Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer in a publicity headshot
Born Frances Elena Farmer
(1913-09-19)September 19, 1913
Seattle, Washington, U.S.
Died August 1, 1970(1970-08-01) (aged 56)
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
Cause of death Esophageal cancer
Resting place Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery
Education West Seattle High School
Alma mater University of Washington
Occupation Actress, television host
Height 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m)
Spouse(s) Leif Erickson (m. 1936; div. 1942)
Alfred Lobley (m. 1951; div. 1958)
Leland Mikesell (m. 1958; div. 1963)

Frances Elena Farmer[1] (September 19, 1913 – August 1, 1970) was an American actress and television host. She is perhaps better known for sensationalized accounts of her life, especially her involuntary commitment to a mental hospital.[2] Farmer began her career as a stage actress, performing stock theater in New York and later appearing on Broadway. She made her film debut in Too Many Parents (1936), and was subsequently featured in a starring role in the musical western, Rhythm on the Range (1936) opposite Bing Crosby, and The Toast of New York (1937) with Cary Grant.

After signing a contract with Paramount Pictures, Farmer appeared in Exclusive (1937), World Premiere (1941), and the film noir Among the Living (1941). In 1942, publicity of Farmer's 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, she was relocated from Los Angeles to an institution in her hometown of Seattle, Washington, where she was 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. Farmer died of esophageal cancer in 1970, at the age of 56.

Farmer's tumultuous life and career led to her being the subject of two films,[3][4] one television special,[5] three books,[6][7] and numerous songs and magazine articles.[8]

Early life

Farmer as a senior in high school, 1931

Farmer was born Frances Elena Farmer on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Lillian (née Van Ornum 1873-1955), a boardinghouse operator and dietician[9] and Ernest Melvin Farmer, a lawyer.[10] Farmer was the youngest of four children; she had two older sisters, and one older brother.[10] At age four, Farmer's parents separated, and her mother relocated with the children from their home in North Seattle to Los Angeles, where her sister lived.[11] Two years later, Farmer and her siblings were sent back to Seattle to live with their father.[11] Her mother returned to Seattle the following year, and the family shared a house, although Lillian and Ernest remained separated.[11] In the fall of 1929, when Frances was sixteen, Lillian and Ernest divorced, and Lillian relocated to a cottage in Bremerton, Washington.[11]

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".[12] 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."[13]

In 1931, Farmer enrolled at the University of Washington,[14] and worked as usherette in a cinema, a waitress, a tutor, and in a factory to pay for her tuition. Farmer proceeded to study drama, and, during the 1930s, the university's drama department productions 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.[15]

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.[16] The same year, she graduated from the university with a degree in journalism and drama.[14]


Farmer with husband Leif Erickson, ca. 1937

Returning 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 Paramount Pictures talent scout Oscar Serlin, who arranged for a screen test. Paramount offered her a seven-year contract. Farmer signed it in New York on her 22nd birthday and moved to Hollywood.[17] She had top billing in two well-received 1936 B-movies, Too Many Parents and Border Flight.[18][19] She wed actor Leif Erickson in February 1936 while shooting the first of the movies, Too Many Parents. Later that year, Farmer was cast 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 Collier's 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.[20]

Farmer in Rhythm on the Range (1937)

Farmer had an 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 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. These did include, however, a fine performance as Calamity Jane in the 1941 Western Badlands of Dakota. 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. Later that year, Paramount suspended her after she refused to accept a part in the film Take a Letter, Darling and eventually dropped her.[21][22] Meanwhile, her marriage to Erickson had disintegrated and ended in divorce in 1942.[23]


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.[24] 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.[25]

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,[26] 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."[2]

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?"[25]

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.[20] There she was diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis".

First hospitalization

Within 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.[20]

Western State Hospital and later life

Farmer 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 committed to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington.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.[20]

Claims of ill treatment

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[27] 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."[28]

Farmer's close friend and housemate, writer M. Jean "Jeanira" 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.[29]

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 part of the 1982 film Frances,[30] which had initially been planned as an adaptation of Shadowland, though its producers ultimately reneged on their agreement with Arnold.[20] 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".[20] 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."[31]

Farmer's family, her former lovers, and her three ex-husbands all denied, or did not confirm, that the procedure was completed.[2] 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."[7] 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.[20] 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.[32]

Life after hospitalization

On 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[33] Farmer moved to Eureka, California, where she worked anonymously for almost three years in a photo studio as a secretary/bookkeeper.

