Searching for Frances Farmer, the lost Atheist: a chance encounter with a Hollywood biography reveals an Atheist heroine and leads to a search for the truth about the life of actress and political rebel Frances Farmer
Conrad F. Goeringer
It was around 1988, while I was in the used book and antiquarian book trade, when a copy of a biography written by William Arnold titled Shadowland crossed my desk. It was about an actress, and her name was Frances Farmer.
I probably would have just thumbed through the pages, looked up the price, and placed it with a pile of other books waiting their turn to be shelved. But something caught my eye. There were references to labor strikes and political radicalism in the thirties. There were also provocative and disturbing photographs. One showed a young high school student, Frances Farmer. The caption noted that she won national attention for penning an essay entitled “God Dies.” In another shot of Farmer, taken just a few years later, she stands on the deck of a ship leaving on a trip to the Soviet Union. There were pictures of her performing on stage and screen; of her with her parents; some showed her being arrested, defiant, fighting the police. Several were of a gruesome medical procedure, a prefrontal lobotomy. A woman was secured on a gurney, people clustered around watching as a lone practitioner seems to wield a small hammer, ready to shove an instrument of some kind into the woman’s skull.
What was going on?
I began reading Shadlowland, and stayed up most of that night to finish it, and in the morning called the American Atheist Center in Texas and talked to Madalyn O’Hair and Robin Murray-O’Hair. Did they know anything about a woman named Frances Farmer, and a half-century old essay contest that stunned Seattle and much of the nation? If anyone had information about this, it would likely be the O’Hairs. They had spent years collecting and writing about the history of Atheism and Freethought. Yes, the name was somewhat familiar, but incredibly even they did not know much. “Frances Farmer–wasn’t she some actress?” This would be the beginning of a pattern that would emerge over the following years as I tried to delve into the life of this enigmatic woman. So many of the people I would end up talking to, people who might know something about Farmer, had only hints, rumors, slivers of what could be the truth.
“Didn’t she go crazy?”
Or, “Wasn’t she the one given a lobotomy? Just terrible …”
And there was a quote from a newspaper columnist, “What happened to Frances Farmer shouldn’t happen to anyone …”
I was later to learn that some of the claims presented in William Arnold’s book were inaccurate, others supported by only a gossamer web of circumstantial evidence. Shadowland did not have an index, it lacked footnotes, and it provided readers with little to document much of the story Arnold was trying to convey. There were also nagging problems with whole parts of this book, like the claim that Frances Farmer was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of legal justice and medical ethics, that this rebellious, strong-willed, out-spoken and independent-minded woman had been lobotomized to silence her. And there was so much omitted, or glossed over. I wanted to know more about Farmer as an Atheist heretic who as a young girl devoured philosophy, especially the works of Frederick Nietzsche. I wanted to know more about Farmer the feminist; about Farmer the political rebel of the Popular Front era in American History.
Frances Farmer was born on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, the third child of Lillian Van Ornum and Ernest Melvin Farmer. If there was any hint of this baby’s future, it might have been the Van Ornum legacy. Her grandfather was Zacheus Van Ornum, born in 1828, and later part of a wave of immigrants moving west in the early nineteenth century. He became a trail scout and translator for hire. He was also an ardent heretic and freethinker, maybe an out-and-out Atheist, and a vocal defender of the ideas of Charles Darwin. By one family account, Van Ornum would silently lead his family brood into a church, listen quietly to the ranting of the preacher–and when he had heard enough (sometimes, it is hinted, with firearm in hand), seize the podium and lecture the credulous congregation on the enlightened findings of science and the insights of Darwinism.
Frances’ father was an attorney who apparently engaged in numerous failed business enterprises. Her mother Lillian has been described as a strong-willed, eccentric, and dominating woman, often a mass of contradictions,. There was conflict between her parents and eventual separation; but one idea the young and head-strong Frances Farmer learned at an early age was this: stand by your convictions, stand up for your ideas, and she did just that.
She was a precocious child. She was also a voracious reader throughout her life. In her teenage years Farmer was studying a good deal of weighty philosophy, particularly the works of Frederick Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche, that most misunderstood of thinkers, who proclaimed the death of god, the consequent emancipation of humanity, and the embrace of creative vitality. For Nietzsche, it was we–humanity–who impose a rational order, meaning, and values on the universe, not the gods be they Christian, Greek, or any others. Years later, as she was becoming one of the reigning queens of the Hollywood scene, studio photographs would show an elegant Frances Farmer pensively reading at home, a full bookcase of classic works in the background.
Frances took this message of Atheism to heart. In 1931 she was attending West Seattle High School and was a student in a creative writing class taught by a woman named Belle McKenzie. She was already “breaking the mold” in so many aspects, including gender. The 1930 yearbook from West Seattle High shows her as one of the few leading female figures in the Debate Club. There she is, the last figure in the front row, staring at the camera, brooding, serious. A portent of things to come?
As part of a class competition, Farmer wrote an essay titled “God Dies.” It recounted how she had lost a new hat and prayed to God in order to find it, which she did. This exuberant, initial faith in a benevolent and helpful household deity is shattered when she learns about the deaths of a classmate’s parents. She naturally becomes outraged at the injustice and unfairness of it all. She wrote that prior to this tragedy, God had become a “Super father” responding to her prayer.
