There are few celebrities with as colorful, captivating, and crushing lives as Frances Farmer. She was a rebellious spirit in a time that demanded conformity, whose stunning beauty and care-free attitude towards Hollywood, the police, and everything else has inspired countless rebels after her. Farmer’s life was not an easy one, and even in passing, certain rumors about her life—of which there are many—continue to get in the way of those looking for an honest portrayal of the eccentric star. If you came here believing the lobotomy story, prepare to get your facts straight. Here are 42 wild-but-true facts about Hollywood’s rebel superstar, Frances Farmer.
1. An Unsteady Start
At 22, Frances Farmer moved to New York City to pursue stage acting. She ended up signing a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and starring in 15 films instead. Farmer originally wanted to be a journalist and even got her degree in the field, but her mother encouraged her otherwise. Farmer decided to go with it when the contract came but always intended to be on the stage instead of the screen.
Clearly, fate had other things in store for her.
2. Say Cheese
Frances Farmer had dental surgery shortly after signing with Paramount to fix a gap in between her front teeth. This was seen as essential for a rising star at the time, where now it is often desirable in the fashion world for the unique look it gives.
3. First Big Film, First Little Issue
Farmer’s first A-list role was in Rhythm on the Range, where she starred opposite Bing Crosby. This film launched Farmer as a promising new star, garnering very positive reviews. Farmer later confessed that Crosby had been her longtime crush.
4. Addictive Personality
Frances Farmer had an unfortunate addiction to many things she shouldn’t have. She was constantly smoking, and frequently drunk in public, which was the root of many of her issues. This, in conjunction with her schizophrenia, was probably not a good combination.
5. The Drunk Driving Incident
Farmer’s drinking would ultimately lead to her downfall. Farmer was once driving with her headlights on in a wartime blackout zone. The police pulled her over and suspected her of being drunk after she became verbally abusive towards the officers on the scene. She was supposed to go to jail for six months, but the charge was suspended, and she fled to Mexico under the guise of a work project.
6. Further Drunken Charges
Farmer’s alcohol abuse was a constant issue for her, and got her in trouble again in Mexico City, where she went to star in a film that ended up being nothing more than an amateur, unfinished production. While it’s not clear what she did while there, she was charged with drunk and disorderly and sent back to the United States.
Clearly, there was a problem.
7. A Wanted Woman
After being booted from Mexico City, Farmer was put up in a hotel in California by her mother. All was not good, though. She failed to pay her bail in full, and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Of course, the rebel she was, Farmer would not be ready to go peacefully. This would be the event that ultimately led to Farmer’s hospitalization in a sanitarium.
8. Don’t Believe It All
It was long purported that Frances Farmer had undergone a lobotomy while under psychiatric care, but this was found to be false in a court case over copyright infringement against William Arnold, author of the book Shadowland, and the perpetrator of the lie. The lobotomy scene was even included in a film adaptation of the star’s life, Frances, further engraining this lie into peoples’ heads.
Much of Arnold’s book was found to be false, leaving Shadowland to be highly panned.
9. Frances Farmer Presents…
Farmer was once the host of a very popular show named Frances Farmer Presents…, which ran for six years to consistently high ratings. Each episode of the show saw Farmer introducing a different vintage film, as well as interviewing celebrities. This was well after her hospitalization and helped her regain favor in the world’s eyes.
10. A Quiet Yet Rewarding Return
Eventually, Frances quit films and went to work at Purdue University, acting in various productions there. It turns out this was exactly what she needed—a return to her original dream. She said of the experience: “[T]here was a long silent pause as I stood there, followed by the most thunderous applause of my career. [The audience] swept the scandal under the rug with their ovation…”
11. Grunge Queen
Frances Farmer’s inspiration runs deep, not the least of which includes infamous Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Cobain had a fascination with Farmer, and felt inspired by her controversial and myth-filled past and rebellious attitude. In his song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” Cobain compares himself to Farmer.
This song helped solidify Cobain—and Farmer—as an icon of the grunge scene.
12. God Dies, Farmer Prospers
When she was just a senior in high school, Scholastic awarded Farmer a $100 prize for an essay she wrote titled “God Dies.” This was Farmer’s first taste of fame and caused a bit of a stir for some readers. Farmer received at least 100 angry letters about the essay and caused several churches to hold meetings about her essay inspiring “rampant atheism” in the youth.
The incident also led to this charming quote from a Baptist minister: “If the young people of this city are going to hell, Frances Farmer is surely leading them there.” Sounds like a fun guy.
13. A Communist? Not in My City!
Farmer was frequently accused of being a communist. Her essay “God Dies” helped start this fire, while a later incident fanned the flames. In college, Farmer won a trip to the Soviet Union as a prize for selling subscriptions to a left-leaning publication. Her mother tried to discourage her from going, but Farmer accepted and took the trip.
