By Burt Kearns
1951 was a bloody banner year in the boxing business. It counted among its major events the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the battle between archrival middleweights Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, so named because the punches landed on February 14th, and remembered because the referee finally stopped the fight in the thirteenth round before LaMotta’s head, under a merciless pounding, was separated from his spinal cord (LaMotta never went down). In Madison Square Garden in October, undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano wept after reluctantly pummeling his aging boyhood idol, Joe Louis, into submission, in what would be Louis’s last fight.
But neither bout had greater impact, made more headlines, or had a more sordid and sorrowful aftermath than the fight that took place in Los Angeles in the early hours of September 14, 1951, on the front steps of 1803 Courtney Avenue, when a former amateur boxer out of Chicago with a record of forty-three wins, three losses and three knockouts, scored his fourth K.O. over an older opponent who was as outmatched as Joe Louis in the Garden. The “fight” between Tom Neal and Franchot Tone was, of course, over a woman. Tone was a movie star. Neal was a B-movie dolt who looked good in trunks. The woman was Barbara Payton, a badtime, badass blonde who’d gone more rounds (in the sack, of course) than both men put together. She was twenty-three. Neal was thirty-seven. Franchot Tone was forty-six and should have known better. He’d been in this ring before.
Franchot Tone was a sophisticated gentleman born into money who chose acting and was an established stage thespian before getting into motion pictures in the early 1930s. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1936 for Mutiny on the Bounty, the one with Clark Gable. Tone married Joan Crawford that year. The marriage lasted until 1939, when she filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. Tone took the divorce hard but rebounded with a younger model – an actual model turned actress. He married her in 1941.That’s why Franchot Tone should have known better. He knew what could happen, marrying a peroxide-blonde sex kitten half his age.
Two boys, two suicide attempts
Jean Walacek had arrived in Hollywood in 1940. An Irish-Polish platinum blonde fresh out of high school in Chicago, she was already calling herself “Jean Wallace” and wasted no time extracting job offers from wolves in the studio casting offices. Right away, she was signed by MGM for her first movie role — a bit part in Ziegfeld Girl that began filming in November 1940. She lost the role when the studio discovered she was seventeen, not nineteen as she’d claimed. By law, she could work only four hours a day – and required a tutor. All squeezes aside, that was a dealbreaker. Jean found work as a showgirl in one of producer Earl Carroll’s scantily-clad musical revues before she got a second shot at the movies. Paramount moved in and gave her a six-month contract, a tutor — and her first screen credit, in 1941, in Louisiana Purchase, the musical comedy starring Bob Hope. Jean met Franchot Tone in July of that year. He was also eighteen years her senior.
The teenager and the movie star had a wild, hot romance, and on October 18, 1941, eloped to Yuma, Arizona. With a crowd of fans clogging the corridors of the Yuma County courthouse, they were married in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Henry C. Kell. Jean was eighteen. Tone was exactly twice her age. When the newlyweds stepped outside the courthouse, they encountered a festival parade making its way through the downtown streets. A gaggle of fans placed the newlyweds atop a firetruck, and they became king and queen of the cavalcade. The couple stopped in for a toast at the local Elks Lodge before flying to Palm Springs and seven years of a wedlock that would be far more turbulent than the flight.
During the course of their marriage, the couple produced two children and at least one suicide attempt. Pascal “Pat” Franchot Tone was born on July 29, 1943. Thomas Jefferson Tone arrived on September 16, 1945. Jean tried suicide with sleeping pills on May 28, 1946. Franchot Tone and his press agents attributed the hospital run to food poisoning and a medicine mix-up. On June 3, Walter Winchell reported on a warning sign when Jean walked out of Helena Rubinstein’s salon with her hair dyed “opalescent pink.” Jean filed for divorce on August 23, 1948, claiming her husband was “extremely jealous” and had a violent temper. “Many times, when I was called to work at the studio,” she said, “I could not report because of our arguments the night before.” Jean’s friend, a singer named Elinor Parker, backed up her claims, and testified that Tone called his wife “dirty names.” Parker would not repeat the “vile and vulgar” words in court, but wrote them on a slip of paper and passed it to Judge Thurlow T. Taft.
The divorce was granted. Tone was awarded custody of their two sons, now aged five and two. Outside the courthouse in Santa Monica, Jean Wallace said she was leaving for New York and Paris to star in a movie — opposite Franchot Tone.
