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Credit: Lauren Tamaki

Burn All the Liars

An unfinished autobiography and a 1980s biopic turned Frances Farmer, one of the great golden-era stars, into a lobotomized zombie. The main trouble: Frances Farmer wasn’t lobotomized. An investigation to set one of Hollywood’s most convoluted stories straight.

Frances Farmer was an actress in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood’s golden era. A goddess among other goddesses, a beautiful woman with a lower-register speaking voice (close your eyes, hear the plangent tones of a French horn). No less a goddess, either, for the relative brevity of her Hollywood career. Frances made only 15 feature films from 1935 to 1942—and a 16th, albeit trashy one, in 1957—appearing in the best of these with such luminaries as Cary Grant (The Toast of New York), Bing Crosby (Rhythm on the Range), Edward Arnold (Come and Get It and The Toast of New York), and Tyrone Power (Son of Fury).

But she was not just a figure of the ’30s and ’40s; she was one of the ’90s and ’00s, too. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” is the fifth song on Nirvana’s In Utero; particularly arresting is the line, “She’ll come back as fire and burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” Full-bore vengeance on untold millions of Seattle innocents. That’s dramatic enough to make you wonder: What the hell happened to Frances Farmer?

This: Frances was involuntarily committed to the Western State Mental Hospital in Steilacoom, Wash., from 1944 to 1950. Worse, according to the 1982 biopic Frances, Frances obtained her release only because she was lobotomized. Now, who exactly had her committed is a matter not so much of dispute as confusion—at least so far as the popular record is concerned (don’t worry, we’ll get to it). But can you imagine? More or less six years locked away in an insane asylum—how does this happen to a famous Hollywood actress, or to anyone at all?

And lobotomized?

 

We see Dr. Walter Freeman, a swart impresario of a physician, at the front of a large room in the Western State Mental Hospital in Steilacoom explaining the lobotomy procedure to staff doctors, nurses, executives, and assorted hospital movie-extras. The scene comes about 12 minutes from the end of Frances, the 1982 biopic, directed by Graeme Clifford. Dr. Freeman wears a sleeveless, V-neck surgical gown; his arms are large, hairy, and toneless. Among his various charts and props is a plastic model showing the cross-section of a human brain.

Lobotomy, or transorbital leucotomy (the latter term’s root derives from the Greek for “white brain matter”), he explains, is a surgical severing of the fibrous connections between the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus. The leucotome (a slender steel rod) goes under the patient’s eyelid, its sharpened tip against the top of the eye socket, and is driven with a mallet through the socket’s thin bone and up into the brain. “In plain language,” Dr. Freeman says, “my technique severs the nerves that deliver emotional energy to ideas. Along with the cure comes a loss of affect, a kind of emotional flattening, with diminished creativity and imagination….” Untold numbers of men and women underwent this procedure in the first half of the 20th century.

“Gentlemen!” Dr. Freeman announces. “I will now perform transorbital lobotomies on 10 patients within an hour.”

Frances Farmer (played by the lovely Jessica Lange), fixed to a gurney and immobilized by three large leather straps, is wheeled horizontally into the room. A nurse places what look like a large pair of headphones (but are in fact electrodes) on Frances’s head, and knocks her out with a brief but highly potent electrical charge. Frances is only 36 years old.

Dr. Freeman raises Frances’s right eyelid and places the leucotome. It looks like a thin little icepick. He leans over Frances, steadies the icepick with one hand, and raises a wooden mallet with the other.

“Lobotomy gets them home,” he mutters, and brings down the mallet: Thwack!

The screen goes black.

Silence.

Then the faint sounds of an audience clapping, volume rising.

The next scene, the film’s penultimate one, recreates Frances Farmer’s January 1958 appearance on This Is Your Life. The actor who plays Ralph Edwards, the show’s host, totally nails the original’s charmless, cheerful smarm. And Lange really hams up the lobotomized-actress thing here, all deadened affect and flattened reactions. Now, Lange’s a good actress, but she appears to have had some technical help: In close-ups throughout the movie, you can see tiny lights shining in her eyes—shining, that is, until the two post-lobotomy scenes. Then her eyes are noticeably lightless and vacant. Good effect, that. (Lange was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.)

