Celebrity biographies fall into two camps: the cash grab and the record straightener. The latter sees a celebrity take the time to truly present themselves, while the former is written in the vain hope of nabbing a few bucks and some headlines. Suffice it to say you can usually tell the two apart. That’s not to say these tomes aren’t valuable, but they lift the veil off stardom in an almost grotesque way, with the knowledge that the reader is indulging and yearning for a tale of woe and vice.
In 1963 actress Barbara Payton penned I Am Not Ashamed, a trip through Payton’s wild and drunken world of prostitution. With many old Hollywood stars realizing the world was no longer their oyster, you saw a lot of them turn to the lurid autobiography market. Veronica Lake’s autobiography doesn’t mind the depths of depravity that Payton’s does, but it follows a similar formula. Best known for her work opposite James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Payton’s personal life saw her homeless and working as a prostitute.
Reading Payton’s words is a lesson in patience, as she boozily moves from telling stories about her life and career to offering advice to avoid following the same mistakes she did. At times it’s like listening to your drunken aunt recount stories about her past and then tell you she loves yo repeatedly. Payton doesn’t give anything passing for background on her life or Hollywood career, content to assume the audience remembers her as the “big star” she was, or at least thinks she was in her head. There’s no expectation of pity, but there seems to be little expectation within the book at all, short of shocking audiences.
As someone who’d never heard of Payton short of her notoriety, its disappointing that Payton doesn’t want to provide a decent overview of her life from her perspective, and if she’s not ashamed of anything it’s knowing that people just want to hear the salacious details. For 1963 her stories of sex with famous man are rather tame. If anything, her bold declarations of exclusively sleeping with African-American men makes a pointed, if now tone deaf, stab at conservative America pre-Civil Rights Movement. Her mentions of specific actors and performers are given aliases, and the recent reprint of the book doesn’t include any conjecture on who these people could be (although I’m led to believe one of them is Mickey Rooney).
There’s definitely no shame found within Payton’s book, but there’s also little depth or intrigue. Had this been a glimpse into Payton’s life, her failed relationships, the lose of her son, and her downward spiral it might have provided titillation as well as the cautionary tale Payton seeks to throw out there. But it’s a 50/50 blend of gloating about her success and bemoaning its absence. I’m interested in reading her son’s more straightforward examination of her life, if only to provide additional context for how exactly Payton ended up where she did.
I Am Not Ashamed has no shame in what it is: a smutty expose of a woman’s descent into depravity, written by someone desperate for some money and attention. It’s an interesting and quick read that’ll whet the appetite for learning more about Payton, and checking out her films, but be prepared for its boozy-laden, disjointed perspective.
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