On Sunday, November 20, 1949, Jean Wallace picked up the boys at her ex-husband’s home in Beverly Hills and took them to see Santa Claus. That evening, while Tone was out on a date, Jean, the boys and her mother, Frances Ingham, had dinner at his home before she returned to Ingham’s apartment.
At 4:30 AM Monday, Frances Ingham was awakened by a scream. She found her daughter in the kitchen, with a fourteen-inch butcher knife in her hand and blood pouring from a gaping wound — an inch deep and an inch-and-a-half across — in her abdomen. Jean was taken to George Street Receiving Hospital and then to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where her condition was listed as “not serious.”
Jean Wallace was not invited to her ex-husband’s home to be with the boys on Christmas Eve. That evening, she did not give up hope that an invitation would arrive. She sat in her mother’s apartment at 1015 North Doheny Drive in West Hollywood, waiting for his call — waiting and knocking back jiggers of vodka. Early Christmas morning, she was in her car, behind the wheel, three miles away when she smashed into a parked car at the corner of Orange Street and Crescent Heights Boulevard. Arthur Koontz owned the car she hit. He reached into Jean’s sedan, took away the key and held onto it until police arrived. The cop found Jean Wallace as Arthur Koontz had, wearing an open red coat, blue lace-trimmed panties, and bedroom slippers. Jean was booked on a “drunk in auto” charge at City Jail. Jean’s mother paid the fifty dollars to bail her out and drove her back to the apartment.
“I had been here all evening alone, hoping I’d get a call from Franchot inviting me to see the children,” Jean Wallace told reporters the next day. “I had some drinks and, well, I guess I just waited too long.”
Gossip columnist Jimmy Fidler, an influential, judgmental squirt who was the third wheel in the Hedda Hopper-Louella Parsons monopoly on Hollywood shame, weighed in on Jean’s situation on New Year’s Day. In wake of the recent suicide attempt and drunk arrest, he wrote that the troubled actress “seems to be taking over the dubious distinction recently vacated by Lila Leeds, of being Hollywood’s No. 1 headline-maker.” (Recently nabbed for drunk driving, Lila Leeds had been arrested along with Robert Mitchum on marijuana charges in 1948 and cashed in with a Reefer Madness-style flick called She Shoulda Said No!) Fidler wrote that he couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for Jean, since she seemed to be in love with her ex and upset by the separation from her boys. “But neither can one help feeling that a person so temperamentally unstable, is scarcely a fit custodian for those same children.”
The Respectful Prostitute
Jean surprised most everyone when, on January 28, 1950, she ran off to Tijuana, Mexico and married a twenty-three-year-old former Army Sergeant named James Lloyd Randall. She’d met the soldier the previous year while making a personal appearance at a service hospital in Tacoma, Washington. Randall, who’d been injured in a training accident, was a patient. While Randall’s family back in Virginia had wedding announcements posted proudly in the local papers, Jean’s mother did not try to hide her displeasure. “Jean definitely did this on the rebound,” Frances Ingham told reporters. “I know it can’t last. It’s not good for her and it’s no good for Jim Randall. I already have told Jean that I’m going to try to get the marriage annulled.”
Jean was wearing a print dress and ankle-length mink coat when she appeared in court on February 28 to face the Christmas morning drunk charge. She avoided thirty days in jail by paying a sixty-dollar fine.
She was in Superior Court on June 13, with high-powered celebrity attorney Jerry Giesler at her side, when she sued to end her marriage to Jim Randall. She asked for an annulment or divorce on the grounds that the Tijuana marriage was not legal and that she and Randall had never set up home together.
While awaiting the judge’s decision, at four o’clock in the morning on Saturday, October 14, two days after she turned twenty-seven, Jean Wallace wound up in another compromising situation. This time she was in the front seat of Lawrence Tierney’s Cadillac while the oft-arrested actor stood in the street, drunk and ranting, until the cops dragged him away. Jean was sent on her way, but she got her name in the papers, anyway.
“Larry called and asked if I would be interested in playing with him in a play, The Respectful Prostitute.” Jean Wallace told her story to Louella Parsons the following day. “We talked about the part and then I offered to drive him home. Suddenly he became wild and started to scream.” The Respectful Prostitute was actually a respectable play about racism in the American South, written by Jean-Paul Sartre, but try telling that to average movie fan eating up the gossip in the morning paper.
