Frances Farmer: American actress (1913 - 1970)
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Frances Farmer
American actress

Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American actress
A.K.A. Frances Elena Farmer
Was Actor Film actor Stage actor Television actor
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio
Gender female
Birth 19 September 1913, Seattle, USA
Death 1 August 1970, Indianapolis, USA (aged 56 years)
Star sign Virgo
Spouse: Leif Erickson (actor)
The details (from wikipedia)


Frances Elena Farmer (September 19, 1913—August 1, 1970) was an American actress and television hostess. She appeared in over a dozen feature films over the course of her career, though she garnered notoriety for the various sensationalized accounts of her life, especially her involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals and subsequent mental health struggles.

A native of Seattle, Washington, Farmer began acting in stage productions while a student at the University of Washington. After graduating, she began performing in stock theater before signing a film contract with Paramount Pictures on her twenty-second birthday in September 1935. She made her film debut in the B film Too Many Parents (1936), followed by another B picture, Border Flight, before being given the lead role opposite Bing Crosby in the musical western, Rhythm on the Range (1936). Unhappy with the opportunities given to her by the studio, Farmer returned to stock theater in 1937 before being cast in the original Broadway production of Clifford Odets's Golden Boy, staged by New York City's Group Theatre. She followed this with two Broadway productions directed by Elia Kazan in 1939, but a battle with depression and binge drinking caused her to drop out of a subsequent Ernest Hemingway stage adaptation.

Farmer returned to Los Angeles, earning supporting roles in the comedy World Premiere (1941) and the film noir Among the Living (1941). In 1942, publicity of her reportedly erratic behavior began to surface, and after several arrests and committals to psychiatric institutions, Farmer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At the request of her family, particularly her mother, she was relocated to an institution in her home state of Washington, where she remained a patient until 1950. Farmer attempted an acting comeback, mainly appearing as a television host in Indianapolis on her own series, Frances Farmer Presents. Her final film role was in the 1958 drama The Party Crashers, after which she spent the majority of the 1960s occasionally performing in local theater productions staged by Purdue University. In the spring of 1970, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, of which she died several months later, aged 56.

She has been the subject of various works, including two feature films and several books, many of which focus heavily on her time spent institutionalized, during which she claimed to have been subject to various systemic abuses. Her posthumously released, ghost written and widely discredited 'autobiography', Will There Really Be a Morning? (1972), details these claims but has been exposed as largely a fictional work written by a friend of Farmer's to clear debts. A widely discredited 1978 biography of her life, Shadowland, alleged that Farmer underwent a transorbital lobotomy during her institutionalization but the author has since stated in court that he made this, and several other major aspects of the book, up himself. A 1982 biographical film based on this book erroneously depicted these events as true, resulting in renewed interest in her life and career.

Life and career

1913–1935: Early life

Frances Elena Farmer was born on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Lillian (née Van Ornum; 1873–1955), a boardinghouse operator and dietician and Ernest Melvin Farmer (1874–1956), a lawyer. Her father was originally from Spring Valley, Minnesota, while her mother was from Oregon, and a descendant of pioneers. Her great grandparents through Lillian's mother, Elizabeth (Rowe) Van Ornim's side, are John and Jemima (Skews) Rowe who came to Waldwick, Wisconsin from Truro, England in 1849. Farmer had an older sister, Edith; one older brother, Wesley, and an older half-sister, Rita, conceived during her mother's first marriage. Prior to the birth of Wesley and Edith. Lillian had given birth to a daughter who died of pneumonia in infancy. When she was four years old, Farmer's parents separated, and her mother relocated with the children from their home in North Seattle to Los Angeles, where her sister Zella was living. In early 1925, the family moved north to Chico, California, where Lillian pursued a career performing nutrition research. Shortly after arriving in Chico, Lillian concluded that caring for the children was interfering with her ability to work. The children's Aunt Zella then drove them to Albany, Oregon, where they boarded a train back to Seattle to live with their father.