 

Let’s make something perfectly clear: Frances was not lobotomized. Granted, Dr. Walter Freeman did visit Steilacoom and perform lobotomies while Frances was incarcerated there—but correlation isn’t commission, obviously, and, more importantly, Frances’s medical records confirm that she wasn’t operated on for any reason whatsoever at Steilacoom. This according to Jeffrey Kauffman, a musician and historian, who describes himself as “the first person to obtain access to pertinent medical and court records [that] clarify many aspects of Farmer’s history.” Furthermore, no one during Frances’s lifetime claimed or even implied that Frances had been lobotomized—not Frances, not her doctors, not her family, not her bitter former lovers, not her ex-husbands three, not even that veritable (albeit charming) bullhorn of calumny, movie gossip columnist Louella Parsons. No one.

So who made the claim, then? This guy: William Arnold, Seattle film critic, in his 1977 biography of Frances, Shadowland. And where did Arnold get his information? He made it up. And why would he do that? No one knows. But it seems likely (at least to me) that he found in lobotomy a procedure of such visceral horror as to all but command attention…and book sales.

Let’s make something perfectly clear: Frances was not lobotomized.

The book sold well enough that they made a Hollywood movie about it, the aforementioned Frances, whose screenplay, see, was heavily informed by Shadowland. So heavily informed, in fact, that William Arnold sued Brooksfilms, who produced Frances, for copyright infringement. Here’s the twist: Arnold’s claim for copyright could obtain only if he showed that Shadowland, marketed as nonfiction, was in fact a work of fiction. Which it was. Wrote the judge in summary, “The evidence introduced at trial established that portions of the book were fabricated by Arnold from whole cloth despite the subsequent release of the book as nonfiction.”

Even still, and perhaps paradoxically, Arnold lost the case. Wikipedia now describes Shadowland as a “biographical novel,” a term that acts, I suppose, as a kind of leucotome and mallet on the book’s credibility.

Nonetheless, such is the power of a Hollywood movie that the idea of Frances’s lobotomy is firmly lodged in the public mind. Stupidly, probably nothing short of Frances Farmer herself rising in full fury from the dead to discredit Arnold, et al., will put the lie to rest. So, you know, don’t hold your breath.

 

But if Frances wasn’t lobotomized, why did she act all tranced-out on This Is Your Life? Actually, she didn’t. You could see this for yourself, as I did last October, if video of the program were still available on YouTube. But since I watched it, it has been removed (I suspect for copyright violations).

The problem with the program was that Frances and Edwards were basically at cross purposes. This was the first time Frances had appeared publicly after she was released from Western State. As she told Edwards on air, “I would very much like to correct some impressions which arose out of a lot of stories that were written about—me, I guess; but they weren’t about me—suggesting things that I couldn’t possibly have been doing. Which I never did.

“I wasn’t in a position to defend myself at the time these stories were published. And I’m very happy to be here tonight to let people see that I am the kind of person I am and not a legend that arose.” In other words, Frances wanted to set the record straight, not to get into the lurid and embarrassing details of her life.

Edwards, however, appears to have been after something a little more Jerry Springer. “Right, well, we’re going to help you do that, Frances,” he says, looking out into the stage’s wings. “Other stories accuse you being an alcoholic. Were you, Frances?”

She glances away for a beat, then fixes Edwards with a level gaze. “No, I was never an alcoholic.”

“Did you ever use dope?”

“Nooooo…no, no.” Frances says, making a big round mouth of almost comical denial.

The rest of the appearance is more or less a disaster. Edwards spouts truthy facts mangled by misinformation, and Frances’s reactions to these range from a look of mild disgust to a startled, angry expression, as if she’s just been slapped and is trying to stop herself from striking back. All of which is to say, Frances definitely doesn’t act like a lobotomized zombie.

But whatever. That’s TV for you. At the end of the show, Edwards gave Frances an Edsel, which kind of says it all: The Edsel was one of Ford’s worst-selling cars.

Picking up where Edwards and Frances left off, then, here are the interesting and true (although, at times, lurid) details about Frances’s fairytale rise to stardom and her spectacular fall from grace.

 

Frances the actress originally wanted to be a writer. At age 17, in 1931, she won a national essay contest sponsored by the publisher Scholastic with her entry, “God Dies.” America paid attention. Sample headline: “Seattle Girl Denies God And Wins Prize.” At the University of Washington, Frances discovered a passion and talent for the stage. She switched her major from journalism to drama and appeared to great local acclaim in U of W productions of Helen of Troy and Alien Corn. In the spring of 1935, Frances won a subscription contest for The Voice of Action, a left-leaning Seattle paper, that sent her, via Manhattan, to Stanislavsky’s Group Theater in Moscow, to Europe, and back.

