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Farmer, Frances (1913-1970) -- Part 2 Essay 5059 : Printer-Friendly Format

The once-promising career of Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer had declined by the early 1940s. A talented but troubled woman, she was relegated to minor roles in low-budget films and then dropped by the major studios altogether. In 1944, after a period of increasingly erratic behavior, she was declared legally insane and institutionalized. She attempted a comeback in the 1950s but never regained the momentum of her early years in Hollywood and on Broadway. Since her death in 1970, however, she has become something of a cult figure, better known for her harrowing personal life than for her relatively brief career. This is Part Two of her story.

Downward Spiral

Little is known of Farmer’s life during the first nine months of 1942. In her purported autobiography, written with the help of a friend and published two years after her death, she said she spent most of that time alone. Isolated and bitter, she felt herself “beginning to slip away.” She began to work on her memoirs, hoping that she might be able to “purge” herself through self-examination (Farmer, 234).

She was also drinking heavily and becoming increasingly dependent on amphetamines. A woman who worried constantly about her weight, Farmer began using amphetamines (marketed as Benzedrine) soon after she arrived in Hollywood. At the time, the drug was widely available and often recommended by doctors as an appetite suppressant. Not until the 1970s was it discovered that amphetamines are highly addictive, have unpredictable side effects, and -- taken in sufficient quantities -- can produce symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia.

Whether she was mentally ill or simply suffering the effects of alcohol and drug abuse may never be known. In any case, her downward spiral accelerated on October 19, 1942, when a policeman in Santa Monica stopped her for driving with her bright headlights on in a wartime “dim-out” zone. She got into an altercation with the officer (reportedly telling him “You bore me”), and was arrested on charges of drunken driving, driving without a license, and failure to obey dim-out restrictions. She was fined $250 and sentenced to 180 days in jail, suspended.

After paying half the fine (promising to pay the rest later), she went to Mexico to work on a film for an independent production company. She quit after two weeks and returned home, to find that her relatives had moved her out of her rented bungalow and into a hotel in Hollywood, apparently because she was running out of money.

“No Escape”

In January 1943, Farmer was hired for a role in a low-budget melodrama called No Escape. On the first day of filming, she slapped a studio hairdresser, causing her to fall and dislocate her jaw. The hairdresser went to the police, who found there was already a warrant out for Farmer’s arrest because she had not paid the remaining half of her drunk driving fine. She was arrested at her hotel later that night and booked into jail on charges of assault and violation of probation.

The wire services reported that "It was no movie glamour girl who faced the bench” the next morning. Her eyes were bloodshot, her blonde hair matted, and her blue suit wrinkled. She was defiant and sarcastic. When the judge asked her if she’d had anything to drink since last appearing in court in October, she said, “Yes, I drank everything I could get, including Benzedrine.” When he asked if she had been in a fight in a Hollywood nightclub the previous evening, she said, “Yes, I was fighting for my country and myself.” The judge sentenced her to serve her original 180-day sentence. Denied permission to call a lawyer, she caused a melee, knocking one policeman to the floor and bruising another officer and a matron before she was carried out of the courtroom, screaming, “Have you ever had a broken heart?” (The Seattle Times, 1943).

Pictures of the once-haughty star being hauled off by police after her sentencing appeared on the front pages of newspapers all around the country. Back in Seattle, her mother said the arrest might have been only a publicity stunt, designed to give Farmer some real-life experience as a jail inmate in preparation for an upcoming role. Later, her mother would say Farmer was suffering from “nervous exhaustion” caused by “consistently being cast as a professional harlot in motion pictures” (P-I, 1943). Eventually, she would blame her daughter’s breakdown on international Communism.

Farmer spent one more night in jail and then, after the intercession of a psychiatrist who had been contacted by her family, she was transferred to the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles General Hospital. The psychiatrist told reporters that she was suffering from “manic depressive psychosis,” which he considered “probably the forerunner of a definite dementia praecox.” To the headline writers, this meant “Her Sanity Held in Doubt.”

A few days later, she was committed to the screen actors' sanitarium at La Crescenta in the San Fernando Valley. Meanwhile, producer Frank King announced that she was being replaced in the film No Escape.

“An Insane Person”

Farmer would spend most of the next seven years in mental institutions, beginning with seven and a half months at La Crescenta, for treatment of what was variously diagnosed as “manic depressive psychosis,” a “split personality,” “schizophrenia with paranoid illusions [sic],” or simple depression.

