“If the pressures don’t get you, the habits will.”
Imagine you are sitting on a stool in some seedy Hollywood bar one evening, when a washed-out woman approaches you, and for the price of a few drinks, she begins to tell you her life story. If you can imagine the scenario, then you have captured the flavour of the book I Am Not Ashamed, Barbara Payton’s autobiography penned a few years before her death at age 39.
Barbara Payton was a promising Hollywood starlet in the 50s. Earning an average of $10,000 a week, she was one of the beautiful blonde goddesses slated for stardom. With a $100,000 contract for her role in the James Cagney film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she was courted by some of the biggest names in the film industry. But just a few years later, Barbara Payton, now penniless, worked as a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard. What happened?
Barbara Payton was the woman in the infamous love triangle with rival lovers Franchot Tone and Tom Neal. A fight between the two men put Tone in the hospital and Barbara in the headlines. Payton married Tone, a marriage that lasted 7 weeks, and then returned to Tom Neal. From this point, it was a downhill slide for Barbara. Dropped from her studio contract, she began to drift …
It’s difficult to pick one single time when things began to go wrong for Barbara. She doesn’t seem to know when it began, and it seems that the career disappeared for more reasons than the relationships she scandalized Hollywood with in the 50s. She refers to getting bloated, losing her looks and calls herself as an old woman at age 35. She often discusses her careers in generalities, and recalls moments at the pinnacle of her success with momentary sadness before moving swiftly and deliberately away from those painful, glittering memories: “If I get a wine with bubbles in it and drink enough of it, I can look at the reflection in the store window and see myself as I was the first time I wore a mink.”
Barbara doesn’t take a strict chronological approach to her story. She wanders around, and some memories seem to spark other memories, so at times it’s difficult to know the sequence of some of the events she discusses. Some of the scenes (Mexico, for example) seem a little unbelievable, and they seem more appropriate for some Hollywood blockbuster. Don’t look for a great deal of name-dropping–there’s a conspicuous absence of names, and Barbara explains this is for legal reasons. She does, however, describe her relationships with both the “socially acceptable” Franchot Tone and “the train to nowhere”, Tom Neal. With all men, ultimately, “forever is just a weekend.”
There’s a great deal here that the book doesn’t mention. For example, a teenage marriage (which was annulled) is not discussed in these pages. Instead Barbara concentrates on the many gifts she received–a Cadillac, a mink coat, a jade necklace, etc. Throughout it all, she boasts of her ability to read and use men for the roles she wanted, and yet it’s clear to the reader that things were not as cut and dried as that. The book’s strongest passages are when Barbara describes her ever-declining value as a prostitute, and this she seems crystal clear about. She describes the situation as “my price had fallen.” And these pages are heart wrenching, painful, and perceptive. The book includes many black and white photos, and Barbara’s deterioration is shocking. As often happens with an autobiography, you trade the skill of a polished professional writer for the raw account of the celebrity. While I Am Not Ashamed isn’t a perfect book, film noir fans will be fascinated by Barbara Payton’s unforgettable memoir.