Frances Farmer was once one of Hollywood’s most promising talents. For a few short years, she wowed cinema goers with her natural yet unique beauty and acting talent. However, few know Frances Farmer for her film roles, most know her for her traumatic life, not helped by the array of sensationalised depictions of her in the media, including various films, television serials, books, songs and print articles. Frances Farmer’s life has been sensationalised to such an extent by various parts of the media that it is often difficult to know what to believe but what is true is that the life of Frances Farmer was more dramatic and more harrowing than anything seen in a Hollywood film.
Frances Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, the daughter of Cora Lillian and Ernest Melvin Farmer. She showed an early interest in politics when the Wall Street Crash hit America in 1929. Witnessing the nationwide depression, Farmer was appalled to see people losing their jobs and breadlines springing up on street corners whilst a select few remained unscathed. She questioned the country’s capitalistic orientations and leaned towards Socialism. Farmer first came to public attention when at the age of 17 and attending West Seattle High School, the precocious teenager entered and won a $100 prize from The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her controversial essay, ‘God Dies’. The philosophical essay centred around Farmer’s attempt to reconcile her wish for what she called a “superfather” God, together with her view of a chaotic and godless world. In her autobiography, Will There Really Be A Morning, published posthumously in 1972, she stated that the essay was influenced by the work of German philosopher 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”.
Farmer was already a social outcast, having few friends and preferring her own company but when word spread of her essay, she was denounced from the pulpit and vilified in the press as a dupe of godless Communism. The furore was such that following her essay, she was seen as a freak in some circles.
Farmer, headstrong and uncompromising, was undeterred by the outrage towards her essay and enrolled at the University of Washington to study journalism, with her original dream being to be a journalist. However, whilst at University of Washington, she found the far more progressive theatre department and with her striking looks and natural gift for acting, she was an instant hit. In 1934, her performance as a German musical protégé in the play Alien Corn was received rapturously, with many saying she had a bright future as a Broadway actress. Acting was now a passion for Frances Farmer and she was determined to make a life for herself on the stage. In a rally of support, the entire drama department entered a competition in communist newspaper The Voice of Action in Farmer’s name and won first prize. The first prize was a trip to the Soviet Union to see the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre. Despite her mother’s strong objections, Farmer accepted the prize. Farmer’s visit to the Soviet Union further added to the abundant speculation that she was not only an atheist but also a communist.
On returning from the Soviet Union in the Summer of 1935, Farmer stopped in New York City with the hope of launching her theatre career. It was in New York City that she attracted the attention of Paramount Studio’s talent scout, Oscar Serlin. Serlin arranged for a screen test for Farmer, after which Paramount offered her a seven year contract. Farmer signed the contract in New York on her 22nd birthday and moved to Hollywood. Whilst working on the 1936 film Too Many Parents, she met actor Leif Erickson, who she began a relationship with and quickly married. Other film appearances followed and Farmer was received by audiences and critics alike as a new found star.
However, Farmer was never entirely satisfied with her career, feeling that Paramount had the tendency to cast her in films which depended on her looks rather than her talent. Being highly outspoken made the actress come across as uncooperative and contemptuous. This was an age where the Hollywood studio dictated every facet of a star’s life. Farmer rebelled against this control and never glamorised her personal life, refusing to go to Hollywood parties or to go on publicity dates with male co-stars in order to garner the attention of the gossip columns. In 1937, Collier’s magazine described Farmer as indifferent about her unkempt appearance off-set, the clothes she wore, the way she presented her modest home and the fact she drove an older model “green roadster”.
