By Chip Maloney | Executive Editor

In the well-populated pantheon of tragic and twisted screen temptresses, the disturbing, short, and violent life of Barbara Payton is possibly Hollywood’s saddest tale of all. Hers was a catastrophic and complete self-destruction rife with alcohol and drug abuse, frequent criminal activity, and prolific sexual debasement, all of which overshadowed her successful albeit brief film career.

Born Barbara Lee Redfield on November 16, 1927, in Cloquet, Minnesota into a blue-collar family of Norwegian descent, Barbara grew up to be a fetching blonde with a vivacious and energetic personality. She was extremely athletic as a child, and her figure benefitted very nicely from years of strenuous ice-skating, skiing, and snowshoeing during the long Minnesota winters. By the time she was a teenager, Barbara, after witnessing one too many booze-fueled altercations between her parents, had resolved to strike out for Hollywood to become a movie star. Barbara was well aware how her looks affected men, and her mother encouraged her to capitalize on them to get what she wanted. At 16, perhaps encouraged by mom’s advice, Barbara eloped with her first of four husbands, but the marriage was quickly annulled at the behest of the parents. Soon after, Barbara met her second husband, John Payton, a decorated combat pilot, and married him in 1945.

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

The couple moved to Los Angeles where John attended college and Barbara found work as a model. In 1947, they welcomed a son, John Lee, but the joy was short-lived as Barbara grew restless being a housewife and mother. She wanted to be in pictures, and using her modeling connections, secured a screen test at RKO. The test didn’t go well, and in need of money, she began working as a carhop at Stan’s Drive-in on Sunset Boulevard slinging shakes and burgers. She also began slinging herself to some customers, and used the money to buy an expensive wardrobe and hire photographers to follow her around Hollywood’s leading hotspots, The Trocadero, Ciro’s and El Mocambo, where she hoped to get noticed by studio bigs. The local tabloids soon dubbed her “Queen of the Night.”

By 1949, her marriage was in shambles, but her film career started to pick up when she caught the eye of Universal executive, William Goetz, and was given a bit-player contract at $100 a week. The young beauty’s reputation as a virtuoso blow-job artist was soon heralded throughout Tinseltown, and rapidly elevated her to the top level of Hollywood power brokers and tomcats. She counted Howard Hughes, Gary Cooper, gangsters Mickey Cohen and Don Cougar, Gregory Peck, George Raft, and Guy Madison among her many lovers. Attorney to the stars Greg Bautzer remarked of Payton’s oral skills, “I’ve had the best, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich, but I’d never had a proper blow-job until I experienced Barbara Payton’s gifted tongue and mouth!” Howard Hughes seconded Bautzer with his assessment of her wanton sexuality, “Barbara Payton will do anything in bed — anything! If you want to piss in her mouth, that’s okay with her!”

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Payton met Bob Hope and began a torrid love affair with the beloved and married star. Hope lavished Barbara with clothes, cash, and jewelry, and put her up in a luxurious apartment, but she wanted more, and attempted to extort Hope for an additional $5,000 a week. Hope was not having it, and bought her silence for what he confided to friends as, “A huge sum of money.”

Barbara received critical praise for her acting in the 1949 film, Trapped, and was subsequently hired to appear opposite James Cagney in his violent, noir thriller, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. James and his brother William were so taken by Payton’s lurid charms, their jointly owned production company paid her the staggering salary of $5,000 a week, a hefty amount for an unproven actress (even today) that became the subject of much speculation in the tabloids. Rumor had it that Barbara also became involved with Marlon Brando, who, like Bob Hope, was married, and who was also eventually forced to pay a great deal for her discretion. Extorting married stars and studio execs was something else Barbara became known for.

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

In 1950, Payton appeared with Gary Cooper in Dallas, and Gregory Peck in Only The Valiant, but her career began to quickly decline as a result of her frequent, headline grabbing public drunkenness, and her increasing brushes with the law. Barbara’s drug dealer boyfriend, Don Cougar, beat up her elderly landlady in a dispute in 1949, and in 1950, she and Cougar were hauled before a grand jury after supplying a flimsy alibi to a murderer. The former “Queen of the Night” soon became “Queen of the Tabloids” as she publicly touted her taboo interracial romance with actor Woody Strode, and controversy-shy studios immediately stopped hiring her.

Barbara then began a tumultuous relationship with B-movie tough Tom Neal while also engaged to A-list actor Franchot Tone. She delighted in pitting the two men against each other, and in 1951, Neal, attacked the decades older Tone and put him in a coma. Payton married Tone when he recovered, but left him 53 days later and returned to Neal. Tom never asked Barbara to marry him, and the couple split for good in 1954. Broke and losing her looks, Barbara began to spiral out of control. She traded her expensive fur coats to settle a $200 bar tab, and was arrested for the first time after passing bad checks in a liquor store in 1955.

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Between 1955-63, Payton was arrested numerous times for public intoxication, heroin possession and prostitution (which she conducted with both men and women). Barbara would charge as little as five dollars for the oral sex she was once “famous” for, and asked the publisher of her memoir, ironically entitled, “I Am Not Ashamed,” to pay her in bottles of red wine because there were liens on her money. In 1962, Barbara was stabbed by a drunk trick, and upon admittance to the hospital, doctors suggested she go to detox, or she would likely die. Payton allegedly proclaimed, “I’d rather drink and die!”

By 1967, Barbara Payton was an unrecognizable, toothless, 200-pound, homeless drunk when she was found near death in a parking lot by sanitation workers who thought she was a pile of discarded clothing. Payton pulled through, and upon her release from the hospital, she returned to her parent’s home in Minnesota. However, their daily drinking marathons only exacerbated her own drinking, and on May 8, 1967, Barbara’s mother found her lifeless body slumped over the toilet. She was 39. •••••

Originally published in Temptress #5