“That satisfied me,” she revealed, “until I began to figure out that if God loved me and all His children equally, why did he bother about my hat and let other children lose their fathers and mothers for always?”
“God was gone,” a young and questioning Frances Farmer concluded.
Years later, a writer for Christianity Today in reviewing the 1982 film Frances praised Frances Farmer for her commitment to social justice, but described her essay as “adolescent.” The subtext here is that Farmer’s questioning and enlightenment regarding the existence of God was nothing more than ideational puberty so to speak, something to be dismissed, the mere Angst of a young girl, and nothing more substantive.
It was anything but. For those who have made this sort of philosophical hegira, this journey, Nietzsche, other writers, even Framer’s essay speaks evocatively to us. Farmer was talking about theodicy, the problem of evil in a world supposedly conjured and presided over by an all-benevolent, powerful God. Theodicy remains a significant and nagging obstacle to any thinking person arguing for the existence of any omniscient, altruistic deity.
Even at the age of 16, Frances Farmer had it right. And so did a lot of other people. Lively letters being exchanged in Seattle newspaper op-ed pages debated the existence of God, the tenets of evolution, and the veracity of the Bible. Farmer’s essay received national attention when it was submitted to the National Scholastic Magazine. She won first place in this nationwide writing contest, and in late April, 1931, the news was carried by the Associated Press.
It caused an uproar, especially in Seattle and in the Farmer household. One local headline read SEATTLE GIRL DENIES GOD AND WINS PRIZE. Churches throughout the city organized prayer meetings to deal with the threat of so-called “rampant atheism” in the classroom. A local Baptist minister declared: “If the young people of this city are going to hell, Frances Farmer is surely leading them there …”
After high school, Farmer entered the University of Washington to study journalism. She soon became involved in campus politics. A picture from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of 11/18/31 shows Farmer and a group of other women trying to mobilize coeds on campus to achieve more of a role in the student government.
In 1935, Farmer is in trouble and in the headlines again. At the University of Washington she had begun attending meetings of various radical political groups, just as another generation of young people would in the 1960s or even today, and the students and faculty at schools across the country were arguing the great issues of that era. The nation was struggling to emerge from the desperation and grinding poverty of the Depression. Even in the early thirties there were profound fears of a war in Europe that might drag the United States into a bloody conflict reminiscent of the first World War. Totalitarian ideologies were emerging on both the left and right, people were choosing sides, (some people felt that there were only two sides), and many like Lillian Farmer were deathly fearful of anything said to be linked to communism and socialism. They especially opposed labor unions; and there was plenty of labor unrest in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle was a flashpoint for all of this; the newspapers and other accounts of the era reflect a proliferation of labor strikes, and the emergence of radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies.”
Frances was not only very bright, she was very socially aware, and she was particularly interested in what was happening internationally. Along with the emergence of totalitarian ideologies, people in the United States were also concerned about the looming possibility of a second global war. This colored so many perceptions. The gory visions of trench warfare and horrific death tolls among combatants and innocent civilians were still resonating in the public consciousness. Conservatives argued that Europe should be left to its own fate, and this fueled the rise of an isolationist movement. On the left, there were the twin fears of another war and the rise of Fascism. In 1936, a military coup that had been in preparation for some time directed by General Francisco Franco erupted against the Spanish Republican government. Nazi Germany poured military and other resources into the conflict; the Soviet Union assisted on behalf of the Republican side. Many, perhaps naively, felt that if Hitler could be stopped in Spain, this would somehow check the fascist juggernaut in Europe. This is the time of the beginning of the so-called “Popular Front.” The term has many definitions, but in the broadest sense it describes the very broad and even at times disparate coalition that emerges in Europe and the United States to form a united barricade or front against Fascism.
The Spanish conflict involved a myriad of political factions, from liberal Republicans to Communists, socialists, anarchists, and thousands of volunteers from throughout the world who became known as the International Brigades. The Republican cause generated support from many different people, for a lot of different reasons, and Frances Farmer was one of them.
Franco was backed by a combination of Royalists, wealthy feudal land owners and the Roman Catholic Church–which had been reined in by the Republican government. The Atheist writer Joseph McCabe, one of the founders of the British Rationalist Press Association, wrote about the Spanish conflict, and diligently documented alliances of convenience between the Nazis, the Italian Fascists and, of course, the Vatican. In Spain, one of the explicit goals of the Republic was the separation of church and state. The church had become one of the wealthiest land owners, it controlled the educational system, it exercised enormous political and cultural power, and it even organized its own political party. The Republican government had begun to reverse all of that as it released political prisoners, worked to re-establish nonsectarian public schools, initiate a program of land reform, establish minimum wages and abolish child labor–so many of the civilized things we take for granted today. Some of the flavor of the time is reflected in a picture from the magazine Photo-History, a popular-front journal published in the 1930s. It shows Jose Maria Gil Robles; the caption identifies him as head of the Roman Catholic political party, Accion Popular. He was the man who appointed Gen. Francisco Franco as Army Chief of Staff and “opposed separation of Church and State, lay public schools, equal rights for women and land reform.” Robles is aptly described as “Spain’s would-be Mussolini.”
