stage and screen. She is perhaps better known for sensationalized and fictional accounts of her life, and especially her involuntary commitment to a mental hospital. Farmer was the subject of three films, three books, and numerous songs and magazine articles.
Early life and educationFarmer was born in Seattle, Washington, to Ernest Melvin Farmer and Lillian Van Ornum Farmer. In 1931, while attending West Seattle High School, she entered and won $100 from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a writing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, with her controversial essay "God Dies". It was a precocious attempt to reconcile her wish for, in her words, a "superfather" God, with her observations of a chaotic and godless world. In her autobiography she writes that the essay was influenced by her reading of Nietzsche, who "expressed the same doubts, only he said it in German: "Gott ist Tot." God is dead. This I could understand. I was not to assume that there was no God, but I could find no evidence in my life that He existed or that He had ever shown any particular interest in me. I was not an atheist, but I was surely an agnostic, and by the time I was sixteen I was well indoctrinated into this theory."
Although her father was a prominent lawyer, she showed independence by becoming an usherette in a cinema, a waitress, a tutor and a factory worker to pay her university fees before winning a popularity contest that entitled her to a trip to Europe.
In 1935, as a student at the University of Washington, Farmer won a subscription contest for the leftist newspaper The Voice of Action. First prize was a trip to the Soviet Union, which she took despite her mother's strong objections, in order to see the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre. These two incidents fostered accusations that Farmer was both an atheist and a Communist.
Farmer studied drama at the University of Washington. During the 1930s, its drama department productions were considered citywide cultural events and attended accordingly. While there she starred in plays including Helen of Troy, Everyman and Uncle Vanya. In late 1934, she starred in the school's production of Alien Corn, speaking foreign languages, playing the piano, and receiving rave reviews in what was then the longest-running play in the department's history.
CareerReturning from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1935, Farmer stopped in New York City, hoping to launch a legitimate theater career. Instead, she was referred to a Paramount Pictures talent scout, Oscar Serlin, who arranged for a screen test. Paramount offered her a 7-year contract. Farmer signed it in New York on her 22nd birthday and moved to Hollywood. She had top billing in two well-received 1936 B-movies. She wed actor Leif Erickson in February 1936 while shooting the first of the movies, Too Many Parents. Later that year, Farmer was cast opposite Bing Crosby in her first "A" feature, Rhythm on the Range. During the summer of 1936, she was loaned to Samuel Goldwyn to appear in Come and Get It, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Both of these films were sizable hits, and her portrayals of both the mother and daughter in Come and Get It were praised by the public and critics, with several reviews greeting Farmer as a new-found star.
Farmer was not entirely satisfied with her career, however. She felt stifled by Paramount's tendency to cast her in films which depended on her looks more than her talent. Her outspoken style made her seem uncooperative and contemptuous. In an age when the studios dictated every facet of a star's life, Farmer rebelled against the studio's control and resisted every attempt they made to glamorize her private life. She refused to attend Hollywood parties or to date other stars for the gossip columns. However, Farmer was sympathetically described in a 1937 Colliers article as being indifferent about the clothing she wore and was said to drive an older-model "green roadster".
Hoping to enhance her reputation as a serious actress, she left Hollywood in 1937 to do summer stock in Westchester, New York. There she attracted the attention of director Harold Clurman and playwright Clifford Odets. They invited her to appear in the Group Theatre production of Odets' play Golden Boy. Her performance at first received mixed reviews, with Time magazine commenting that she had been miscast. Due to Farmer's box office appeal, however, the play became the biggest hit in the Group's history. By 1938, when the production had embarked on a national tour, regional critics from Washington D.C. to Chicago gave her rave reviews.
Luise Rainer and didn't offer Farmer a commitment. Farmer felt betrayed when Odets suddenly ended the relationship; and when the Group chose another actress for its London run—an actress whose family funded the play—she came to believe that The Group had used her drawing power selfishly to further the success of the play. She returned to Hollywood, and arranged with Paramount to stay in Los Angeles for three months out of every year to make motion pictures. The rest of her time she intended to use for theater. Her next two appearances on Broadway had short runs. Farmer found herself back in Los Angeles, often loaned out by Paramount to other studios for starring roles. At her home studio, meanwhile, she was consigned to costarring appearances, which she often found unchallenging.
By 1939, her temperamental work habits and worsening alcoholism began to damage her reputation. In 1940, after abruptly quitting a Broadway production of a play by Ernest Hemingway, she starred in two major films, both loan-outs to other studios. A year later, however, she was again relegated to co-starring roles. In mid-1941 Clifford Odets attempted to lure her back to Broadway to star in his upcoming play Clash by Night, but she refused, telling him she thought she needed to stay in Hollywood to rebuild her career. She next appeared opposite Tyrone Power in the film Son of Fury (1942) (on loan-out to Twentieth Century-Fox) and received critical praise for her performance. Despite this, though, Paramount canceled her contract in 1942, reportedly because of her alcoholism and increasingly erratic behavior during pre-production of Take a Letter, Darling. Meanwhile, her marriage to Erickson had disintegrated and ended in divorce in 1942.
