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John O’Dowd Interview

Few actresses in Tinseltown's century-long history, with the possible exception of Frances Farmer, have undergone such extreme privations or suffered more protracted indignities than the beautiful, doomed Barbara Payton (1927-1967).

Inelegantly described by Howard Hughes associate Johnny Meyer as 'Hollywood's biggest trollop,' Payton spent her early years in Minnesota and the Texan dustbowl of Odessa, before moving to Los Angeles at age 21 in search of stardom. Upon her arrival the aspiring actress promptly entered into a string of dalliances with all manner of showbiz types, including aging Lothario Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, Batman & Robin's Robert Lowery and Gregory Peck, as well as assorted lowlifes, clingers-on and neophytes, though she ultimately rejected Hughes himself as 'too strange.' The bulk of her conquests were married, which did little to endear her to the womenfolk of Tinseltown, though as Payton's former lover Steve Hayes puts it 'she didn't seem to care about anything except getting laid and having a good time.'

Her rise to the top was almost singularly meteoric, and her decline would prove no less expeditious. In early 1949 Payton scored a bit part in the comedy Once More, My Darling, and less than a year later was starring opposite James Cagney in her best-known film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. She also shared screen time with Peck in Only the Valiant. By 1951, however, the statuesque blonde had already made sufficient enemies to ensure relegation to the realm of such forgettable B-movie tat as Bride of the Gorilla. Her career limped along for another couple of years until 1954, when at the age of 26 Payton made her final screen appearance with a role in the oft-overlooked Edgar G. Ulmer production Murder Is My Beat.

Film journalist John O’Dowd spent nine years researching Payton’s tumultuous tale, and the end result, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, stands as a deftly compelling dissection of one Hollywood dream that more closely resembled a nightmare.  He recently spoke to Impulse Gamer about his motivations for the project, and the impact he hopes it will have on Payton’s tarnished legacy. 

When did you first become aware of Barbara Payton?

                        I first became a fan of Barbara’s when I was just a child. I saw her film Bride of the Gorilla one Saturday afternoon on TV and I remember being mesmerized – mesmerized –by her beauty. The film opens with Barbara dancing sexily beneath a slow-moving ceiling fan. Even at seven or eight years old I remember seeing that scene and feeling that I had just seen the most beautiful and sexy woman in the whole world. Barbara made an indelible impression on me that day, and at the risk of sounding too “New Age”, I believe we made some kind of cosmic connection as she never totally left my consciousness after that. Later on, when I was a teenager, I started reading about her life and when I learned what had happened to her I recall feeling this tremendous sense of sadness, concern and empathy for her - almost like I was responding as if I had known her personally. 

What was it about her life story that particularly resonated with you?

Initially, it was her vast, unrealised potential as an actress. In fact, it still haunts me to this very day. However, what really inspired me to want to research and write Barbara’s story was the fact that she had always been so maligned in the press. I thought this woman really deserved to finally have a truthful account written of her life. In the nine years it took me to research and write Barbara’s story, my driving motivation was always to try to restore some of her dignity and humanity. I can only hope I have succeeded. I also hope there are people who will read her story who will come away from it feeling respect for Barbara. She didn’t have many people’s respect (or much self-respect, for that matter) while she was alive, but she can have it now. That is very important to me, to think that I can possibly help bring her some respect and dignity. 

What was the initial response from publishers?

Let’s put it this way: I received enough rejection letters to wallpaper an entire room! Some editors said they weren’t interested in Barbara’s story at all, while others told me they found what happened to her fascinating but they didn’t think there was much of a market for the project. One editor’s rejection really stood out at the time, and I still remember it fondly. He wrote, “If Barbara Payton is remembered at all today (and I am not at all certain that she is), it is because of her sad exploits in the beds, bars, and on the streets, of Hollywood…and not for anything she ever did professionally. Therefore, our company cannot get behind a project that is associated in any way with whom we believe was a very objectionable person.” I kept that letter and I sometimes reread it and just thank God I didn’t give up after reading it! 

Could you describe the process of writing the book? 

The research part of the project was, by far, my favourite part of all. It’s my favourite part of all my writing endeavours, in fact. Putting together all the events in a person’s life, sort of like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, is incredibly interesting to me (and fun, too). The very first thing I did was place ads in Barbara’s hometown newspapers, in which I appealed to anyone who knew her in her early years to contact me if they wanted to participate in the project. Next, I utilized The Margaret Herrick Library at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in L.A.  I got copies of the entire contents of their files on Barbara, as well as every bit of material they had on both Tom Neal and Franchot Tone. This amounted to dozens and dozens of old newspaper clippings which are a very important source of information as those news stories gave me the actual dates of many of the events in Barbara’s life. Obviously you need those dates to map out a timeline. From there I started seeking out old movie magazines to get more of a PR slant on Barbara. I wanted to see how the publicity machine viewed her at the time as opposed to how she was written about in the news. I noticed that Barbara had a rather glorified image (at first) in the film magazines as Warner Brothers was obviously trying to build a career for her, while the newspapers of the day were often a lot more judgmental of her. It was a fascinating dichotomy and it showed just how differently the media worked back then. 