At the University of Washington, Farmer–to the dismay of her mother and sister–had taken up with students in the drama and art department. They frequented radical meetings, circulated petitions supporting the Spanish Republican cause or labor strikes, and talked about political issues. Farmer was also growing weary of journalism, and she awakened her interest in theater work. At this time, cutting-edge dramatists were enraptured by the so-called Stanislavsky method of acting. It demanded that actors subsume themselves in their roles, psychologically and emotionally identifying with their characters toward the goal of creating a “more authentic” and realistic portrayal. There had been a political revolution in Russia, and Moscow was the center of this artistic and dramatic revolution as well. Farmer had already played a role in the 1935 production of Sidney Howard’s play Alien Corn where she won critical praise. She soon announced her intention to make a career on stage, and she wanted to act with the radical avant-garde troupe known as The Group Theater operating in New York. It was a lofty goal for the strong willed, headstrong and beautiful college girl who wanted to become a maven on the American stage.
But how to get there?
It happened that one of the local radical papers in Seattle, the Voice Of Action was sponsoring a subscription drive with the winner receiving a free trip to Russia via New York. Friends in the drama department threw themselves into the contest and Frances Farmer suddenly found herself heading for the Soviet Union, and again at the center of public controversy.
The girl who proclaimed the death of God was now heading for the bastion of Bolshevism, much to the dismay of the Seattle establishment. Lillian Farmer didn’t like any of this either, and made her views known to the local and national press. She also demonstrated little faith in her rebellious daughter, declaring that Frances might not return from the excursion or, if she did, would be some kind of a brainwashed lackey. Frances was more realistic; she wanted to study the theater in Russia, and then remain in New York in hopes of fulfilling her stage ambitions. Lillian meantime continued to excoriate her strong-willed daughter in public, warning newspaper reporters that something needed to be done to sanitize the University campuses of the nation from the menace of communism.
Off she went anyway, and we have various and conflicting accounts of her impressions. A somewhat questionable ersatz autobiography reports that Farmer found the Soviet Union to be a drab, endless procession of soldiers, sweating horses, and silk banners with slogans. She quarreled with the editors back at the Voice when they demanded that she write glowing accounts about her trip. There are even unsubstantiated accounts that she was an honored guest at the May Day Parade of 1935, stood shoulder to shoulder with the apparatchiks of the Soviet regime, and argued with Josef Stalin.
But the real story here was her return through New York. She moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village with a friend and began looking for work in the theater. She ended up enlisting a talent agent, and then met Oscar Serlin who was the local talent chief for Paramount. It was soon clear that Frances Farmer was a potential “hot property” destined for stardom.
She still yearned to work on the stage, considering it to be a “purer” form of dramatic expression. Hollywood could make that dream possible, though, and performing on the silver screen would pay the bills.
Paramount and other major studios operated a virtual assembly line or ‘mill’ grinding out potential stars, and Frances was thrown into the breech. She was coiffed and trimmed and given screen tests, and in January, 1936, she got her first role in the film Too Many Parents. The Seattle press and elite and clergy who had denounced her so vehemently for her Atheism and radical views suddenly were ranting and raving about Frances Farmer. Lillian Farmer basked in the reflected glow of this notoriety, especially later when it was announced that her daughter would marry a leading man named Wycliffe Anderson–his screen name is Leif Erickson. He later became famous for roles in movies, and the popular television program The High Chaparral. Farmer would be cast in a string of other films. Another big break came when she got a role opposite Bing Crosby in the popular film Rhythm On The Range.
But Frances Farmer’s life was pulled in several disparate directions. She desperately still sought the approval of her parents, especially her mother Lillian. She had also inadvertently become part of a rarified group in popular culture, the so-called ‘Love Goddesses.’ With her stunning looks, accomplished screen presence, her contralto voice and poise she was compared to Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich. She was sought out eagerly by the press, and appeared on the covers and in the columns of Hollywood gossip magazines.
There was another side to Frances Farmer, however. She quickly established a reputation in the incestuous world of Tinseltown studios for being combative, strong-willed, independent, stand-offiish, brooding and cerebral, for doing things her own way, not suffering fools and speaking her mind. She was the quintessential uppity woman, rendered even more provocative thanks to her biting wit and keen intelligence.
Her lifestyle was considered unconventional even by the standards of Hollywood glitz culture. She rarely gave interviews to the press. On the set, she was frequently aloof, or arguing with producers. After her performance in Come And Get It where she played against Edward Arnold, Joel McCrae, and Walter Brennan, she was cast for a role in a movie to be titled The Robber Barron, which was soon sanitized to the more bubbly, less controversial Toast of New York. It was to be the story of Wall Street monopolist “Jubilee Jim Fisk” and his mistress Josie Mansfield. Farmer researched the role. Fisk, in reality, had been a crony of financial manipulator Jay Gould, and was part of a scheme to corner the market in gold, driving up the price and selling before anyone knew what was happening. He was overly fond of actresses and ended up being shot by a pimp.
But the Hollywood treatment reflected the bowdlerization of the era. Fisk was played in a more genteel and less controversial light by Cary Grant, and Farmer resented this celluloid rewriting of history. As for the mistress … well, Patrick Agan in his minibiography of Farmer noted that while the script had the potential for honesty, “Frances’ hopes … evaporated as the censorship of the time laundered Josie from an unscrupulous vixen to an ingenue fresh from Sunnybrook.”