Shortly after returning to Manhattan, Frances came to the attention of a Paramount Pictures talent scout. She wasn’t interested in making movies but, she reasoned in a letter to a friend, perhaps Hollywood could “snatch [her] from the jaws of poverty,” and thus allow her the means to pursue a career on the “legitimate stage.”

Frances, who’d been sleeping in the nude, face down on the bed, under the influence of alcohol and somnifacient—at noon!—reacted as anyone would have.

By mid-1936—that is, only one and a half short years into her fairytale rise to stardom—two of Frances’s first four films had become hits: Rhythm of the Range and Come and Get It. Journalists compared her to Greta Garbo. Her future was lightning bright.

Unfortunately, that was the acme. Although Frances went on to make 11 more films in the late ’30s and early ’40s, she appeared only briefly on Broadway (much to her grave disappointment, for a career on Broadway, in the “legitimate theater,” was her ultimate goal), and then her life and career hit the skids. Or, as Louella Parsons put it, “Hollywood Cinderella Girl Goes Back to the Ashes on a Liquor-Slicked Highway.” In July 1942, Frances divorced her first husband in Reno; in October, Paramount Pictures dropped her contract; and on the 22nd of that same month, police arrested her in Santa Monica for driving with her headlights on in a wartime dim-out zone, drunk.

Frances was mouthy and loud to the police, and mouthy and loud to Police Judge Marshall Hickson in traffic court one month later. Hickson sentenced her to a suspended 180-day jail sentence and a $250 fine, of which she paid only $125, the balance to be paid in installments. He also forbade her from drinking alcohol.

But she didn’t pay the balance, and she didn’t stop drinking.

In early January 1943, the court signed a warrant for her arrest over the unpaid fine, and, on the 13th, the law caught up with her at noon at the Knickerbocker Hotel, on Ivar Avenue in Los Angeles.

Here’s how the arrest went down. The police responded to a reported public-peace disturbance at the Knickerbocker, which, they soon discovered, had centered around Frances. Moving in for the nab, they “hammered” (Frances’s word) on her hotel-room door and, getting no answer, forced entry with a passkey. Frances, who’d been sleeping in the nude, face down on the bed, under the influence of alcohol and somnifacient—at noon!—reacted as anyone would have.

As one reporter put it, “She did not surrender peacefully.”

 

Next day, Frances appeared before Police Judge Marshall Hickson (for the second time in as many months). He was not happy to see her. Neither was she happy to see him; she’d spent the night in jail and had been denied an attorney or a phone call.

(What follows is a dramatized piecing together of several news accounts of that day’s court session—not one of which accounts, by the way, depicts events in the same order. The majority of the quotes hail from the aforementioned published accounts; I’ve added incidental dialogue for pacing and, perhaps paradoxically, verisimilitude.)

We have Hickson, ostensibly in control of his courtroom, and Frances Farmer, clearly no one’s humble defendant.

POLICE JUDGE MARSHALL HICKSON: Miss Farmer, were you fighting at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Tuesday night?

FARMER: (calmly, sarcastically) Yes. I was. I was fighting for my country and for myself.

Light laughter in the courtroom.

HICKSON: Control your mouth, Miss Farmer. Have you driven a car since you were put on probation?

FARMER: No I haven’t. But only because I couldn’t get my hands on one.

Sounds in the press gallery of pencils scratching on pads.

HICKSON: (temper rising) Since you last appeared in this court, have you met with your probation officer?

FARMER: No, I never saw him. Why didn’t he show up?

HICKSON: Did you expect him to look you up?

FARMER: I expected him to be around so I could get a look at his face.

Frances’s attitude with the judge may seem reckless. And it was. But Frances had a temper, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Even those who knew her well weren’t protected from her ire. “[Frances Farmer] was really an ugly-natured woman,” said Lois Kibbee, a biographer of note whom Frances hired later in life to help write an autobiography, in an audio interview with author Patrick Agan. “She was a very mean, mean lady. She was mean as, as the Irish say, snake shit. [takes a drag on her cigarette, exhales] She was just totally mean.”

Let me hasten to add that Kibbee actually liked Farmer. “I’d grown quite fond of her,” Kibbee told Agan.