Legal and psychological problems
ArrestOn October 19, 1942, Frances Farmer was stopped by the police in Santa Monica for driving with her headlights on bright in the wartime blackout zone that affected most of the West Coast. Some reports say she was unable to produce a driver's license and was verbally abusive. The police suspected her of being drunk and she was jailed overnight. Farmer was fined $500 and given a 180-day suspended sentence. She immediately paid $250 and was put on probation.
By January 1943, she failed to pay the rest of the fine and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. At almost the same time, a studio hairdresser filed an assault charge alleging that Farmer had dislocated her jaw on the set. The police traced Farmer to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Getting no answer, they entered her room with a pass key. They reportedly found her in bed (some stories include an episode involving the bathroom) and made her dress quickly. By all accounts, she did not surrender peacefully.
At her hearing the next morning, she behaved erratically. She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge. He immediately sentenced her to 180 days in jail. She knocked down a policeman and bruised another, along with a matron. She ran to a phone booth where she tried to call her attorney, but was subdued by the police. They physically carried her away as she shouted, "Have you ever had a broken heart?"
Newspaper reports gave sensationalized accounts of her arrest. Through the efforts of her sister-in-law, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of L.A. General Hospital. There she was diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis".
First hospitalizationWithin days, having been sent to the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, Farmer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was given insulin shock therapy, a treatment then accepted as standard psychiatric procedure. The side effects included intense nausea.
Her family later claimed they did not give their consent to the treatment, as documented in her sister's self-published book, Look Back in Love, and in court records. The sanitarium was a minimum-security facility. After about nine months, Farmer walked away one afternoon and went to her half-sister Rita's house, over 20 miles away. The pair called their mother in Seattle to complain about the insulin treatment.
Lillian Farmer traveled to California and began a lengthy legal battle to have guardianship of her daughter transferred from the state of California to her. Although several psychiatrists testified that Farmer needed further treatment, her mother prevailed. The two of them left Los Angeles by train on September 13, 1943.
Western State Hospital and later lifeFarmer moved back in with her parents in West Seattle, but she and her mother fought bitterly. Within six months, Farmer physically attacked her mother. Her mother then had Frances Farmer committed to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington. There, Farmer sometimes received electro-convulsive shock treatment (ECT). Three months later, during the summer of 1944, she was pronounced "completely cured" and released.
While traveling with her father to visit at an aunt's ranch in Reno, Nevada, Farmer ran away. She spent time with a family who had picked her up hitchhiking, but she was eventually arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California. Her arrest received wide publicity. Offers of help came in from across the country, but Farmer ignored them all. After a long stay with her aunt in Nevada, Farmer went back to her parents. At her mother's request, at age 31, Farmer was recommitted to Western State Hospital in May 1945 and remained there almost five years, with the exception of a brief parole in 1946.
Claims of ill-treatment
Farmer had accounted her stay in the state asylum as "unbearable terror" stating that
- I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped into strait-jackets and half drowned in ice baths.
- Conditions were barbaric. Both criminals and the mentally retarded were crowded together, their meals thrown on the floor to be fought over. Farmer was subjected to regular and continuous electroshock. In addition, she was prostituted to soldiers from the local military base and raped and abused by the orderlies. One of the most vivid recollections of some veterans of the institution would be the sight of Frances Farmer being held down by the orderlies and raped by drunken gangs of soldiers. She was also used as an experimental subject for drugs such as Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril and Proxilin.
Lobotomy claimsIn 1978, Seattle film reviewer William Arnold published Shadowland, which for the first time alleged that Farmer had been the subject of a transorbital lobotomy. Scenes of Farmer being subjected to this lobotomy procedure were part of the 1982 film Frances, which had initially been planned as an adaptation of Shadowland, though its producers ultimately reneged on their agreement with Arnold. During a court case against Brooksfilm (the film's producers), Arnold revealed that the lobotomy episode and much of his biography about Farmer was "fictionalized". Years later, on a DVD commentary track of the film Frances, director Graeme Clifford stated, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts."
Farmer's sister, Edith, denied that the procedure was done. She said the hospital asked her parents' permission to perform the lobotomy, but her father was “horrified” by the notion and threatened legal action "if they tried any of their guinea pig operations on her." Western State Hospital recorded all the lobotomies performed during Farmer's period there. Since lobotomies were considered ground-breaking medical procedure, the hospital did not attempt to conceal its work. Although nearly 300 patients received the procedure, no evidence supports a claim that Farmer was among them. In 1983 Seattle newspapers interviewed former hospital staff members, including all the lobotomy ward nurses who were on duty during Farmer's years at Western State, and they all stated Farmer was never a patient on that ward. Dr. Walter Freeman's private patient records contained no references to Farmer. Dr. Charles Jones, psychiatric resident at Western State during Farmer's stays, also stated that Farmer was never given a lobotomy.