Farmer was branded a nonconformist when it came to playing the Hollywood love goddess role. She resisted the studio-orchestrated dates and nights out on the town with their staged photo opportunities. On the set she was often aloof, and spent her down time reading or involved in radical, progressive and humanitarian political causes. Colliers magazine carried a piece on her in its May 8, 1937 edition, and she talked freely about the hypocrisy of the reception arranged for her in her home town of Seattle after the success of Come and Get It! Referring to the studio-organized reception on her behalf with the media and local big-wigs–some of the same people who had denounced her for her Atheism–she said “What the Goldwyn people had forgotten was that up that way I’m still remembered as the freak from West Seattle High.”
“She is a tall, thin girl who is more intelligent looking than beautiful,” wrote Collier’s staffer Kyle Crichton, “uses no makeup off the set, doesn’t give a damn for clothes, is going to be an actress if Hollywood will let her … Her taste in clothes is atrocious because there is nothing in the world she cares about less … She thinks movie gossip is blah … She is married to Leif Erikson, the movie actor, and they live in a canyon home which will never be photographed as a show piece and can be reached only by a mountain guide equipped with a divining rod …”
It accurately described the quintessential Frances Farmer, the lifestyle rebel, the odd-girl-out who was still becoming a Hollywood goddess and film sensation.
Another direction in Farmer’s life unfolded in 1937 when she finally achieved her dream of becoming part of the Group Theater in New York. That summer, she had left Hollywood and her husband to perform on the stage at Mount Kisco Playhouse in West Chester County, New York. She later wrote that it was some of the most satisfying work she had done. She appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. And she got a call from Harold Clurman, one of the founders of the Group Theater, who had met her earlier at a rally for the International Brigades fighting for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Clurman was enraptured by Farmer, declaring that the Hollywood beauty was perfect for a role in a play titled Golden Boy, written by the visionary, radical playwright Clifford Odets.
The Group Theater had been formed in 1931 by Klurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. All wanted an ‘authentic theater’ that would honestly portray life, emphasize social concerns, and transform the American stage. It was a response to what they saw as a staid, insipid, antiquated and ‘light entertainment’ theater that predominated the era. They adopted the Stanislavsky method, and endeavored to practice a cooperative and highly personal approach to acting. Strasberg took Stanislavsky a step further; he came up with ‘method acting,’ and Farmer and the other members of the Group were taught that they had to summon deep, inner feelings if their performance on the stage was to be credible. The combination was revolutionary and far reaching. A new generation of dramatists passed through the Group Theater, the method spread, and it influenced generations of major actors and teachers like Stella Adler, Marlon Brando, Sanford Meisner and Gregory Peck. Farmer was there, in the middle of it all, present at the creation, so to speak. She was among a long list of future luminaries that would be part of the Group Theater in some way, a Who’s Who of the stage, screen, and future electronic media–Elia Kazan, William Saroyan, John Garfield, Franchot Tone, Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Robert Lewis, Clifford Odets, Louise Rainer, Paula Miller, J. Edward Bromberg. On the periphery of the group were the literati, the rich, the famous. Odets vacationed at the home of Albert Einstein. Albert Stieglitz, the renowned photographer, gave money during those frequent dry spells when the Group’s coffers ran dry. Farmer knew most of these people, worked with many of them in political causes, and interacted with them socially.
Decades later, however, her name would be absent from many of their memoirs, biographies, and other auto-biographical accounts. It was if Frances Farmer had never existed.
In 1937, Frances Farmer was stunning in her role as Lorna Moon in the Group Theater production Golden Boy, written by Odets. There was already a vigorous political stage in America competing for its rightful place with the more tepid and established theater. Farmer was in her element. She also entered one of the most interesting periods of life, throwing herself into the causes of movements of the so-called “Popular Front” period.
Very little has been written about this aspect of Farmer’s life; and so, Frances Farmer is known for a lot of things (some of them false) other than her role as an outspoken, principled political activist. This aspect of her life is what particularly appealed to me when I first picked up Shadlowland, and it occupies the focus of my research into her life. It is an elusive quarry; the serpentine historiographic trail winds through musty newspaper clip morgues, back issues of magazines, the index of some obscure books, and even declassified files from government agencies such as the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Farmer’s politics defy the use of simplistic labels and descriptions. Her social and political convictions reflected an independent mind set, and she seems to have avoided identifying herself with a particular “ism.” She was not dogmatic; nor did she embrace a particular organization or cause like the Communist Party, although she was later accused of being a socialist. She was far too independent minded and ill-tempered to submit to either organizational discipline or ideological rigidity; and she was probably far too intelligent to do so as well. The causes she embraced were specific; they involved an emphasis on humanitarian concerns rather than rigid political ideologies. When she did talk about politics, she did so fervently but focused on the human rather than ideological dimensions.