This happened right before signing with Paramount. Farmer was accused of communism continually through her career, which happened parallel with McCarthyism.
14. Famous Family Drama
Farmer married fellow actor Leif Erickson shortly after launching her career. They were married for six years before divorcing. As if to add insult to injury, Erickson remarried another starlet the day the couple divorced. That’s gotta hurt. Fortunately for those rooting for Farmer, Erickson was divorced from his new wife only a year later.
15. Betrayal On-Stage
After starting her film career, Farmer briefly made a switch over to the stage for four years. She was given a starring role in a run of Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, who she started a romance with off stage. The problem? Odets was married. He could not commit to Farmer, and she felt betrayed when Odets decided to end it. Farmer was removed from the production after this, and she understandingly felt pretty used.
16. Couple Flick
Farmer appeared opposite her first husband Leif Erickson on the film Ride a Crooked Mile. This was the only movie they starred in together before divorcing.
17. A Little Musical
Farmer may have been known for her acting, but she was also a talented singer. On a late appearance on the Ed Sullivan show post-hospitalization, she performed two folk songs in her signature deep voice. She also had a singing part in one of her most famous films, Come and Get It. Talk about a multi-talent.
18. Fined by Work
Farmer was set to star in an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Fifth Column but began binge drinking during rehearsals. She was terribly depressed at the time and withdrew from the production. This act awarded her a $1,500 fine from the Theater Guild for unprofessionalism. Who here’s glad regular jobs don’t have fines like that?
Farmer got her start in the acting field in University, acting in various plays. She supported herself in school through odd jobs. Farmer graduated with two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, and another in drama. Say what you want about Farmer, but that takes dedication.
20. True Family
There was only a single protest put forth to get Farmer out of the sanitarium when committed. It was set up by actors from the Group Theater and the Theater Guild in New York. It’s nice that her theatre folk had her back, even through the worst moments in her life, showing where she was truly appreciated.
21. Stop Smoking, We Love You
Farmer died of esophageal cancer at the age of 56. This was found to be caused by her chain-smoking,
22. Jack and Jill, anyone? Norbit?
The most successful film Farmer ever starred in was Come and Get It, in which she played two roles: the mother and daughter characters. This role was originally awarded to starlet Miriam Hopkins, and then Andrea Leeds, but she was finally given to Farmer, who was much less experienced. Talk about lucky!
23. The Horror of Insulin Shock Therapy
While under psychiatric care in the San Fernando Valley, Farmer was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. One of the most standard and accepted treatments for this at the time was not only electroshock therapy, but insulin shock therapy. Insulin shock therapy involved injecting the patient with heavy doses of insulin daily, causing comas.
This treatment was phased out after the 1950s in favor of medications. Farmer claimed to have once gone through this form of therapy for 90 days straight.
24. Deny, Deny, Deny
While trying to revive her career post-hospitalization, Farmer went on talk show This Is Your Life. During the show, the host asked Farmer whether or not she was ever an alcoholic, or whether she used drugs. Farmer gave them a straightforward denial. People didn’t buy it. The rest of the interview didn’t go much better, with Farmer exhibiting strange behavior. It didn’t really help revive her career.
This interview is often used as evidence by those less educated on Farmer’s life that she was lobotomized.
25. The Farmer’s Song
Musicians love Frances Farmer. We already know Kurt Cobain immortalized the starlet in Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge, but he also wrote another song about her titled Letters to Frances. Beyond Cobain, the songs Ugly Little Dreams by Everything but the Girl, and Frances Farmer by Patterson Hood are also about Farmer.
26. The Star Who Would Not Go to Hollywood
Farmer was a true rebel all throughout her life. Even as her fame began to rise, she refused to condone to the usual starlet lifestyle. She declined invitations to Hollywood parties in favor of staying home with her husband at the time, Leif Erickson. Paramount had to go with it and started marketing her as the eccentric star who would not go to Hollywood. As if they really had a choice.
27. Got it from her Mama
Farmer’s mother may have helped inspire the star’s rebellious attitude. Her mother, Lillian Van Ornum Farmer, was known around town for a few extreme things. For one, she would try to get local bakeries closed down that did not serve products she deemed “nutritionally adequate”. She also condemned the Seattle school board for teaching communism in school, or at least, what she saw as Communism.
Farmer’s mother was a true patriot, and even created her own breed of chicken she called the “Bird Americana” that she wanted to replace the eagle as the national bird. Now that’s…interesting.
28. Great Performance, but…
A few films have been made about Farmer’s life, with 1982’s Frances being perhaps the most well-known. Starring Jessica Lange in the titular role, it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. However, the film received generally negative reviews, with people seeing it as too fictionalized.
29. Who is Harry York?
In a film adaptation of Farmer’s life called Frances, a recurring boyfriend of Farmer’s named Harry York continually shows up to give Farmer hope. Unfortunately, York was not a real character in her life and only invented for plot convenience. A man did claim to be Harry York upon the film’s release, but this is highly debated and without any real proof.
