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The Sad Life and Death of Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer was an American actress and television hostess, acclaimed by Cecil B. de Mille as the screen’s outstanding find of 1936 and by Howard Hawks as the greatest actress he had ever worked with. She appeared in over a dozen feature films over the course of her career. Despite this, she became more well known for the various sensationalized accounts of her life, in particular her involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals, as well as her substance addiction.

The life of actress Frances Farmer has been subject to dramatic fictionalization. But the truth of her life is much darker. So join us as we take a look at the truth behind the legacy and death of Frances Farmer.

How Frances Farmer’s career began

It was in 1935 that Frances Farmer made an incredibly significant decision. At 22 years of age, Farmer moved from Seattle to New York. This was in the hopes of launching a successful career in theater. Farmer always more interested in stage acting, but she ended up signed into a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. From 1936 to 1958, Farmer appeared in 15 films alongside stars like Cary Grant and Bing Crosby.

With the desire of being taken seriously as an actress, she traveled to upstate New York in order to participate in summer stock. It was here that she caught the attention of American playwright, director and screenwriter, Clifford Odets. He offered Farmer a part in his play, Golden Boy. She praised in the reviews of the play’s national tour, enabling her to continue her work in the theater. Due to this, she spent only a few months of the year making movies in Los Angeles.

Things Fall Apart For Frances Farmer

Unfortunately, in 1942, Frances Farmer’s life began to fall apart. In June, she and her first husband, stage, film, and television actor, Leif Erickson divorced. Next, her contract with Paramount suspended due to her refusing to take a role in Take A Letter, Darling. Farmer then arrested on October 19th for driving under the influence with the car’s headlights on during a wartime blackout.

She was fined $500 by the police, and the judge forbade her from drinking. By 1943, Farmer hadn’t paid the entirety of her fine, and on January 6th, a warrant issued by a judge for her arrest. Police managed to track her down at the Knickerbocker Hotel on January 14th. She was taken into police custody. Farmer had apparently admitted that she had been drinking everything she could get my hands on. The judge sentenced her to 180 days in jail.

Newspapers were quick to detail her apparent violent behavior. It said that Farmer floored a matron, bruised an officer, and suffered some rufflement on her own part, when police refused to let her use a telephone after her sentencing. Matrons even had to remove Farmer’s shoes as they carried away to her cell, in order to prevent injury as she kicked them.

Farmer’s sister-in-law attended the sentencing. She decided that it’s best to commit Farmer to a psychiatric hospital rather than being condemned to imprisonment. Thanks to her sister-in-law, Farmer transferred to California’s Kimball Sanitarium. She spent nine months there.

Farmer’s mother, Lillian, then traveled to Los Angeles, where a judge awarded her guardianship over her daughter. After this, they both returned to where Farmer grew up, Seattle. On March 24th, 1944, Lillian had her daughter committed yet again. She released after three months, having supposedly been cured. Join us as we take a look at the truth behind the legacy and death of Frances Farmer.

But sadly, things began to escalate as Farmer’s mother sent her back to the hospital in May 1945. Farmer paroled briefly in 1946, but would remain institutionalized at Western State Hospital for almost five more years.

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Frances Farmer’s false lobotomy

Author William Arnold focused on Frances Farmer’s time institutionalized for his non-fiction book titled Shadowland. It was this book that contributed to the most enduring parts of Farmer’s legacy, despite how factually flawed the book actually was. Arnold claimed the book was a biography, and in it he wrote that Western State doctors performed a lobotomy on Farmer.

While there many people interested in Farmer’s story, they would have inevitably looked at Shadowland for the real-life story. This would’ve also been the case with the movie based on Farmer’s rise and fall in Hollywood, titled Frances. The movie released in 1982 and starred Jessica Lange as Farmer. Arnold ended up suing Brooksfilms, the producers of the movie by claiming that the film was based on his book.

