Frances Elena Farmer was born on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington. After her parents separated, Frances and her siblings moved to Los Angeles to be near their aunt in 1917. By 1919 the Farmer children were back in Seattle with their father with their mother returning in 1920. In 1929, Frances’ parents finally got divorced. A gifted writer, Frances won a $100 prize for her essay, “God Dies” in 1931. That same year, Frances enrolled at the University of Washington where she took a series of odd-jobs to pay her tuition. In 1935, Frances won the grand prize of a trip to Russia. Despite objections from her family, Frances took the trip after graduating from UoW with a bachelors in drama and journalism.
After her return, Frances moved to New York in the hopes of starting a Broadway career. She was soon spotted by Paramount and offered a seven year contract. Signing her new contract on September 19, 1935, Frances soon moved to Hollywood. Frances was considered a bit difficult. She was frequently rude to Paramount’s staff, would not make appearances, despised the publicity office, and would not let the studio control her life. Frances was frequently described at “temperamental.” In 1936, Frances married Lief Erickson.
Frances’ World Crashes
October 19, 1942 was the night that began Frances’ downfall. She was pulled over for driving with her brights on in a blackout zone. It was found that she was drunk.
Her case went away quietly but she was ordered to pay a $500 fine. By January of 1943, Frances still had not paid her fine and a warrant for her arrest was issued. Police found Frances in the Knickerbocker Hotel. She was nude and defiant. After being forcibly clothed and dragged out, Frances faced a judge. She proceeded to throw an inkwell at him, assaulted two police officers, and started screaming about the violation of her civil rights. She was sentenced to 180 days in jail but spent that time in a mental hospital where she would remain until August of 1943. In August, Frances walked over 20 miles to her half-sister’s home to complain about her insulin shock therapy. The sisters then called their mother who started proceedings to get Francis released into her care.
By April of 1944, Frances attacked her mother and was placed in a Washington mental hospital. She was released a few months later.
Within a few weeks Frances ran away…
July 29, 1944
Frances was eventually recommitted and would not be released until 1951. The writer of Shadowland, William Arnold, makes the startling claim that Frances was lobotomized. This is NOT TRUE. Arnold himself has admitted the book fictionalized, akin to Norman Mailer on Marilyn Monroe. Jeffrey Kauffman has done a wonderful article on Frances and Arnold’s book which you can read here.
“Arnold’s assertion that the many therapies (including lobotomy) that Frances allegedly endured ignores the fact that Lillian would have had to approve them. The Farmers have consistently maintained that Lillian (and Ernest) Farmer were very directly involved in approving any and all therapies used on Frances, and that lobotomy was specifically rejected as even a possibility” – Jeffrey Kauffman
After her release in 1951, Frances lived a relatively tranquil life. She was married two more times and even attempted a comeback in 1957 that was not successful. She would go on to host a television show called Frances Farmer Presents that lasted until 1964. She attempted to start a makeup company but after a partner embezzled funds, the project was abandoned. Sadly, Frances passed away on August 3, 1970 at only 56 from esophageal cancer.
Overall, Frances led a traumatic life and was a troubled individual but she is immortal on the screen. Please check her out in The Toast of New York and Badlands of Dakota.
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