The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of Frances Farmer

The life of actress Frances Farmer has been subject to dramatic fictionalization. But the truth of her life is much darker.

Frances Farmer

Wikimedia Commons Frances Farmer

In 1935, Seattle native Frances Farmer made an incredibly consequential decision: The 22-year-old moved to New York, where she hoped to launch her theater career. While more interested in stage acting, Farmer ended up signing a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, and from 1936 to 1958 appeared in 15 films alongside stars like Bing Crosby and Cary Grant.

She still wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, however, and thus traveled to upstate New York to participate in summer stock, where she caught the attention of playwright and director Clifford Odets.

He offered her a part in his play, Golden Boy. Reviewers on the play’s national tour praised Farmer, and she continued to work in the theater, spending only a few months out of the year in Los Angeles making movies.

Things Fall Apart

In 1942, however, Farmer’s life began to fall apart. In June, she and her first husband divorced. Next, after refusing to take a role in Take A Letter, Darling, Paramount suspended her contract. On October 19, Farmer was arrested for driving drunk with the car’s headlights on during a wartime blackout.

Police fined Farmer $500, and the judge forbade her from drinking. But Farmer still hadn’t paid the rest of her fine by 1943, and on January 6, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest. On January 14, police tracked her down at the Knickerbocker Hotel — where she had been sleeping naked and drunk — and forced her to surrender to police custody.

According to the Evening Independent, Farmer admitted she had been drinking “everything I could get my hands on, including Benzedrine.” The judge sentenced her to 180 days in jail.

Newspapers captured the gritty details of Farmer’s violent behavior. Wrote the Independent: She “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 then had to remove Farmer’s shoes as they carried her off to her cell, to prevent injury as she kicked them.


Wikimedia Commons

Farmer’s sister-in-law, who was present at the sentencing, decided that committing Farmer to a psychiatric hospital would be preferable to imprisonment. Thus Farmer was transferred to California’s Kimball Sanitarium, where she spent nine months.

Farmer’s mother, Lillian, then traveled to Los Angeles, where a judge awarded her guardianship over Farmer. The two returned to Seattle. Things didn’t get much better for Farmer: On March 24, 1944, Lillian had her daughter committed yet again, this time to Western State Hospital. Farmer was released three months later, supposedly cured.

Her freedom was short lived. Farmer’s mother sent her back to the hospital in May 1945, and though she was paroled briefly in 1946, Farmer would remain institutionalized at Western State Hospital for almost five more years.

Hat Binders


It was Farmer’s time here — and author William Arnold’s 1978 book on it, Shadowland — that contributed most to her enduring legacy, however factually flawed. In the book, which Arnold claimed was a biography, he writes that Western State doctors performed a lobotomy on Farmer.

But in a 1983 court case over copyright infringement related to the book’s film adaptation, Arnold admitted that he made the story up, and the presiding judge ruled that “portions of the book were fabricated by Arnold from whole cloth despite the subsequent release of the book as nonfiction.”

But the damage was done. Frances, the film adaptation starring Jessica Lange, included Farmer’s lobotomy. Fiction, for all intents and purposes, became fact.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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