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Frances Farmer



Frances Farmer
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
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 was the subject of two films,[3][4] one television special,[5] three books,[6][7][8] and numerous songs and magazine articles.[9]

Early life

Farmer as a senior in high school, 1931 - Frances Farmer
Farmer as a senior in high school, 1931

Farmer was born in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Cora Lillian (née Van Ornum) and Ernest Melvin Farmer. In 1931, while attending West Seattle High School, she entered and won $100 from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a writing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, with her controversial essay "God Dies".[10] 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."[11]

Although her father was a prominent lawyer, Farmer displayed independence through her work roles as an usherette in a cinema, a waitress, a tutor, and a factory worker. Farmer used the money earned from such employment to pay for her university fees, before winning a popularity contest that rewarded her with a trip to Europe. In 1935, as a student at the University of Washington, 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.[12]

Farmer proceeded to study drama at the University of Washington 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.[13]


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. She had top billing in two well-received 1936 B-movies, Too Many Parents and Border Flight.[14][15] 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.[16]

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 The 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.[17][18] Meanwhile, her marriage to Erickson had disintegrated and ended in divorce in 1942.[19]

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[30] 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][31] 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][31]

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.[32]

In 1962 Farmer appeared in a Purdue University production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull[32] 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]


From 1958 to 1964 Farmer hosted a successful TV show called Frances Farmer Presents which had the top audience ranking in its time slot throughout its run. She was also in demand as a public speaker. 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.

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.[33][34] Farmer had a great affection for St. Joan of Arc Church and attended services there regularly.[35] During this period, she gave up drinking.[36]

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.[37]

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 died from esophageal cancer on August 1, 1970.[38] She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.[39]


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]

  • Sheila McLaughlin directed and co-wrote, with novelist Lynne Tillman, the 1984 film Committed,[4] starring McLaughlin as Frances and Lee Breuer (of the Mabou Mines theater company) as Clifford Odets.[43]
  • Susan Blakely portrayed Farmer in a 1983 television production of Will There Really Be a Morning?, based on Farmer's autobiography.[44] Academy Award winner Lee Grant portrayed Farmer's mother in this production.[5] John J. O'Connor, in a 1983 review for The New York Times, claimed:

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]

  • In 1984, Culture Club placed in the #32 position of the UK Single Charts for "The Medal Song," a song that featured the actress on the sleeve of its 12-inch vinyl release though Virgin Records.[45][46] The promotional video for the song featured an actress playing Farmer in a brief depiction of her life.
  • In 1984, Romanovsky and Phillips released I Thought You'd Be Taller, an album that includes a song about the actress, "Paint By Numbers (Song For Frances)".[47] The song concludes with the verse:

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)[47]

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[49]
  • In the 2003 movie Windy City Heat, where an elaborate prank is set up for an aspiring actor who thinks he is auditioning for a film, most of the production staff have fake names based on famous American politicians and artists. The studio lot manager is introduced to the protagonist as "Frances Farmer".
  • Patterson Hood, singer, guitarist and songwriter with the band Drive-By Truckers, included a song about Farmer, entitled "Frances Farmer", on his 2004 solo album Killers and Stars. The album's cover art features a drawing of Farmer by Toby Cole. Its liner notes describe the album as having been "recorded in dining room with creaking chair and snoring dog (Loretta), Athens, Georgia, early March 2001."[53][54]
  • The song "Lobotomy Gets 'em Home!" by The Men They Couldn't Hang was written about the life of Farmer and is featured on both the 1989 album Silvertown and the 2005 album The Shooting.[31][55][56]
  • French singer Mylène Jeanne Gautier changed her name to "Mylène Farmer" while studying to be an actress, as a tribute to Farmer.[59]

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.[60]

  • Farmer is referenced in the musical Next to Normal during the performance of the song "Didn't I See This Movie?," and the character of "Diana" declares at one point, "I'm no Frances Farmer." The stage production explores the topic of "pharmacological treatment of depression and bipolar disorder" and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.[61][62]


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[63]
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))[64][65][66]
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


  1. ^ Bragg, Lynn E. (2005). Myths and Mysteries of Washington. Globe Pequot. p. 66. ISBN 0-762-73427-2. 
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  12. ^ Shelley 2010 p.8
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  28. ^ Elliot, Edith Farmer. Look Back in Love. 1979. ISBN 0-9602232-1-5
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  • Agan, Patrick. The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses. Pinnacle Books, 1979. ISBN 0-523-40623-1.
  • Arnold, William. Shadowland. McGraw-Hill Education. December 1978. ISBN 0-07-002311-5.
  • Elliot, Edith Farmer. Look Back in Love. Gemaia Press, 1979. ISBN 0-9602232-1-5.
  • Farmer, Frances. Will There Really Be a Morning? Allison & Busby, 1973. ISBN 0-85031-109-8.
  • Shelley, Peter. Frances Farmer: The Life and Times of a Troubled Star. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-4745-9.
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