HICKSON: I won’t ask you again to control your tongue, Miss Farmer. Since you appeared in this court October 24th, have you had anything to drink?

FARMER: (loudly) I drank everything I could get, including benzedrine. (Smashcut to “Did you ever use dope?” “Nooooo….no, no.”)

HICKSON: (raising voice) You were advised that if you took one drink of liquor or failed to be a law-abiding citizen —

FARMER: (louder) Listen, I get liquor in my milk. I get liquor in my coffee and in my orange juice. What do you expect me to do, starve to death?

HICKSON: (standing, shouting) 180-day sentence to be served in the Los Angeles County jail! Immediately!

FARMER: Fine!

HICKSON: (beet-red, leaving the bench) Take her to jail.

FARMER: But I haven’t any lawyer.

HICKSON: (no answer)

FARMER: (louder) What I want to know is, do I have any civil rights?

HICKSON: (no answer)

FARMER: (turning to the cop next to her) I want my phone call.

COP: Nope.

And that’s when Frances totally lost it. She threw a wild punch—and was immediately descended upon by every armed person in the courtroom. In the free-for-all that ensued, Frances thrashed and sallied: She “bruised a husky officer”; she knocked down a matron, just knocked her flat. People shouted. Frances threw rights and lefts; reporters scribbled madly in their notebooks, flashbulbs popped: ka-pow-ka-chink, ka-pow-ka-chink. And at some point in that courtroom’s chaos, probably as she was being wrangled into a straitjacket and right before she was frogmarched off to the clink, Farmer cried out to the matron, “Have you ever had a broken heart?”

 

Nearly all contemporary accounts of the courtroom incident mention Frances’s cri de (broken) cœur. Poor, fragile Frances, seems to have been the implication, undone by a scoundrel. Let’s identify that man.

Leif Erickson (né William Wycliffe Anderson), Frances’s recently ex’ed husband? Probably not. Theirs had been a studio marriage, a sham; Farmer never claimed more than simple affection for him.

Clifford Odets, the erstwhile Broadway playwright god with whom Frances had waged a rather intense, mutually extramarital affair in the late 1930s? Odets would tear into Frances’s dressing room, barricade the door, and rip the clothes from his body “with all the fire and passion of a Rococo Thespian,” Frances wrote in her autobiography. “He would threaten to take his life and mine, unless I loved him…. I cannot say that I loved him. A more apt description would be a passionate hatred coupled with a physical fascination. Whatever it was, it did much to destroy me.”

Good. Closer.

Consider now John McKenzie, wealthy married man of means, handsome Englishman of Mystery whom Frances met on the boat en route to Moscow during her 1936 prize-trip to see Stanislavsky’s Group Theater. After Russia, McKenzie and Frances briefly toured Europe together as lovers, then separated when Frances returned to America. They made plans to meet again a few weeks later in McKenzie’s Manhattan apartment.

This “friend” took Frances out for a night of expensive restaurants and high-end bars and, ultimately, to his bed.

Frances, meanwhile, hung around the city, meagerly supporting herself as a freelance journalist and modeling hats for cash. One day, out of the blue, a man called identifying himself as John McKenzie’s friend. This “friend” took Frances out for a night of expensive restaurants and high-end bars and, ultimately, to his bed. Frances, next morning, was of course deeply ashamed of her behavior; and of course devastated when, shortly thereafter, McKenzie himself told her in plain, flat terms that the affair was over. In a letter to Lois Kibbee, written in the late 1960s, and excerpted in Agan’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses, Frances supposed that McKenzie “… had sent his friend as a kind of ambassador to find out what kind of girl I was and if I were worth the trouble of a divorce. It had been a simple case of comparing notes, as even sometimes gentlemen do. In any event, the rejection was a crushing emotional blow. I was heartbroken.”

There it is, the fabled heartbreak. “In retrospect, John McKenzie was the most significant love relationship of my life,” Frances wrote Kibbee. “But I found out that even if he desires it, nobody dies of a broken heart—except in opera.”

Put similarly, nobody goes crazy of a broken heart, either—except in opera. Thus, however tempting it might be to say that Farmer was nervously (or mentally) undone by love gone bad—and country music has, in large part, built an industry on that generalized premise—it simply isn’t true.

Which returns us to Frances’s nervous breakdown. Years of overwork, drunkenness, and numerous professional setbacks—and, yes, even heartbreak—these all undoubtedly contributed to her public unraveling. But how do we go from there to The Matter of the Insanity of Mrs. Frances Anderson?

 

If Frances had been left alone to serve her 180 days in jail, it’s quite likely that, eventually, she would have sorted herself out. Instead, well-meaning family members and friends in the movie industry successfully lobbied the judge to send her to the Kimball Sanitarium in California.

After months of legal wrangling, while Frances sat in the sanitarium, her father, Ernest Melvin, an attorney, secured a court order making his ex-wife and Frances’s mother, Lillian, the actress’s new legal guardian. On Sept. 13, 1943, Lillian took Frances (only six days shy of her 30th birthday) back to Seattle on a train.

Not a happy trip.

“From the moment I was placed under my mother’s legal control…I was chained to a woman who, perhaps subconsciously, seemed determined to destroy my life,” she wrote decades later in her autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? It should therefore come as no surprise that Frances, who because of the guardianship had fewer legal rights than a child (but zero interest in playing the child), and Mom did not get along. At all. They slapped, they yelled, they threatened. But only one of them had the power to institutionalize the other, at a word.

 

On March 24, 1944, Lillian committed Frances to the Western State Mental Hospital in Steilacoom. Mercifully, only three months later, in July of 1944, Frances was released, for the first time, as “fully recovered.”

Note the ominous “first time.”

Ten months later, in May 1945, Lillian had Frances recommitted to Steilacoom. For the score, that’s three commitments (including Kimball Sanitarium) in less than three years. But wait: Nearly one year after that, in March or April of 1946, Frances was re-released. Can you imagine? Can you imagine what things at home with Ernest and Lillian (long divorced but still living acrimoniously together) must have been like in the times between commitments?

Small wonder, then, that by the end of December 1946, Frances was back in Steilacoom for the third—and, it seemed, final—time: “As a recidivist,” wrote Frances in her autobiography, “I was not granted a reevaluation of my sanity before Staff. I was taken directly to the ancient barracks where the chronically ill were housed.”

There’s no mystery here: Frances was institutionalized not because she was insane but because she’d been legally vulnerable. Because her dad, Ernest, was a lawyer. Because her mother, Lillian, despite whatever unconscious animus may have lain in her heart, may have thought in her desperation and exasperation that institutionalization was the last viable recourse to help her daughter heal. Heal? And become submissive and obedient.

This idea of Frances as, I guess, some chewed-up Barbie doll tossed into life’s Goodwill box is bullshit.

“There is a Jewish saying: ‘God could not be everywhere and therefore He made mothers,’” Frances wrote in her autobiography years later. “And whether I was justified or not, I held mine accountable as the main root of my despair.” Paradoxically, Lillian (i.e., God) later became the means of Frances’s liberation, even if involuntarily so.

In late 1949 or early 1950, Lillian suffered a mildly debilitating stroke; Ernest Melvin’s health had also declined, and Frances’s siblings weren’t available to care for either of them. So the family decided to bring Frances home. Ernest wrote a letter to Steilacoom in mid-March; Steilacoom granted the request within a week. Frances was paroled on March 25, 1950—a full four years from that third and supposedly final commitment—and discharged one year later. That letter then, not lobotomy, is Frances’s “miracle cure.” Her deus ex machina—no, no: parentis ex machina.

But Frances had been freed from one madhouse only to enter another. Her parents behaved like tyrants, Frances recounted: barking demands, and threatening to send her back to Western State. All this Frances more or less quietly endured. But she didn’t just suffer her parents’ cruelty; she looked ahead to a better life. And, happily, she found it.

“… Any cure, to be effective, has to be based on faith in oneself, which means faith in God,” Frances told Ralph Edwards, near the end of her disastrous “This Is Your Life” appearance. “I was able, in a kind of a grim and very lonely battle to find this faith for myself, or re-find it. And to hang onto it.” Thus, in the summer of 1953, Frances petitioned for and won back her full civil rights.

Her nightmare, then, was truly over—a full 10 years and nine months from that horrible day in October 1942 when she’d driven home with her lights on, drunk.

 

We return now to Frances the movie, final scene. We see Jessica-Lange-as-Frances walking home alone after her This Is Your Life appearance. Joining her on the walk is Harry, the plot-device-as-love-interest played by Lange’s real-life love-interest, Sam Shepard. Lange acts all lobotomized and weird; Shepard acts disappointed. Lange walks off alone into the darkness. Sad music plays. And just in case you aren’t weeping yet, this appears onscreen:

Frances made one final movie, then moved to Indianapolis where she hosted a daytime television show. She died on Aug. 1, 1970, at the age of 56. Harry was not with her. She died as she had lived…alone.