Farmer in a press photo for her winning the Voice of Action writing contest, April 10, 1935

Farmer's inconsistent home life had a notable effect on her, and upon returning to Seattle, she recalled: "In certain ways, that train trip represented the end of my dependent childhood. I began to understand that there were certain things one could expect from adults, and others that one could not expect...  being shunted from one household to another was a new adjustment, a fresh confusion, and I groped for ways to compensate for the disorder." The following year, her mother returned to Seattle after her home in Chico burned down in a house fire. In Seattle, the family shared a household, though Lillian and Ernest remained separated despite his attempts to reconcile their marriage. In the fall of 1929, when Farmer was sixteen, Lillian and Ernest divorced, and Lillian relocated to a cottage in Bremerton, Washington, while the children remained with their father.

In 1931, while a senior at West Seattle High School, Farmer 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 wrote that the essay was influenced by her reading of Friedrich Nietzsche: "He 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."

After graduating high school, Farmer enrolled at the University of Washington, initially majoring in journalism. She worked various odd jobs to pay her tuition, including as an usherette in a cinema, a waitress, a tutor, and a laborer in a soap factory. For a time, she also worked as a singing waitress at Mount Rainier National Park. During her sophomore year, Farmer became involved with the university's drama department productions, which were considered citywide cultural events and were frequented accordingly. While a student at UW, Farmer starred in numerous plays, including Helen of Troy, Everyman, and Uncle Vanya. In late 1934, she starred in the UW production of Alien Corn, which earned her favorable reviews in local press.

During her final year of college in 1935, Farmer won a subscription contest for the leftist newspaper, The Voice of Action. The first prize was a trip to the Soviet Union—Farmer accepted the prize, despite her mother's strong objections, so that she could see the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre. Farmer's interest in such topics fostered speculations that Farmer was not only an atheist, but a Communist as well. The same year, she graduated from the university earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama.

1935–1936: First films and rise to fame

Farmer in Rhythm on the Range (1936)

Returning from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1935, Farmer stopped in New York City, hoping to launch a legitimate theater career. There she met talent agent Shepard Traube, who referred her to Paramount Pictures talent scout Oscar Serlin, who arranged for a screen test. Paramount offered her a seven-year contract, which Farmer signed in New York City on her 22nd birthday. After completing screen tests on Long Island, Farmer relocated to Los Angeles to begin working for Paramount. Upon arriving, she underwent dental surgery to fix a gap in her front teeth, and spent long hours screen-testing and training on the Paramount studio lot. In November 1935, she was cast in the B-movie Too Many Parents (1936), a comedy about young men in military school. The film was a box office success. After completing the film in February 1936, Farmer wed fellow Paramount contract player Leif Erickson, whom she met on the studio lot. She was then cast in a lead role in the drama Border Flight.

Later that year, Farmer was cast in her first "A" feature, Rhythm on the Range, a Western starring Bing Crosby. She recalled of the film: "I had had a crush on him [Crosby] since my high school days, and stood in awe of the fact that in my first important film I was actually working as his leading lady." Rhythm on the Range earned favorable reviews and brought Farmer an enhanced public reputation. After its release, Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor phoned her and told her that "now that she was a rising star she'd have to start acting like one." Farmer was resistant, however, and spent most of her time at her home in Laurel Canyon with Erickson, forgoing invitations to Hollywood parties and events. In an attempt to make Farmer marketable, Paramount chose to brand her in press releases as "the star who would not go Hollywood," focusing on her "eccentric" fashion tastes.

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, in which she portrayed a young woman who is pursued by her mother's former lover. Howard Hawks was originally signed to direct, but was replaced by William Wyler midway through production; Farmer was indignant and clashed with Wyler during filming. He would later state: "The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable." Though her working relationship with Wyler was tumultuous, Hawks remembered Farmer admirably, saying that she "had more talent that anyone I ever worked with." Producers chose to premiere the film in Seattle, Farmer's hometown. At the premiere, Farmer was notably quiet and spoke little to reporters, which resulted in news coverage branding her as cold and aloof. Despite this coverage of the premiere, Come and Get It earned praise from the public and critics, with several reviews greeting Farmer as a new found star, some likening her to Greta Garbo.