Much of this period, roughly the late 1930s and into the 1940s, is either ignored or glossed over in biographical accounts. Exploring the details of Farmer’s life, however, reveals that she is, in a sense, not only the Lost Atheist, but also a feminist, a heretic, a social radical. Much of my investigation involved trying to unearth any archives that had information about Farmer, a quest that took me from the Billy Rose Collection at Lincoln Center in New York to the files of the FBI (declassified under the Federal Freedom of Information Act), to musty records of the House Un-American Activities Committee residing in the National Archives. Occasionally there is a mention of Farmer in some book dealing with the history of the time. There has been the constant battle to gain access to the pre-Internet newspaper clip morgues of papers some of which long ago went out of business. There were also the phone calls tracking down relatives or people who knew someone close to Farmer.
In New York, Farmer and other members of the Group joined the Theater Arts Committee or TAC, a politically-aware alliance of theatre workers and devotees who supported popular front causes including the anti-Fascist resistance in Spain. The group staged socially-charged performance dubbed “Cabaret TAC” embracing everything from Spanish democracy to racial equality. She and husband Leif Erickson both worked on TAC projects such as the protest over the ban on black singer Marian Anderson.
Farmer was also prominent in a national effort to raise money for supplies and other humanitarian aid for the Spanish Republican cause through the Medical Bureau to Aid Democracy. She organized fund drives to purchase ambulances for the war front. A picture published in the New York Post on December 10, 1937 showed Farmer sitting in the ambulance, next to fellow actress Sylvia Sidney. Painted on the side were names of other contributors and they included James Cagney, Ernest Hemingway (who of course wrote about Spain extensively), Frederic March and Louise Ratner. She helped organize an emergency meeting in March, 1938, at the Hotel Commodore to raise money for more ambulances and supplies, working closely with Burgess Meredith (who became a close friend), Dorothy Parker (you might recogniz her as the writer and literary maven of the Algonquin Roundtable), Maxwell Anderson, Olin Downey, and others.
An even more elusive photo was included in a brochure distributed by the Medical Bureau aptly titled “One Day in Spain, A Picture Story of American Doctors & Nurses.” Testimonials contributed by novelist Edna Ferber, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and others urge support for the Republican government and the Medical Bureau.
Farmer is shown by one of the “Hollywood Ambulances,” next to Sylvia Sidney and Flora Campbell. The names of other supporters are printed on the side of the vehicle, including Paul Muni, Louise Rainer, Ernest Hemingway, Ogden Stuart, James Cagney, Lee J. Cobb–along with Frances Farmer.
The young actress was also active in the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Farmer helped to organize a gala event known as “Stars for Spain” which took place in New York City and was headlined by herself, Orson Welles, and other popular entertainers.
Farmer was nationally famous as a symbol of the silk boycott against Japan, spearheaded by groups like the League of Women Shoppers and the Consumers Union. In her book A Consumer’s Republic, The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), historian Lizabeth Cohen observed that the LWS “was founded in 1935 by upper-and-middle class progressive women–many well known in art, business, and society circles–to support the burgeoning labor movement, particularly among women workers.” It was an appropriate venue for Farmer, who in college had labored to encourage her fellow women students to become politically energized. Her efforts in support of the League thus were a natural extension of Farmer’s feminist consciousness. Wherever she went, whether it was on tour or being interviewed about her film career, Farmer constantly encouraged women to not wear silk garments because of the Japanese atrocities particularly in China. Magazines like The Nation and other publications hailed Farmer for her anti-fascist efforts.
Another project Farmer fervently embraced was the protest against cutting WPA funds to artists. Again, this part of Farmer’s life seems to have been buried. It is left out of the biographies and Hollywood-style accounts of her life. The Theater Arts Committee had circulated a petition against the cuts, and depending on the account, up to 200,000 signatures were obtained. In mid January, 1939 several TAC members flew from New York to Washington, DC and Francis Farmer presented the petitions to Presidential Secretary Marvin McIntyre. Besides Farmer, the delegation included Helen Tamaris the dance choreographer; Artie Shaw, the popular bandleader; and actress Phoebe Brand. A telegram in support of the delegation sent to the White House–and this uncovered in the archives at the Franklin Roosevelt Library–was signed by artist Rockwell Kent, Orson Welles, and actors Eddie Dowling, Burgess Meredith, and Frederick March.
A photograph in the TAC magazine depicts the main participants in “the flying protest,” including Farmer, Phoebe Brand, Tamaris, Gertrude Niesen, Artie Shaw, and Robert Reed boarding a plane for the flight to Washington, DC.
By now, Farmer was perhaps at the top of her career trajectory. She had established herself as a competent actress on stage and screen. She was known as an out-spoken political activist, and she had also attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which had begun accumulating a dossier on her. Her personal life, though, was beginning to spin out of control. There were issues with her parents, the emotionally unavailable father and a dominating mother whose approval she desperately sought. She was psychologically vested in her political causes, particular the fight in Spain and the plight of the unemployed in an America still fighting its way out of the depression. And her personal life was disintegrating. There was the strain of being on the road with the Group Theater for months at a time. She had separated from Leif Erickson–there would be an unsuccessful reconciliation, but the two remained friends–and she had begun a torrid affair with Clifford Odets, and that too came apart in late 1939.
