By Kendahl Cruver
Farmer was born before her time. Her rebellious nature would have blended in had
she been young during the sixties, but as a Hollywood actress in the thirties
and forties, she got herself into troubles so deep that she never did overcome
Born September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, she lived with her parents
Ernest and Lillian, brother Wesley, sister Edith, and half-sister Rita.
As a high school junior, Farmer first came into the public eye when she won an
essay contest with her controversial piece, "God Dies". After high school she
enrolled in the University of Washington. Though she planned to study
journalism, she quickly realized she was more interested in the drama
department. As the star of several productions, her talent was recognized from
Farmer made the papers again when she won the Voice of Action newspaper
subscription contest. Her prize was a trip to Russia; the press assumed she had
become a communist. During a brief stay in New York after her trip, a Paramount
Pictures talent scout invited her to make a screen test. Though Farmer wanted to
perform on the stage, she was willing to take any opportunity to make her name
as an actress. She signed a seven-year contract.
Suddenly, the former college student was starring with Bing Crosby in Rhythm on
the Range (1936). Soon after, she gave her best performance in a dual role for
Come and Get It. With a total of four films under her belt by the end of the
year, the press announced that Frances Farmer was the find of 1936. That year
she also married actor Leif Erickson.
Despite her success in Hollywood, Farmer quickly came to despise acting in
movies; she still wanted work on the stage. In 1937, she got her wish when she
joined the Group Theater in New York. That year, she played appeared in Golden
Boy. She also had a brief, ill-fated affair with the play's author Clifford Odets.
When Farmer was reluctantly summoned back to Hollywood, she continued to make
movies, but refused to accept the townís social and professional conventions.
She felt that being a movie actress degraded her and she had no desire to fit
in. She was also becoming increasingly paranoid and short-tempered.
The studio did not hesitate to punish her rebellion. She went from starring in
movies such as The Toast of New York and Ebb Tide (both 1937), to supporting
Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in
Son of Fury (1942). She was also divorced from
Erickson in 1942. Still, this was only the start of Farmerís troubles.
Later in 1942, life changed dramatically for Farmer when she was arrested for
driving drunk and using her lights in a dim-out zone. She was sentenced to 180
days in prison, though she soon received probation. In 1943, she violated her
probation and was arrested again. She did not give herself up without a fight
and the tawdry photos of her struggle with the arresting officers have become a
legend of the dark side of Hollywood.
Farmerís mother attributed her rebellion to mental illness and had her committed
to a state hospital in Washington. When she was released a few years later, her
mother was not satisfied with her rehabilitation and had her committed again in
For the next five years, Farmer lived a hellish existence. Resisting her
imprisonment every step of the way, she endured rape, humiliation, shock therapy
and hydrotherapy. Before her release, she also presumably underwent a
Released in 1950, Farmer returned to Seattle to take care of her aging parents.
A year later, she married Alfred Lobley. They divorced in 1958 and she married
Leland Mikesell the same year. Though they would remain married the rest of her
life, Farmer did not live with her husband for long.
Unable to find acting work, Farmer took a series of menial jobs. She also began
to drink heavily. There was a media explosion in 1957 when a reporter discovered
her working at the counter of a hotel.
Now a rediscovered Hollywood oddity, Farmer was invited to appear on This is
Your Life. On the show, she was markedly more subdued and less alert than she
had been in her Hollywood years. She then moved to Indianapolis where she hosted
her own local program, called Frances Farmer Presents, for six years.
In 1968, Farmer wrote "Will There Really Be a Morning?", her autobiography, with
her friend Lois Kibbee. Though there has been some skepticism over whether the
book was true or if Kibbee took a bit too much artistic license, the explicit
stories of Farmerís life in the mental hospital shocked the public.
When Farmer died from cancer of the esophagus on August 1, 1970, she was
remembered for her early Hollywood scandals and the horror story she had told in
her autobiography. Her promising early movie roles had been forgotten.
In the years since, Farmer has become a cult figure. Two movies, the television
biography, Will There Really Be a Morning, and the theatrical production,
Frances, were released in 1982. Farmer has also been remembered in songs by Kurt
Cobain and Stephen Cush. She has even been the subject of a rock opera.
Frances Farmer is sure to remain a curiosity for movie fans. Ironically, her
acting will probably always come second to the drama of her real life.
Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about
classic actresses for