You know the saying, “You only live once?” Barbara Payton was the very embodiment of that saying, and you only need to take one look at her wild life to see that it’s true. This beautiful actress had an animal magnetism that powerful players in Hollywood could not resist, and she used it to her advantage. Tragically, addiction and circumstance cut her life short. While she lived, though, Payton made every moment count—even if it destroyed her in the end.
1. They Neglected Her
Barbara Payton was born in the city of Cloquet, Minnesota, on May 8, 1927. Life immediately dealt Payton a terrible hand. Her father was emotionally closed-off and distant from Payton and her sibling, meaning her mother had to wrangle the kids all by herself. Tragically, this wasn’t the only major problem in Payton’s childhood.
2. Her Parents Foreshadowed Her Fate
On top of being emotionally unavailable, Payton’s parents suffered from a nasty drinking problem, something that later haunted Payton into adulthood. With her life punctuated by bouts of booze-fueled feuding at home, it’s no wonder that Payton began looking elsewhere for love and affection. Payton did eventually find the attention she wanted, but, in an ironic twist, it came from a disturbing source.
3. She Was Absolutely Gorgeous
As little Payton grew up, one thing about her stood out: her nearly surreal beauty. At the young age of 11, Payton’s family moved to Odessa, Texas, and immediately, her looks became the talk of the town. Middle-aged men, in particular, took a very creepy interest in Payton—but that’s not the worst part. This was something that Payton’s own mom actually encouraged (yikes!).
Well, Payton finally got the attention she craved, and along the way, she found out how to use her beauty to her advantage.
4. Her Beauty Became Her Weapon
Payton soon discovered that her beauty captivated men, and it allowed her to get nearly anything she wanted. For Payton, that usually meant seducing boys in order to get into movie theaters for free; she loved watching films, and soon, began to fall in love with the idea of escaping Odessa and going to Hollywood to become an actress.
She grew increasingly restless and wild, and that eventually got her into hot water.
5. Her Dad Feared Her
Payton’s rebellious nature earned her the ire of her father, but he feared her as well. In Payton’s own words: “I think the day my father realized I was a girl—a real, feminine girl—he became afraid of me.” Her relationship with her father continued to grow increasingly rocky, even throughout her high school years. What Payton ended up doing next when she turned 16 certainly didn’t make their relationship any better.
6. She Acted Impulsively
In November of 1943, Payton eloped with her then-boyfriend, a boy named William Hodge. Her parents immediately demanded that Payton annul the marriage. Her reaction was surprising. Shockingly, she acquiesced to their demand with little fuss. Payton really didn’t want marriage—she just decided to marry Hodge for the heck of it.
That wasn’t the end of Payton’s brush with married life, though. Two years later, Payton tied the knot with someone that changed her life.
7. No One Could Control Her
In 1944, Barbara Payton met John Payton, a decorated pilot. Although Payton wasn’t particularly impressed with her new beau, John was absolutely crazy about her. For Payton, this was good enough; a year later, the couple eloped. This time, Payton’s parents approved of the marriage, hoping that the pilot could control their unruly, adventure-hungry daughter.
Payton, of course, refused to let anyone control her. If anything, Payton only got more wild.
8. She Found Her True Home
After Payton and her new hubby finished walking down the aisle, the two headed off for their honeymoon destination: Hollywood. As soon as Payton caught her first glimpses of the bright lights of Hollywood, she knew this was her home. She felt deep in her bones that she needed to find a way into the film industry. When her honeymoon ended, Payton had a disturbing surprise for her new husband.
She sent the poor bewildered man home by himself. Payton was going to find a way to become a star.
9. She Got Her Chance
While staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, Payton got her chance at acting. The elevator boy introduced Payton to Bobby Griffith, a casting director for RKO Pictures. In an ironic twist, Payton nearly botched her chances with Griffith! During their first meeting together, Payton could barely speak due to her nerves.
She only grew more jittery when Griffith suddenly handed her a script to read. Only luck kept Payton’s career from ending before it started.