It was quite unfortunate, Parsons concluded. Wallace had been “making a wonderful comeback, and everyone in Hollywood knows that she has given up all intoxicants.” She also had much at stake in court, with that annulment hearing followed by an attempt to regain custody of her sons from Franchot Tone.
“I don’t think Franchot will oppose this move — or even care,” Jean Wallace said. “He is so taken up with Barbara Payton. Everyone says they will be married.”
And that’s where Barbara Payton comes in.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
She was born Barbara Lee Redfield in 1927 to a couple of alcoholics in Cloquet, Minnesota. When she was eleven, her family moved to Odessa, Texas, where she learned that her beauty and sexual availability could get her places. She eloped at sixteen with her high school boyfriend. Her parents had the marriage annulled but didn’t make a peep when she married again at seventeen, this time to John Payton, an Air Force captain stationed at Midland Army Airfield. He said he’d take her places. When she said she wanted to go to Hollywood, he took her there. He took some classes. She went out for modelling jobs.
In 1947, Barbara Payton gave birth to a son. In 1948, the couple separated. She dedicated her time to getting noticed in nightspots like Ciro’s and the Mocambo on the Sunset Strip. The attention led to a movie contract. In 1949, she starred with Lloyd Bridges in the film noir, Trapped. In the spring of 1950, she was a gangster moll opposite James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Barbara Payton was impressive in both films.
She met Franchot Tone that summer, either when she was trolling at Ciro’s or after he watched her win a Charleston dance contest at the Mocambo. Whatever, soon enough Tone was engaged in another public romance with a hot young blonde. He was forty-five. She was twenty-two, and she had more tricks up her sleeve than… You get the picture.
Naked and nude
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thurmond Clarke granted Jean Wallace an annulment of her marriage to Jim Randall on November 6, 1950. Jean then headed west to Santa Monica Superior Court to battle her other former husband over custody of their boys. Those proceedings were bitter and lurid, with testimony and accusations of intoxication, a thrown ashtray (Jean admitted she’d hurled it toward Tone because he’d taken Barbara Payton to Las Vegas – but only after “he pulled some hair out of my head” – the ashtray crashed through a window), her dalliances with Mickey Cohen’s bodyguard Johnny Stompanato, and his association with “somebody mixed up in narcotics” – namely Payton, who was introduced as “the other woman,” and was subpoenaed to testify. It was a bonanza for the news photogs when the two blondes were in the same room. The women didn’t look at each other, but everyone was eyeing both of them up and down when the subject turned to nudity.
Jean Wallace’s attorney got the naked ball roll when he got Franchot Tone on the witness stand and asked if he’d seen his new girlfriend Barbara Payton in the nude.
“Have you ever seen her naked?”
“Was this in a room in a hotel?”
Tone was embarrassed by that last question, but his attorney bit back. He’d already had the cop who’d arrested Jean on Christmas morning testify that he’d gotten a gander at Jean’s bare breasts when they spilled out of that red coat. Now he called to the stand an actor and writer named Leonid Mostovey, who testified that he’d seen Jean Wallace in her apartment with a young man he knew as “Corky.”
“How was Miss Wallace clothed?’ Tone’s attorney asked.
Judge Orlando H. Rhodes ruled on December 12 that Franchot Tone would retain custody of the two children. Wallace, whom the judge said he did not consider to be an unfit mother, was granted liberal visitation rights.
Jean Wallace married actor Cornel Wilde on September 3, 1951, in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Arthur Crum in Los Angeles City Hall. The newlyweds were in Superior Court in Santa Monica on September 11, fighting a request by Wallace’s ex-husband, Franchot Tone, to move her two sons to New York City, where he was working in television and radio. Wallace again claimed that Tone was a bad father. (She regained custody in May 1952 and remained married to Wilde until their divorce in 1981).
Tone’s relationship with Payton had only deepened by this time. The forty-six-year-old sophisticate and the woman half his age were now engaged, on the path to their own third weddings — until the summer, when Payton laid her eyes on knockabout actor at a pool party.
Tom Neal was thirty-seven (about five years older than his official “Hollywood age”), a former Golden Gloves and amateur boxer who’d made his Broadway debut in 1935 and headed west to Hollywood a few years later. He scuffled among B-movies, most notably Detour, a low-budget film noir in which he played the sap, described by Roger Ebert as a “petulant… flaccid, passive and self-pitying… sad sack… loser with haunted eyes and a weak mouth, who plays piano in a nightclub and is in love, or says he is, with a singer named Sue.”