30. Throwing Shade
Many actors found it hard to work with Farmer, but continued to do so as she kept getting roles. Actor William Wyler said of working with her, “The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she’s unbearable.” In turn, Farmer compared working with Wyler to “slavery.”
31. Her Own Person
When her film Come and Get it premiered in her hometown, Frances Farmer made it known that she was back with an attitude. A Baptist minister approached her to get a picture with her—it turned out to be the same minister who had earlier talked against her. Farmer said to the minister, “Remember me? I’m the freak from West Seattle High.”
She was also approached by a conservative Congressman who had previously called her out for her communist sympathies, who she fiercely called out for being hypocritical.
32. Finding Frances
For a month in 1941, nobody knew where Frances Farmer went. She completely vanished, and when she finally emerged told a reporter that she was in an isolated cabin in Washington State recuperating. That, however, was not what others claimed. Some said she had suffered a breakdown and was actually at her mother’s house.
Either way, this event helped fuel the rumors that Farmer had lost her mind.
33. Can’t be Tamed
Farmer was deemed mentally competent in 1953. She had her rights restored and got a job doing laundry for a hotel. She married an engineer but then disappeared a year later. She ended up in California as a secretary at a photography studio. Her husband had no idea where she was at this time, and didn’t until Farmer’s parents both died in 1955.
The two divorced shortly after. Talk about a confusing marriage.
34. Troubles Off and On-Stage
Although she craved stage work, her performances were not always well-received. Reviews for her performance in Golden Boy were mixed, and her next play Thunder Rock was also panned. These reviews left her depressed and feeling used for her star power. It wasn’t until starring in plays later in life when things had quieted down, that she seemed to find true happiness on the stage.
35. A Strict No-Farmer Agenda
When Farmer was in Mexico City before her eventual arrest, it was reported incorrectly that she had been put in a “sanitarium” after she’d been deported back to the US. Farmer said that this was not actually the case, but many people had already made up their minds. On top of that, the press was only willing to report on Farmer’s flaws.
Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter at the time who was blacklisted from Hollywood for being an alleged communist sympathizer, said of Farmer and the way they reported her story, “You have to realize that they were out to get Frances, and she knew it.” Trumbo knew the more powerful wanted her out of the picture partly for her alleged communist sympathies.
In the McCarthy era, it was a pretty serious offense!
36. Shadowland no More
After Jeffrey Kauffman saw the film Frances, he became fascinated by her. He has spent a lot of time since trying to clear up her story and separate fact from fiction through an article on his site, appropriately titled Shedding Light on Shadowland. In the article, he debunks all false claims from the book Shadowland and beyond.
Kauffman has gone much farther than most, and gained access to exclusive medical records, and first-person stories from people involved in Farmer’s life. A read through his article just goes to show how deep the myths of France Farmer run.
37. Fight Night
One of the most infamous Farmer stories involves her getting into a fight with a hairdresser and subsequently running down Sunset Boulevard topless. Oh, and that night she also got into a bar fight. That’s a pretty wild night.
38. The Great Escape
In early 1943, Farmer was put in a mental hospital for her increasingly erratic behavior. She would only stay a short time, however, as she managed to escape this institute after nine months by scaling a wall. She ran to her half-sister’s home and called her mother to tell her about the horrible things they’d been doing to her in the hospital, such as electro- and insulin shock therapy.
At this time, Farmer was not legally declared insane, so her mother was able to get her out of there and took her in temporarily.
39. Cured! Wait…
Farmer was officially declared sane in 1944, but the trouble didn’t stop there. She was arrested for vagrancy shortly after and sent to her aunt’s ranch. She ran away and was found days later in a theatre. She was sent for another sanity hearing and recommitted. She was there for the next five years in the ward for violent patients. Talk about a tease.
40. A Chilly Arrest
When Farmer was arrested at the Knickerbocker Hotel, she resisted in typical Farmer fashion, making everything generally difficult for police. In fact, she was dragged out of the hotel room completely naked and brought back to the station, as she wouldn’t cooperate.
41. Eff the Police
Farmer’s hearing was anything but boring. She began acting very strangely at her hearing and assaulted professionals further. She claimed the cops were violating her rights and threw an inkwell at the judge. During the hearing, she admitted to drinking and drug use, and ended the whole thing by knocking down a policeman while being escorted out.
Talk about disrespect for authority!
42. Worse Than It Seemed
Before she passed, Farmer was working on an autobiography titled Will There Really Be a Morning? In the book, she describes her time in the hospital in great, horrific detail. She claimed that she was abused while there, including being half-drowned in ice baths and being made to eat her own feces. Her autobiography was published after her passing with an extra chapter added about Farmer’s death.
It proves a shocking look into the troubled star’s life.