In 1937, she was loaned to RKO to star opposite Cary Grant in The Toast of New York, the story of a Wall Street tycoon. The film's production was turbulent as Farmer was unhappy with the rebranding of her character from a hard-edged vixen to "an ingénue fresh from Sunnybrook." On set, she argued with director Rowland V. Lee and gave belittling interviews to the press. Unsatisfied with the direction of her career after The Toast of New York, Farmer resisted the studio's control and resisted every attempt they made to glamorize her private life. However, Farmer was sympathetically described in a 1937 Collier's article as being indifferent about the clothing she wore and was said to drive an older-model "green roadster." Also in 1937, she appeared in the crime drama Exclusive opposite Fred MacMurray, and the Technicolor adventure film Ebb Tide opposite Ray Milland.

1937–1941: Transition to theater

Unsatisfied with the expectations of the studio system and wanting to enhance her reputation as a serious actress, Farmer left Hollywood in mid-1937 to do summer stock on the East Coast, performing in Westchester, New York and Westport, Connecticut. There, she attracted the attention of director Harold Clurman and playwright Clifford Odets, who invited her to appear in a three-month production of Odets' play Golden Boy, produced by the Group Theatre. The play opened in November 1937 and ran for a total of 248 performances. 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.

During the run of Golden Boy, Farmer began a romantic affair with Odets, but he was married to actress Luise Rainer and did not 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 helped secure funds for the play–she came to believe that the Group had used her drawing power selfishly to further the success of the play. Disheartened, Farmer returned to Los Angeles to star opposite husband Erickson in Ride a Crooked Mile (1938). In April 1939, she performed in a short-run Broadway production of Quiet City, an experimental play directed by Elia Kazan. In November that year, she returned to Broadway portraying Melanie in Thunder Rock, also directed by Kazan, and produced by the Group Theater. The play was not well-received, and Farmer was profoundly unhappy after its closing in December 1939. She subsequently accepted a role in a Broadway adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Fifth Column, which she was scheduled to begin rehearsing in early 1940. During rehearsals, Farmer began binge drinking in an effort to alleviate her depression. She ultimately chose to withdraw from the production, resulting in a $1,500 fine from the Theater Guild, for "unprofessionalism."

She returned to Paramount, who assigned her a role in South of Pago Pago (1940), in which she portrayed Ruby, a woman traveling with a group of adventurers searching for pearls on an island. She was then loaned to Warner Bros. to star in Flowing Gold, an adventure drama set against the oil industry, opposite John Garfield. After completing the film, Farmer returned to the East Coast to appear in summer stock theater. Following a "lonely winter" spent living in New York City, Farmer drove back to Los Angeles in the spring of 1941, and rented a lavish mansion in Santa Monica. Her next film was World Premiere (1941), a comedy starring John Barrymore. She followed this with a supporting part in the film noir Among the Living (1941), co-starring with Susan Hayward and Albert Dekker.

During this time, Farmer was "seeking in work a respite from her personal struggles." Clurman temporarily moved into her Santa Monica home to keep her company while she completed filming of Badlands of Dakota, a Western in which she starred as Calamity Jane opposite Robert Stack. Farmer again fought with the studio over the role, which she felt was over-glamorized, further damaging her reputation with studio executives. She next appeared opposite Tyrone Power and Roddy McDowall in the film Son of Fury (1942) (on loan-out to 20th Century Fox), portraying the scheming daughter of a British aristocrat. Later that year, Paramount suspended her after she refused to accept a part in the film Take a Letter, Darling and voided her contract. Meanwhile, her marriage to Erickson had disintegrated, and he began dating actress Margaret Hayes. Their divorce was finalized on June 12, 1942, and Erickson married Hayes the same day.

1942–1949: Legal troubles and psychiatric confinement

On October 19, 1942, Farmer was stopped by Santa Monica Police for driving with her headlights on bright in the wartime blackout zone that affected most of the West Coast. Some reports stated she was unable to produce a driver's license and was verbally abusive to the officers. 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. With her vehicle impounded and her driver's license suspended, Farmer holed up in her Santa Monica home and denied the press interviews.

In November 1942, her agent secured her a role in an independent film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Murder at Laudice, which was set to film in Mexico City. Upon arriving in Mexico, she discovered that the shooting script was unfinished, and the production never reached fruition. While in Mexico City, Farmer was allegedly charged with drunk and disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace, and was forced by authorities to return to the United States. Upon returning to California, she found her Santa Monica home had been cleared of her possessions and inhabited by a strange family. Farmer would later contend that her mother and sister-in-law had stripped the house and stored her belongings while she was gone. Her mother rented her a room at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, where she temporarily took residence.