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10. Her Wish Came True
Griffith allowed Payton to try reading the script again. Her second reading went more smoothly as her nerves dissipated, and she even managed to charm them with her smile and good looks. At the end of the meeting, Griffith gave Payton the chance to learn acting at the RKO school, followed by a screen test a few weeks later.
Payton nearly jumped for joy; this was nothing less than a dream come true! Unfortunately, something unexpected cut that dream short.
11. She Had It All
Payton threw herself into acting school and absolutely loved every minute of it. She practiced scenes from plays, listened to lectures on drama, and for once was an attentive student. The only thing that held her back was a strange, sudden illness that had her sick every morning. Still, Payton pressed on. When the day of the screen test rolled around, Payton was ready…Until she suddenly blacked out on set.
12. She Lost Everything
The nurse on set immediately flew to Payton’s side. After reviving Payton with smelling salts, the nurse sent her to the doctor, where Payton received some devastating news: she was pregnant. Payton burst into tears; having a baby would completely put the brakes on her plan to be a film star! Griffith, who believed in Payton’s talent, told Payton to have her baby and come back in a year.
Although distraught, Payton did just that. The next year was a hard one for Payton.
13. She Picked Herself Back Up
Payton went back to her home in Hollywood, where she now lived with her husband. Of course, she was piping mad that her husband got her pregnant, so she promptly kicked the poor guy out of the house! Although this meant that Payton was all alone, she didn’t let it faze her. She rode out her pregnancy and gave birth to a son, John Lee, on March 14, 1947.
Not long after, Payton was already trying to find jobs in Hollywood again—which spelled doom for her marriage.
14. She Found A New Calling
Shortly after giving birth to her son, Payton decided she wanted to be a model or an actress. She hired a photographer to put together a portfolio of her wearing fashionable outfits, which soon led to a job with the Rita La Roy Agency. Under the agency, Payton modeled in print ads and somehow managed to juggle her busy schedule with being a new mom. It’s just too bad that not everyone celebrated her success.
15. Stardom Destroyed Her Relationship
With Payton’s career keeping her extremely busy, her marriage began to fall by the wayside. Payton’s hyper-focus on self-promotion and networking left little room for her husband, and by July 1948, the two separated. Payton filed for divorce soon after. Now free to do basically whatever she wanted, Payton decided to once again charm her way into becoming a movie star using any means necessary.
16. She Used Chilling Methods
Payton began hitting up the nightclubs along the Sunset Strip, networking with executives wherever she went. However, Payton soon came to a disturbing realization. She learned that “networking” wasn’t as simple as sitting down with the executives for a professional meeting. Usually, “networking” involved going to bed with these executives in exchange for movie roles.
Payton didn’t let this stop her; in fact, she ended up putting many directors under her spell. Sometimes, this backfired on her.
17. He Backstabbed Her
While hitting up a nightclub, Payton caught the attention of an RKO producer, who began inviting her out for romantic trysts. Payton agreed to them, in exchange for a film role. In a heartbreaking twist, this agreement didn’t work out for Payton. Instead of getting her a film role, the RKO producer strung Payton along with promises of a role, but told the studio not to hire her under any circumstances. After finding out, Payton flew into a rage.
18. She Learned From Her Mistakes
Barbara Payton confronted the producer, demanding to know why he didn’t fulfill his side of the bargain. The producer admitted to making false promises to her, and that he never really had any intentions of giving her a film role. Payton learned a hard lesson that day, and made a promise to herself: get the role from the execs first, then get into bed with them. With this in mind, Payton’s next career move went much smoother.
19. She Charmed The Right Man
In January 1949, Payton put William Goetz, an executive at Universal Studios, under her spell. He quickly signed her on and gave Payton her first film role in Silver Butte. While the film didn’t exactly shoot her to instant stardom, Payton knew it was her first step towards fame. Pretty soon after Silver Butte, Payton got a co-starring role in a film noir called Trapped.
It was a huge step up for Payton, but she wanted more. This drive led her to her next dangerous relationship.
20. She Used Men For Their Riches
When Barbara Payton wasn’t making movies, she traveled all over the country on publicity tours. During one of these tours, Payton met Bob Hope, beloved actor…and known womanizer. This didn’t faze Payton one bit. Instead, she came up with a devious plan. Payton used his taste for beautiful women to her advantage. They began an affair, which led to Hope setting Payton up in an apartment in Hollywood.
