Francis Farmer… A Turbulent Journey
When I relayed the complicated tale of Frances Farmer’s life to a friend of mine, his response was, “Now, that would make an interesting movie.” I immediately pointed him to the 1982 film, Frances, starring Jessica Lange. While I possess a deep love for biopics, each must be taken with a grain of salt – they are, after all, crafted to sell to a crowd, and to some degree become part of the ever-growing Hollywood patchwork of fact and fiction.
Frances Farmer has fascinated me as a powerful force off-screen, while also presenting a striking balance between assertiveness and subtlety in her films. It is easy to say that she lead a controversial life, but I am more inclined to say that the true controversy lies in how her story has been told over the years. The truth is that there are several pivotal moments of her life that will elude us, as most media coverage around her was also meant to be sold to a crowd.
While Frances was born in the Pacific Northwest, I became familiar with her while living in Indiana–a state in which she found acceptance during the later portion of her life. It is my goal to take you through key moments of her life between the two locales, and to only present to you what I have found to be factual.
Farmer grew up in West Seattle, at 2636 47th St SW. She was the child of an attorney father and a particularly domineering social activist mother. Her parents would later divorce. While attending West Seattle High School, Farmer entered and won $100 from a writing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, with her controversial essay, “God Dies.” Her piece stirred outrage from the religious members of her town, with headlines in Seattle and beyond, reading, “Seattle Girl Denies God and Wins Prize.” As hate mail piled into Farmer’s mailbox, Farmer began to dream of leaving West Seattle.
Farmer was an extremely independent figure throughout her life. Although her father was a notable lawyer, Farmer sought work as a cinema usherette, waitress, tutor, and factory worker, while living at home. She used her income to pay for tuition costs at the University of Washington. It was here that Farmer proceeded to study drama in the 1930s, and starred in numerous plays, such as Helen of Troy, Everyman, and Uncle Vanya.
While studying at the University of Washington, Farmer won a subscription contest for the leftist newspaper, The Voice of Action. Her first prize winning involved a trip to the Soviet Union. Disregarding her mother’s strong objections to accepting the prize, Farmer traveled anyway, in order to see the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre.
When Farmer returned from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1935, she decided to cash her bus ticket home to Seattle and instead attempt a legitimate theater career in New York. She immediately sought lodging and work around Manhattan. Instead, she was referred to Paramount Pictures’ talent scout Oscar Serlin, who arranged for a screen test. Within a few weeks, Farmer signed a seven-year contract with Paramount and moved to Hollywood on her 22nd birthday.
After starring in two well-received B-films, Farmer married actor Leif Erickson. She was then cast in her first A feature, Rhythm on the Range, alongside Bing Crosby. Later, she was loaned to Samuel Goldwyn to appear in Come and Get It, based upon a novel by Edna Ferber. Both of these films were successful, and Frances Farmer became a newfound star.
However, Farmer was not entirely satisfied with her career. Instead, she began to feel stifled by Paramount’s tendency to feature her in films that depended more upon her looks than her talent. Her outspoken style made her appear uncooperative and contemptuous. At this point, film studios controlled many parts of a star’s life, but Farmer rebelled against any attempt the studio made to glamorize her private life. As a result, she refused to attend Hollywood parties or to date certain stars to keep her name in the gossip columns.
In order to build a reputation as a serious actress, Farmer left Hollywood in 1937 and performed summer stock productions in Westchester, New York. She appeared in a production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, garnering mixed reviews. Because of her box office appeal, the play became the biggest hit in the stock group’s history. When the production moved to a national tour in 1938, critics from Washington D.C. to Chicago praised the show with glowing reviews.
Farmer had an affair with Odets, but he was married to Luise Rainer at the time, and ended the relationship. She began to drink heavily. Farmer then returned to Paramount to stay in Los Angeles for three months out of every year to make films. She intended to devote the rest of her time to theater, although her next two Broadway appearances had brief runs. Meanwhile, Paramount continued to offer her unchallenging roles.
Once 1939 arrived, Farmer possessed temperamental work habits, and a worsening alcoholism. While she received positive reviews for her roles as a co-star in several more films, her reputation began to tarnish. In 1942, Paramount suspended her after she refused another part, and eventually dropped her. In the same year, her marriage to Erickson ended in divorce.
It was during this time that Farmer continued on a downward spiral. While driving with her headlights on bright in a wartime blackout zone, she was stopped by the Santa Monica Police and unable to produce a driver’s license. She was verbally abusive, presumed drunk, and was fined $500. She paid half of her fine, but a warrant was issued for her arrest when she did not pay the other half in a timely fashion. At roughly the same time, 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, but received no answer when they knocked at her door. They then entered her room, finding her in bed, and made her dress quickly.