When Payton got a look at Neal by the pool, he was wearing only swim trunks. Payton told friends she “just flipped” at the sight of the well-built, near-naked man. Tone was on the east coast. Payton remained in Hollywood to work on her latest movie, Bride of the Gorilla. While Tone was away, she played with Tom Neal. Neighbors of her home at 1803 Courtney Avenue in Nichols Canyon reported that Neal spent much of the summer on her patio, in those trunks, working on those muscles with heavy barbells while Payton watched and sunbathed, nude.
Payton didn’t hide the affair with her new hunk. She went back and forth between Tone and Neal, playing the men against each other, publicly. Payton ultimately decided that Tone was old and “dull,” and announced at the end of July that she planned to marry Tom Neal on August 5 in Ensenada, Mexico. When the date passed without vows, columnists like Dorothy Kilgallen suggested she’d only announced the engagement to “needle” Franchot Tone.
Payton later told the gossips that she and Tom Neal planned to tie the knot on September 15 in San Francisco, the day after her divorce from her forgotten second husband came through. (Neal also had an ex. He’d married singer Vicky Lane in 1944, when she was eighteen. She divorced him in 1949, citing his “unreasoning jealousy.”)
Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker would assign three detectives — two from the Hollywood Division and one from the Homicide Squad — to piece together the sequence of events that spoiled the wedding plans.
Beaten into a coma
Around noon on Thursday, September 13, 1951, Barbara Payton borrowed Tom Neal’s car and drove into Hollywood to meet Franchot Tone. That afternoon, while Neal waited at her house, Payton phoned her maid and asked that she send her mink coat to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Tone had checked in. That evening, she and Tone went out on the town to several nightclubs. At about 1:30 AM on the morning of September 14, the couple returned to her home, where Tom Neal and several other people were drinking and waiting. The ever-fickle Payton asked Neal to leave. When he refused, she turned to Franchot Tone and said, “Get rid of him.”
According to Tom Neal, Tone asked him to step outside to fight. Neal said he counseled Tone to reconsider the offer, because of the difference in their ages, weight (Neal was 180 pounds of muscle, Tone weighed in at about 155 pounds of pampered movie star), fighting skills, and the negative publicity that was sure to result.
Neal claimed that Tone responded with a wild right haymaker. The younger and stronger former boxer ducked and avoided the swing easily, and countered with several punches that left Tone on the ground and bleeding. When Barbara Payton ran from inside the house and rushed him, Neal said he pushed her out of the way.
Payton and other witnesses told it differently. Franchot Tone never raised a fist. Once the two men walked out of the house, Tom Neal slugged the older man in the face with such force that Tone was lifted off his feet, flew ten feet into the air and landed on his back on the steps. Once Tone was down, the ex-pug who’d won forty-three of forty-six amateur fights continued to punch the older man in the head. When Barbara Payton ran out to stop him, Neal punched her in the face, blackening her eye, before tossing her into the bushes.
Judson O’Connell, who lived in the house next door, said he was awakened by Payton’s screams, and then the sound of a steady pounding. “There were no words, no cries,” he told the reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “Just a methodical pounding. At first I thought it was my refrigerator.” He beat a rhythm on a table with his fist. “Then I noticed it had a sickening sound and realized it was someone being beaten.”
The neighbor told the U.P. reporter that he heard Payton scream, “Don’t do that! Don’t! Leave him alone!” and then what “sounded like a prizefighter in a gym beating the bags. It was one of the bloodiest fights I’d ever seen.”
O’Connell told the Times he looked out from his apartment window above Payton’s house and saw Tone lying across three walkway steps and Neal standing over him. “Miss Payton came running out of the apartment and asked ‘What did you do? Why did you do it to him, Tom?’ And the answer was, ‘Because he asked for it.’”
Tone, who appeared to be unconscious, had received a broken nose, fractured cheek, and a brain concussion. He was in and out of a coma for ten days. At times it was tough-and-go, and there was concern that he might not survive. Neal suffered scraped knuckles.
The Payton-Neal wedding was off. And then suddenly, the Payton-Tone wedding to Franchot Tone was back on. Outside California Hospital on September 17, wearing sunglasses to hide her blackened eye, Payton told reporters that Tone had proposed from his bed.