What came most shocking to everyone was that the basis of Arnold’s claim against Brooksfilms was that Arnold claimed the book was not entirely based on public record fact. In fact, he claimed that it fictionalized. One specific thing that fiction created by Arnold was that Farmer underwent a lobotomy. The judge was strong against Arnold, taking him to task for writing and marketing his book as nonfiction, but then later claiming that it really wasn’t. Join us as we take a look at the truth behind the legacy and death of Frances Farmer.

The judge denied Arnold’s claim of copyright infringement. But the damage was done. Since the film Frances included Farmer’s lobotomy. Fiction, for all intents and purposes, became fact.

The Truth Of Frances Farmer’s Life

It was the less lurid version of the tale that went relatively unnoticed. Farmer’s sister, Edith Elliot, wrote her own account of her sibling’s life in the self-published book, Look Back In Love. In the book, Elliot wrote that their father visited Western State Hospital in 1947. He was just in time to stop the lobotomy. According to Elliot, their father stated that if they tried any of their guinea pig operations on her, they would have a danged big lawsuit on their hands. While Farmer didn’t suffer through a lobotomy, there were other acts of abuse that she did endure.

In Farmer’s posthumously published autobiography, Will There Really Be A Morning?, she wrote that she’s raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats and poisoned by tainted food, chained in padded cells, strapped into straitjackets and half drowned in ice baths.

But the truth of Farmer’s own account of her life is still questionable. This is mainly due to Farmer not finishing the book herself but her close friend, Jean Ratcliffe, finishing it. Some believe that Ratcliffe may have embellished parts of the book in order to fulfill the requirements of the publisher, who had given Farmer a large advance before her death in 1970.

A newspaper report in 1983 even claimed that Ratcliffe intentionally made the story more dramatic in hopes of securing a movie deal. Either way, one thing is for certain, Farmer released from Western State Hospital, on March 25th, 1950.

Frances Farmer Wrestles Back Control

Concerned that her mother might institutionalize her again, Frances Farmer fought to have Lillian’s guardianship removed. In 1953, a judge agreed that she could indeed take care of herself, and legally restored her competency. Farmer then moved to Eureka, California after the death of her parents. There she became a bookkeeper. She then connected with television executive Leland Mikesell whom she would eventually marry and later divorce. Mikesell convinced her to return to television.

In 1957, Farmer moved again, this time to San Francisco with the help of Mikesell and began her comeback tour. She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, an American television variety show hosted by New York entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan. While still determined to become a stage actress, Frances Farmer returned to the theater, and even made another movie. Join us as we take a look at the truth behind the legacy and death of Frances Farmer.

An opportunity to continue working in the theater took her to Indianapolis. While there, an NBC affiliate offered her a superb opportunity to host a daily series that showcased vintage films. Frances Farmer eagerly accepted. In 1962, Farmer penned a letter to her sister, and stated that she had enjoyed the last few weeks so much in a quiet and settled way. She believed that she had never felt better in her life.

While things seemed to be more positive for Farmer, she still struggled with alcohol abuse, and after a couple of DUI citations, on top of a drunk on-camera appearance, Farmer was fired. While this was a struggle, it did not deter her from acting. She took on several roles in productions at Purdue University, where she served as actress-in-residence. Farmer claimed that the Purdue productions were some of the best and most fulfilling works of her career. Join us as we take a look at the truth behind the legacy and death of Frances Farmer.

Farmer was diagnosed with esophageal cancer In 1970. She died in August of that year at the age of 56. Her story filled with equal parts true despair and devastating fallacy, that formed an unusual and sometimes misunderstood legacy. Frances Farmer’s life would inspire the more macabre, including the songs of Kurt Cobain, who suffered with his own struggles that mirrored those of Hollywood’s fallen angel.

Frances Farmer was undoubtedly a deeply troubled woman who suffered greatly in her life. The relatively primitive conditions of the institution system, as well as the equally primitive therapies used in those days, no doubt worsened rather than helped her issues. Taking that into account, was Frances Farmer a victim of the times, and the misunderstandings of mental illness and substance abuse? Or was she her own worst enemy and unable to get her life in order?

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