Frances Farmer left Hollywood in 1937 to perform in theatre in New York, still her main acting passion. Here she attracted the attention of director Harold Clurman and playwright Clifford Odets who cast her in Odets’ play Golden Boy. Despite mixed reviews, with some saying that Farmer had been miscast, her box office appeal meant that the play eventually became the theatre group’s biggest hit in history, embarking on a national tour in 1938. Farmer had an affair with Odets and was bitterly disappointed about his lack of commitment due to his marriage to Luise Rainer. Farmer felt bitterly betrayed when Odets ended the relationship and particularly when the theatre group chose a different actress to play her part in the London run of Golden Boy. The actress chosen over Farmer was part of the family who had funded the play and Farmer began to feel that she had been used for her Hollywood status and audience pulling power to further the play’s success. Farmer returned to Hollywood, somewhat bitter about her experiences in New York and resumed her film career. She made an agreement with Paramount Pictures to stay in Los Angeles for three months out of every year in order to make motion pictures, intending to use the rest of the year to perform in theatre. Paramount Pictures would often loan the star out to other studios for starring roles whilst at Paramount, she was consigned to co-starring roles, which she found unchallenging and felt were below her capabilities.
By 1939, her temperamental nature and increasing dependence on alcohol had begun to serious damage her reputation. In 1940, she abruptly quit a Broadway production of a play by Ernest Hemingway before having starring roles in two major films on loan out from Paramount. Within a year, however, she was again relegated to co-starring roles. At this time, she also knocked back Clifford Odets’ attempts to lure her back to Broadway to star in his work, telling him that she would prefer to stay in Hollywood to rebuild her film career. In 1942, she was suspended from Paramount Pictures after refusing a part in the film Take the Letter. Also, her marriage to Leif Erickson had long since disintegrated and they divorced in 1942. A contributing factor to the break up is thought to be that she fell pregnant with Leif Erickson’s child. Erickson was horrified at the prospect of being a father and Farmer had an illegal abortion, resulting in her not being able to have children. There is also some speculation that her marriage to Erickson had been a sham formulated by Paramount Pictures as part of their infamous star moulding process. This star moulding process was something that Frances Farmer was very much at odds with, finding the whole process gruelling and tiresome, something she made known and added to her reputation in Hollywood for being difficult and troublesome.
From here on in, Frances Farmer’s life bgan to spiral out of control. In October 1942, she was stopped by Santa Monica Police for driving with her headlights on full beam in the wartime black out zone which affected most of the West Coast of America. Many reports say that upon arrest, the actress was rude and abusive and failed to produce a driving licence. The arresting officers suspected her of being drunk and she was jailed overnight. Following this, she was given a $500 fine and an 18 month suspended sentence. She immediately put up $250 of the fine and was put on probation but after she failed to pay the rest of the fine, a warrant was issued for her arrest. Around the same time, a studio hairdresser filed a charge of assault, claiming that Farmer had hot her with a hairbrush dislocating her jaw. The police traced Farmer to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. After getting no answer from the actress’s room, they entered with a pass key. Farmer was reportedly found naked in bed. Farmer quickly got out of bed and locked herself in the bathroom. After the police had knocked the bathroom door down, she was more or less dragged through the hotel lobby into the waiting police car. By all accounts, the actress did not accept the arrest quietly and photos taken during the arrest were printed in the press. At the court hearing the following morning, she behaved in a highly erratic manner, demanding an attorney and throwing an inkwell at the judge. Following this incident, she was immediately jailed for 180 days. She went on to knock down a policeman and bruise another, along with a matron. She ran to a phone booth in order to try 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?” Through the efforts of her sister-in-law, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where she was diagnosed as suffering from manic depressive psychosis.
From here, Frances Farmer was sent to endure her first incarceration at Kimball Sanitarium in La Cresenta, where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given insulin hock therapy, a treatment which was then accepted as a standard psychiatric procedure. In the years following, her family claimed that they had not given their consent to the treatment. This is documented in court records and in her sister, Edith Farmer-Elliot’s book, Look Back in Love (1978). After nine months of incarceration at Kimball Sanitarium, a low security facility, Farmer ran away one afternoon and made it to her sister, Rita’s house over twenty miles away. She and Rita rang their mother in Seattle and complained about the insulin treatment. What followed was a lengthy legal battle to gain guardianship of her daughter from the State of California. Several psychiatrists told the hearing that Farmer needed further treatment but eventually her mother won the case and Farmer returned to Seattle.