“I have reconsidered this matter thoroughly. I feel that the best interests of my family, my friends and my profession dictate my discontinuing any prosecution of my application for a complaint resulting from this regrettable occurrence.” Also wearing sunglasses, Franchot Tone signed that statement in the District Attorney’s office on September 27, even though he’d previously told the D.A. that he wanted to file a felony assault complaint against Tom Neal. Ten days in the hospital, and Barbara Payton, helped change his mind. “I felt very strongly about her, too” he told reporters. “She has been under the spotlight of an antagonistic press. I feel she has been treated very unfairly.”
Then he boarded the United Airlines jet at Los Angeles International Airport and flew off toward Minnesota, where he and Barbara Payton were married on September 28. Tone still had a bloodshot eye and swollen lips when the couple exchanged vows at the home of one of Payton’s aunts in Cloquet.
Tom Neal, grateful that Tone had decided to not press charges against him, said, “I wish them every happiness. As far as my plans are concerned, marriage is the farthest thing from my mind.”
The marriage lasted about seven months. It was clear that Barbara Payton had not gotten her fill of Tom Neal and that old Franchot Tone wasn’t enough man for her appetites. Tone got a divorce on May 19, 1952. What was expected to be a juicy, sizzling trial had, by newspaper accounts, “fizzled,” as both parties agreed to end things quietly, on the grounds that she often arrived home too late to cook dinner, and told him, “I want to be free to move when and where I want to.” Tone withdrew the original divorce complaint in which Tom Neal was again part of a love and sex triangle. Payton withdrew her reply that Neal was staying at her house only to protect her from Tone.
While Franchot Tone continued to work in movies, television and onstage, the scandal effectively ended Payton’s and Neal’s Hollywood careers. The pair attempted to cash in on the sordid publicity by going on the road in 1953 with a stage version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain’s pulp novel and later film noir about the murderous affair between the wife of a roadside tavern owner and a drifter. (Harold V. Cohen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the play lacked the passion and words of the book, the only compensation coming “late in the third act when Miss Payton climbs into a one-piece bathing suit and Mr. Neal into swimming trunks for a brief beach scene.”) They’d announced plans to marry, but split that same year.
The landscaper and the streetwalker
Tom Neal moved on. Hollywood opportunities having dried up, he tried Chicago and played in some television soap operas, before washing up in the desert in Palm Springs. He took a job as night manager at restaurant, saved up money to buy a lawnmower and gardening tools, and started a landscaping business in the heavily-landscaped city. He began studying Christian Science, found God, married a local girl, and became father to a son.
Neal’s second wife died of cancer in 1958. Four years later, he married Gail Evatt, a twenty-five-year-old brunette, in Las Vegas. After a brief honeymoon at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, the couple returned to Palm Springs, where Neal was happy to push lawn mowers and clip shrubbery for the wealthy residents.
No such luck for Barbara Payton. She lost custody of her nine-year-old son in 1956 after allegedly exposing him to “profane language, immoral conduct, notoriety, unwholesome activities and no moral education,” and for a time was supposedly a well-paid, desirable escort. Her life continued on a roll downhill, picking up detritus and toxins and arrests for passing bad checks along the way. By the late 1950s, she was an alcohol- and drug-addicted prostitute in Hollywood, working the streets not far from the studios where she once starred.
Future writer and poet Robert Polito met Payton in 1962. He was a kid, helping out his dad, a bartender at Ye Coach & Horses, a dark, Hollywood dive version of British pub at 7617 Sunset Boulevard, midway between Fairfax and LaBrea in Hollywood. She was thirty-four, then a barfly who “oozed alcohol,” he wrote, “even before she ordered a drink.
“Her eyebrows didn’t match her brassy hair; her face displayed a perpetual sunburn, a map of veins by her nose. Her feet swelled, and she carried an old man’s pot belly that sloshed faintly when she moved. Her gowns and dresses looked more like antique costumes than clothes, creased and spotted. She must have weighed 200 pounds.”
She still had something to sell. On February 7, 1963, Payton approached a man at the bar and invited him back to her apartment, a short walk down Sunset Boulevard. She promised him sex – if he’d pay her forty dollars. The prospective john was a police officer named J.L. Lamonica. He arrested Barbara Payton on a prostitution charge. The former temptress and forgotten actress was in the headlines again.