Her hearing was held the next morning, and she appeared unstable. She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge. He sentenced her to 180 days in jail, leading her to knock down a policeman, and bruise another. She ran to a phone booth to try and call an attorney, but was stopped by the police. As she was physically carried away, she shouted, “Have you ever had a broken heart?”
Various newspaper accounts tend to conflict with one another after this moment. However, Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of L.A. General Hospital and diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis. Afterwards, she was sent to the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, but accounts of her treatments there are vague and sensationalized.
Farmer’s mother then traveled to California and participated in a lengthy battle to have the guardianship of her daughter transferred from the state of California to her. While psychiatrists testified that Farmer needed additional treatment, her mother was victorious. Farmer and her mother took the train back to Washington.
Once Farmer moved back home in West Seattle, she and her mother fought constantly. Within six months, Farmer attacked her mother physically, prompting her mother to have her committed to Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Washington. Here, Farmer occasionally received electro-convulsive therapy, and was declared “completely cured” in 1944. Released and traveling with her father to visit an aunt’s ranch in Reno, Nevada, Farmer ran away. She spent time with a family who had picked her up as a hitchhiker, but she was later arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California. Her arrest was widely publicized, and offers of help poured in for Frances, but she refused them all. After staying with her aunt in Nevada, Frances moved back in with her parents. Again, at her mother’s request, Farmer was recommitted to Western State Hospital in 1945 and stayed there for roughly five years.
It is very difficult to find truthful accounts of Farmer’s time at Western State, so I will avoid sharing what allegedly happened at Western State, other than the controversy of Farmer potentially receiving a transorbital lobotomy. Her time at Western State has, again, been highly sensationalized, and truthful accounts are all the more hidden amidst many conflicting reports. However, it is worth pointing out that Frances did indeed posthumously publish an autobiography, entitled, Will There Really Be a Morning?, in which she describes an incarceration at Western State that was nothing short of brutal. Farmer’s friend and housemate, Jean “Jeanira” Ratcliffe, arranged for the publication of the autobiography, but it is unclear as to which portions of the book were possibly edited further or ghostwritten. Ratcliffe claimed she only wrote the final chapter dealing with Farmer’s death.
In 1950, at her parents’ request, Frances was paroled back into her mother’s care. She took a job sorting laundry at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle–the same hotel which hosted the world premiere of her film, Come and Get It. Farmer lived with the fear of her mother possibly institutionalizing her again. At her own request, Farmer had a judge legally restore her competency and full civil rights. After a brief second marriage, Farmer bought a one-way ticket to Eureka, California, because it was as far from Seattle as her money would take her. There, she worked anonymously for nearly three years at a photo studio, as a secretary and bookkeeper. She had no further contact with her parents. Farmer’s mother died in 1955, followed by her father the next year. Farmer was named her mother’s sole heir, gaining the title to the family home in West Seattle. She sold the house, for $5,500, and remained in Eureka.
Frances experienced something akin to a comeback in 1957 when she was discovered working as a receptionist at the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco. A reporter published a story about her, leading to renewed interest in Farmer. She appeared on an episode of This is Your Life, clarifying stories of her past. She returned to stage productions in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and also appeared in several live television dramas. Farmer played her first role on stage in 15 years, in a summer stock production of The Chalk Garden. In this production, she played a woman who was trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life after 15 years of exile. 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.
From 1958 to 1964 Farmer hosted a successful daytime TV show called Frances Farmer Presents.Farmer performed extensive research on the films she would present and discuss in live segments. A wonderful host, Farmer interviewed visiting celebrities such as Vivian Vance, Dan Blocker, and even her own ex-husband, Leif Erickson. The show aired six days per week, and remained a well-loved program for its entire run.
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.
As a result of the guilt she felt over an illegal abortion, Farmer had for years avoided contact with children. Around this time, 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, reflecting, “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 felt that she was being granted a second chance in life. No longer reminiscent of the young teen who wrote “God Dies,” Farmer actively sought a disciplined avenue of faith and worship. Farmer explored St. Joan of Arc Catholic church in Indianapolis, and petitioned that very day to begin her instructions. In 1959, she was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. Farmer had a great affection for St. Joan of Arc Church and attended services there regularly.