Farmer returned to Hollywood for a round of film productions including South of Pago Pago, and she was also cast in Flowing Gold, a drama about two oil workers who fall in love with the beautiful daughter of their boss. She played against Alfred Green, Pat O’Brien, and John Garfield. Garfield had been on the TAC delegation to the White House, and he would later fall victim to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
But Farmer remained politically active. In the spring of 1939, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Carey McWilliam’s Factories in the Fields were published, drawing public attention to the miserable plight of migrant farm workers. A major cotton strike erupted in the San Joaquin Valley, and Farmer, along with other Hollywood notables including Will Geer and Waldo Salt, later mobilized the acting community in support of the struggle. In Sacramento, the administration of Atheist govenor Culbert Olson fought hard as well to gain union status for the workers. If anything summed up the ethos in California, it is perhaps the photograph by Dorothea Lange taken from her pictorial essay, An American Exodus, published that year. US Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr. held a series of high-profile hearings throughout the state, and concluded that the migrant workers should be on par with the rest of American labor and enjoy the protection of labor laws. Farmer took on the state’s powerful agricultural lobby as well as vigilante groups; the strikers won wage gains, but once again fell short in their fight for union recognition. She was, at this point, giving most of her salary away to groups like Steinbeck’s Committee to Aid Agricultural Workers.
Later, the famous scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo was said to have remarked: “You have to realize they were out to get Frances and she knew it. Who? The cops. Why? The political thing. The migrant worker thing. You name it. They wanted to bust that kid wide open and they finally had the opportunity.”
That summer she traveled east for more stage work, and in early 1941, Farmer disappeared from sight, donning a black wig and traveling anonymously across the country. She returned again to Hollywood, and the real trouble began. Farmer wrestled with her personal demons, including alcohol and amphetamine abuse.
In October, 1942, Farmer was driving through Santa Monica when she was pulled over by police for having her car headlights on in a dim-out zone. Pearl Harbor had been attacked in December, 1941, and the country was on a war footing. What happened next depends on whose account you read–but it seems that Farmer could not produce a driver’s license promptly. Not predisposed to groveling before authority figures, she became verbally abusive. She was arrested and charged with drunken driving and given a 180-day suspended jail sentence. Being a Hollywood star fallen to such depths was bad enough–being a female, being ‘uppity’ and a social nonconformist made it all the more tempting and risque for the press.
Unflattering accounts of her soon appeared in the popular press, especially a piece by gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Worse yet, Farmer reportedly struck a hairdresser while on the set of a low-budget melodrama appropriately titled No Escape, and charges were filed. Police raided her room at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, and entered with a passkey when she failed to answer. Farmer, sleeping nude as she usually did, was restrained, made to dress quickly and was carted away to the police station. The media had a field day. Papers reported that Farmer paraded down Sunset Boulevard in the buff, cursing at the constabulary. Worse yet, the next morning, she interrupted the judge declaring: “What do you expect me to do? I get liquor in my orange juice–in my coffee. Must I starve to death to obey your laws?”
Farmer ended up in a local psychiatric ward, and eventually entered a private sanitarium gratis the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She received a round of insulin shock injections and in September returned home with her mother. She desperately wanted to rest, avoid the salacious Tinseltown gossip, and take control of her life. In March, 1944, though, possibly at the behest of her mother, she was dragged away to the psychiatric ward at Harborview Hospital. From there, she was ordered placed in a straightjacket and remanded to the Western State Hospital for the insane at Steilacoom, Washington. Here, she underwent the typical patient entry procedure of being striped nude, numbered, and fingerprinted. Her personal effects, including jewelry and some fifty books on different subjects were confiscated; and according to some accounts, she was immediately placed on an extensive regimen of ETC or electroconvulsive shock treatments, at the time the solution du jour to a wide range of alleged mental problems ranging from simple neurosis to wildest schizophrenia.
She was paroled three months later; a court order named her mother as legal guardian. In July, she literally ran away only to be arrested as a vagrant in Antioch, California. She then fled from the house of an aunt in Reno, Nevada. And in May, 1945, despite evidence that Frances was the on the rebound physically and emotionally, her mother again committed her to Steilacoom. She would be there for the next five years.
This round of calamitous events in the life of one of Hollywood’s glamour starlets was grist for the media mill. The pictures of a combative, cigarette-smoking and near slatternly Farmer quickly eclipsed the image of her as a screen goddess, and certainly washed away her role as a religious heretic, a feminist, a political and social rebel. Instead, terms like “paranoid,” “schizophrenic,” “manic-depressive” or “catatonic” were carelessly used to describe Frances Farmer.
The record of what happened to Farmer during this second confinement at Steilacoom is vague, contradictory, and certainly controversial. There were claims that “experimental drugs” were used, that the head administrator suggested that she be given a lobotomy–something her father, an attorney, vehemently objected to. Word of degrading, horrible, and often horrifying conditions at Steilacoom leaked out. An expose in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed drastic overcrowding, understaffing–and hospital administrators under enormous pressure to solve seemingly incurable behavioral and other problems.
At some point, Frances Farmer’s behavior changed. She reportedly began referring to herself as a “faceless sinner,” became more obedient and malleable. Whether it was an act of psychological desperation or something else, Frances Farmer was released on March 23, 1950. She returned home and began attending church services.
