on Barbara's patio, leaving the older actor hospitalized with severe head injuries and in a coma for 18 hours. She wed Franchot soon after, but 53 days later left him again for Tom. A few weeks after that she reconciled with Tone. Thereupon they had a tremendous fight. Franchot had Barbara followed, obtaining lurid photos of her in a garter belt and heals engaging with Neal in her favorite pastime, oral sex. Then Tone ly distributed copies of the pictures in unmarked envelopes in Hollywood. Franchot charged Barbara with extreme mental cruelty, and the divorce trial ended in June, 1952, with him paying Barbara off well enough for her to live in a 15-room mansion with servants. Lurid Confidential Magazine named Payton 'Hollywood's Hell-Raising Hussy.'

Tom and Barbara, objects of scorn, left for England. There, she made two cheap films, Bad Blonde, and Four-Sided Triangle. They returned five months later, and Barbara made a series of low-budget films. In June of 1953, the boozing couple, meanwhile wrecking their lives and looks, slapped together a production of The Postman Always Rings Twice for the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago. On opening night, smashed Barbara passed out on stage in Tom's arms. Later that year their drunken, violent relationship finally ended. In 1965, Tom Neal was convicted of shooting his third wife to death in a jealous rage, and spent seven years in a California prison.

Often referred to in the press as 'Glitterville's Top Tramp,' Barbara went on a sexual rampage as she picked up bellboys and truckers as well as celebrities. In 1956, a gossip columnist who hated Barbara, Virginia McPherson, unleashed a series of stories that exposed every aspect of Payton's life.

Barbara was arrested after writing bad checks to pay for groceries and liquor. She took off with a man to Mexico, where they stayed at a lush resort. When her escort returned to the States, 29-year-old Barbara met another guy at the pool, 23-year-old George Anthony Provas, and they married in Arizona, only to divorce in 1958.

Barbara found work as a cocktail waitress, a shampoo girl, and pumped gas. She drank even more heavily, gaining weight and wearing sloppy clothes. Barbara went to Palm Springs—it wasn't long before she was charging $100 a trick while she lounged at the Riviera. However, bloated Barbara was up against a lot of competition and she had to drop her price. Soon, she was booted from the premises. Back in Hollywood, in the Spring of 1963 she was knifed by a trick, and needed 38 stitches. Then, in the Fall she was fined $150 for prostitution. That same year, she published her memoirs through Holloway House, choosing the name I Am Not Ashamed. In 1967, Payton, bruised and beaten, was found under a dumpster. In April, Barbara's health was very bad, and she went to live with her parents in San Diego. Themselves alcoholics, they were of little help. On May 8, after hearing Barbara's intense screams from agonizing pain, Mrs. Redfield found her daughter's deteriorated body slumped over the toilet. The once gorgeous movie star was dead of heart and liver failure at 39.

Producer A.C. Lyles said: 'Barbara never had an itch she didn't scratch.'

Sources: Bad Blonde-The Tragic Life of 50's Starlet Barbara Payton by John O'Dowd, Fallen Angels by Kirk Crivello, Payton Web sites.

Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings, and jewelry, is celebrating its 37th anniversary in 2004, at 2779 N. Lincoln in Chicago.

Photo of Steve Starr, July 25, 2002, by Albert Aguilar. You may e-mail Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net .


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