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The facts of Frances Farmer’s life – some wildly fictionalized by the press and in posthumous movies – make up one of the saddest stories to come out of Hollywood. She began as a beautiful and talented young actress who became outspoken and rebellious, then eventually drunk and disorderly. Following an arrest for drunk driving she was fined and sentenced to jail, then transferred to a psychiatric ward where, she later wrote, she was subjected to rats, rape and abuse. That’s the short version.
Farmer, born 100 years ago today, died of esophageal cancer in 1970 just before turning 57. For a time in the late 1950s and 1960s, she achieved renewed success as a TV talk show host in Chicago. But that came only after decades of disastrous episodes during which Farmer became known as defiant, abusive, and even psychotic. The ups and downs of her life have been revisited in articles, books and the film Frances starring Jessica Lange. Farmer herself addressed many of the criticisms and accusations on a 1958 episode of This Is Your Life with Ralph Edwards.
As a young woman growing up in Seattle – daughter of a prominent, mild-mannered lawyer and a headstrong, difficult mother – she was independent, precocious, agnostic and rebellious. She was also talented. A reader of Nietzsche as a teenager, she won an essay contest with a piece called, “God Dies.” She attended the University of Washington, where she studied drama.
After winning a trip to the Soviet Union, Farmer cashed in the return ticket to Seattle and stayed in New York to pursue a career in the theater. She was soon offered a screen test and, on her 22nd birthday, signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and moved to Hollywood.
Her biggest hit was Come and Get It, a 1936 film in which she played both the mother and the daughter to rave reviews from critics and moviegoers. As she found success, she became less malleable, balking at studio demands about whom to date, where to eat, how to party and what to wear. It was downhill from there: second-rate movies, arrests, cancelled contracts, studio disputes, and 10 years of confinement in mental hospitals where she received shock therapy and was eventually pronounced "cured."
From there she worked in hotels – once folding laundry, another time as a receptionist – appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (1957), made her last feature film (The Party Crashers, 1958) and began a successful run as host of Frances Farmer Presents, which aired air six days a week from 1957 through mid-1964.
Frances’s story was published in a posthumous autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? (1972) and reference is frequently made to her tragic tale in popular music .
The grunge rock group Nirvana recorded “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” 20 years after she died. Many other references have been made over the years: by Culture Club in “The Medal Song;” a Tracey Thorn song on Everything but the Girl’s Love Not Money album; and Drive-By Truckers’ song, “Frances Farmer.” The singing duo Romanovsky & Phillips featured Farmer’s picture on their album I Thought You’d Be Taller, which included a song with the lyrics: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)
Farmer was married three times (to actor Leif Erickson, Alfred Lobley and Leland Mikesell) but had no children. She converted to Catholicism in later life and is buried at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens in Indianapolis.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."