I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton — Thom Cuell

In 1963, ghostwriter Leo Guild rocked up to Barbara Payton’s squalid L.A. apartment house. A former Hollywood starlet, Payton was living in much-reduced circumstances, making her living from prostitution. Guild saw in her ‘the prototype of the starlet or actress who becomes disillusioned, loses her looks, can’t get a job, resorts to prostitution and ends in a haze of alcohol and narcotics in an effort to forget the worst and remember the best’. Payton was paid $2,000 for the memoir, which she gave the gloriously unapologetic title I Am Not Ashamed. Asked to explain what happened, she simply answered ‘I’ve been living. Don’t judge me too harshly for living’.

The high point of Payton’s career had come in 1950, when she had appeared in major films with the likes of Gary Cooper. Although never an A-list star, she definitely had game: ‘my peculiar acting talents were worth $10,000 a week and I was in constant demand… I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true that Gregory Peck, Guy Madison, Howard Hughes and other big names were dating me’.

Whilst Payton was working, the content of Hollywood productions was still governed by the Hayes Code, which prohibited, amongst other things, ‘pointed profanity’, ‘licentious nudity’ and ‘miscegenation’, whilst advising studios to be careful in their treatment of seduction, the sale of women, and men and women in bed together. So it’s not surprising that when Barbara Stanwyck read I Am Not Ashamed, she remarked ‘she jolly well ought to be!’ It is tempting to assume that a natural transgressor like Payton was on an inevitable crash course, but the hypocritical morality of Hollywood surely played its part as well.

The idea that female sexuality is transgressive and deserving of punishment is a long established trope of Hollywood film-making, satirised by Wes Craven in Scream (1996) which codified the unwritten law, ‘you may not survive the movie if you have sex’. For Payton, this fictional conceit became a reality: ‘I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame’. No stunt doubles or prosthetics here, the wounds are written on her body.

She learned early that her body was a saleable asset, and this coloured her view of relationships. It is no surprise that she uses the language of economics to describe her love life: ‘I sold, they bought, and for years the demand was way out ahead of the supply’. At first, this exchange was transacted on an unofficial basis, with her affections bought by extravagant gifts or favours. Later, as her erotic capital began to decline, the arrangement became more formalised: ‘It’s funny how supply and demand, sex appeal and talent regulate a girl’s price. I found out soon enough that my price was a hundred dollars and not a cent more’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her most treasured relationship did not involve sex: ‘I once loved a man who was impotent and I was faithful to him. He left me after a while saying it was unfair to me. But it wasn’t and I would have loved him for the rest of my life’.

Otherwise, she finds herself surrounded by predators, stars who play cruel games with extras, producers who control their actors, boyfriends who steal her money and lock her up at home. Never willing to submit, she finds that the only way to fight back is through outrageous gestures, but this tactic is ultimately fatal, as she comes to be regarded as uncontrollable. Her career trajectory echoes that of Frances Farmer a decade before. A huge star in the Thirties, Farmer became erratic as a result of her alcoholism and temperamental attitude, walking away from roles which she deemed insufficiently challenging. Dropped by her studio after refusing a part in the film Take a Letter, Darling, her situation deteriorated rapidly. Arrested, sectioned and given shock treatment, Farmer spent five years at Western State Hospital, where she stated that she ‘was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats and poisoned by tainted food… chained in padded cells, strapped into strait-jackets and half-drowned in ice baths,’ a nightmarish vision not a million miles from Payton’s own denouement. Like Payton, Farmer also wrote a posthumously-released autobiography, the savagely tragic Will There Really Be a Morning?

Payton’s binary view of sexual predators and prey is confirmed by a contradictory passage in which she discusses women she has loved, whilst also describing lesbianism as ‘a disease or [something which] becomes a disease that requires psychiatry… once that rumor gets around that you dig girls as well as men, you’re a pigeon for those lez who are always searching for a mate’. Her somewhat confused views on lesbianism contrast with her sentimentalised and patronising descriptions of black men: ‘she said the Negro men needed to be loved, that few women loved them, therefore she would perform the service’, as Guild summarises. This is sex as philanthropy, the bestowal of favours without the complex negotiations which characterise her view of sex in Hollywood.

The overall effect of reading I Am Not Ashamed is something like listening to Wanda Jackson sing ‘You Know I’m No Good’ whilst reading a novel by Nelson Algren or Hubert Selby Jnr. In his epilogue, Guild describes Payton towards the end of her life, ‘pig fat,’ with a man’s shirt that ‘just made it past her crotch,’ surrounded by ‘countless glasses stained with red wine’. She herself takes a slightly more optimistic view, saying: ‘I’m an old coot now – almost thirty-five – dragged out, wine-soaked, prey for men’s five dollar bills, but I can still write poetry’. And she can write a memorable phrase or two: one lover, a jobbing actor / ‘out-of-work weightlifter’ who was later jailed for killing his wife, ‘had a chemical buzz for me that sent red peppers down my spine’. Describing her career’s downward trajectory, she noted ‘all of a sudden you find yourself doing a Western. A Western with ‘Jesse James’ in the title’. The horror.

Payton quotes ‘a kind of saying among the hip set in Hollywood that if the pressures don’t get you the habits will’. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the pressures and the habits haven’t changed too much in the fifty-odd years since she wrote I Am Not Ashamed. She wasn’t the first starlet to come to a disreputable end, and there have been more since (although few suffered quite such a vertiginous decline in fortunes). Ultimately, there’s a lot to be said for the lack of regret or hypocritical self-flagellation which normally characterises the Hollywood exile’s memoir. And at least she doesn’t try vaginal steaming.

Barbara Payton was born in Cloquet, Minnesota, in 1927. She starred in her first film in 1949 and soon after took the lead role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, co-starring James Cagney. When her acting career began to decline, Payton appeared in low-budget films and on the covers of tabloid magazines, and later became destitute and increasingly dependent on alcohol and pills. In 1961 she was evicted from her apartment, and she was arrested for solicitation in 1962. She worked with the journalist Leo Guild on her memoir, the camp classic I Am Not Ashamed, in 1963. Four years later, Payton died from alcohol-related causes at the age of thirty-nine.

Thom Cuell is the most electrifying man in literary criticism today.

Image: Untitled, fliegender, Creative Commons

I Am Not Ashamed is published by Spurl Editions. Author bio courtesy of the same.