On moving back to Seattle, Farmer and her mother fought bitterly, culminating in Farmer physically attacking her mother and resulting in Frances Farmer, once agin, being committed to a mental institution. At Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Washington, Farmer began to receive electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT as it is most commonly known. After three months, in the summer of 1944, she was deemed completely cured and released. However, Farmer’s freedom would, once again, be short lived.
During a trip to visit her aunt’s ranch in Reno, Nevada, Farmer ran away. She was picked up by a family who had spotted her hitchhiking and stayed with them. However, she was eventually arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California. As with the array of other incidents in Farmer’s life, her arrest received much publicity and as usual, much sensationalising by the press. Farmer received many offers of help from all over the country but Farmer defiantly ignored all of them. Following a long stay with her aunt in Nevada, Farmer returned to her parents. At the age of 31, Farmer was recommitted to Western State Hospital, her third incarceration, where she stayed for five years.
After Farmer’s death from cancer in 1970, the treatment she received at Western State Hospital became the subject of serious discussion and much speculation. Her autobiography tells of the brutality endured during her incarceration. This brutality included being forced to eat her own faeces and act as a sex slave for male doctors and orderlies. Her stay in Western State Hospital was “unbearable terror”, says Farmer in Will There Really Be A Morning, “I was raped by orderlies, gnawed by rats and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped into straight jackets and half-drowned in ice baths”. There has been much speculation over the years that Farmer’s autobiography, published a full two years after her death, was edited and ghostwritten by friend and housemate, writer M. Jean Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe arranged the publication of Will There Really Be A Morning? However, Ratcliffe claims she only wrote the final chapter of the autobiography, which dealt with Farmer’s death.
More controversy arose in 1978 when Seattle film reviewer William Arnold published the biography Shadowland. In his book, Arnold alleges that Farmer was subjected to a transorbital lobotomy. The film biopic Frances (1982), there is a scene in which Farmer undergoes this treatment. Frances was originally to be based on Shadowland but the producers’ agreement with Arnold to base the biopic on his biography was revoked. In a court case against the film’s producers, Brooksfilms, Arnold revealed that the lobotomy episode and much of Shadowland had been vastly fictionalised. Farmer’s family, former lovers and three ex-husbands have either denied or have not confirmed that the transorbital lobotomy was carried out. Edith, Farmer’s sister and author of her own biography about Farmer, said that when the hospital asked for her parent’s consent to carry out the procedure, her father was “horrified” and threatened legal action “if they trued any of their guines pig operations on her”. The son of a Western State Hospital doctor came forward to show a photo that his father had taken of a woman on an operating table undergoing a transorbital lobotomy, complete with the surgeon about to push the metal spike up against the inside of the woman’s eyelid with a mallet. However, the woman’s face is obscured and there is no evidence to suggest that it is Farmer. Western State Hospital carried out the then ground-breaking procedure on nearly 300 patients and never attempted to hide its work but there is no evidence to suggest that Farmer was one of those operated on.
Following her final stay at Western State Hospital, Farmer was paroled back into the care of her mother, at her family’s request. She took a job in the laudry at Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Ironically, this was the same hotel where Farmer had been honoured at the world premiere of her film Come and Get It back in 1936. Farmer feared her mother would have her institutionalised again and in 1953, at her own request, a judge legally restored Farmer’s competency and full civil rights. This was a decade after her arrest at the Knickerbocker Hotel.
In 1954, she briefly married Alfred H. Lobley, a utility worked but when this marriage failed, she moved to Eureka, California to work anonymously in a photo studio. She stayed there for almost three years. In 1957, Farmer met Leland C. Mikesell, an independent broadcast producer from Indianapolis, who helped her move to San Francisco. Mikesell set up employment for Farmer as a receptionist at the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco and after being recognised by a reporter, also arranged for an article to be written about her. This article led to a renewed interest from the world of entertainment. Farmer told Modern Screen magazine:
“I blame nobody for my fall … I think I’ve won the right to control myself”.