Her treatment included insulin shock, a therapy that had been developed by the eminent psychiatrist Manfred Sakel in Vienna in 1927. Patients were injected with overdoses of insulin to induce convulsions and coma, in the belief that such trauma could jolt a disordered brain back into normal functioning. Later this treatment was found to be both dangerous and ineffective, but in 1943 it was accepted psychiatric procedure.

Farmer described insulin shock as “a brutal physical attack which not only stunned the brain cells, but shocked the body as well and left the patient racked with nausea and pain” (Farmer, 246). She complained so bitterly about its effects that her mother finally arranged for her release.

She returned to Seattle with her mother in September 1943. However, relations between the two women soon became strained. “Since the time of my release,” Farmer wrote, “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” (Farmer, 13).

Less than six months later, Lillian Farmer filed a complaint in King County Superior Court asking that her daughter (identified by her married name, Mrs. F. E. Anderson) be designated “an insane person” and committed to King County Hospital at Harborview for observation and treatment.

During a hearing held at Harborview County Hospital on March 23, 1944, two psychiatrists testified that Farmer was legally insane, as shown by signs of agitation, delusions, and paranoia. They thought “marital difficulty” might have been a “a pre-disposing cause of the insanity” (Seattle Times, 1944). Farmer’s court-appointed guardian ad litem waived her right to a jury trial. The presiding judge then ordered her committed to the Western (Washington) State Hospital for the Insane at Steilacoom, about 35 miles south of Seattle.

“A Terrible Dream”

At Western State Hospital, the treatment of choice was electroconvulsive shock therapy, which was considered safer than insulin shock. The treatment (still in use, although less common) involves passing a low voltage electric current through the brain for one to two seconds. As with other forms of shock therapy, the side effects include disorientation and memory loss.

Farmer apparently underwent a standard course of electric shock therapy soon after she was admitted to Western, undergoing shocks two or three times a week for three months. The results convinced her doctors that their famous patient had made a “complete recovery” and she was remanded to her mother’s custody. In Seattle, Dr. Donald A. Nicholson -- one of the two psychiatrists who had certified Farmer as insane -- told an audience: “I think this case demonstrates just how successfully antisocial behavior can be modified. Three months ago this woman was totally unresponsive and today she is being returned to her family completely cured. This marks a significant victory for the mental hygiene movement in Washington state” (Arnold, 187).

Interviewed at her mother’s home a day after her release, Farmer said “It’s all been like a terrible dream,” and that she hoped to get back to work soon, after a month or two of rest at an aunt’s ranch near Reno, Nevada (The Seattle Times, 1944). In fact, it would be nearly 15 years before she worked as an actress again.

Less than a month after her discharge, Farmer was arrested on a charge of vagrancy in Antioch, California. She was penniless and apparently seeking work as a fruit picker. A photograph taken at the time of her arrest showed her wearing a work shirt and dungarees, scowling and holding a cigarette.

Farmer ignored offers of help that came from San Francisco, Hollywood, and New York. After spending the night in jail, she pled guilty, was fined $10, suspended, and released to the custody of her parents. But it was an uneasy interlude. By May 1945, she was back at Steilacoom, recommitted -- at her mother’s request -- on the grounds that it was not safe for her to be at large. She did not set foot outside that institution again for five years.

Western State Hospital

By any measure, Western State Hospital in the 1940s was a dismal place. More than 2,700 patients -- 500 more than the official capacity -- were crammed into its antiquated wards. In a 1949 investigative series, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that only 15 graduate nurses were on the staff, assisted by 23 student nurses. By National Committee for Mental Hygiene standards, a hospital with that many patients should have had 107 graduate nurses. There were only about half the recommended number of orderlies on the payroll, and 14 doctors of the minimum of 20 needed.

Many patients were housed in decrepit, turn-of-the-century buildings, similar to one that had been destroyed by fire (killing two patients) in 1947. After the fire, a makeshift ward had been established in an unheated breezeway originally used as an exercise court. The area had been enclosed with canvas, but it provided little protection against wind, rain, and cold. The P-I found that it was still being used as a ward two years later.

Because of staff shortages, patients were being put to bed around 4 p.m. and kept there 12 hours. Inadequate salaries and poor living quarters complicated the problem of getting efficient help. Live-in ward attendants were housed in a basement with sagging floors and crumbling cement walls. Dr. William N. Keller, hospital superintendent, said the hospital needed about $8 million to improve the facilities and expand the staff, a figure far greater than what the Legislature was willing to provide. “People seem to be more interested in how cheaply they can take care of their mentally ill rather than how well,” he commented (P-I, 1949).

“Lobotomy Gets Them Home”

Given these conditions, hospital administrators were naturally interested in a new kind of surgery that promised to help psychologically disabled people leave the institution and return to useful lives: transorbital lobotomy. The procedure involved the insertion of a thin, icepick-like instrument called a leucotome under a patient’s eyelid and into the frontal lobes of the brain, where it was used to sever nerves thought to cause severe emotional disturbances. It was developed by Dr. Walter J. Freeman, a prominent Washington, D.C., neurologist and psychiatrist, whose motto was “lobotomy gets them home.”

Freeman demonstrated his technique at Western State Hospital on August 19, 1947, operating on 13 patients. He returned on July 7, 1949, when he performed several more lobotomies and trained other physicians in the procedure. At one point, a photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer snapped his picture, producing what has become the world’s most famous lobotomy photograph. The often-reproduced image shows Freeman wielding his leucotome on a comatose woman. Before his death in 1972, Freeman reportedly told his son Frank that the woman in the photograph was Frances Farmer.

The allegation that Farmer was lobotomized was advanced by Seattle writer William Arnold in his 1978 book Shadowland, amplified by the 1982 film Frances, and has since been widely accepted as fact. However, Farmer’s family, friends, and others insist she did not undergo a lobotomy, by Freeman or anyone else.

Farmer herself addressed the issue in a 1968 tape-recorded interview with Lois Kibbee, a New York writer and actress who was collaborating with her on her autobiography. She said she had heard women on her ward “pleading” for lobotomies, because “They had been told the operation would sever the little nerve that controls one’s sense of grief” (Indianapolis Star). But she reportedly told Kibbee and other friends that she did not have the operation.

In a memoir published in 1978, Farmer’s sister, Edith Farmer Elliot, said hospital authorities had sought her parents’ permission to perform the operation but they refused. She said her father had been “horrified” by the request and had threatened to sue “if they tried any of their guinea pig operations on her” (Elliot, 153).

Interviewed after the release of the movie Frances, three nurses who had worked at the hospital during the 1940s also denied that Farmer had had a lobotomy. “I worked on all the patients who had lobotomies, and Frances Farmer never came to that ward,” said Beverly Tibbetts (P-I, 1983).

Home Again

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Farmer was “paroled” into her mother’s custody on March 23, 1950. According to some sources, her father arranged her release on the grounds that she was needed at home. Her mother had suffered a stroke, and her father’s health was failing rapidly. Years later, Farmer remained understandably bitter that she was apparently sent home to take care of the parents who had helped commit her to a mental hospital.

Her full civil rights were not restored until 1953, when she petitioned the Superior Court in “The Matter of the Insanity of Mrs. Frances Anderson” to void her mother’s guardianship. On the day her petition was approved, she went to the Olympic Hotel -- the same place where she had once been honored as the hometown girl who had made good -- and got a job sorting laundry.

In April 1954, she married again. In a newspaper interview, she cautiously predicted that she and her new husband, a heavy equipment operator named Alfred H. Lobley, would be “contentedly happy” (Seattle Times). Six months later, she abruptly left her husband and her parents and bought a one-way ticket bus ticket to Eureka, California, choosing that destination because it was as far from Seattle as her money would take her.

She spent the next three years living quietly and anonymously, working as a secretary under the name of Frances Anderson. She had no further contact with her parents. Her mother died in 1955, followed by her father the next year. She was named her mother’s sole heir, gaining title to the family home in West Seattle. She sold the house, for $5,500, and stayed on in Eureka.

Attempted Comeback

In the spring of 1957, she met Leland C. Mikesell, a self-styled “radio and TV consultant” from Indianapolis, who persuaded her to attempt a comeback. Mikesell helped her move to San Francisco, where she was “discovered” working as a hotel reservations clerk. She told reporters she had given up alcohol and found God. “I blame nobody for my fall,” she said, adding, “I think I have won the fight to control myself” (Modern Screen).

The publicity led to a number of television appearances, including two on the famed Ed Sullivan Show. In August, she played her first role on stage in 15 years, in a summer stock production of The Chalk Garden, in the appropriately named town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Ironically, she played a woman who was trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life after 15 years of exile.