By January 1943, Farmer had failed to pay the remainder of her 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 hit her in the face and dislocated her jaw on set. Shortly after, Farmer was allegedly seen running down Sunset Boulevard topless after getting into a brawl at a bar. On January 14, 1943, police traced Farmer to the Knickerbocker and arrived at her room to arrest her. Getting no answer, they entered her room with a pass key. Farmer did not surrender peacefully, and was dragged out of the hotel nude to police headquarters.

At her hearing the following morning, Farmer behaved erratically: She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge, resulting in her being restrained by bailiffs. When asked about her drinking habits, Farmer told the judge: "I put liquor in my milk...  in my coffee and in my orange juice." She also admitted to regularly drinking benzedrine. The judge ultimately sentenced her to 180 days in jail. While being escorted from the courtroom, Farmer lashed out, knocking down a policeman and bruising another, along with a matron; she ran to a phone booth where she tried to call her attorney, but was subdued by the police. When they physically carried her away, she shouted: "Have you ever had a broken heart?"

Through the efforts of her sister-in-law, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, Farmer avoided jail time and was instead transferred to the psychiatric ward of Los Angeles General Hospital on January 20. There, she was diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis, probably the forerunner of a definite dementia praecox." Days later, with assistance from the Screen Actors Guild, she was transferred to the Kimball Sanitarium, a minimum-security psychiatric institute in the San Fernando Valley. Resident psychiatrists Donald A. Nicholson and George Price both examined Farmer, and formally diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia. She was administered insulin shock therapy, a treatment then accepted as standard psychiatric procedure, and whose 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; Farmer herself would later allege that she was given insulin treatments for 90 consecutive days. After spending nine months at the Kimball Sanitarium, Farmer walked out of the institute one afternoon and traveled to her half-sister Rita's house, over 20 miles (32 km) away. The pair then called their mother, Lillian, in Seattle to complain about the insulin treatments.

Farmer was paroled into the care of her parents (pictured with her here in 1938) after her release from psychiatric confinement

Lillian traveled to California and began a lengthy legal battle to take formal guardianship of her daughter from the state of California. 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. Farmer moved in with her parents in West Seattle, but she and her mother fought bitterly. Farmer wrote in her autobiography: "Mamma and I had fought, argued, threatened, and screamed until it had finally come down to a climax of two exhausted women sitting across from each other in a small, cluttered kitchen. We were enemies who had grown tired of pretending." After one violent physical attack, Lillian had Farmer committed to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington. In a 1958 television interview by Ralph Edwards on his "This is Your Life" program, Frances recalled her experience:

"It was very much like anyone else's that is admitted to a public institution. They don’t have means for individual psychiatric care, there’s only so many beds available. I stood in line with fifteen or twenty girls like myself, in the hospital for one reason or another. We received shots, or hydrotherapy baths or electric shock treatment. This was supposed to relax the tensions and keep us quiet, which it did. I don’t blame the hospital at all- I think that they did everything in their power to take care of the enormous number of people they had, but I really don’t think it helped me much."

Three months later, in early July 1944, she was pronounced "completely cured" and released. Shortly after her release, on July 15, Farmer was arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California.

In January 1945, Farmer's father brought her to stay at her aunt's ranch in Yerington, Nevada. During her stay, Farmer ran away from the residence. She was discovered several days later at a movie theater in Reno, and returned by police to her aunt's home. Several months later, on May 18, 1945, Lillian filed for a sanity hearing for Farmer after she ran away from their home in Seattle. The hearing was held on May 21, during which it was ruled that Farmer was to be re-committed to Western State Hospital. She would remain an inmate of the hospital for the following five years, with the exception of a brief parole in 1946. Throughout her internment, Farmer remained in the high-security ward for the hospital's "violent" patients. Her treatment at Western State would be subject to significant public and critical discussion in the years after her death.