This still wasn’t enough for Payton; she pushed for more, but ended up pushing Hope too far.
21. Her Ambition Nearly Ruined Her
As their relationship blossomed, Payton pressed Hope to be more generous towards her, and more attentive. Hope never managed to satisfy Payton, and eventually, he grew sick and tired of her demands. Hope paid Payton off to end the affair quietly, but Payton didn’t manage to end the relationship without suffering any ill consequences.
Universal Studios ended up canning her because of the affair! Luckily for Payton, her rising stardom meant more roles were just around the corner.
22. She Outsmarted Her Competition
With two movie roles under her belt, getting her foot in the door of Hollywood’s top film studios got much easier. In 1950, news reached Payton that Cagney Productions needed a blonde for the film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. On top of that, the movie starred James Cagney, her childhood hero. Payton immediately scheduled an audition, but she knew the competition would be stiff. And so, Payton took a huge risk on the day of the audition.
23. She Didn’t Let Anything Stop Her
On the day of the audition, Payton was late, but she didn’t let it fluster her. Instead, she ran up the stairs to the casting director’s office, burst in through the door, kicked off her shoes, and began fanning her legs with her dress, right in front of the director! Her disheveled appearance, in addition to her devil-may-care attitude, ended up being the perfect match for the role she was auditioning for.
Payton got the part—and she made sure the paycheck she got was a big one.
24. She Proved Her Worth
Payton knew she lacked star power, but she made up for it with her ability to dazzle the acting veterans on set. She even managed to entrance the producer, William Cagney, who ended up paying her a salary of $5,000 per week, a huge sum for someone that had yet to prove herself! Payton showed the execs that she was worthy of the money though, and all it took was a bit of ingenuity on her part.
25. She Became A Method Actress
For the role, Payton needed to embody Holiday Carleton, a seductive, sensual moll. Payton embodied the role both in front of and behind the cameras; she spent her time on set stumbling around and speaking informally with the cast and crew. This form of method acting worked; critics praised Payton for acting so “naturally” in the film. With her newfound fame, Payton got her pick of film roles, and her pick of famous men.
26. Men Adored Her
Payton became the talk of the town, and on top of it all, men were falling on themselves to be in her presence. Allegedly, some of these men included famous names like Gary Cooper, Howard Hughes, and Marlon Brando. Not only did her taste for famous men satisfy her need for company, but they gave her publicity. This was especially important for Payton, because her career was quickly going nowhere fast.
27. Her Career Went Downhill
Despite her critically acclaimed role as Holiday Carleton in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Payton was in for a huge disappointment. Her next roles got her little attention. She appeared in Dallas in 1950, Only the Valiant in 1951, and Bride of the Gorilla that same year, but the movies were less than impressive. To compensate, Payton dated every big name male star she could to bolster her fame.
For a while, she viewed romance as purely transactional—until she met someone that changed her mind.
28. A Man Captured Her Heart
The man that changed Payton’s views on romance was Tom Neal, who Payton described as “a beautiful hunk of man.” Payton discovered Neal was nearly the perfect man for her. Not only were they physically attracted to each other, leading to many wild nights in the bedroom, but Neal didn’t care that she dated other men. While he wasn’t particularly famous, he fulfilled all her other needs. There was just one thing that he refused to do for her.
29. She Was A Material Girl
Although Barbara Payton and Tom Neal loved each other dearly, Neal refused to marry her. Payton’s expensive tastes made her an expensive wife, and Neal just couldn’t afford all the material things that Payton wanted. Disappointed, Payton left for New York to partake in a Broadway play alongside an actor named Franchot Tone.
Payton hoped that being apart would cause Neal to have a change of heart. Instead, Payton received a proposal from someone else entirely.
30. She Got Another Proposal
During her stint on Broadway, Tone ended up falling head-over-heels in love with her. Before long, he proposed, even though he knew that Payton’s heart belonged to Neal. Payton held off, hoping that Neal might eventually propose, but that never happened. So, Payton made a devastating decision. With a heavy heart, Payton accepted Tone’s proposal, but her new fiancé insisted that the three of them talk it out first.