Following her rediscovery, Farmer appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice and in an appearance on This Is Your Life in 1958, Farmer finally had the opportunity to to correct the sensationalised stories about her in press. On the programme, speaking to host Ralph Edwards, she said:
“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”.
The actress was also questioned about whether she was an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, both of which were refuted by the actress. Farmer’s episode of This Is Your Life is rather sad to watch as Ralph Edwards recounts the many sad events in Farmer’s life and Farmer noticeably tries to hold herself together, lip quivering and tears welling in her eyes.
A year before her This Is Your Life appearance, Farmer had returned to performing on stage in the play The Chalk Garden and also appeared in various live television dramas. In 1958, she made her final film, The Party Crashers. The film received scathing reviews and she concentrated on theatre productions, accepting the lead role in Yes, My Darling Daughter. Farmer’s stage work led her to a chance encounter with a television executive and she was given the opportunity to host her own daytime movie programme entitled Frances Farmer Presents for WFBM-TV. Her presenting role gained her the award for Businesswoman of the Year.
During this period, she also divorced Lobley and married Leland C. Mikesell. However, by 1959, she had separated from Mikesell and there were reports that he was suing her for breach of contract. The divorce eventually became final in 1963. Farmer had many more problems at WFBM-TV and her alcoholism caused her to be fired from the station twice during the run of her television show, the final time being permanently in 1964. Following her dismissal from WFBM-TV, she continued her theatre work, became Perdue University’s Actress in Residence and starred in the Perdue Summer Theatre production of Ketti Frings’ Look Homeward, Angel. She later appeared in Perdue University’s production of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull.
Farmer courted yet more controversy when in 1965, she crashed into a ditch in an alcohol intoxicated state. At the time she was starring in a Perdue University production of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, playing the character of Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world but disabled, with a wooden leg and an ivory hand. Upon arrest, she shocked the arresting police officer by taking on the persona of the character that she was appearing as in The Visit. She later said:
“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”.
More media sensationalisation followed but ironically, the following night’s performance of The Visit was completely sold out. This was to be Farmer’s final theatre role and she retired from acting altogether.
There are various reports of Farmer’s activities in the years following her retirement. It has been reported in some circles that she was in a lesbian relationship with Jean Ratcliffe. Other reports tell of how she and Ratcliffe set up a company selling cosmetics but their money was embezzled by the man who handled their investment portfolio. But as with so many aspects of Frances Farmer’s often sad and tragic life, it is sometimes difficult to know what to believe, such is the sensationalisation which still surrounds it to this day. Frances Farmer was one of the first casualties of the Hollywood machine, an actress who’s star shone too briefly, dimmed by the controversy that surrounded her.
Nirvana’s song Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, from their 1993 album In Utero, and written by fellow Seattleite Kurt Cobain is part homage to Frances Farmer and part Cobain making connections between the life of the actress and his own life. Cobain had been fascinated with Frances Farmer since high school after reading Shadowland and now, with the various media attention which Cobain was gathering as well as his own struggles with depression and mental health and disputes with his record company, there were a number of parallels to be drawn between the two stars.
As well as referring to the large number of complex legal battles Frances Farmer endured in her lifetime, the first verse of the song could be about Kurt’s own battles with his record company, who wanted Cobain to release material which was pop, commercial and radio friendly. With the In Utero album, the band sought to distance themselves from the sound of their previous album Nevermind, which had become a huge hit and greatly pleased their record company, who now wanted more of the same to cash in on the success. But as In Utero producer Steve Albini says in Come As You Are – The Nirvana Story by Michael Azerrad:
“[Nevermind was] “sort of a standard hack recording that has been turned into a very, very controlled, compressed radio-friendly mix … That is not, in my opinion, very flattering to a rock band.”