1950–1958: Post-hospitalization and comeback attempt

On March 23, 1950, at her parents' request, Farmer was paroled back into her mother's care. One year later, on March 25, 1951, Farmer was formally discharged from the jurisdiction of Western State, but was not made aware of it for two years; in the interim, she believed her re-commitment to the hospital an imminent threat. In June 1953, upon discovering her discharge, Farmer requested that her mother's conservatorship be lifted, which was successfully awarded by the Superior Court. With her freedom restored, Farmer took a job sorting laundry at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, the same hotel where she had been fêted in 1936 at the world premiere of Come and Get It. While working at the Olympic Hotel, a co-worker set Farmer up on a blind date with Alfred H. Lobley, a 45-year-old city utility worker. The two married in April 1954, and moved in with Farmer's mother Lillian, who was growing senile and needed assistance at home. Within the year, Lillian was sent to a nursing home, after which Farmer's marriage to Lobley began to disintegrate.

Farmer remained estranged from her sister until her mother's death of a stroke in March 1955. After their mother's death, Farmer's sister Edith relocated to Portland, Oregon to be nearer to their father, who died there the following year on July 15, 1956, also of a stroke. During this time, Farmer and Edith corresponded occasionally via letters. Edith claimed that on one occasion Farmer visited her in Portland, where the two spent an afternoon at The Grotto, a Catholic sanctuary they had once visited with their father.

Farmer c. 1958

In late 1957, Farmer separated from Lobley and relocated to Eureka, California, where she found work as a bookkeeper and secretary at a commercial photo studio. In Eureka, she met Leland C. Mikesell, an independent broadcast promoter from Indianapolis, who recognized her at a local bar. The two soon became romantic, and Mikesell envisioned a career comeback for her. They relocated to San Francisco, where Farmer temporarily worked as a clerk at the Park Sheraton Hotel. In 1958, she and Mikesell married.

In a December 1957 interview with Modern Screen, Farmer said: "I blame nobody for my fall. I had to face agonizing decisions when I was younger. The decisions broke me. But, too, there was a lack of philosophy in my life. With faith in myself and in God I think I have won the fight to control myself." She subsequently made two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, during one of which she played guitar and sang "Aura Lee," a folk song she had performed in Come and Get It (1936). She also appeared on This Is Your Life, the latter program perceived by the actress as an opportunity to clarify the veracity of the publicity that she had received throughout her career thus far. Farmer explained to This is Your Life's host, Ralph Edwards:

I would very much like to correct some impressions which arose out of a lot of stories that were written—about me, I guess; but they weren't about me—suggesting things that I couldn't possibly have been doing. Which I never did. I wasn't in a position to defend myself at the time these stories were published. And I'm very happy to be here tonight to let people see that I am the kind of person I am and not a legend that arose.

Edwards later asked Farmer about her supposed alcoholism: "Other stories accuse you of being an alcoholic. Were you, Frances?" Farmer's reply was, "No, I was never an alcoholic.", an adamant denial that also applied to Edwards' subsequent question about "dope."

In August 1957, Farmer returned to the stage in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for a summer stock production of Enid Bagnold's 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, a potboiler drama produced by Paramount and described by one writer as "a crappy B-movie about wild teenagers and stupid adults." Then, in the July 1958, Farmer accepted the lead role in a production of Yes, My Darling Daughter, due to the reciprocal arrangements that existed between one of the summer stock East Coast theaters that she performed in and venues in the Midwest; this particular role was based at a theater in Indianapolis.

1959–1964: Stage and television work

Farmer's stage work proved to be beneficial, as she received the opportunity to host her own daytime movie program, Frances Farmer Presents. The show was created after a television executive from the local National Broadcasting Company (NBC) affiliate, WFBM-TV (now known as WRTV), saw her performance in The Chalk Garden in August 1958. Farmer's television program made her popular as an amiable host, and she subsequently received an award as a local businesswoman of the year. However, by March 1959 national wire service reports indicated that she had separated from Mikesell, and that he was suing her for breach of contract. In 1959, Farmer moved in with Jeanira "Jean" Ratcliffe, a widow with whom she became good friends in Indianapolis.

In 1962, Farmer appeared in a Purdue University production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. The following year, her divorce from Mikesell was finalized in Indianapolis. Frances Farmer Presents eventually ended at the end of the summer of 1964; the station's general manager had fired her in April of that year, hired her back two months later, but then dismissed Farmer permanently in late-August/early-September, aggravated by her alleged drinking binges. Farmer continued her stage work and accepted a role in a Purdue Summer Theatre production of Ketti Frings' Look Homeward, Angel after the demise of her television host role. In 1965, Farmer played the role of Claire Zachanassian in the university's production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, which ran at the Loeb Playhouse on the Purdue University campus from October 22 to October 30, 1965; the latter production has been described in the following manner:

The Purdue production wasn't to be the slick Broadway or Hollywood adaptations of the play, but the original "grotesque version." Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, yet also weirdly handicapped (she sports a wooden leg and an ivory hand), has returned triumphantly (but as an old woman) to the impoverished village of her youth. She offers to save its citizens from poverty on one terrible condition: that they kill Albert Ill, the local grocer, who'd broken her heart when they were teenagers. Zachanassian is a charming and terrible figure—imagine the lovechild of Frankenstein and Greta Garbo.

During the production of The Visit, Farmer was involved in a drunk-driving accident. When confronted by police, she recalled: "Rather than answering as Frances Farmer, I reverted to my role in the play and [suddenly became] the richest woman in the world, shouting to high heaven that I would buy his goddamned town. I got out stiff-legged and ivory-handed, quoting all the imperious lines I could remember. Unfortunately, this did not [sit] well with the [cop], and a patrol car took me to jail." Ironically, following the appearance of the incident in the media, the next night's performance of The Visit completely sold out. Farmer was very reluctant to return to the stage, but was encouraged by Ratcliffe; Farmer recounted the experience of the performance in her autobiography: "[T]here was a long silent pause as I stood there, followed by the most thunderous applause of my career. [The audience] swept the scandal under the rug with their ovation." It was "my finest and final performance. I knew I would never need to act onstage again. I felt satisfied and rewarded."

1965–1970: Final years

During the early and mid-1960s, Farmer was actress-in-residence at Purdue University, and spent the majority of her free time painting and writing poetry. Farmer and 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 1968, she formally converted to Roman Catholicism as she claimed to have felt God in her life and sensed that she "would have to find a disciplined avenue of faith and worship." She recounted her experience:

I had never given great concern to organized religion, and I was like a wayfaring stranger until one day I found myself sitting in Saint Joan of Arc, the Catholic church of our neighborhood. I had passed the cathedral countless times, but that afternoon, as I was returning from marketing, I stopped and sat alone in the great hall. It was quiet and dark, and I studied the massive altar and understood, for the first time, the power and meaning of the Crucifixion.

Farmer had a great affection for the Saint Joan of Arc church and attended services there regularly in her last years of life. During this period, she also gave up drinking, and began considering writing an autobiography: She negotiated a collaboration with Lois Kibbee, who encouraged her to tape-record her life story. The experience was emotionally jarring for Farmer, specifically the revisiting of medical records from her institutionalization. The book went unfinished, though Ratcliffe would utilize its manuscript in compiling Farmer's posthumously-released autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?.


Farmer was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 1970, which was attributed to her lifelong habit of heavy smoking. She was hospitalized for three weeks, before being sent home for a brief period. She died of the cancer at Indianapolis Community Hospital on August 1, 1970. She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.

Posthumous controversies

Allegations of psychiatric mistreatment

In the years following Farmer's death in 1970, her treatment at Western State was the subject of serious discussion and wild speculation. Kenneth Anger included a chapter relating her breakdown in Hollywood Babylon. Farmer's posthumously-published autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning?, described a brutal incarceration. In the book, Farmer claimed she had been brutalized and mistreated in numerous ways. Some of the claims included being forced to eat her own feces and act as a sex slave for male doctors and orderlies. Farmer recounted her stay in the state asylum as "unbearable terror": "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."

Farmer's close friend and housemate, Ratcliffe, arranged the publication of Will There Really Be a Morning?. Controversy exists over what portions of the book Ratcliffe may have edited or ghostwritten. Ratcliffe claimed she only wrote the final chapter dealing with Farmer's death.

Lobotomy claims

In 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 featured in 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 Brooksfilms (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 Frances movie, director Graeme Clifford stated, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts."