Unsurprisingly, their meeting ended in disaster.
31. She Was The Center Of A Love Triangle
Payton, Neal, and Tone agreed to meet at Payton’s home for a civil discussion, but it ended up being anything but civil! Tone couldn’t understand why Payton wasn’t all over him; after all, he was a rich millionaire actor. Neal couldn’t understand why Payton wanted to complicate her relationship with marriage. As for Payton herself, well, she didn’t get a say in anything.
Fueled by their heavy drinking, the discussion grew increasingly heated. Suddenly, fists started flying.
32. Love Nearly Destroyed Her
Tone, a relatively small man compared to Neal, threw the first punch. This was a mistake. Neal fought back in a blind rage and knocked Tone out cold. Payton, now completely in tears, called the authorities and sent Tone to the hospital. Due to Payton’s and Tone’s fame, the press were all over their fight. This was probably not the sort of publicity that Payton had in mind, but it did push her into making a rash, regrettable decision.
33. She Couldn’t Handle Marriage
Payton told the press that she was going to marry Tone and leave Neal for good. In September of 1951, the two officially wed—but instead of a fairy tale, it was a total horror story. Neal’s intensity and mixed feelings over Payton’s past caused a huge strain on the relationship, leaving Payton feeling anxious and strained. By the following year, the two split, and Payton went straight back to Neal. This relationship did little to improve her career.
34. She Left Her Love Behind
In 1953, studios in England offered Payton film roles in Four Sided Triangle and The Flannagan Boy. She reluctantly left her precious Neal behind and flew across the pond for the roles. Both films solidly showcased Payton’s talent, and resulted in a number of film offers. Several rich men even offered her an easy life if she slept with them!
Payton did indulge some of them in the bedroom, but everything changed when Neal joined her in England.
35. She Couldn’t Stay Away From Him
As soon as Neal landed in England, Payton went back to his side. Payton’s lover came with his own set of problems, though. Neal never settled down in one place for too long, and Payton, determined to follow him to the ends of the earth, left behind several promising roles in order to travel with Neal. Payton’s dream of being a big-time actress was falling by the wayside, but Payton was happy to pay the price—until she wasn’t.
36. Her True Love Was Hollywood
During her travels, Payton managed to snag acting roles in small productions alongside Neal, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Great Jesse James Raid. While Payton did well in these smaller productions, things changed when the pair returned to Hollywood. Neither Payton nor Neal found acting jobs. The two began fighting increasingly often, until the two called it quits. Payton was alone once again, and things didn’t end well for her.
37. Money Troubles Haunted Her
Barbara Payton spent the following year burning through her cash in record time. Despite having an empty bank account, Payton insisted on traveling and spending money like there was no tomorrow. Eventually, she was flat broke. To keep herself afloat and in the hopes of landing any kind of film role, Payton continued to sleep with powerful men…and she even dabbled with powerful women.
38. She Was A Schemer
Payton had learned that one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and successful actresses received a role in a film epic, but needed another girl to fill a supporting role. Payton initially went to the producer to ask for the role, but he turned her down. She then came up with a scandalous plan. Rumors had it that the leading lady for the role had a taste for women, and if Payton managed to seduce her, the role was as good as hers. Payton then put her plan into motion.
39. She Took Huge Risks
Payton wasn’t sure if the rumors were true, but she took a gamble and showed up at the stage for the film. She caught the actress’s eye and complimented her dress. Taking the hint, the actress invited Payton back to her dressing room. That was the beginning of their wild affair. Payton got the role in exchange for afternoon trysts with the actress.
These types of exchanges kept Payton going for a short while, but everything eventually crashed down around her.
40. She Became Desperate
Payton’s inability to find acting roles and her heavy drinking meant that her financial reserves ran dry once again by 1955. Payton couldn’t curb her drinking, though, despite her lack of funds. Eventually, a desperate Payton wrote a bad check to a supermarket in order to purchase large quantities of booze. In a humiliating turn of events, the authorities caught Payton and charged her with a $100 fine. From here, Payton’s life continued to slide downhill.