Cobain thought that the demands of his record company were holding him back, much in the same way that Farmer considered many of the roles given to her by Paramount Pictures to be holding her back. Cobain, like Farmer, rebelled against the demands of the industry that he worked in. In Utero was Cobain’s rebellion, a more natural, visceral and abrasive album that it’s highly successful predecessor. Even the title of Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle is an attack against the band’s record company, who favoured short snappy song titles. The band were also concerned that the record company originally wanted the album to be released in time for the 1992 Christmas holiday season but when the band did not comply, the record company released the Incesticide compilation in order to make money off the band in the peak sales season. The first verse is Cobain attacking the record industry, the way in which they continually sought to make as much money off the back of the band as possible (“It’s so relieving, To know that you’re leaving as soon as you get paid”); the way in which they stifled Cobain’s creativity with their demands (“It’s so relaxing, To hear that you’re asking wherever you get your way) and Cobain’s complete contempt over threats of legal action if demands of the record industry were not met (“It’s so soothing, To know that you’ll sue me, this is starting to sound the same”). Steve Albini told journalist Jim Derogatis that everybody associated with the band, outside of the band itself, were “the biggest pieces of shit I ever met”.
The wonderful chorus of simply “I miss the comfort in feeling sad” refers to the way in which when somebody has been sad for a long time, becoming finally happy is incredibly problematic and in effect, makes them more miserable than before. Feeling their original sadness could actually bring them comfort. Such was the traumatic nature of much of Frances Farmer’s life than it is unclear whether she actually found happiness, although she did seem more settled in the final few years of her life. In Kurt Cobain’s case, he had recently become a father and in interviews would tell of how proud he was, saying, “Holding Frances (his daughter) in my arms is the best drug in the world”. Interestingly, Cobain named his daughter Frances but claimed she was named after Frances MacKee, singer with the band The Vaselines and personal friend.
In the second verse of song, we see lyrics that are more representational of the idea of a tribute song to Frances Farmer. “In her false witness” could refer to the sensationalisation of Frances Farmer’s life in the media and also that of the songwriter. If we were to look at the term “false witness” in a Biblical sense (“Thou shalt not bear false witness” is the ninth of The Ten Commandments), the line could be included as a nod to Frances Farmer’s God Dies essay, the condemnation she received and the speculation regarding her religious and political views. Alternatively, if we were to look at the definition of “false witness” in terms of a court of law, where an innocent person is accused and oppressed by false witnesses in order to be punished in their body, property or honour, then it could be a reference to Frances Farmer’s many legal battles during her lifetime and her incarceration and abuse in Western State Hospital.
The lyric “To see if they float or drown” refers to a witch trial, thus comparing Frances Farmer’s persecution to a witch trial. In a witch trial, a person suspected of being a witch would be thrown into water with their arms tied behind their back. If they were a witch, they would float and then be killed but if they were not a witch, they would drown and die anyway. If we were to understand the song as drawing parallels between Farmer’s life and Cobain’s life, Cobain and wife Courtney Love had recently been much demonised and declared unfit parents by many following Love’s revelation in Vanity Fair magazine that she took heroin whilst she was pregnant. However, she did state that she did not know she was pregnant at that point in time. The following line, “Our favourite patient” is a reference to Farmer’s multiple incarcerations in mental institutions and possibly also alluding to the state of Cobain’s own mental health. “The Puget Sound” is a sound (a large sea inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight and wider than a fjord; or a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land) along the north western coast of Washington State. It is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean and part of the Salish Sea. Western State Hospital is situated South Puget Sound area, which could explain the Puget Sound being “Disease-covered”. The spreading of disease could also refer to the spreading of rumours and lies. The next line, “She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, And leave a blanket of ash on the ground”, is Farmer exacting her revenge on Seattle by burning it to a crisp.
Mere months after the release of In Utero, Kurt Cobain would be found dead. The verdict was suicide by gunshot but conspiracy theories and embellishments of the truth are rife to this day. Just as Frances Farmer became even more famous following her death following various revelations, whether true or not, so has Kurt Cobain. Maybe Farmer isn’t the only one who will have her revenge on Seattle.