When Payton failed to appear for trial in Judge Mario Clinco’s courtroom on March 9, her five hundred dollars bond was forfeited, and the judge issued a warrant for her arrest. The case finally came to trial in June, but was postponed when prosecutors told the judge their witness was in New York. When the case resumed on June 29, Officer Lamonica was again no-show. This time, the excuse was illness. Judge Clinco had heard enough. He dismissed the charges.
This could have been a wake-up call for Barbara Payton. That summer she actually landed another movie role – her first since 1955. It was a bit part in 4 for Texas, a comedy Western starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg had the sexy blonde roles. Payton’s part was uncredited and would be her last.
The bathroom floor
Barbara Payton’s slide continued through the summer. On Monday night, September 23, she was arrested in her apartment, again on suspicion of prostitution. A vice cop said she’d made a date with him, for money. A thirty-four-year-old man named Russell Avist was in the apartment. He gave his occupation as “bootblack.” He shined shoes at Cosmo Sardo’s high-end barber shop on North Crescent Heights Boulevard near the corner of the Sunset Strip, but his principal occupation was pimp for Barbara Payton. Avist was booked on suspicion of “residing in a house of prostitution.” Payton was booked and released on two hundred and seventy-six dollars bail.
Barbara Payton didn’t arrive in Municipal Court to answer the charge on Wednesday. Judge Harold C. Shepherd ordered her bail forfeited once more and issued another bench warrant for her arrest. Bail was reset at five hundred and fifty dollars. Payton was picked up and spent the next twenty-two days in lockup before the case returned to court on October 17.
Judge Bernard S. Selber took all of five minutes to find Barbara Payton guilty of prostitution. He fined her a hundred and fifty dollars and placed her on fourteen months’ probation. Avist pleaded guilty to living in a house of prostitution. He told the court he’d been living with Payton for two years. He got ninety days.
The health of Barbara Payton, the actress described by one journo as “the softly-rounded point of a love triangle involving actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal,” continued to worsen through ensuing years of more arrests, deeper addiction, and further degradation as a street prostitute. In February 1967, after her release from a hospital in Los Angeles, she moved in with her alcoholic parents at 1901 Titus Street in San Diego. Her parents recalled that Barbara was ill the first week of May. On May 8, they found her on the floor of their bathroom, dead. It took two days for detectives investigating the death to realize who she was. The cause was heart and liver failure. Barbara Payton was thirty-nine.
The news article about her death appeared on page one of the Los Angeles Times, alongside a report on a UCLA psychiatrist who challenged the notion that social drinking is harmless, and even possibly good for people, if done in moderation.
Shot behind the right ear
Early on the morning of Friday, April 2, 1965, attorney James Cantillon called the Palm Springs Police Department and asked that officers meet him and his client, Tom Neal, at an intersection about a block from Neal’s home at 2481 Cardillo Road. Police arrived in the modest Chino Canyon neighborhood to find the mouthpiece and Neal, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, was “wearing brown slacks and white sports shirt, with a topcoat draped over his shoulders.” Lawyer and client led the cops to the Neal house, where they encountered petite, brunette Gail Neal stretched out on an oversized red couch. She was wearing green pedal pushers and a green sweater, and was covered partially with a bed spread. A section of her head was blown off. Shot behind the right ear with a .45-caliber bullet, Gail Neal was dead. A spent cartridge was on the floor, four feet away. The murder weapon was nowhere to be found. There were no signs of a struggle.
The twenty-nine-year-old woman had been shot some time around midnight, after which Tom Neal had called attorney Cantillon, who drove in from Beverly Hills and arranged for Neal’s surrender.
Police said there were indications that the Neals had not been getting along. Gail Neal had been working the past few months as a hostess at the Palm Springs Tennis Club and living alone in the small ranch house while her husband was on an extended trip to Chicago. In fact, there were indications that the couple had been planning to divorce.
Tom Neal, fifty-one, described as “graying, but still trim and husky,” would not say if he was the one who had fired the shot, nor would he make any statement at all. He surrendered to the police officers and was booked on suspicion of murder. He was held without bail, and on Monday arraigned for first degree murder.
On the evening of November 18, 1965, after a four-week trial and ten hours of deliberation, a jury in Indio, California returned a verdict in the Tom Neal murder trial. Prosecutors had charged that Neal shot his estranged, third wife Gail in the head while she was sleeping. They sought a conviction for first degree murder and demanded the death penalty.
