Thursday, January 26, 2017

Payton-Tone: The Beginning

I've avoided posting about the tempestuous relationship and ensuing scandal of Franchot and Barbara Payton for a good 21 months. Not because I was trying to deny its existence, but because I didn't want to fall into the noticeable trend of recognizing him for this brief moment in his life over the years of accomplishments. When I first became interested in Franchot and started searching for information on him, I was discouraged to find that nearly every site, article, even his obituaries shouted out things like "Tone beaten to a pulp by boxer!" There's so much more to Franchot than this incident, this relationship, this two-year period—but there's also much insight to be gained from Franchot's participation in and response to it. I want to take a full look into the Tone-Payton relationship so I'm breaking this topic up into a series of posts. Naturally, we'll start at the beginning of their relationship.

Barbara Payton was born Barbara Lee Redfield in Minnesota in 1927. By the time she began her acting career, Barbara had married twice—the first marriage annulled and the second to John Payton ending in a 1948 separation and 1950 divorce—and had a young son. In 1949, Payton gained notice in several films which resulted in starring roles with top actors James Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Dallas, and Only the Valiant, respectively. She would go onto to make a total of 15 films, but her popularity waned after a few short years of bad publicity. I've only watched one Payton film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but found her to be a talented actress and an especially good fit for film noirs.

When Franchot met Barbara, he had just ended his marriage to actress and model Jean Wallace. Married in 1941, Franchot and Jean appeared to have a happy marriage during the first half of the forties. They proudly talked about their two sons and each other's best traits in fan magazines and look relaxed and in love in photographs. In keeping with Franchot's attraction to strong, unflinching, outgoing women, I've read claims that Jean (who was half Franchot's age) could be as spirited and high-maintenance as Joan Crawford and Barbara Payton. Sometime before their divorce in 1948, things fell apart—although Franchot and Jean were professional enough to co-star in two films, Man on the Eiffel Tower and Jigsaw, during this time.

John O'Dowd's biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story was written with the cooperation of Payton's son John Lee Payton and is an excellent, well-researched book. It celebrates Barbara's accomplishments and good traits—her son praises her as a mother and her friends note her endless generosity—but doesn't shy away from the bad decisions she made and the people she wronged. It presents all the facts and goes in-depth at discovering who Barbara was and what helped to form her as a person. Parts of it are hard to read (because of her story, not the writing itself), but at the same time, it's impossible to put down. As much as I value and recommend the book, I was left confused about the exact details of Franchot and Barbara's first meeting (this may be due to reader error, so feel free to let me know if I misunderstood a passage.) O'Dowd tells us that Barbara first met Franchot at Ciro's in the early months of 1950. Yet in another passage, O'Dowd states that Franchot was "instantly hooked" when he judged a Charleston dance contest at the Mocambo and saw Barbara (who won first prize) for the first time. Whichever came first, Franchot and Barbara met in a popular nightclub in 1950 and embarked on a very public, whirlwind romance.

Over ten years later, a destitute Payton participated with tabloid journalist Leo Guild in an exploitative autobiography project entitled I Am Not Ashamed and described her attraction to Franchot. If you've not read I Am Not Ashamed yet, be warned that you probably will not like Barbara very much once you have. She unapologetically brags about using people (for example, Franchot) to move up in the world. (Note: Biographer John O'Dowd asserts that much of the book's content was fictitious and sensationalized due to Guild's involvement.)

Payton referred to Franchot as "the actor with the most class in Hollywood' and recalled:
I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their name for success...Franchot Tone, suave, likeable, quiet, unexciting Franchot asked me to do a play with him in New York. He was hooked on me. He believed in me, too. That was the route I had to travel. He spelled it out for me and I read him...'Kiss me and your troubles are over.' Right? So I went East with Tone...
Despite warnings from friends that he may be entering into dangerous territory, 45-year-old Franchot fell hard and devoted himself to wooing 23-year-old Barbara. According to O'Dowd's book, Franchot took a Pygmalion interest in Barbara. He was drawn to her gutsiness and rough-around-the-edges persona. Franchot liked that Barbara wore temporary face tattoos and had pink dye in her hair, atypical of 1950's beauty norms. As much as he liked this side of Barbara, Franchot felt the need to guide her into his version of the perfect lady. He gifted her with jewelry and expensive furs and introduced her to the most well-respected people and establishments. Barbara was certainly unfair to Franchot in many ways, but it was also unrealistic and unfair of Franchot to expect Barbara to eventually change to suit him.