There is much dispute about where exactly in Indianapolis Farmer lived, but I can say that Farmer did live in Indianapolis near North College Avenue. Farmer also bought her own home on 5107 N. Park. Additionally, she shared a home with her friend, Jean Ratcliffe, on Moller Road. Farmer and Ratcliffe attempted to start a small company producing cosmetics, but the project failed after their funds were embezzled by the man who handled their investment portfolio.
Farmer died from esophageal cancer on August 1, 1970. She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.
Today, Farmer’s childhood home remains at 2636 47th Street SW on the hilly landscape of West Seattle, and I made it a priority to visit. When I arrived, I noticed there was some work being done on the home. I am not sure what the current state is of the home, but I can say that it is still standing. This was the home she lived in when she was receiving criticism for her “God Dies” piece.
Farmer’s alma mater, West Seattle High School , is still located at 3000 California Ave SW, Seattle.
If you would like to visit the University of Washington, where Farmer took on her first acting roles, their address is 1410 NE Campus Parkway, Seattle.
Western State Hospital has since abandoned the building in which Frances was housed as a patient. Today, the building is in disrepair, and is often a site of criminal activity and occasional ghost hunters. However, Western State Hospital does possess a small museum about the history of the hospital. They do possess a Frances Farmer room as a tribute to her, and hold several stills and film memorabilia surrounding her career. Historic Western State Hospital maintains a presence on Facebook.
The Olympic Hotel in Seattle in now the historic Fairmount Olympic Hotel, located at 411 University St, Seattle. The world premiere of Farmer’s film Come and Get It was housed here. Later in life, Farmer worked at the hotel, tasked with sorting laundry.
Ordinarily, my posts tend to end with the depiction of a celebrity and points of interest in his or her hometown. However, I crossed paths with Farmer’s later years and legacy while living in Indianapolis. My undergraduate education occurred at Butler University, located in the North side of Indianapolis, which was coincidentally where Farmer maintained her Indianapolis homes.
While Farmer was living in Indianapolis, she would frequent the performing arts venue, Clowes Hall. Judy Garland was appearing there to perform one of her final concerts in the United States, prior to departure for London. Farmer was in attendance. As Judy strolled to the stage to begin her show, she walked past Farmer. However, she turned around to personally greet Farmer, and the two enjoyed a brief reunion. It seems that they shared a mutual respect for one another. Clowes Memorial Hall is located at 4602 Sunset Ave, Indianapolis, on the grounds of the Butler University Campus.
Frances Farmer attended St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church’s masses. The church stands at 4217 Central Ave, Indianapolis. I would frequent their annual French Market event, as well as the occasional mass. The parish sponsors several community events, and the inside of the church would still look familiar to Frances.
I tried to look for hints of Frances and her time worshipping there when I would go and attempt to learn more about her. All I could find was a small ad on page 11 of the March 26, 1965, edition of The Criterion, under the heading, “Indianapolis Parish Shopping List.”
Farmer worked for the local NBC affiliate, WFBM-TV, which is now RTV-6. They were (and still are) located at 1330 N Meridian.
While the location of her home on North College Avenue is disputed, the Park Avenue home is confirmed to be at 5107 N. Park. It is a private residence, so please be respectful. The home she shared with Ratcliffe on Moller Road has since been leveled and replaced with a strip mall.
Frances was an actress-in-residence at Purdue University. Through research with the Purdue University Theater Archives, I was able to come across these stills from the final performances of her acting career. These stills are from her last play, The Visit, in which her character intentionally wore extremely heavy make-up.
During my final year at Butler University, I was working through my student teaching experiences. One of them was at a school in Fishers, Indiana. Farmer is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery near Fishers, which I passed on my daily commute to and from the school. The cemetery’s address is 9700 Allisonville Rd., Indianapolis. Each time I paid my respects to Frances, I noticed she always had flowers or some sort of memento left behind for her.
Farmer’s turbulent life is always enthralling to track and trace, especially since there is so much to uncover about her life. Although she struggled through many difficult points in her life, there are many facets surrounding her career that are to be admired. She spoke boldly about what she believed, achieved her goal of having a film career, and reinvented herself for the mediums of stage work and television. At the same time, her tale is also tragic, as she walked a fine line between stardom and obscurity throughout her life. For these reasons, I encourage classic film fans to do their best and separate fact from fiction – especially concerning Farmer’s story. I know that several film fans and myself would find it gratifying to discover more truths to add to the narrative of what we know about Farmer’s life.
Whether you are in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the East coast, and even beyond, you may cross paths with Farmer’s legacy!
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek is an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age and Travel Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more about Annette’s Classic Movie Travels at Hometowns to Hollywood