Farmer's family, her former lovers, and her three ex-husbands all denied, or did not confirm, that the procedure was completed. Farmer's sister, Edith, 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 a lobotomy was considered a 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 of 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 mention of Farmer. Dr. Charles Jones, psychiatric resident at Western State during Farmer's stays, also stated that Farmer never underwent the lobotomy procedure.

Writer Jeffrey Kauffmann published an extensive online essay titled "Shedding Light on Shadowland," which debunks numerous elements of Arnold's book, including the allegation regarding the lobotomy.

In popular culture

In the 1980 episode of Charlie's Angels called "Dancin Angels," Cesar Romero's character, Elton Mills, tells Kelly that she reminds him of Farmer. In 1982, Jessica Lange portrayed Farmer in the feature film Frances; the film depicts Farmer undergoing a lobotomy, the validity of which has been disputed in subsequent years. The following year, a television adaptation of Farmer's autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning, was released with Susan Blakely portraying her. Another feature film based on her life, Committed, was produced in 1984.

In music, she is portrayed in the songs "Ugly Little Dreams" (1985) by Everything but the Girl, and "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" (1993) by Nirvana, on their final studio album, In Utero. "Letters to Frances" was also another song about Frances Farmer written by Kurt Cobain as a home Demo that was featured on Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings and "Frances Farmer" by Patterson Hood. French singer-songwriter Mylène Farmer chose her stage name in homage to the actress. Additionally she is mentioned in "Lobotomy Gets Them Home" (1989) on the Silvertown album by The Men They Couldn't Hang. She was also the subject of a stage play by Sally Clark titled Saint Frances of Hollywood (1996).

In the 2017 Netflix original series Mindhunter, she is erroneously described by the character version of Edmund Kemper as having been lobotomized.

Stage credits

Date(s) Title Role Notes Ref.
November 4, 1937–June 1938 Golden Boy Lorna Moon 248 performances
April 16–April 23, 1939 Quiet City Belasco Theatre
November 14–December 2, 1939 Thunder Rock Melanie Mansfield Theatre; 23 performances
July 1957–1958 The Chalk Garden Miss Madrigal Bucks County Playhouse; touring production
March 8–March 16, 1963 The Seagull Madame Irina Trepleff Loeb Playhouse
October 22–October 30, 1965 The Visit Claire Zachanassian Loeb Playhouse; 8 performances

Works cited

  • Agan, Patrick (1979). The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddess. Pinnacle Books. ISBN 978-0-52-340623-7.
  • Arnold, William (1978). Shadowland. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-002311-6.
  • Bragg, Lynn E. (2005). Myths and Mysteries of Washington. Globe Pequot Press. ISBN 0-762-73427-2.
  • Bragg, Lynn E. (2015). Washington Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History's Mysteries. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-493-01604-4.
  • Clark, Sally (1996). Saint Frances of Hollywood. Talonbooks. ISBN 978-0-889-22366-0.
  • Commire, Anne; Klezmer, Deborah (2000). Women in World History. V. Yorkin Publications. ISBN 978-0-787-64064-4.
  • Cross, Charles R. (2001). Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. Hachette Books. ISBN 978-0-786-88402-5.
  • Donnelly, Paul (2003). Fade to Black: A Book of Movie Obituaries. Music Sales Group. ISBN 0-711-99512-5.
  • Dunkelberger, Steve; Neary, Walter (2014). Legendary Locals of Lakewood. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-1-439-64296-2.
  • Farmer, Frances (1972). Will There Really Be a Morning?. Putnam. ISBN 0-00-636526-4.
  • Friedrich, Otto (1976). Going crazy: An inquiry into madness in our time (2nd prt. ed.). Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-22174-4.
  • Harris, Maxine; Landis, Christine L. (1997). Sexual Abuse in the Lives of Women Diagnosed with Serious Mental Illness. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-90-5702-504-4.
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  • Malone, Aubrey (2015). Hollywood's Second Sex: The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900–1999. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-476-61951-4.
  • Reid, S. Duncan (2013). Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-43535-7.
  • Sellers, Robert (2010). An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. Random House. ISBN 978-1-848-09246-4.
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