Frances Farmer

On this date in 1913, Frances Farmer was born in Seattle, Washington. As a high school junior at age 16, Frances won a creative writing contest with her essay, "God Dies," resulting in a national wire story: "Seattle girl denies God and wins prize." In the conclusion of the brief essay about becoming an atheist, Frances wrote: "I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from anyone. It puzzled me that other people hadn't found out, too." She attended the University of Washington, switching her major from journalism to drama after starring in some college plays. Discovered by a talent scout, Frances moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1936, the same year she married Leif Erickson. Her first film was "Too Many Parents." She starred opposite Bing Crosby in "Rhythm on the Range," and achieved starring-role status playing the lead in "Come and Get It," a film based on a novel by Edna Ferber. Constrained by studio control, Frances took the lead in Clifford Odets' play, "Golden Boy" in 1937, playing in New York City. A love affair with Odets ended badly, and she returned to Hollywood, where she was relegated to supporting actress roles. In 1942, her life took a downward spiral. Frances, who struggled with alcoholism much of her life, was arrested for drunk driving without a license. She was sentenced to 180 days and given probation. In 1943, she was arrested for assault and violating probation. Declared mentally ill by a court, she was placed in a sanitarium by her mother, who was appointed her legal guardian. She was institutionalized for eight years, undergoing shock treatment and an apparent lobotomy. She was released to her mother in 1950. Her fortunes improved when a reporter spotted her working as a receptionist in 1953, and wrote a sympathetic profile. She remarried in 1954, and hosted an afternoon TV show in Indianapolis from 1958-1964. Her autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, whose title came from a line by Emily Dickinson, contained horrific details of her long confinement. Frances Farmer died of cancer of the esophagus. In 1982, actress Jessica Lange gave a tour-de-force portrayal of the actress in the film Frances. D. 1970.

“I wondered a little why God was such a useless thing. It seemed a waste of time to have him. After that he became less and less, until he was . . . nothingness.”
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—Frances Farmer, "God Dies," essay at 16

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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