Frances Farmer

On this date in 1913, Frances Elena Farmer was born in Seattle, Wash., to Lillian (née Van Ornum), a boardinghouse operator and dietitian, and Ernest Farmer, a lawyer. As a high school junior, Farmer 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, she 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, she 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 star status playing the lead in “Come and Get It,” a film based on a novel by Edna Ferber.

Constrained by studio control, Farmer 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 roles. In 1942 her life took a downward spiral when she was arrested for drunk driving without a license. The next year she was arrested for assault and violating probation. Declared mentally ill by a court due to ongoing extremely erratic behavior fueled by alcohol and drugs, she was placed in a sanitarium by her mother, who was appointed her legal guardian. She was institutionalized for eight years, undergoing shock treatment. There’s no evidence she had a lobotomy, as was  rumored at the time and later. 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 (a third marriage followed in 1958) and hosted an afternoon TV show in Indianapolis from 1958-64. She was also a writer-in-residence at Purdue University. Her autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning? (the title from a line by Emily Dickinson) contained horrific details of her long confinement. Farmer died of cancer of the esophagus in 1970 at age 56. In 1982, Jessica Lange gave a tour-de-force portrayal of her in the film “Frances.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation