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 willful, troubled, and self-destructive. 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 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 (March 29, 1935). "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 settled uneasily 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 premiere 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 had "made good in Hollywood and on Broadway" (January 23, 1938).
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.
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.
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, January 14, 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" (Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 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" (New York Daily News, January 15, 1943).
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 pre-disposing cause of the insanity" (Seattle Times, March 24, 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 (Seattle Times, July 3, 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 (Post-Intelligencer, February 18, 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, January 23, 1983). 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 (Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 1983).
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, April 14, 1954). 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.
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.
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, January 23, 1983).
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.