i am not ashamed

By Barbara Payton

(Holloway House Publishing Company, 233 pages, $8)

Had she been born in 1967, instead of dying in that year, aged 39, ravaged beyond recognition, Barbara Payton, a beautiful Hollywood starlet turned Sunset Boulevard hooker turned bag lady, might have had a much easier time and made a success of her career. As the editor of her newly reissued memoir, I Am Not Ashamed, writes in his preface, "At least she would have a reason to live."

Nowadays, Madonna can French-kiss barely legal Britney Spears in front of thousands, Paris Hilton can brag about intimate excesses, Pamela Anderson's inflated charms can be exposed to the world via home video, and the parading of impromptu eroticism does little to hamper their careers or lives. Not so for Payton, born in Minnesota in 1927, raised in Texas, and then moved to Hollywood by 1948, with one broken marriage already behind her and a contract with Universal in her purse.

A luscious blond beauty with not just bedroom eyes but bedroom lips and body, Payton began her Hollywood career doing more acting out than acting. A public affair with Howard Hughes ended Payton's place at Universal; she followed this up with affairs with actor John Ireland, comedian Bob Hope and celebrity attorney Greg Bautzer (a lover of Joan Crawford's).

Her playgirling aside, Payton did begin getting plum roles, opposite James Cagney (Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye), Gary Cooper (Dallas) and Guy Madison (Drums in the Deep South). She was anointed by the Hollywood Press Association, with such starlets as Debbie Reynolds and Piper Laurie, as a "Baby Star" of the future. Alcohol-ravaged but elegant actor Franchot Tone (the ex-Mr. Crawford) proposed marriage to her while she was living with musclebound actor Tom Neal, who nearly killed Tone in a heavily publicized fistfight. (Payton, in white furs and sunglasses, brought Tone martinis to his hospital room.)

For a little over a month, Payton was Mrs. Franchot Tone. After leaving him, she toured the country with Neal in The Postman Always Rings Twice--ironic casting, since Neal was sentenced to prison a little over a decade later for murdering his third wife. Shortly, Payton's roles diminished to B- and C-film dregs.

As she detailed in this tawdry and riveting 1963 memoir, arrest for writing bad checks followed arrests for prostitution; wandering homeless along Sunset Boulevard in a ratty fur and bathing suit; alcoholism; weight problems; and broken teeth and knife wounds from violent tricks. She died in her parents' bathroom in San Diego in May 1967.

Payton was technically the victim of heart and liver failure, but in the larger sense it was life-failure that got her. Unable to control her appetites, with no serious interest in developing as an actor beyond fame's magnetic ability to draw to her all the attention--specifically male--that she thirsted for as much as for cheap rosé, Payton lived in an era where these habits got you tossed out with the garbage instead of into a People spread.

Today she would be a veteran of fancy rehabs and makeovers, as helped by her self-generated bad press as she was hurt by it in the 1950s. Would she be considered an actor? In fact, compared to many of the so-called female "stars" of today, Payton had more talent in her little finger than most of them do in their entire siliconed and Botoxed bodies. Whether she would have found, as this memoir's editor, Neal Colgrass, claims, a reason to live, is still highly debatable.