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Farmer, Frances (1913-1970) -- Part 1

HistoryLink.org Essay 5058 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, a rising star in the 1930s, is remembered today more for her unfortunate life story than for her once promising career. Talented and beautiful, Farmer was also a willful, troubled, and self-destructive woman. After a period of increasingly erratic behavior, she was declared legally insane and institutionalized in 1944. Released in 1950, she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Since her death in 1970, however, she has become something of a cult figure, the subject of three books, three movies (the best known of which is the 1982 film Frances, starring Jessica Lange), several off-Broadway plays, scores of magazine articles, and a song, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” by Kurt Cobain, which includes this line: “She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”

The standard version of the Frances Farmer story goes like this: An idealistic young actress challenges the hypocrisy of her world and becomes the victim of a spiteful mother, a vengeful Hollywood, and a cabal of callous and arrogant psychiatrists. Together they force her into a state mental hospital, where she is brutalized by electric shock and other barbaric treatments; raped by orderlies, fellow inmates, and soldiers from a nearby Army base; and eventually lobotomized. Her rebellious spirit finally shattered, she leaves the institution an atomized half-woman, only a shadow of the vibrant artist she had once been.

Whatever the true story, it has been eclipsed by the mythology. With the medical records closed and all the principal players long dead, little can be said with certainty about what really happened to Frances Farmer. Still, two things seem clear: the behavior that landed her in an insane asylum half a century ago would scarcely raise an eyebrow today; and yet, had she not been institutionalized, she might well have been long forgotten. Instead, decades after her death, the self-described “Bad Girl of West Seattle High” has taken on a larger-than-life role as the star of a cautionary fable.

“The Pirate’s Daughter”

Born on September 19, 1913, Frances Elena Farmer was the third child of Lillian Van Ornum (d. 1955) and Ernest Melvin Farmer (d. 1956). Her father, a son of a Minnesota circuit county judge, was a lawyer who settled in Seattle in 1900. Lillian, a member of a pioneer family from Roseburg, Oregon, ran the boarding house where Ernest lived. She was recently divorced, with a young child. The couple married in 1906, bought a house on Capitol Hill, and together had a son, Wesley, and a daughter, Edith, before Frances was born.

By most accounts, Ernest Farmer was a kind but ineffectual man. Lillian, in contrast, was strong-minded, outspoken, and ambitious. She made national news during World War I by crossing a Rhode Island Red, a White Leghorn, and an Andalusian Blue to obtain a red, white, and blue chicken, which she thought should replace the eagle as the national emblem. After the war, she campaigned against Seattle’s commercial bakeries, which she claimed sold nutritionally inferior products. She also supported feminist causes, and later became a fervent anti-Communist. Frances described her as “a determined, hard-willed woman” who did little in moderation (Farmer, 10). Frances herself inherited some of those characteristics, and the conflicts between the two women eventually escalated to a level that neither seemed able to control.

In the early 1920s, the family moved to a modest bungalow in West Seattle. Ernest Farmer’s law practice had faltered. As the family’s fortunes declined, Farmer’s relationship with his wife deteriorated. He moved out of the house when Frances was a teenager, returning only for regular weekend visits. Eventually the couple divorced.

Frances grew up a somewhat lonely, bookish child. She also demonstrated precocious talents for performing, gifts her mother encouraged with voice and piano lessons. She made her stage debut at age 14, appearing with her older sister, Edith, in a West Seattle Congregational Church operetta titled The Pirate’s Daughter. A photograph from the production, published in The Seattle Daily Times and preserved as a yellowed clipping in a family scrapbook, shows Frances towering over Edith, a radiant smile on her face. The young girl was already demonstrating some of the stage presence that would make her a star.

“Bad Girl of West Seattle High”

As a student at West Seattle High School, Farmer became known as a champion debater and a gifted writer. She was a member of both the debate team and the creative writing club, contributed short stories and poetry to the school’s literary magazine, worked on the student newspaper, played volleyball and basketball, and participated in student government -- in addition to maintaining grades that qualified her for membership in the Honor Society.

Her first brush with national notoriety came during her senior year, in April 1931, when she won a $100 prize in a writing contest sponsored by The Scholastic, a magazine for high school students. Her essay, provocatively titled “God Dies,” caused an uproar. Seattle newspapers reported the news with headlines such as “Seattle Girl Denies God and Wins Prize.” Wire services picked up the stories and distributed them to papers around the country. In Seattle, local ministers pointed to Farmer and her high school English teacher, Belle McKenzie, as evidence of “rampant atheism” in the public schools. “If the young people of this city are going to hell,” one Baptist minister reportedly told his congregation, “Frances Farmer is surely leading them there” (Arnold, 31).

