Wine Soaked Nights & Reverse Halos: Barbara Payton's I'm Not Ashamed
Romanticism is one of the deadliest nightshades and nowhere does it bleed brightest than the arts. The doomed writer. The drug addled musician. The booze soaked painter. The spectrum of passion and life snuffed out by a drink, a snort, a poke and the metaphorical dance into the very fire of self destruction. Makes for pretty, pretty prose but the reality of it is bereft of such beauty. Let's face it, few things in life are ever that black and white. Instead, with that, is the fact that romanticism can rob the complexity of the figure themselves. This has definitely been the case with late 1940's and 50's Hollywood actress, Barbara Payton.
Barbara's basic bio reads like something tailor made for Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Small town girl from Cloquet, Minnesota born to alcoholism and great looks who dropped out of high school, got married and quickly divorced at 16, re-marries a year later, moves out West and ascends the Hollywood food chain via modeling and then acting, only to crash and descend through bad relationships, addiction, money troubles and prostitution before passing away at the young age of 39. But like any basic bio, the question arises of how can you write cliff notes for something as complex and huge as a life? Especially when dealing with a fascinating figure like Barbara Payton.
Tabloid rags and tattle are not always enough to cement a soul in Hollywood infamy and in 1963, Payton's memoir, created with the help of ghost writer/pulp novelist Leo Guild, (who may have penned the 1976 book, Street of Ho's...an enlightening book no doubt) I Am Not Ashamed seared its way onto shelves with unflinching tales of criss-cross heartaches, vice and a raw peek into Hollywood itself. Originally published by Holloway House (the same publisher that would go on to release Iceberg Slim's seminal tome, Pimp, among many others), I Am Not Ashamed has been recently re-released by Spurl Editions, a young publisher that specializes in the “...dark, eccentric, obscure or unexpected.” (And bless them for it!) These are all beautiful descriptors for a slender but mighty tome like I Am Not Ashamed, with Payton's tale dipping into the dark, eccentric and definitely unexpected. Its original release in the 60's made a bit of a splash but then languished in out-of-print dust for many years. That is, until now. But I Am Not Ashamed is more than just tawdry memoir. It is a book that also possesses an unforeseeable transcendence within.
Payton's filmography, much like her life, was too short but rarely boring, from her breakout role in the classic 1950 James Cagney noir, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (a film actually once banned in Ohio for being too brutal) to the Curt Siodmak B-movie extraordinaire, BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (1955). Pretty blondes, especially in a land where cameras and lurid men are royal, were and are a dime a dozen. Payton shined because she was not like the others. Physically gorgeous? Absolutely. There are ice cream blondes (ala Thelma Todd or Jean Harlow) and then there are the fire & ice blondes, which Payton was to the nth degree. Gorgeous and wholly unpredictable, with a spark of something that made her truly different. While other “tragic” actresses, ala Francis Farmer, garnered outsider cult-dom, where is Barbara Payton's rock song paean?
Reading I Am Not Ashamed, there are many sections where this woman, even despite the sleaze-o-matic filter applied by ghost writer Guild, really stands out as an inquisitive free spirit. Responding to a racist studio boss who chastised her for an affair with an African-American actor, Payton actually engineered a blackmail plot involving a nude photo of the man's mistress sprawled on top of his bed. This tactic was less career oriented and more outrage at this man's vile ignorance. The brass balls of this move probably did her no favors in the long term but what a lady. That's just the tip too, between running off to Mexico and marrying a fisherman in a small seaside village and writing poetry to being unapologetically herself, raw, occasionally mad (not in a bad way) and human, Barbara Payton was probably too complex for a society and entertainment system that often preferred the obedient and safe, two things she certainly never was.
Not all of the injustices Payton faced were Hollywood born. At one point she notes being called “a tease” by an older boy when she was only ten years old, which given the abject cruelty of children, is not necessarily a shock but still disturbing. A grown woman being labeled that is troubling but a little girl getting told that is head and heart scratchingly bad. There's the string of men who never could quite understand her, even her psychiatrist at one point tells her, “You are many people and yet, nobody.” What does that even mean? It means Payton wasted her money on a sham-psych is undoubtedly what it means.
Another thing that is striking about Payton is that even when she is talking about her descent into poverty and prostitution, there is never a tone of disgust or terse pity. There is a pall, like the sigh of the ones who have seen and felt too much but still decide to ride it all out. Early on in the book, she says, “Take me out of my scene and I'll die and stink. Where I am today, no matter how bad it looks to you, is where I belong. I can be me.” There's a twin feeling of sad yet fierce resignation, but also a between the lines statement that for anyone, especially a woman, living out of the parameters of the status quo, options were not too great in the 50's and 60's. Especially if you have chemical dependencies, bohemian tendencies and no coffers. Remember, if you got money, you can be “eccentric,” but if you live in squalor, you're sad at best or crazy at worst. Payton neither championed or romanticized her life, but she didn't apologize for it either, which is the most fascinating aspect of all. No one should ever be judged or crucified for the demons, especially the strong but too sensitive and free for this world.
Even the times when she was her own worst enemy, Barbara Payton's inner spark remained till she moved out of this plane. The star, the loving mother, the poetess, the lover and the overall woman whose power and heart, from small town America and the Hollywood Hills and the slums of LA, her story and presence within I Am Not Ashamed transcends the dime-store sex and liquor tarnished-tinsel trappings and even the highly questionable motives of Guild himself, her heart beats strong and sure. There is a beauty to a spirit that can still stand out despite the weight of raw deals, societal bullshit, bad relationships and scars both literal and metaphorical, which makes Barbara Payton a truly beautiful star.