Life after hospitalizationOn March 23, 1950, at her parents' request, Farmer was paroled back into her mother's care. She took a job sorting laundry at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle. This was the same hotel where Farmer had been fêted in 1936 at the world premiere of Come and Get It. Farmer believed her mother could have her institutionalized again. In 1953, at her own request, 10 years after the arrest at the Knickerbocker Hotel, a judge legally restored Farmer's competency and full civil rights.
After a brief second marriage to utility worker Alfred H. Lobley, in 1954 Farmer moved to Eureka, California, where she worked anonymously for almost three years in a photo studio as a secretary/bookkeeper.
Comeback attemptIn 1957, Farmer met Leland C. Mikesell, an independent broadcast promoter from Indianapolis who helped her move to San Francisco. He got her work as a receptionist in a hotel and arranged for a reporter to recognize her and write an article. This led to renewed interest from the entertainment world.
Farmer told Modern Screen magazine, "I blame nobody for my fall... I think I have won the fight to control myself." She made two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and also appeared on This Is Your Life. When asked about her alcoholism and mental illness, Farmer said she had never believed she was mentally ill. She commented, "if a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one."
In August 1957, Farmer returned to the stage in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for a summer stock production of The Chalk Garden.
Through the spring of 1958, Farmer appeared in several live television dramas, some of which are preserved on kinescope. The same year, she made her last film, The Party Crashers, produced by Paramount. During this period, she divorced Lobley and married Mikesell. Her national comeback ended in Indianapolis after six performances of The Chalk Garden when she accepted an offer to host afternoon movies on a local TV station. By March 1959 national wireservice reports were indicating she had separated from Mikesell and he was suing her for breach of contract. Their divorce was finalized in 1963 in Indianapolis.
IndianapolisFrom 1958 to 1964 Farmer hosted a successful TV show called Frances Farmer Presents which had the top audience ranking in its time slot throughout the program's run. She was also in demand as a public speaker. During the early 1960s Farmer was actress-in-residence at Purdue University and appeared in some campus productions. However by 1964 her behavior had turned erratic again. Farmer was fired, re-hired and fired from her television program. The manager of that television station later suggested (in a 1983 interview) that her turn for the worse was triggered by an appearance he had arranged for her on NBC's The Today Show. He had hoped to get her good publicity but believed Farmer had been stressed by being asked on national television about her years of institutionalization.
Farmer's last acting role was in The Visit at Loeb Playhouse on the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana, which ran from October 22 to October 30, 1965. She was arrested for drunk driving during this engagement. For a time she managed to stop drinking, but then one morning she read in the paper that Clifford Odets had died and she "went to pieces". She was arrested again for drunk driving and her license was suspended for a year. After that she cut down on her drinking.
As a result of the guilt she felt over her Hollywood abortions, Farmer had for years avoided any contact with children. At this period of her life, however, she became very attached to the five little daughters of a friend, and this helped to ease away her guilt. In the summer of 1968, one of the little girls, nestling against her, whispered in her ear, "I love you so much, because you're good." Farmer was deeply moved: "No one had ever said that to me before. No one had probably ever thought it, for that matter, and it was there, at that moment, that a heart chiseled of stone melted." When the little girl left, Farmer burst into tears and it seemed to her that all the evil that had surrounded her was being washed away. She felt that God had come into her life and sensed that she "would have to find a disciplined avenue of faith and worship". Shortly after, she found herself sitting in St. Joan of Arc, the local Catholic church. She petitioned that very day to begin her instructions and was converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Farmer had a great affection for St. Joan of Arc Church and attended services there regularly. Her compulsion to drink finally left her.
Farmer and her friend, Jean Ratcliffe, attempted to start a small company producing cosmetics, but although their products were successfully field-tested, the project failed after their funds were embezzled by the man who handled their investment portfolio.
In 1970 Farmer died from esophageal cancer. She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.
DepictionsJessica Lange played Farmer in the 1982 film Frances, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Kim Stanley was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for portraying Farmer's mother. The film contained a fictional scene which depicted Farmer undergoing a transorbital lobotomy. In Hollywood style, the film also omitted numerous facts and added a fictional life-long, love-interest character named "Harry".
Susan Blakely portrayed Farmer in a 1983 television production Will There Really Be a Morning?, which was named after Farmer's autobiography. Academy Award winner Lee Grant portrayed her mother in the same production.
The Nirvana song "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle", which was written by fellow Seattle resident Kurt Cobain, was named after Farmer.
In 1984, Culture Club had a #32 hit in the UK Single Charts "The Medal Song", which was also about the actress.