41. She Attempted To Sleep Her Way To Success
Barbara Payton managed to snag one final, credited role in the film Murder is My Beat that year, but drank most of the money from that job away. After that, Payton lined up dates with powerful men in the industry, determined to sleep her way to her next big role. While many took her up on the offer, Payton didn’t have much luck in securing film roles.
One particular producer then made a proposal that signaled the beginning of the end for Payton.
42. She Lost Sight Of Her Dream
While on a date with this particular producer, Payton asked him, point-blank, for a role in his next film. Instead, the producer made a disturbing proposal. He said that she should just sleep with him, and he would pay her directly for her “services.” In need of cash, Payton accepted his offer. Payton told herself that sleeping with men for cash was going to be temporary, but she knew deep down that this was far from reality. This got her caught up with the wrong crowd.
43. She Met An Unsavory Character
After sleeping with a string of men, Barbara Payton met a man she nicknamed Dick Fortune, who took a liking to her. Fortune wasn’t just any ordinary man though; he was a powerful gangster in the gambling town of Searchlight, Nevada. Payton moved to Searchlight with Fortune, but Fortune barred her from entering his casinos.
Bored, Payton’s drinking ramped up, and she spent her days as a high-end escort. Eventually, a dangerous situation forced her out of Searchlight.
44. They Nearly Caught Her
One night, an official who owed her a favor asked Payton to meet with him. At their meeting spot, he gave her some grave news. The authorities were about to raid Fortune’s properties in a few days. Afraid that the raid would land her in hot water, Payton slept with several men in rapid succession to make enough money to get back to Hollywood.
She then quickly flew back to Los Angeles, only to make a horrifying discovery.
45. Her Fame Faded Away
Simply put, no one cared about poor, washed-up Payton. She called around to see if any of her friends, agents, or producers she knew had jobs for her, but didn’t hear a peep from them regarding any film roles. Instead, they were more interested in her body. With little choice, Payton agreed to their proposals. Tragically, her fading fame meant that she couldn’t charge as much for her services anymore. This only led her deeper down the path to self-destruction.
46. She Hit Rock Bottom
By the 1960s, Payton’s drinking and newly acquired addiction to illicit substances rapidly made it difficult for her to command high prices for her nightly services. Her condition worsened when her lack of money forced her to live in squalor on Sunset Boulevard. Although her mental state grew steadily worse, Payton found some refuge in writing poetry, which she sold for a paltry $7.
Then, an unexpected call gave Payton a small glimmer of hope.
47. She Had A Moment Of Hope
In 1963, Frank Sinatra’s offices called Payton with an unexpected offer: they wanted her for a small, uncredited role in 4 for Texas. Payton couldn’t believe her luck; she arrived on set, where, for the first time in a while, she felt like she could turn things around. That same year, a publisher paid Payton $1,000 for her autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed.
Her good fortune didn’t last for long, though. A few years later, life ripped the rug out from under her once again.
48. Her Addiction Took Over
Payton’s drinking eventually got so bad that the authorities found her passed out near a dumpster on Sunset Boulevard in February 1967. They offered to get her a spot in a detoxification unit, but Payton flatly refused the offer, declaring that she would rather drink her life away. With little recourse, a county social worker drove Payton to her parents’ home in San Diego, hoping they could help. This decision ultimately sealed Payton’s fate.
49. Her Parents Ended Her Life
When the social worker dropped Payton with her parents, their reaction was chilling. Far from helping Payton curb her heavy drinking, Payton’s parents actually encouraged it. The three of them engaged in long drinking binges that only made Payton’s condition worse. Payton even remarked to a neighbor that “I never wanted to be with them, I never wanted to see them again. But here I am, and I got all the booze I want.”
By 1967, Payton was incredibly ill from a lifetime of drinking and addiction, and the end drew near for the ailing ex-actress.
50. Her End Was Tragic
On May 8, 1967, after years of battling with her inner demons, Payton’s heart and liver failed at the age of 39. They cremated her, and interred her ashes in San Diego. Payton experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, which cut her promising acting career short. Although her time on this earth was brief, many remember the actress as a gregarious individual who lived life to its fullest.