If You Could Read My Mind

A PTSD Memoir: Remembering Barbara Payton
By David Elijah-Nahmod
© 2015 Diversity Rules Magazine and David Elijah-Nahmod. All rights reserved.
www.diversityrulesmagazine.com

David_Elijah_Nahmod_BTR_thumbDavid-Elijah Nahmod is a film critic and reporter in San Francisco. His articles appear regularly in The Bay Area Reporter and SF Weekly. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

David developed Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) after surviving gay conversion therapy as a child and has found that many in the LGBT community suffer from severe, often untreated emotional disorders due to the extreme anti-gay traumas they endured. This column chronicles his journey.

Few Hollywood horror stories are sadder than that of Barbara Payton. Sultry, sensual and extraordinarily beautiful, Payton seemed destined for Hollywood 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 a trick up and down Hollywood Boulevard. The press wasn’t kind to her when she was arrested for prostitution and for passing bad checks.

Barbara 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. No help was forthcoming.

It’s now believed that Payton may have suffered from untreated, undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  Nearly four decades after her passing, there’s no way of verifying whether or not Payton actually had a diagnosable mental illness other than acute alcoholism. 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 at a time when such behavior was considered career suicide. 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.

The Hollywood power brokers soon began to view Payton as more trouble than she was worth. Her contract at Warner Brothers was cancelled barely a year after her star making turn in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, in which she had more than held her own against superstar James Cagney. Even after she was reduced to appearing in B movies like  Bad Blonde (1953) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951), she remained steadfast in her belief that she was a major box office star. Her partying, and her drinking escalated.

One of Payton’s tragedies is that she 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 who retains a huge cult following to this day. Ulmer had himself been shut out of the studio system years earlier, yet he managed to forge a successful career working as a freelancer for the “poverty row” production companies of the era.

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. A few years later, her Bride of the Gorilla co-star Raymond Burr was starring in the hugely successful Perry Mason TV series. Burr lobbied to get Payton a guest starring role on his show, but neither the network nor it’s insurance company would have anything to do with her.

Murder is My Beat proved to be her swan song. Barbara Payton’s once promising career had crashed and burned, never to be resurrected. In 1956, she lost custody of her son after her ex-husband charged her with exposing the boy to “profane language, immoral conduct and notoriety.”

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, uncaring, or unaware that people were laughing at her. 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 behaved as she did in today’s California the recently passed Laura’s Law, which enables authorities to force outpatient treatment upon those with severe psychiatric issues, might have saved her life.

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.

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