Facing the gas chamber, Neal had given his version of the killing for the first time when he took the stand earlier in the month. Questioned by his attorney, Leon Rosenberg, Neal testified that he’d returned home after a ten-week trip to Chicago for a “soul baring session,” in which he and Gail discussed whether they should reunite after the separation. The pair was on the couch in the living room, he was on one knee, caressing her, and they were on the verge of making love, when he had to go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid.
Rosenberg led the narrative. “Was she resisting anything you were doing?”
“No, she wasn’t resisting,” Neal replied. “I think at that time she said, ‘I don’t know whether we should do this, Tom.’ And I said, ‘Don’t be silly, I’ve been away for ten weeks, and you’ve been fooling around with all these guys since I left, and even before I left.’”
That led to an argument. When Neal accused her of having sex with his friends, he “felt her body tense and the next thing I knew, I heard her yell at me, ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard!’ I looked up from where I was – and what I faced was the .45 automatic in her hand.”
Neal testified that he shoved the gun with both hands, and it discharged. “I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said under oath. “I realized from looking at Gail that she had been hit along the side of the head. You’re dumbfounded in a situation like this. I prayed. I took her hand. I called her name, ‘Gail, oh, God. Gail.’ Then I said aloud, ‘There is no life, truth, intelligence, or substance in mind, all in infinity and its manifestation, for God is all in all. Spirit is immortal truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal, matter is the unreal and temporal.’'”
“Did you say anything else?”
“Yes. Talithucumi, which is interpreted as ‘Fair maiden arise, for thou art whole.’ She seemed to rise up a little bit… You see your wife, who means more to you than heaven and earth, dead.”
During cross-examination, prosecutor Roland Wilson asked Neal why he didn’t call police when he realized his wife was dead. Neal said he “seemed to panic,” and didn’t think anyone would believe there was a struggle for the gun.
The pathologist who performed the autopsy later testified that Tom Neal’s version of the shooting was “unlikely.”
“Considering the direction of the wound,” he told the court, “it would require one’s wrist to be extremely flexed and the index or trigger finger would tend to pull away from the trigger.”
Never mind the science. The ten women and two men of the jury bought Tom Neal’s story. They found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Neal and attorney Rosenberg smiled after the verdict was read. Both expected that Neal would be given a suspended sentence and probation. They were not smiling on December 10 when Judge Hilton H. McCabe rejected Rosenberg’s plea for probation and sentenced Neal to the maximum penalty for involuntary manslaughter: one to fifteen years in prison. The California Adult Society would determine how long he’d have to serve behind bars, but it would have to be at least a year.
Dead in bed
Franchot Tone died of lung cancer on September 18, 1968, in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was sixty-three and had been married three times in addition to his short marriage to Barbara Payton. All four marriages ended in divorce. Despite his illustrious career as an actor, Tone’s “fight” with Tom Neal on September 14, 1951 was a major part of all the obituaries. A fight that Tone had engaged in six weeks after he was beaten into a coma by Neal was not mentioned. That skirmish erupted at Ciro’s nightclub on October 30. Tone, upset that gossip columnist Florabel Muir had written about listening in on Payton’s phone calls, kicked her in the shins and spat in her face. He was fined four hundred dollars and forced to apologize.
Tom Neal was released from the California Institute for Men at Chino on December 6, 1971. He’d served six years of the one-to-fifteen-year sentence for the manslaughter shooting of his wife, Gail. Neal, now fifty-seven, told a reporter that he had a job lined up with a real estate and construction firm, but that recently, while on a pre-release furlough, he’d met up with his old Hollywood agent. “I’ve lived a lot,” he said. “I’ve got more character now than in the old days. And I’ve mellowed. When I see a fight nowadays, I walk away from it. I’d like to take up acting again.” Neal said his agent talked about filming his life story.
Tom Neal never did return to acting, nor did he get involved in an autobiographical movie project. On August 7, 1972, eight months after he was paroled from prison, a city ambulance crew was called to an address in North Hollywood. Fifteen-year-old Thomas Patrick Neal was waiting for the paramedics and led them to his father’s bedroom. Tom Neal’s body was in the bed. The medics called time of death at 7:37 A.M. Death was apparently of natural causes. Tom Neal was fifty-eight.
(Tom Neal Jr. starred in his father’s role in the 1992 remake of Detour. When filming began in 1988, he was thirty-one, the same age as his father when he filmed the original picture. Tom Neal Jr. died of cancer in 2015. Like his father, he was fifty-eight.)