Frances Farmer was born in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Lillian (née Van Ornum 1873-1955) 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”. 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.” 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. Frances Farmer’s interest in such topics fostered speculations that Farmer was not only an atheist, but a Communist as well. Frances 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.
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. 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. Frances 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.
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. Meanwhile, her marriage to Erickson had disintegrated and ended in divorce in 1942.
On October 19, 1942, Farmer was stopped by Santa Monica Police for driving with her headlights on bright in the wartime blackout zone that affected most of the West Coast. Some reports say she was unable to produce a driver’s license and was verbally abusive. The police suspected her of being drunk and she was jailed overnight. Farmer was fined $500 and given a 180-day suspended sentence. She immediately paid $250 and was put on probation. By January 1943, she failed to pay the rest of the fine and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. At almost 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. Getting no answer, they entered her room with a pass key. They reportedly found her in bed (some stories include an episode involving the bathroom) and made her dress quickly. “By all accounts, she did not surrender peacefully.” At her hearing the next morning, she behaved erratically. She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge. He immediately sentenced her to 180 days in jail. She knocked down a policeman and bruised another, along with a matron. She ran to a phone booth where she tried to call her attorney, but was subdued by the police. They physically carried her away as she shouted, “Have you ever had a broken heart?” Newspaper reports gave sensationalized accounts of her arrest. Through the efforts of her sister-in-law, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of L.A. General Hospital. There she was diagnosed with “manic depressive psychosis”.
Within days, having been sent to the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, Farmer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was given insulin shock therapy, a treatment then accepted as standard psychiatric procedure. The side effects included intense nausea. Her family later claimed they did not give their consent to the treatment, as documented in her sister’s self-published book, Look Back in Love, and in court records. The sanitarium was a minimum-security facility. After about nine months, Farmer walked away one afternoon and went to her half-sister Rita’s house, over 20 miles away. The pair called their mother in Seattle to complain about the insulin treatment. Lillian Farmer traveled to California and began a lengthy legal battle to have guardianship of her daughter transferred from the state of California to her. Although several psychiatrists testified that Farmer needed further treatment, her mother prevailed. The two of them left Los Angeles by train on September 13, 1943. Frances Farmer moved back in with her parents in West Seattle, but she and her mother fought bitterly. Within six months, Farmer physically attacked her mother. Her mother then had Frances committed to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington.Three months later, during the summer of 1944, she was pronounced “completely cured” and released. While traveling with her father to visit at an aunt’s ranch in Reno, Nevada, Farmer ran away. She spent time with a family who had picked her up hitchhiking, but she was eventually arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California. Her arrest received wide publicity. Offers of help came in from across the country, but Farmer ignored them all. After a long stay with her aunt in Nevada, Farmer went back to her parents. At her mother’s request, at age 31, Farmer was recommitted to Western State Hospital in May 1945 and remained there almost five years, with the exception of a brief parole in 1946. Frances Farmer died from esophageal cancer on August 1, 1970. She is interred at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fishers, Indiana.
- September, 19, 1913
- Seattle, Washington
- August, 01, 1970
- Indianapolis, Indiana
Cause of Death
- esophageal cancer
- Oaklawn Memorial Gardens
- Fishers, Indiana