This idea of Frances as, I guess, some chewed-up Barbie doll tossed into life’s Goodwill box is, in the spirit of Professor Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical treatment of bullshit, On Bullshit, bullshit. Arguably, Frances, although damaged by her repeated institutionalizations, saw her best and happiest years after This Is Your Life. Happy years cut short only by the sad-but-predicable effects of a lifelong cigarette habit.

Let’s look at each of the end-card’s sentences, one by one, at random.

(1) “Frances died on August 1, 1970, at the age of 56.”

100 percent true: Frances was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 1970, at the too-young age of 56. She died three short months later. That is, she did not fade away.

(2) “Harry was not with her.”

Also true, but misleading. Harry was indeed not with Frances when she died, because Harry didn’t exist. As mentioned, Harry’s life arose only from a screenwriter’s need for a shadow-figure love-interest for Frances. (See cri de (broken) cœur; “… except in opera.”) My wife liked to call Harry “The Device.” Whenever he came onscreen she said, “Enter Device”; whenever he left, “Exit Device.” Such is the stuff of a Frances Farmer drinking game. Call it: “I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy.”

Such is the stuff of a Frances Farmer drinking game. Call it: “I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy.”

(3) “Frances made one final movie, then moved to Indiana where she hosted a daytime television show.” And: “She died as she lived….alone.”

Though true in essence, the first of these sentences elides much. And the second is flat-out wrong.

In 1957, Frances took on a small role in The Party Crashers, a crappy B-movie about wild teenagers and stupid adults. That’s the “one final movie.”

Frances then returned to her stage-theater roots, doing summer stock on the East Coast. One of the theaters she played in had reciprocal arrangements with theaters in the Midwest; and in the summer of 1958, Frances traveled to Indianapolis as the lead in Yes, My Darling Daughter. An executive for the local NBC-affiliate WFBM saw Frances in the play, wanted her, and hired her immediately. That fall, she became the host of her own daytime movie program, Frances Farmer Presents. She was a popular and genial host and, soon, an admired civic presence. She was even named local businesswoman of the year.

But in 1964, after a couple of DUI citations, and after she appeared apparently drunk on camera, mumbling “Frances Farmer prevents,” the eponymous Frances was let go from her own show, which then ended. So much for daytime television.

But Frances wasn’t done with life; quite the contrary. She pursued business opportunities and continued to act in local theater—most notably in the fall of 1965, when she starred as Claire Zachanassian in a Purdue University production of Dürrenmatt’s The Visit.

The Purdue production wasn’t to be the slick Broadway or Hollywood adaptations of the play, but the original “grotesque version.” Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, yet also weirdly handicapped (she sports a wooden leg and an ivory hand), has returned triumphantly (but as an old woman) to the impoverished village of her youth. She offers to save its citizens from poverty on one terrible condition: that they kill Albert Ill, the local grocer, who’d broken her heart when they were teenagers.

Zachanassian is a charming and terrible figure—imagine the lovechild of Frankenstein and Greta Garbo. “It took three hours to apply makeup,” Frances wrote, “and I was so buried in the role that I found it difficult to separate myself from it.”

One week into the play’s two-week run, after a celebratory Sunday brunch, which included a Bloody Mary (perhaps more), Frances, driving ostensibly for home, lost consciousness and crashed into a ditch. Next she knew, a cop was leaning over, asking if she was OK.

“Rather than answering as Frances Farmer, I reverted to my role in the play and [suddenly became] the richest woman in the world, shouting to high heaven that I would buy his goddamned town. I got out stiff-legged and ivory-handed, quoting all the imperious lines I could remember.

“Unfortunately, this did not [sit] well with the [cop], and a patrol car took me to jail.”

Next day, the incident hit the papers. Mortified, Frances couldn’t imagine returning to the play. But her best friend, Jean Ratcliffe, convinced her to go back.

The next night’s opening was a sellout.

Imagine the scene: The play begins. There stands Frances, in the shadows, in the wings. She takes one last drag on her cigarette, exhales, and steps onstage.

“[T]here was a long silent pause as I stood there, followed by the most thunderous applause of my career,” wrote Frances in her autobiography. “[The audience] swept the scandal under the rug with their ovation.” It was “my finest and final performance. I knew I would never need to act onstage again. I felt satisfied and rewarded.”

