Friday, February 3, 2017

Payton-Tone: The Altercation

If you missed my first post on the Barbara Payton and Franchot Tone relationship, you may want to start here: The Beginning. This is a painful post to write and read if Franchot is dear to you. Although it reads like a soap opera, the whole thing is more like a scary movie to me. You want to scream,  "Franchot, don't go to the house!," "Franchot, don't do it! It's a trap!" Spoiler alert: He does go to the house and he does fall into a trap. Well, here we go...

Barbara and Tom in 1952. Source: UCLA Digital Collections.
When we left off, Barbara had met Tom Neal and thoughtlessly renounced Franchot while he was away on business. Throughout August 1951, Barbara would change her mind several times over which man she wanted and amazingly, the men seemed to comply. Finally, Barbara stated she would marry Tom and they spent nearly the first two weeks of September together. On September 13, Franchot came to town and Barbara spent the entire day with him at Beverly Hills Hotel and the evening at Ciro's. After 1 a.m., an inebriated Franchot and Barbara returned to her apartment to find an equally inebriated Tom and his friends.

Franchot and Tom confronted each other. In I Am Not Ashamed, Barbara relates that what set Franchot off was a pair of dumbbells on the patio—a painful reminder that Tom had been living with Barbara in the apartment Franchot paid for. According to author and Payton researcher John O'Dowd, as the argument became more heated, Barbara kissed Franchot and told him to "get rid of Tom." Throughout this entire affair, Franchot had seen the printed publicity in which Tom Neal had called him old and dull. Barbara would say that during this particular argument Tom would question Franchot's virility and ability to please Barbara. Now 46-years-old, Franchot's ego must have taken a hit at these comments. To prove himself to Barbara and regain control, Franchot (about 25 pounds thinner than his opponent) challenged Tom to a fight outside.

Tom threw the first punch and it was so powerful that it lifted Franchot up in the air and then forced him to the ground. Once Franchot was down, Tom jumped on top of him and beat him mercilessly. A next door neighbor would report that he saw Tom punch Franchot over 30 times in less than 10 minutes, but the uncouth Tom would later say that he only hit him a handful of times, else Franchot "wouldn't have any face or head left!"

Franchot lost consciousness several times and was unable to remember a lot of details of the fight. He would later tell District Attorney Roll:
Neal's first blow rendered me unconscious. I regained consciousness two or three seconds subsequently, to find Mr. Neal sitting on top of me, beating me about the head and face. I raised my hand to protect my face, but lost consciousness again immediately.
After one of Neal's friends tore Tom off Franchot, Franchot, in grave condition, was rushed to the nearby California Lutheran Hospital. Reporters who caught wind of the beating and hurried to the hospital waiting room were told that there was concern about blood clots and strokes and that this was essentially a “death watch.”

The beating left Franchot with a shattered cheekbone, fractured upper jaw, broken nose, and concussion. His face was so damaged that the doctors performed emergency plastic surgery and warned that his face might never look exactly the same as the public remembered. Immediately following the fight, Barbara stated to the press that she planned to marry Franchot and called Tom a “vicious man.” Although she snuck in martinis to a bandage-wrapped and pained Franchot, Barbara’s main focus seemed to be embracing the publicity that the ordeal had produced. She didn’t appear to understand why she was getting such negative press and offered no explanations. And she didn’t alter her behavior, either.