Some years later, Farmer said the reaction to the essay marked a turning point in her life. “It was pretty sad,” she said, “because for the first time I found how stupid people could be. It sort of made me feel alone in the world. The more people pointed at me in scorn the more stubborn I got and when they began calling me the Bad Girl of West Seattle High, I tried to live up to it” (Collier’s).

“The Soviet Dagger”

Farmer entered the University of Washington in September 1931 as a journalism major but soon switched to drama. She supported herself with a variety of jobs during her college years, including working as an usher at the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle and as a singing waitress at Mount Rainier National Park. Under the tutelage of UW drama instructor Sophie Rosenstein, she quickly became a star in student productions (which at that time attracted city-wide audiences). After her performance in Alien Corn in December 1934, one local critic confidently predicted that she was “destined for the lights of Broadway” (Arnold, 40). Farmer had the same sense of destiny. “I was eaten alive with ambition,” she wrote. “I was going to the top, and no one could stand in my way” (Farmer, 55).

The problem was how to get there. With her family still struggling financially, Farmer had no money to pay her way to New York and Broadway. The solution came in March 1935, when she won a trip to the Soviet Union by selling subscriptions for The Voice of Action, a leftist newspaper in Seattle. The prize included a round-trip bus ticket from Seattle to New York, with passage by steamer to Moscow from there.

The news made Farmer a subject of national controversy once again. Her mother, by now zealous in her opposition to Communism, led the outcry, saying her daughter had been corrupted by radical teachers. “The Soviet dagger has struck deep in the heart of America,” she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “If I must sacrifice my daughter to Communism I hope other mothers save their daughters before they are turned into radicals in our schools.” Civic leaders denounced the trip as a Bolshevik propaganda ploy. The Young Men’s Christian Association of Seattle, which had rented space to the Voice of Action for a banquet honoring Farmer, cancelled the event.

Farmer insisted she had no interest in Communism and wanted only to study Russian theater. “I’m sorry mother is objecting to the trip,” she said, “but it is a splendid chance to further my dramatic career …” (P-I). In a Seattle Times article titled “Why I Am Going to Russia,” she wrote that the chance to see “one of the ten most important theatrical centers” in the world was “the best thing that could happen to me.” However, she admitted later that her real objective had been simply to get to New York -- the trip to Russia was “nothing more than a convenient step up a dedicated and ambitious ladder” (Farmer, 69).

She left Seattle on March 30, 1935, with a gift of $20 from her father tucked into her purse. In New York, through contacts provided by her drama instructor Rosenstein, she met members of the leftist Group Theater, including a young playwright named Clifford Odets. She went to Moscow as planned but when she returned to New York, she cashed in the return portion of her bus ticket home (for $25), rented a room, and began making the rounds of casting offices. “I have seen the world,” she wrote to her parents, “and now I am ready to make my mark on it” (Arnold, 54).

Within a few weeks, she had met an agent, had a screen test, and been offered a contract with Paramount Pictures. She said later that news stories about her trip to the Soviet Union had helped her get the studio’s attention.

The Next Greta Garbo

Farmer uneasily settled into life as a contract player in Hollywood. She was grateful for what seemed a generous salary ($100 a week to start) but she also made it clear that she regarded filmmaking as only a stepping stone to “the legitimate theater.” Still, she dutifully submitted to most of the demands made of her. She underwent various makeovers (including one that involved having her eyebrows shaved off), worked with voice, movement, and acting coaches, and spent hours posing for publicity photos (including the bathing suit shots and other “leg art” that the studio insisted on). However, she refused to change her name, and she rarely dressed in the glamorous style expected of a starlet.

In early 1936, she impulsively married Wycliffe Anderson, a young actor also under contract to Paramount, who had changed his name to William Anderson (and later to Glenn Erickson, and finally to Leif Erickson after the Viking explorer). The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple separated a year later. “I did not go into the union with any dewy-eyed hopes or illusions,” Farmer wrote, “and in my mind I was still Frances Farmer, not Mrs. William Anderson, and certainly not Mrs. Leif Erickson” (Farmer, 133). (Fans of television in the late 1960s might remember Erickson as “Big John Cannon” in the NBC western series High Chaparral .)

By the end of the year, she had made four movies, steadily moving from small parts to larger roles. The last of these was what many critics regard as her best film, Come and Get It. The movie, based on a book by Edna Ferber and directed by Howard Hawks, featured Farmer in a dual role as a world-weary cabaret singer and her virginal daughter. Photoplay magazine called her performance “sensationally brilliant.” Hawks said at the time and in his later years that she was the best actress he had ever worked with. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons predicted that she would be the next Greta Garbo.