Farmer eventually remarried, this time a local city engineer, but after six months reverted to her earlier pattern and simply ran away. She got as far as Eureka, California, and obtained employment working in a photography studio. The world around her was changing; the House Un-American Activities Committee began conveniently investigating Communist, socialist, and labor movements, and the notorious Hollywood ‘blacklist’ was taking shape. Former comrades like Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan repented and named names. Ex-Husband Leif Erickson laundered his political past in a piece appearing in the American Mercury, where he talked about Golden Boy, the Abraham Lincoln brigades that had fought in Spain, all of it. Indeed, Frances Farmer’s name appears several times in the vast indexes compiled by HUAC.
From 1956-57, Farmer essentially hid out under her maiden name in that small California town. Her parents died during this period. She was recognized by a show business promoter who worked to resurrect her career. Farmer appeared in the press again then on the Ed Sullivan Show. She also did some stage work in Pennsylvania, and on January 27, 1958, was the guest on the tell-all program This is Your Life hosted by Ralph Edwards. Later, she appeared in a B-movie, The Party Crashers with Connie Stevens and Bobby Driscsoll. But Farmer was still wrestling with old demons including the alcohol, her past, and the failure to resolve issues with her family, all of it.
That same year, Farmer’s story was told in a syndicated series authored with Edward Keyes dramatically titled, “I Climbed Out of the Depths.” It came off as part autobiography, part mea culpa, finding ‘God’ at long last, and as a desperate attempt to climb her way out of the depths of insanity and alcohol-fueled rage.
Eventually, Farmer ended up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and became the host of a local TV program, Frances Farmer Presents. She introduced classic movies and sometimes chatted with performers, some of them friends from the Popular Front era, even her ex-husband Leif Erickson. She also appeared in some student-directed plays at Purdue University.
Farmer eventually moved in with a local woman named Jean Ratcliffe. There were periods of lucidity and sobriety interspersed with long bouts with the bottle, a failed business venture, an attempt to organize a memoir. On August 1, 1970. France Farmer died, penniless in the charity ward of a local hospital, from cancer of the esophagus.
Ordinarily it is here that a story like this might end, perhaps with a gratuitous Hollywood biography. But this is Frances Farmer, and it doesn’t.
In 1972, a purported autobiography by Farmer appeared titled Will There Really Be a Morning? The book, however, was likely authored by Jean Ratcliffe, and some argue that many of the scenes were heavily dramatized.
Six years later, Frances Farmer’s sister Edith Farmer Elliot self-published her version of events, and much of the content seems to reflect her interpretation, and that of her mother–that Farmer was, somehow, a dupe of the communists and a victim of circumstances. That same year, William Arnold, the reporter for the Post-Intelligencer, came out with Shadowland, and advanced the incredible but mostly circumstantial hypothesis that Farmer was given a lobotomy during her confinement at Steillacoom. It caused a sensation. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes or bibliography, or even an index. There are photographs of patients receiving electroshock therapy. One picture is especially grisly and disturbing. It shows Dr. Walter Freeman, known as “The Dean of American Lobotomy” about to hammer an instrument into the brain of a patient. The suggestion is made that Farmer underwent such a procedure. The lobotomy account would become an element in a new portrayal of Frances Farmer and her turbulent life, frequently quoted by rarely questioned for its historical accuracy.
Farmer left behind few writings, mostly poetry and letters. The book that became Will There Be a Morning? was originally to have been authored by Lois Kibbee based on extensive interviews and correspondence. Ratcliffe, though, likely finished that project and even dedicated the book to herself. The notes found their way to columnist and author Patrick Agan, who did a surprisingly compact but laudable treatment of France Farmer in his 1979 book, The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses. Then in 1982, another book–this one by David Shutts titled Lobotomy: Resort to the Knife, appears. It treats Dr. Walter Freeman as a sort of heroic figure in the advancement of behavioral knowledge and treatment, and unambiguously claims that the woman in the photo appearing in Arnold’s book is Frances Farmer. It offers no proof for the assertion; and it turns out that the story originated with one of Freeman’s sons.
There is no known documentation that Farmer was ever lobotomized; and indeed, this gruesome tale may distract attention from the legitimate horrors she and other patients were subjected to, including the denial of civil rights. Critics, including Farmer’s nephew David Farmer, now an attorney in Hawaii, and Oregon-based playwright Jeffrey Kauffman have strongly disputed this and other claims in Shadowland.
In 1982, the movie Frances was released starring Jessica Lange in a truly spectacular performance. There are periods of embellishment in the movie. Sam Shephard plays the role of a heretofore unknown love interest, there is a prelude lobotomy scene, but overall the film manages to capture some of the spirit of the tumultuous popular front era and Frances Farmer’s life.
The Popular Front period would fade into history, eclipsed by the war, the McCarthy period, the blacklist, the cold war. The civil rights struggle emerges again in the late 50s and early 60s coupled with massive protests and social upheavals. That generation becomes identified as the ‘new left,’ something beyond the ‘old left’ of the 30s and Popular Front. But the wheel turns, so much of that 60 rebelliousness is transmogrified and bourgeoisified into the mindlessness and conformity of the Reagan-Bush era, and the new generation finds cause for revolt. As with the sixties, the vehicle for this is music, and in the late 80s and early 90s, the sound of ‘grunge’ comes blasting from countless garage bands and impromptu groups. One of the luminaries in this outburst of general discontent and Angst is Kurt Cobain and the–where else?–Seattle-based band Nirvana. In 1993, they released the In Utero album. Grunge was a visceral almost nihilistic revolt against the bubbly, commodity-obsessed ethos of the time, and Cobain became fascinated by the imagery and mythos of Frances Farmer.