Franchot was only 6 years younger than Barbara's father Lee "Flip" Redfield, and Barbara seemed to view Franchot as a father-figure of sorts. Barbara had always desired more love and attention from her father (there's some speculation out there that abuse may have occurred between father and daughter which created Barbara's need to please men and eagerness for attention.) During their courtship, Barbara called Franchot "Doc," liked to cook for him, and embraced his guidance.

In the summer of 1950, Franchot traveled with Barbara to the Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye premiere and a key to the city presentation in Miami. A man who usually shielded himself from publicity of any kind, Franchot embraced public appearances with his new girlfriend. In September 1950, Franchot and Barbara costarred in a production of The Second Man. (Franchot would later reprise his role in the play with Margaret Lindsay as his costar.)

By October of 1950, Franchot and Barbara announced their engagement. That same month, Barbara garnered negative attention when she was a defense witness in the perjury trial of Stanley Adams, a friend of Barbara's who was suspected of murder.  December 1950 marked the second occasion of bad publicity for the couple. Before Franchot's custody battle with ex-wife Jean Wallace, the write-ups on Franchot and Barbara's association were pretty benign. Jean testified that she was concerned about her sons being near Barbara and didn't approve of Barbara's social activities. On the stand, Franchot had to publicly state that he'd seen Barbara nude on many occasions. Not scandalous by today's standards, but it made quite a headline in 1950.

In January 1951, the engaged couple hit the premiere of the film Operation Pacific looking glamorous and receiving big applause from the audience at the Pantage Theater. Barbara's career and her relationship with Franchot seemed to be going smoothly. She had met his friends and family and he, hers. Barbara's friend and sister-in-law, Jan Zollinger Redfield said:
Franchot Tone was a very nice and extremely generous person. We saw him several times at Barbara's apartment and he was a lovely man. Although I don't think I ever saw him without a drink in his hand, he was never out of line nor did I ever hear him raise his voice at Barbara—ever. His manners were always impeccable. Lee and Mabel [Barbara's parents] both liked him and were impressed with how cultured he was. I know they were hoping that he would get Barbara to finally settle down and start behaving herself...Franchot was a gentle human being, and Frank and I were always very comfortable around him. And he adored Barbara. He showered her with gifts and she loved it!
By the middle of 1951, Franchot had heard gossip that Barbara was fooling around with costars on her movie sets. Franchot hired a private detective to tale Barbara and caught her with actor Guy Madison. Despite this, Franchot remained dedicated to the couple's engagement. (I have no knowledge about the terms of Franchot's own physical fidelity during the Payton relationship, so I cannot vouch for his own innocence.)

In July, Franchot traveled to fulfill an obligation in New York and Barbara stayed behind to work in Bride of the Gorilla. Only a few days passed before Barbara set her eyes on a muscular, 37-year-old actor named Tom Neal. Several days later, and obviously without Franchot's knowledge, Barbara had moved Tom into her apartment (on which Franchot paid the rent) and began introducing him as her boyfriend to others. When a concerned friend asked her about Franchot, Barbara dismissed it with the explanation that she'd deal with Franchot later. Barbara publicly called off her engagement to Franchot by the end of July.

In I Am Not Ashamed, Barbara said of the situation:
I didn't want to get involved with him [Neal] on any permanent basis because he was just another bit player with a gorgeous physique. But he lusted for me and I lusted for him...Here a sociably acceptable Mr. Tone was begging to pay my bills legally and Mr. Have-Nothing was living in my house while I was in New York doing his exercises by the pool...Like all feminine romantics, I thought if I stayed long enough from Tom, he'd beg me to marry him. That's why I held off Franchot until we got back to Hollywood.
August saw Barbara back with Franchot then abruptly back with Tom. September found the entire screwed-up affair blowing up in everyone's faces and presenting lasting consequences for all involved. Stay tuned for details of the Neal-Tone altercation, my second post in the Payton-Tone series.

  • O'Dowd, John. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story. Bear Manor Media, 2006.
  • Payton, Barbara. I Am Not Ashamed. Holloway House, 1963.

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