Finding the interview subjects for the book came much later. That was the hardest part of the project, but of course, it was also the most gratifying. People like the now-retired detective who arrested Barbara in the early 1960s, and her ex-boyfriend John Rayborn (who lived with Barbara for a short time in a Skid Row hotel in Hollywood) were extremely hard to find, but once I spoke to them, I noticed that a kind of ripple effect took place. I would find another person (or they found me) and they would lead me to someone else who was willing to talk about Barbara, and it kind of went on from there. Finding Barbara's son, John, though, and her sister-in-law and best friend, Jan Redfield, was definitely the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn't connect with either of them until a good five or six years into the project and by that time I had definitely lost hope that I would ever find them, or if I did, that they would ever agree to talk to me. But I am so glad that we were all finally brought together. They gave me a totally different viewpoint of Barbara than I had up until then and they in turn led me to other people who knew Barbara personally and they contributed similar material about her personality and character. The material that Barbara's family and friends shared with me was vitally important to the book because it went a long way in humanizing Barbara. Their memories weren't sugar-coated, either. These people knew Barbara very well and they knew her flaws as well as her strengths. I feel very fortunate that so many people who knew Barbara intimately were so forthcoming with information about her, even when a lot of what they told me was painful for them to remember...much less discuss. 

Why did none of Barbara’s family or friends ever force an intervention during her lifetime?  Was she considered ‘beyond help’?

I asked (Barbara’s friend) Jan Redfield that very same question once and she admitted that no one in their family ever thought it would be possible to get Barbara any kind of in-depth psychiatric help as she was always so stubborn. Barbara certainly loved her son, John, with everything she had, and people like Jan and Barbara's fourth husband, Tony Provas, frequently told me how Barbara was always very nurturing and supportive of them, too. And yet, for some strange reason no one was ever able to get through to Barbara about how totally and systematically she was destroying her life.  

Barbara’s son said something in the book that really made a strong impact on me, and I think it is 100% accurate. After learning of one of his mother's more embarrassing public spectacles, in which she had degraded herself by freely admitting to a roomful of her friends that her longstanding promiscuity had provided her with the funding to completely furnish her home with expensive antiques, John made the comment that, ‘[When my mother said that] I believe that she had looked deeply into her interior mirror many years earlier, and had found much there that was hateful.’ Unfortunately, Barbara was never able to use her strengths (i.e., her courage, her willingness to take incredible risks in her life and to stand up for what she believed in, and her huge capacity to love and nurture) to overcome her weaknesses, because her pain and her addictions proved far too powerful an enemy. 

Was Barbara a victim of the double standards of her age, or would her innate self-destructive tendencies have ensured her downfall in any era?

I am not entirely convinced that Barbara was strictly a victim of the double standards of her era (a notion I did have, by the way, when I first began studying her life). But as I learned more about Barbara, including her lifelong contentious relationship with her father, I finally came to the conclusion that her self-hatred and self destructiveness was so fully rooted and ingrained in her, it is quite likely that (sans any kind of long-term medical intervention), Barbara would have been doomed to have the kind of life she had even if she lived in today’s much more enlightened time. For instance, I have the same kind of vibe about Lindsay Lohan. The self-destructive similarities between Lindsay and Barbara are painfully obvious to me (and apparently, to many other people, as well). At just 24, Lohan seems as emotionally and spiritually bankrupt as Barbara was at that very same age, the only difference being that Lindsay’s immense wealth will hopefully prevent her from losing everything and living her final years on Skid Row like Barbara did.  

One of Barbara’s husbands later ended up imprisoned for murder, another mailed obscene photographs of Barbara to her friends and family during an acrimonious divorce.  Do you think her life could have turned out differently if she’d chosen her partners more carefully?

Absolutely. Barbara was a total non-conformist and a wild rebel at heart, and she surrounded herself with similar, living-on-the-edge people. She had that rebellious, rock-star attitude long before it was fashionable, and I will always admire her guts. Her family and close friends insist that Barbara  was intrinsically a very moral, intelligent, and decent woman (and I believe that, too), but the part of her that always wanted to buck convention, was also the part that sadly, often caused her to ‘shoot to miss’, and those urges were just too powerful in the end for her to overcome. 

Your next project is Barbara Payton: A Life in Pictures.  How would you define the essence of Barbara’s sex appeal? 

Despite her somewhat flashy, bleached blonde countenance, I think Barbara had a very wholesome kind of sex appeal. She didn’t have the kind of over-inflated ‘superstructure’ that many other platinum blonde actresses of that era possessed (a la Jayne Mansfield), but she had a flawlessly beautiful face, gorgeous, shapely legs, and extremely sexy blue eyes. Men found these qualities in Barbara irresistible, especially since she was also intelligent, irreverent, and not the least bit self-centred when in their presence. It obviously made for an intoxicating package that seemingly no one who knew her could resist! 

Do you have a favourite Barbara Payton film? 

At the risk of being roundly jeered, as a result of Bride of the Gorilla being the catalyst for my becoming aware of Barbara in the first place, that film (though, admittedly, of dubious quality) will always hold a special place in my heart. But then again, so does Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, as it showed Barbara standing at the threshold of what could and should have been a long, wonderful, and important career. So, those two are, by far, my favourite films of hers. 

What impact do you hope the book will have on Barbara’s legacy?

My greatest wish for my work on her story has always been that people will find it in their hearts to see her in a better and more positive light than they had prior to reading the book.  Like a lot of other people who thought they knew the type of person she was, I initially thought that Barbara was just this beautiful, loose-living, foul-mouthed woman who had abused herself terribly, along with many other people in her life, and that she had received her comeuppance for it in the end. However, I am happy to say that this rather rudimentary belief was quickly displaced once I dug my heels into the order of researching her life. She was the most fascinating creature I have ever come across in my life and I hope the book reveals some of her very special inner qualities. As someone said about her, ‘She was a worthwhile human being and I only wish she had believed that.’ I couldn’t agree more.



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