Farmer becomes the object of a made-for-TV movie, a fairly good A & E biography segment, and an independent film by Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman titled Committed. In 1982, the movie Frances appears starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. The promotionals declare: “Her story is shocking, disturbing, compelling … and true,” but the claim falls short since much of it is based on William Arnold’s book. There is litigation over the content, and an out-of-court settlement is reached. Thanks mostly to Lange, much of the personal portrayal of Frances Farmer rings true, and there is passing acknowledgement of her political activism.
Farmer’s little-known legacy of social activism has been smeared, too, over the years. Beginning with her mother, she was stigmatized as being a dupe of sinister communist plotters–as if she somehow lacked any authentic and genuine convictions of her own. Lillian Farmer thought little of denouncing her rebellious, freethinking daughter, tarring her with the brush of communist sympathizing. That myth found a new lease on life in 1999 when conservative writer Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley recycled the charge in his book Hollywood Party. He concocts a novel conspiracy theory, though, suggesting that Farmer was destroyed by the Communist Party when she balked at conforming to the party line. His sole documentation involves statements made in the press by Lillian. In fact, her FBI file reveals that Farmer never joined the Party. How could she? Can you imagine her submitting to political discipline or orthodoxy of any kind?
So much of the misinformation and lack of balance in recounting Farmer’s life has transformed her into a combination crazy woman and victim of some nameless and sinister conspiracy. In 1994, for instance, Sally Clark’s production Saint Frances Of Hollywood was produced in Canada. Farmer’s life was described as a “classical tragedy.” This, along with the renewed curiosity about Farmer shaped by the Nirvana lyrics, Arnold’s claims of a grisly lobotomy, all of it, elevated her to the status of the ultimate victim. Others have refined that view, seeing Farmer as an uncompromising personality, nonconformist, combative, ever resistant, crazed and defiant to any authority or convention. She was some of that, but she was also much more. It is both shameful–and inaccurate–to remember her only as the disheveled, fallen beauty queen who told cops, judges and everyone else to go to hell.
Incomplete as it is, I’d like to think that my work is revealing another dimension of Frances Farmer. From her earliest years, she was a deep thinker, fascinated by “ultimate questions.” She was passionate about social justice. Many labels have been used to describe her political ideas, but I think she was the ultimate “under-doggist.” She cared deeply about the plight of war victims, working men and women trying to organize for a better life, people living desperately on the edge, and children victimized by the chaos of military conflict. She supported unions when doing so courted threats. And she actively fought for the most dispossessed of that class, those who labored in the nation’s fields. Her work in the League of Women Shoppers anticipated an era of what Alvin Toffler later referred to as “prosumerism.” She was a feminist when women had just won the right to vote. She was an anti-fascist in a era when that ideology was not only consuming Europe, but threatened to subvert even the United States. We forget those menacing “Nazis on Main Street,” the German-American Bund rallies, the fact that many plutocrats in America looked to fascist Germany and Italy for an inspirational template on how America might be organized. She protested it all.
Whatever she endured amidst all of the personal heartbreak, the bouts with the bottle, the horrendous confinement and treatments at Steilacoom, Farmer began her life full bloom in that independent streak traceable back to Zacheus Van Ornum. For a while, anyway, she was one of us–proclaiming the death of God, delving into those ultimate questions, and standing hard and firm and strong against the opprobrium a community that despised freethinking and free voice.
For me, her story also epitomizes the tenuous nature of history. I will never forget standing in the Billy Rose Collection at the NY public library, pouring through folders of old periodicals and dried, disintegrating newspaper clippings for publications no longer in existence. Some were literally falling apart in my hands. It didn’t take long for me to discover that there was a lot about the story of Frances Farmer that had not been told, that needed to be told.
We need to collect this sort of history, and by we, I mean, us, the Atheists. One of the greatest responsibilities American Atheists has is the re-establishment and growth of the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives. This includes the Oral History project. We cannot rely on others to collect and nurture this history; and a movement without a history is really a movement without a future. Everything I gather about Frances Farmer will eventually find its way into that archive.
Finally, I hope that in its own small way, what I’ve learned and unearthed about Frances Farmer from all of the interviews and books and musty archives, will bring a bit more balance and insight to the story of her complex life. There are abundant unsubstantiated claims and other misinformation about her; and pop-culture has consigned her to a cabinet of mad curiosities. She is stereotyped as that drunk, that zombie, that kicking, defiant mad woman. Maybe we need to think of Frances Farmer a bit more objectively: a flawed woman, to be sure but much more. For me, she was also Frances Farmer, the lost Atheist hopefully found, the heretic, the feminist, the political rebel.
(Based on a lecture delivered at the Thirtieth Annual National Convention of American Atheists, April 10, 2004, San Diego, California)
Conrad F. Goeringer
August 13, 2004
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