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This chapter opens with the events immediately following Barbara’s divorce from Franchot Tone in 1952. Tom Neal is living with her at her Hollywood Hills apartment and the couple is trying to regain some sense of normalcy in their lives.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

As Barbara’s fiery personal life raged on, her parents remained detached from the dramatics and were instead planning a change of residence. After nearly fifteen years in Odessa, Lee and Mabel had grown tired of both the grind of running their motel and West Texas, in general, and were seeking a slower pace in California. In part, they wanted to be near Frank, who had been honorably discharged from the Navy that year and was living with Jan and their infant son, Les, near Jan’s parents in Compton. By May, Frank had gotten a job in construction, building houses with his father-in-law up near Big Bear. Mabel, whose emotional support of her daughter remained steadfast despite Barbara’s many indiscretions through the years, also wanted to be near her and John Lee, who was now five years old and still in the care of Al and Dorothy Zollinger. Unlike his wife, however, Lee still had a mostly negative opinion of Barbara and had mainly agreed to the move so he could be near the rest of the family.

Following their move that spring, Lee and Mabel temporarily rented a small, one-bedroom house in the upscale Mission Hills section of San Diego, while looking for a bigger home they could purchase. Soon afterward they found what Jan calls, “the house of their dreams,” and moved into a two-story, Spanish-style house on a hilltop overlooking Mission Bay and the San Diego Airport; a beautiful and ornate place they would call home for the next 18 years.

Despite the interference of his frequent drinking, Lee immediately set out to make the outside of the property at 1901 Titus Street into a landscaper’s showplace. In a project that would remain a work-in-progress over the next ten years, Lee constructed a wrought-iron spiral staircase outside that led to a long balcony on the second story, as well as a backyard patio and a long stairway of stones that ran along the side property.

“Then, in the front of the house, Lee built a beautiful brick patio draped in bougainvillea and wisteria,” recalls Jan. “He even built a fishpond out there, too, which he stocked with koi and surrounded with tiny orange flowers. It was lovely.”

Most impressively, perhaps, is that in response to Mabel’s desire for an in-ground swimming pool, Lee built one for her...from scratch. Working alone, and with only a shovel, a pick and a wheel barrel for tools, he dug the hole for it by hand, even though the hillside was mostly a mass of solid boulders. He saved most of the rocks he unearthed and eventually built a four foot high wall with them.

Ever the master builder, Lee had even found a use for his collection of ‘dead soldiers’. “Lee never threw away a beer can,” laughs Jan Redfield. “Instead, he set them in concrete and built a rock wall with them!”

He had built a wall between himself and his daughter, too—this one, also, of ‘dead soldiers’.

Things had quieted down a lot in Tom and Barbara’s lives by the time his nephew, Walter Burr, paid a visit to them that June. The 23-year old had recently served as a paratrooper in the 82 nd Airborne Division of the United States Air Force until his discharge in August 1951, after which he had returned to Illinois to attend Northwestern University. Admittedly fond of his uncle, whom he says, always treated him well, Walter decided to take in the sights of Hollywood during his summer break in 1952 and headed west in his green Pontiac convertible. He remembers being greeted warmly by Barbara and Tom, whom he insists were at a happy place in their relationship. “I got the sense that they were totally enamored with each other. You could actually feel the sexual vibes bounce off them when they were together. It was that intense.”

One of the first things Walter did upon his arrival was accompany Tom to the 20 th Century Fox lot where they had lunch with movie star Richard Widmark, who was an acquaintance of Neal’s. “It was amazing,” recalls Walter. “We hung out there for a while with Richard and later Tom introduced me to actors Hugh Krampe (O’Brian) and Rita Moreno, who were both just starting out at the time. For a young, college kid from Illinois, meeting all these attractive movie people was pretty exciting.”

The next morning, Tom took Walter clothes shopping in Hollywood. “We went down to Vine Street, to Sy Devore’s, which was the most popular haberdasher in town. As soon as we were in the store, Tom pulled out a money clip from his pants pocket and took out several one hundred dollar bills. He told the salesman, ‘This is my nephew and I want you to get him all spruced up.’ He wanted me to look more ‘West Coast’, I guess. Tom bought me several expensive shirts and ties and a beautiful sports coat that day. He was extremely good to me.”

Walter’s first impression of Barbara was that of “a very gregarious and down-to-earth girl. She was extremely animated in her body movements, like she was fueled by some powerful inner energy. Barbara had the look of a hot Hollywood sexpot, but she was also very real and accessible. I must say, the pheromones she gave off were devastating! The girl just exuded sex.

“Barbara was bold, but not in a temperamental way. I don’t recall her using any profanity...she wasn’t coarse in her language. She was, however, very self-confident—a real boisterous babe who loved to laugh and to bust people’s chops. I had the feeling that Barbara would talk to anybody...regardless of who they were or what they had or didn’t have She was very deferential. I liked her a lot, right off the bat.”

Soon after his arrival, Walter remembers Barbara’s mother bringing John Lee to visit for a few days. During much of the Franchot Tone fiasco, the youngster had been spending most of his time with Al and Dorothy Zollinger at their home in La Puente. At five years old, John Lee was developing into a very quiet and well-mannered child.

Although Mabel had delivered him to Barbara’s house that day, the youngster normally spent very little time with her and Lee, due to their heavy drinking. Jan says, “When he wasn’t with Barbara, Johnny stayed with my parents. Barbara never left him with Lee and Mabel for very long because she knew the environment in their home was not the best place to raise a little boy.

“Johnny, as well as my own four children, never stayed with my in-laws for more than a day or two at a time. As kind and generous as Lee and Mabel were, sooner or later they would both hit the bottle, and when they did, it wasn’t pretty.”

