Left to Die: The Barbara Payton Tragedy

Apr 27, 2011 - by John O'Dowd

Oct. 20, 2002

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton

Barbara Payton reached the pinnacle of Hollywood in 1950. Blonde and beautiful, her libido was robust, her taste ribald; her lovers formed a who's who of Hollywood leading men from Bob Hope, George Raft, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Guy Madison to Tarzan -- with dozens and dozens of lesser lights in between. The tabloids feasted on her liaisons. When she flouted Hollywood's code by taking on a black lover in 1955, her career was over at age 27. She went from making $10,000 a week at Warner Brothers to utter destitution and ruin, turning tricks for $5 on Sunset Strip.

by John O'Dowd

At first the sanitation workers thought it was a bag of trash scattered beneath the dumpster in the parking lot behind a Thrifty Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, in the heart of Hollywood. As they drew closer they discovered instead the body of a woman lying on her side, clad only in a thin, cotton shift and a pair of slippers. With a smudge of dried blood caked thick around her nose and upper lip, the woman appeared, at first glance, to be dead. Standing over her, the men could see the mass of old bruises and welts that covered her arms and legs — like purple inkblots, vivid, even in the subdued light of dawn. The woman's brassy blonde hair, with two inches of dark roots, was bunched in knots atop her head, like some tangled bee's nest gone awry. So battered was her appearance that it made it almost impossible to determine what she actually looked like underneath all the layers of dried blood and dirt. One of the men later said that the sight of her crumpled body lying on the pavement made it appear as if she had been "dumped out of the sky." When at last they noticed that she was still breathing, the two workers rushed to get help.

Later that morning, word spread quickly down Sunset Boulevard and then across Los Angeles that the woman the men had found was none other than Barbara Payton, a former movie star and tabloid queen — and a longtime denizen of Hollywood's Skid Row. Those who remembered the name were not surprised, for despite the fact that her film career had ended 12 years earlier — in a blaze of sordid scandal and poisonous publicity — Payton had never really left Hollywood...at least not for long.

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