Barbara visiting Franchot in the hospital. Source: UCLA Digital Collections.
While Franchot was recuperating in the hospital, Barbara was photographed dancing with Tom in nightclubs. Reporters witnessed Tom enter Barbara’s apartment in the evenings and exit with her each morning before Barbara, alone, went to visit her badly beaten, on-again fiancée in the hospital. The fact that Barbara continued to go behind an ailing Franchot’s back to be with the man that beat him senselessly is something that I, personally, have a hard time understanding. It’s just such a cold, selfish way to behave and a horrible way to treat any person. Payton’s son John Lee thinks that Barbara behaved this way because she didn’t understand how to give or receive love. Barbara’s friend Tina Ballard commented that Barbara was one of those people who is so deeply self-destructive that they unintentionally wreck the lives of all in their path. In O’Dowd’s biography, Tina also described Barbara’s feelings for both men:
I think Barbara wished she could combine Franchot's qualities of wealth, intelligence and class with Tom's down-and-dirty, somewhat raw sexuality, and make a whole other person out of them! She loved and admired both men...the pull to Tom, though, was way stronger...
The fight placed negative publicity on all three principal players. Barbara walked away with a pretty horrible reputation in the public's opinion and was dropped from a leading role in Lady in the Iron Mask (I’ll get into her dreary post-Franchot years in a later blog post.) Franchot was able to redeem his reputation and career after some time, but it would take years of dedication to his craft and re-embracing the privately-lived life he’d known before Barbara.

In the year after the fight, however, Franchot was ridiculed by the press for his behavior with Barbara and publicly humiliated (even by some colleagues) for engaging in and losing a fight with a physically stronger man. But the embarrassment of the situation and stain against his character were nothing compared to the physical damages Franchot suffered. I think the plastic surgeons were extremely skilled, because they were able to maintain his recognizable facial features. Still, to me, he never looked quite the same after the fight. How could he after a shattered cheekbone, fractured upper jaw, and broken nose? Franchot looked like himself, just a slightly different version.

I do not have source info for this photo, but I think it's a good example of the
work done on Franchot's face. His nose looks differently here. Smoother, not with
the natural, imperfect slope of his nose prior to the incident.

Here's a good side-by-side comparison that shows
how Franchot's nose bump and nostrils looked in 1937 and
then after required plastic surgery in 1951.
His voice was affected, too. Don’t get me wrong. I realize that a lot of his vocal change in later years was due to cigarettes and scotch. Barbara herself said that Franchot never quite talked the same way and a few years later, in 1953, Franchot would unsuccessfully sue Lloyds of London for damages inflicted by Tom. Franchot stated that he had suffered “facial disfigurement and impairment of his voice.” (Resisting the suit, Lloyds argued that Franchot “was intoxicated, provoked a fight and exposed himself deliberately to danger.”)

Tom’s post-Franchot life will require a future post as well, but immediately following the assault, Tom was facing felony charges and possible prison time. Franchot was planning on pressing charges on Tom and following his hospital release, gave his version of the event to District Attorney S. Ernest Roll. During the meeting, a still-in-recovery Franchot, who was described as being very swollen, bloodshot, and pale, made it clear that Tom was the aggressor, but his fiancée backpedaled on it. Despite her earlier statements that Tom was a violent brute who nearly killed Franchot, Barbara was now obviously lessening those charges in order to protect Tom.

Franchot on September 25, 1951. This was the first photo of Franchot following the assault
and his hospital stay. It was taken at the DA's office. Source:UCLA Digital Collections.
Between that meeting and September 27th, Barbara privately convinced her fiancée not to file charges on her lover (former lover, thought Franchot, but the world knew differently.) On September 26th, Barbara flew with her son for a visit of her hometown in Minnesota. The next day, Franchot angered the district attorney when he withdrew charges on Neal and caught a flight to Minnesota.

Franchot waiving assault charges against Tom Neal. Source: UCLA Digital Collections.

By September 28th, Franchot and Barbara were married.

Next week, I'll share the story of Franchot and Barbara's hasty marriage and, as most predicted, divorce less than 9 months later.

  • "Lloyd's Fights Tone's Suit." New York Times. May 10, 1953.
  • O'Dowd, John. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story. Bear Manor Media, 2006.
  • Payton, Barbara. I Am Not Ashamed. Holloway House, 1963.
  • UCLA Digital Collections.

1 comment:

  1. Did this fight occur at 1803 Courtney Avenue Los Angeles?