One and a half years after leaving Seattle, an outcast on a bus, Frances Farmer came back a star, flown in by the studio for the world premier of Come and Get It. She was greeted with roses and flash bulbs at the airport. Crowds lined the streets to see her as she was driven through the business district in a limousine. She posed for pictures with her parents, with drama students at the University of Washington, and at the Paramount Theater, where she once worked. During a lavish reception at the Olympic Hotel, Washington Governor Clarence Martin led a list of dignitaries who came to pay tribute to “the Cinderella girl.”

There was little mention of her controversial trip to the Soviet Union.

“Toast of Broadway”

With the onset of fame, Farmer developed a reputation for being temperamental and difficult to work with. She became more openly contemptuous of Hollywood -- “It’s a nuthouse,” she told one interviewer -- and of the people who lived and worked there (Colliers). Still, she remained in demand, making three movies in the first six months of 1937. None of them, however, brought her the acclaim of Come and Get It.

Industry insiders began to wonder how long she would last. “Hollywood will accept what it chooses to call temperament in those who have what it takes,” one writer observed. “The question before the house is whether Frances, who admittedly has not measured up to the expectations of the public since her remarkable performance in ‘Come and Get It,’ will become a sensation again with triumphant performances, or if her natural desire to ‘go it alone’ will get the best of her” (Movie Mirror).

Frustrated with Hollywood and still hoping to realize her dreams of becoming a success on stage, she convinced Paramount to give her a leave from her contract in order to appear in two summer stock productions on the East Coast. Then, in September, Harold Clurman, director of the Group Theater, asked her to join that legendary ensemble, as the female lead in Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy.

The play, which opened in November, became the biggest financial success the Group would ever have, running on Broadway for 250 performances and then continuing on the road. Farmer won praise for the intelligence and depth of her performance. The Seattle Times proudly reported that she was the “New ‘Toast of Broadway.’ ”

At age 24, Farmer had accomplished everything she had set out to do when she left Seattle. And yet at the same time, there were undercurrents of strain. Shortly after beginning work on Golden Boy, she had fallen in love with Odets. Their tempestuous, emotionally devastating affair ended abruptly when Odets sent her a note that read: “My wife returns from Europe today, and I feel it best for us never to see each other again” (Farmer, 226). She began to drink heavily. Then, in 1938, she was sued by the agent who had arranged her screen test with Paramount; he claimed she owed him $75,000 in “manager’s fees.” She won the court battle, with the help of noted New York lawyer Louis Nizer, but it was a further complication in a life that was beginning to unravel.

Farmer toured with the national road company of Golden Boy, but she was unceremoniously dumped when the company took the play to London for the start of a European tour. She appeared in two other Group productions in 1939 -- Irwin Shaw’s Quiet City and Robert Ardrey’s Thunder Rock -- but both were flops. Close to emotional and physical collapse, she was offered the female lead in a Theater Guild production of Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column. Director Lee Strasberg tried to get her through the rehearsals, but she had to be replaced by another actress.

Chastened, Farmer returned to Hollywood, but she never regained her momentum. She made two movies in 1940 and four in 1941; most were low-budget, easily forgotten films. In the last of these, Son of Fury, starring Tyrone Power (released in January 1942), she was reduced to supporting player status. The female star was Gene Tierney, who, ironically, also would be institutionalized and subjected to electric shock treatments for emotional problems in the mid-1950s.

To go to Part 2, click "Browse to Next Essay" below.

Sources:
William Arnold, Shadowland (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1978); Frances Farmer and Jean Ratcliffe, Will There Really Be a Morning? (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1972); Kyle Crichton, “I Dress As I Like,” Collier's, May 8, 1937, p. 21; “A Seattle Mother’s Warning Against Red Teachers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 29, 1935, p. 1; Frances Farmer, “Why I Am Going to Russia,” The Seattle Times, March 29, 1935, p. 2; “Frances Farmer in New York,” The Seattle Times, June 4, 1938; Edward Churchill, “The Future of Frances Farmer,” Movie Mirror, January 1938, p. 53; James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties (New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1976), 207. For further information see the Frances Farmer Index, http://www.geocities.com/~themistyone/index2.html; and the Frances Farmer files at the Seattle Public Library, History Department, and University of Washington, Pacific Northwest Collection.


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Click here to play
Frances Farmer with Errol Flynn, Lux Radio Theater, 1937
Courtesy Lux Radio Theater


Frances Farmer (1913-1970), ca. 1940



Frances Farmer, left, and her sister Edith, 1923



West Seattle High School Yearbook entry for Frances Farmer (upper left), 1931



Hollywood portrait of Frances Farmer, 1930s



Early studio shot of Frances Farmer, ca. 1935



Frances Farmer posing for studio leg art, 1935



Frances Farmer and her mother, Lillian, in Hollywood, 1936



Poster for Rhythm on the Range, starring Frances Farmer and Bing Crosby, 1936



Frances Farmer representing the women of America, 1938



 
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