Comeback attempt

In 1957, Farmer met Leland C. Mikesell, an independent broadcast promoter from Indianapolis who helped her move to San Francisco. Mikesell found employment for Farmer, as a receptionist at the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco, and also arranged for a reporter to write an article after recognizing her—the article 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, 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.[2]

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".[2]

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, produced by Paramount and described by one writer as "a crappy B-movie about wild teenagers and stupid adults".[2][34] Then, in the summer of 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. 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.[2]

Farmer's television program made her popular as an amiable host, and she subsequently received an award as a local businesswoman of the year.[2] During this period, she divorced Lobley and married Mikesell. 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. The former couple's divorce was finalized in Indianapolis in 1963. 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. 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.[35]

In 1962 Farmer appeared in a Purdue University production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull[35] and then, in 1965, Farmer played the role of "Claire Zachanassian" in the university's production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit; 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.[2]

Farmer herself revealed that "It took three hours to apply makeup and I was so buried in the role that I found it difficult to separate myself from it." Farmer's revelation was then of particular significance during a police interview following a car accident in which an alcohol-intoxicated Farmer crashed into a ditch. Farmer explained afterwards:

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.[2]

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, and 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."[2]


As a result of the guilt she felt over her illegal abortion, Farmer had for years avoided contact with children. At this period of her life she became attached to the five young daughters of a friend, and this helped to ease her guilt. In the summer of 1958, one of the 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 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 Catholic church and petitioned that very day to begin her instructions and in 1959 was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith.[36][37] Farmer had a great affection for St. Joan of Arc Church and attended services there regularly.[38] During this period, she gave up drinking.[39]

During the early 1960s Farmer was actress-in-residence at Purdue University and appeared in some campus productions. 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 and 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.[40]

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.


Farmer was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 1970, which was attributed to her life-long habit of heavy smoking.[41] She died of the disease on August 1, 1970.[42] She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.[43]

Portrayals and tributes

The movie doesn't let us off the hook by giving us someone to blame. Instead, it insists on being a bleak tragedy, and it argues that sometimes it is quite possible for everything to go wrong. Since most movies are at least optimistic enough to provide a cause for human tragedy, this one is sort of daring ... But Lange provides a strong emotional center for the film, and when it is over we're left with the feeling that Farmer never really got a chance to be who she should have been, or to do what she should have done. She had every gift she needed in life except for luck, useful friends and an instinct for survival. She might have been one of the greatest movie stars of her time.[3]
In fact, Will There Really Be a Morning? sticks far closer to the facts of Miss Farmer's life than the film Frances, which is something of a scripting mess. A fictitious character, played by Sam Shepard, was invented in the film to pluck Miss Lange out of all sorts of terrible situations. The relationship between Frances and her mother was brought into focus only half way through the film even though Miss Farmer's autobiography stressed that from childhood on our relationship was strained and torn by strife - every encounter between us ended in screaming hysteria and slamming doors. And the film leaves Frances lobotomized and vegetable-like, which was not the case. She went on creating havoc for herself and others for a good many years after that.[5]

They locked away poor Frances/ Told her she was insane/ And shocked her with the treatments/ That slowly killed her brain/ But her spirit lives with me/ And that is why I sing this song/ 'Cause when a brilliant mind is put away/ My senses tell me something's wrong/

(When they tell you to)[51]

It's a battlefield Frances You fight or concede Victory to the enemy Who call your strength insanity

What chance for such girls How can we compete? In a world that likes its women

Stupid and sweet[55]
By the end of "Saint Frances of Hollywood," there is no doubt that Ms. Farmer has been turned into a martyr. But her sacrifice is at the hands of Ms. Clark, who has turned the tale of an actress's downward spiral, fueled by personal demons, alcohol and amphetamines, as much as by a hypocritical system, into a one-dimensional screed.[63]


Year Title Role Notes
1936 Too Many Parents Sally Colman
1936 Border Flight Anne Blane
1936 Rhythm on the Range Doris Halliday
1936 Come and Get It Lotta Morgan/Lotta Bostrom Alternative title: Roaring Timber[68]
1937 Exclusive Vina Swain
1937 The Toast of New York Josie Mansfield
1937 Ebb Tide Faith Wishart
1938 Ride a Crooked Mile Trina
1940 South of Pago Pago Ruby Taylor
1940 Flowing Gold Linda Chalmers
1941 World Premiere Kitty Carr
1941 Badlands of Dakota Calamity Jane
1941 Among the Living Elaine Raden
1942 Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake Isabel Blake
1943 I Escaped from the Gestapo Montage sequence Alternative title: No Escape (United Kingdom (UK))[69]
1958 The Party Crashers Mrs. Bickford
1958 Playhouse 90 Val Schmitt Episode: "Reunion"
1958 Matinee Theatre Episode: "Something Stolen, Something Blue"
1958 Studio One Sarah Walker Episode: "Tongues of Angels"
1958–1964 Frances Farmer Presents Host Unknown episodes

Select Theatre Credits


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