Barbara Payton Caused the Top Hollywood Scandal in 1951
Tom Neal and Franchot Tone were both in love with beautiful blonde actress Barbara Payton in the early 1950s, and that love triangle led to the scandal of the year in 1951.
Harvard-educated Tom Neal aspired to a career in acting so he went to Hollywood in the late 1930s to realize his dreams. He landed a contract with MGM which lasted until 1942. Considered a B-star, he starred as hitchhiker Al Roberts in 1945’s “Detour,” a film that came to be considered a top noir classic.
Cornell-educated Franchot Tone also started his film career in the late 1930s in Hollywood. Tone appeared in movies with Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. In 1935, he was billed right after Charles Laughton and Clark Gable in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. That year, he also married Joan Crawford in a union that lasted until 1939.
Minnesota-born Barbara Payton got herself a contract with Universal in 1947. After making one movie for Universal, her contract was dropped and she auditioned for a James Cagney movie. Cagney’s brother, William, signed her to a personal contract and chose her to be the lead in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” She played Cagney’s vicious moll, Holiday Carleton.
The lives of these three stars would intertwine in a way that would forever destroy the careers of two of them.
Barbara Payton was still married to her first husband, John Payton, when she met Franchot Tone in 1950, but she was granted a divorce in September of that year, and Franchot announced that they were engaged at a party at the Stork Club in New York City.
By this time, Barbara was reputed to have slept with every leading man she had ever been in a film with and worse. Some of this gossip was not true, but Barbara was a notorious party girl and Franchot’s friends and colleagues did not approve of his relationship with Barbara. Even his ex-wife, Joan Crawford, tried to talk Franchot out of marrying Barbara.
All the same, being engaged did nothing to stop Barbara from her partying and faithless ways. In 1951, Barbara was cast in a “Gone With The Wind” type vehicle called “Drums in the Deep South.” After work, she began to spend time with her married co-star, actor Guy Madison. By now, Franchot had hired a private detective to spy on Barbara.
One night, Barbara and Guy repaired to her apartment after cocktails and one thing led to another. Spying on her across the street was not the detective, but Franchot Tone himself. Franchot waited until he could catch them in the act and barged into the apartment. He then informed Guy Madison that he was engaged to Barbara, and said, “I’m going to marry her, are you?” A flustered and embarrassed Madison replied: “I can’t, I’m already married.” The story goes that Barbara Payton burst out laughing at this exchange.
The incident was reported in Confidential magazine, resulting in more bad press for Barbara but it did not end her engagement to Franchot.
In July 1951, Franchot went on a business trip to New York, and this was when Barbara met actor Tom Neal at a pool party. She was immediately struck by Tom’s good looks and muscular physique and quickly began a torrid affair with him. She was quoted in Exposed magazine as saying: “It was love at first sight. I saw him in a swimming pool. He looked so wonderful in his trunks that I knew he was the only man in my life.” Barbara proposed marriage to Tom, broke her engagement with Franchot, then went back and forth between the two actors several times, pitting one against the other.
The triangle exploded one night in front of Barbara’s home when Tom Neal assaulted Franchot Tone and beat the living daylights out of him. Franchot was hospitalized and remained comatose for 18 hours. Public sympathy went against Tom because he had been a boxer in his younger days. There was little sympathy for Hollywood’s ‘bad blonde” either. Their careers were as good as finished as lurid stories of the incident splashed across the country’s newspapers.
Much to everyone’s shock, Franchot Tone married Barbara Payton anyway although the marriage lasted only two months. Tom Neal was named co-respondent in their divorce. Franchot used explicit photographs to prove his cause of action and then spitefully mailed dozens of pictures of Barbara in compromising positions with Tom to heads of major studios to destroy her chances of ever working in Hollywood again.
Tom and Barbara left for Europe and when they returned to America five months later, she announced that Tom was her manager. This latest reunion produced one 1953 film in which they both appeared, “Great Jesse James Raid.” That same year, they toured together unsuccessfully in “The Postman Always Ring Twice” and broke up for good.
Barbara Payton only appeared in one more film after “Great Jesse James Raid.” She married a sport fishing operator named Tony Provas in 1955. After their 1958 divorce, her behavior became increasingly erratic as she drank more and more. Some even said she was on heroin. By the time she was 36, she had been arrested for public drunkenness, prostitution and passing bad checks. In 1963, she published a memoir she was reportedly paid $1,000 to cook up with a ghostwriter entitled “I Am Not Ashamed.” She died at her parents’ home at age 39 on May 8, 1967, while attempting to regain her health and sobriety.
Franchot Tone continued to appear in movies and television until the end of his life. He got married once more to Dolores Dorn in 1956. They divorced 4 years later. At the time of his death from lung cancer on September 18, 1968, he was making plans to produce and star in a biography of French artist, Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Tom Neal made few appearances in films after 1953 and eventually left Hollywood. He married twice. His first wife died from cancer. He was convicted of manslaughter for killing his second wife with a gun that he swore went off accidentally. He served 6 years of a 10-year sentence and died on August 7, 1972, 8 months after his release from Soledad State Prison.