Born in Cornwall, the son of an English naval architect, and with a French mother. He worked as a shipbuilder and then for a time with the Inland Revenue. In 1941 he became an armament officer and chief camouflage officer for British Army Intelligence at Singapore.
Payne had more than 110 books published, novels, histories and biographies. He was best known for the biographies, which included studies of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Dostoyevsky, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung, Sun Yat-sen, André Malraux, Shakespeare, Alexander the Great, The White Rajahs of Sarawak and George C. Marshall.
As a novelist, Payne used the pseudonyms Richard Cargoe, John Anthony Devon, Howard Horne, Valentin Tikhonov, and Robert Young.