Catch A Falling Star: A Remembrance of Barbara Payton

Few Hollywood horror stories are sadder than that of Barbara Payton. Sultry, sensual and extraordinarily beautiful, Payton seemed destined for Hollywood super stardom after receiving good notices for her first two films, the film noir thrillers “Trapped” (1949) and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (1950). A year later, she was appearing in B movies like “Bride of the Gorilla.” By 1955 her film career was over.

When she died a dozen years later, Barbara Payton's alcohol ravaged body made her look far older than her thirty-nine years. She had spent many of those final years drinking herself into a stupor while she dreamed of a Hollywood comeback in a town that had forgotten her. Unemployable in any capacity as the 1960s progressed, she turned to prostitution. At her lowest ebb Payton sold herself for five dollars on the street. She was eventually arrested for prostitution and passing bad checks.

Payton (1927-1967) is a tragic, cautionary tale of what can happen when mental illness is judged or goes untreated. It should have been obvious to the judges whom she stood before in those 1960s courtroom that Payton was a woman in deep crisis and in need of help.

It's now believed that Payton may have suffered from untreated, undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Based on her well-documented behavior, it's highly unlikely that she was a sane woman. Her hard partying lifestyle included many affairs in which she brazenly and publicly went after married men. Were these the actions of a woman fully aware of her own behavior? Payton in fact relished all the bad press she received, believing it was proof of her stardom.

One of Payton's tragedies is that she actually was a gifted actress. In 1955 she starred in the low budget film noir “Murder Is My Beat,” which was directed by Edward G. Ulmer, an independent filmmaker.

Ulmer and Payton worked well together, and the film, now available on DVD, remains a taught, fast paced and entertaining thriller. Payton did good work in “Murder Is My Beat,” yet the industry refused to forgive her many indiscretions.

“Murder is My Beat” proved to be her swan song. Barbara Payton's once promising career had crashed and burned.

In 1956, she lost custody of her son. At a 1963 court appearance she told the judge "I'd rather drink and die.” That same year she published her ghost-written autobiography “I Am Not Ashamed,” which included graphic descriptions of her exploits. Bloated and aged from drinking, she did a photo shoot for the book as though she were still a glamorous movie star. In 1967 she made headlines one final time when she was found sleeping in a garbage dumpster. A few weeks later she collapsed and died at her parents home in San Diego.

The once beautiful Barbara Payton was not yet forty years old.

Was Barbara Payton bipolar or did she have another undiagnosed illness? Or was she merely a severe, out of control alcoholic? Certainly she wasn't a sane person. That she lived in such a conservative and judgmental era very likely contributed to her unimaginably tragic and spectacular downfall. Had Payton lived in today's California, she have been saved by the recently passed Laura's Law, which enables authorities to force outpatient treatment upon those with severe psychiatric issues.

Don't judge Barbara Payton unless you've walked in her shoes.

For an in-depth look at Barbara Payton's swift rise and swifter fall, John O'Dowd's biography “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story,” is worth seeking out. The book remains available at Amazon.com.

David-Elijah Nahmod is an American/Israeli half-breed who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv. Currently in San Francisco, his eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications, SF Weekly & monster magazines. A survivor of childhood gay conversion therapy, he lives with PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Follow him on Twitter @DavidElijahN.


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