Perhaps it was for the same reason that John Lee’s visits with Barbara were, at times, sporadic. Whenever her personal life got too complicated, John Lee was usually shipped off to the Zollingers until Barbara could get things under control again. Though his life with his mother was frequently interrupted, John Lee insists today that, “My mother bore me, raised me and formed me forever. Please don’t take that away from her. It is, in fact, all we have.”

Walter Burr remembers John Lee’s incredible handsomeness and good manners. “Johnny was a gorgeous, sandy-haired kid. During my visit, I remember we brought him with us to a couple of pool parties in Beverly Hills, and all the women just went bonkers over him. They all oohed and aahed and generally just made a big fuss over him. Johnny had a lot of poise and personality for a child of that age. You might say he looked and behaved more like a miniature grown-up.”

Today, John Lee Payton credits a lot of the good manners he exhibited as a child to both Barbara and the Zollingers’ influence. “My mother taught me early on to behave, particularly around adults, as she always wanted me to make a good impression. I spent a lot of time with her at various parties and on different movie sets (especially at WB). When I stayed with her (which was often, at the Courtney apartment), Mom always liked to dress me up in little suits and such. That was fine with me as it often involved a night out with her at a Hollywood restaurant, which was always fun.”

With John Lee’s latest visit, Walter noticed that whatever time Barbara and her son had spent apart evidently hadn’t diminished the love they felt for each other. “Barbara doted on Johnny the entire time he was there. She read him bedtime stories every night and she was constantly hugging and kissing him. Barbara appeared to be a marvelous mother. And Tom was very good with Johnny, too. He spent time with him alone and they got along great.”

Barbara had tears in her eyes and John Lee bawled when the Zollingers came to retrieve him, but Barbara quickly shook off her sadness and later told Walter that her son’s leaving was for the best, as she was far too busy at the time “chasing down a career”, and thus felt she couldn’t devote herself to his raising as fully as Al and Dorothy Zollinger could. Walter says that he was under the impression that the separation was only meant to be temporary and that Barbara would arrange for the boy’s return, “soon...once she had her feet planted more firmly on the ground.”

According to Walter, both Barbara and Tom kept themselves busy that summer with various professional pursuits. “They were up early every day, and then went off separately to their business appointments. Every morning, Barbara cooked breakfast for Tom and me, although it was rare for her to sit down with us. She said she preferred to eat very little because she was watching her weight ‘for the movie cameras’. Barbara was a wonderful cook. She whipped up some fabulous meals for us while I was there, from scratch. This woman didn’t even have to look at a recipe. She was amazing.”

Walter says this was further validated by his parents, who had met Barbara a few weeks earlier, when Tom brought her home to Evanston to meet the family. “I was still away at college so I didn’t see her, but my folks told me she was a delight—real ‘high-energy’ and warm and always asking if she could help out in the kitchen. They said she prepared several meals for them (all of which were delicious) and that she even threw a party or two while she was there. My parents and all their friends just raved about her.”

In addition to practicing her domestic skills, Barbara had dipped her toe back into fashion modeling that summer. In May and June, she did several photo shoots on the beach at Malibu, and in Palm Springs, with renowned Romanian photographer Andre de Dienes, best known today for his extensive body of work with Marilyn Monroe. As was a common practice at the time, the photos that de Dienes shot were paid for by the model (in this case, Barbara) and were taken on ‘spec’, for possible distribution to such 1950s men’s magazines as Pageant, Eye and Brief. Most of the Malibu Beach images show Barbara surf side in a modest, one-piece bathing suit, while the Palm Springs photos were predominantly action shots of Barbara in a white outfit, taken on a tennis court at the Palm Springs Racquet Club. Although the majority of her modeling portfolio with de Dienes lacks the special magic he attained in his work with Monroe, Barbara’s beauty was nonetheless shown to good advantage in several photos now stored for posterity in the de Dienes Archives.

“Barbara introduced me to Andre one day at his photography studio in West Hollywood,” Walter remembers. “She brought me down there to see some examples of their recent work together. As soon as I walked into his studio I noticed that he had several black-and-white shots of her hanging on the wall that he had blown up to about three feet by four feet. They were absolutely gorgeous pictures of Barbara, totally nude (except for a pair of sheer, flesh colored panties) and riding a white horse, bareback, on a deserted, windswept beach in Malibu. Needless to say, the photos were phenomenal. Andre and Barbara were both very proud of those pictures, and with good reason...they were incredibly hot! However, I don’t recall ever seeing them published anywhere. I wonder whatever happened to them?”

Although the nude photos of Barbara were said to have been part of a de Dienes exhibition at Santa Monica’s G. Ray Hawkins Art Gallery in the 1980s, they apparently haven’t surfaced anywhere since.

Like most people in show business, Barbara and Tom took a great interest in their bodies and devoted a lot of time that summer to keeping themselves looking beautiful, says Walter. “Tom spent most afternoons on Barbara’s patio working out with free weights while she went to the Beverly Hills Hotel a lot, to swim and play tennis. I remember both of them going out on several job interviews, and although none had brought them any new film work, neither of them seemed to be hurting financially. Barbara owned a new Cadillac convertible (which they both drove), and she had in her employ a black maid named Mamie who was a very well-spoken and elegant woman.”

Walter learned that Barbara had decorated the entire inside of her West Hollywood house herself and he says it was truly a sight to behold. “The house was impeccably furnished and I was very impressed. Barbara’s bedroom was done in an ice-blue color and all the carpets and draperies were coordinated to match. She told me that she was extremely proud of all the material items she had amassed.”

He would later find out why.

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