Over the next year, Farmer appeared in several TV dramas and summer theaters and one movie (her fifteenth and last, a teen exploitation film called The Party Crashers). Meanwhile, she divorced her second husband and married her third, Mikesell (in what would prove to be another short-lived union). Then, in mid-1958, her comeback attempt sputtered. The television offers dried up and the regional theater engagements dwindled. After a six-day run of The Chalk Garden in Indianapolis, she was offered a job hosting the afternoon movie on a local TV station. She accepted, and ended up spending the rest of her life in Indianapolis.

Final Years

Farmer seemed to settle easily into life in Indianapolis. Her TV show, Frances Farmer Presents, was a local hit, giving her both a steady income and a comfortable niche in the community. She introduced the movies shown on the program and often interviewed visiting celebrities on the air. She was also in great demand as a public speaker. In addition, she served as actress-in-residence at Purdue University, mentoring drama students and appearing in university productions such as The Sea Gull in 1962.

Then she seemed to deteriorate. She became more erratic, demonstrating outbursts of temper and sometimes showing up for work drunk. “All of a sudden, on certain days, and for whatever reasons, Frances was talking like a truck driver,” one of her co-workers said. “This lovely, charming, elegant, sensitive lady would chew out the program director or someone, then go storming out the back door, pop in her Edsel and go flying out of the parking lot” (Indianapolis Star).

Finally, in April 1964, the station’s general manager fired her. He hired her back two months later, but fired her again at the end of the summer.

Despite these problems, Farmer went back on stage that summer, appearing as the self-centered mother in a Purdue Summer Theatre production of Look Homeward, Angel. Midway through the two-week run, she was arrested for drunk driving. She finished the play anyway, but it was the end of her acting career.

After she lost her job in television, Farmer went into two business ventures with a friend, but both failed. She was arrested once more for drunk driving, and had her license suspended for a year. In 1968, she resumed work on her autobiography. The book was not yet completed when she died, of esophageal cancer, on August 1, 1970, six weeks before her 57th birthday, leaving unanswered many questions about the sad trajectory of her life.

She was buried in Indianapolis. Six women friends served as pallbearers.

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); “Ex-Seattle Girl Cries She ‘Drank Everything,’ ” The Seattle Times, January 14, 1943; “May Be Publicity Stunt, Says Mother of Actress,” Philadelphia Record, January 14, 1943; “Blames Roles for Breakdown,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 1943; “Miss Farmer In Hospital To Undergo Sanity Test,” The Seattle Times, January 15, 1943; “Mental Test Ordered For Fran Farmer,” New York Daily News, January 15, 1943; “Miss Farmer Put In Asylum,” The Seattle Times, March 24, 1944; “Frances Farmer Cured, Quits Hospital Today,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 2, 1944; Robert A. Barr, “Frances Farmer, Home Again, Plane Comeback in Pictures,” The Seattle Times, July 3, 1944; “In Antioch, Calif., Yesterday,” Ibid., July 29, 1944; “Reds Had Hold Over Actress Since High School, Says Parent,” Ibid., October 20, 1947; Lucille Cohen, “Drastic Overcrowding at State Hospital Bared,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 18, 1949; Rita Rose, “True Frances Farmer story Remains Elusive,” and “Frances Farmer: She Couldn't Tell the White Hats from the Black,” Indianapolis Star, January 23, 1983; Edith Farmer Elliot, Look Back in Love (Portland, Ore.: Gemaia Press, 1978); “'Frances' Inaccurate, Say Former Nurses,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 1983; Robert Heilman, “Miss Farmer Happy as She And Fiancée Talk of Coming Marriage,” The Seattle Times, April 14, 1954; Ed DeBlasio, “The Seven Christmases of Frances Farmer,” Modern Screen, December 1957, p. 57.
Note: This essay was emended on February 14, 2012, to correct the venue of the hearing that took place on March 23, 1944.

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

Studio portrait of Frances Farmer, ca. 1940

Frances Farmer with Tyrone Power in Son of Fury, released in 1942

Widely reproduced photo of Frances Farmer being carried from the courtroom after sentencing, 1943

News photo of Frances Farmer after her arrest in Santa Monica, California, 1943

Advertisement for Frances Farmer Presents, ca. 1960

Portrait of Frances Farmer, 1960s

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