It would be too much to say that Frances lived happily ever after, after this, because life was never going to be all roses for her. But I like to think that this happy experience left Frances optimistic that she could find an equally adoring, broader audience to whom to tell her life’s story—to tell it right this time, much as she’d wanted, but failed, to do on This Is Your Life.

 

In all, Frances began three autobiographies but finished none of them herself.

The first she began in the early 1940s as a means of “determining the mess that her life had turned into.” The second she began in the 1950s. The third she began in early 1968. Her literary agent, Warren Bayless, got her a contract with G.P. Putnam’s Sons—along with a $3,500 advance. Frances was 54 years old and had just less than three years to live.

Lois Kibbee, the ghostwriter, wondered why Frances needed her services. “… [Your letters to me are] extremely well written and why you feel the need of a collaborator is beyond me at the moment. Perhaps it’s a matter of time.” Perhaps. Although, given that Frances’s prior two attempts at autobiography had capsized on the—as it were—emotional tempests of her past, it seems possible that Frances, in hiring Kibbee, may have wanted nothing more than much-needed companionship and support for what she undoubtedly knew would be a rough lexical voyage.

Ratcliffe was there, as she put it in a letter to Kibbee, to “mix the drinks”—and pick up the sloshed pieces, too, when Frances fell apart.

So Frances told her story to the tape, and Kibbee, back in New York, typed up the transcript. Back and forth like this they went. Jean Ratcliffe, Frances’s friend and housemate, rounded out the trio; she was there, as she put it in a letter to Kibbee, to “mix the drinks”—and pick up the sloshed pieces, too, when Frances fell apart. Frances requested her own medical records for the years spanning her initial psychiatric evaluation in 1943 to her discharge from Steilacoom in 1950. Jean taped her reading these aloud, between bouts of drunken sobs, in March 1970.

But in April, just as Kibbee was organizing the transcripts into a rough draft, Frances was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer. Kibbee dug down and finished a partial first draft by the last week of July. But it was too late. Frances died on Aug. 1, 1970, ever-loyal Jean at her side.

The real tragedy, then, isn’t that Frances died alone, because she obviously didn’t; the tragedy is that she died too soon.

 

John Dodds, editor for G.P. Putnam’s Sons, killed the autobiography project in late August, saying, “…I am forced to wonder on the basis of these first chapters, whether Lois can bring off this extremely difficult assignment….” Putnam’s also asked Jean to repay the $3,500 advance.

Kibbee and Bayless dropped out of the project in the fall of 1971. Jean asked them to return all the research materials: 15 file folders of archival material, nine tapes of Frances dictating various scenes from her life, and three 3-inch tapes of her reading her medical records (and drinking and weeping).

But God only knows what Jean needed the research materials for. Her contribution to the autobiography was, to say the least, nonfactual. She took Frances’s sober, humorous, and literary narrative and framed it in a sensational series of One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest scenes set in Steilacoom. In these, we see a kind of Nurse Ratched and her butch-nurse underlings subjecting Frances and other patients to overwrought, at times comically disturbing (because so awfully rendered), cruel-lesbian-nurses-on-mental-hospital-patients sex. In addition, Jean deployed a whole lot of exclamation points and one-word sentences, adjectives or verbs, for no apparent purpose other than to build a kind of cheap dramatic tension.

And it worked!

Although flawed, Will There Really Be a Morning?, an autobiography “by” Frances Farmer, was published in 1972.

Jean Ratcliffe, a misunderstood figure in the Frances Farmer story, is often thought to have published the autobiography for purely venal reasons (which, I suppose, you can’t entirely rule out). But it seems equally likely that because the publishing house wanted its $3,500 back, and Jean and Frances had spent everything on basic living expenses and medical bills, that publication was Jean’s only means to repay the debt.

Will There Really Be a Morning? reads like the kind of book a lobotomized person might write. Although the bulk of it is well written, it’s also shot through with factual and tonal inconsistencies. The tone veers on an odd dime from maudlin to weird to sober to humorous to unintentionally comical to intentionally comical, then ends on a maudlin note. But what can you expect? It was written by three very different people at separate times.

Imagine listening to an audio of three women talking about Frances Farmer, each speaking in the first person as Frances Farmer. One of the women is, in fact, Frances Farmer: excellent writer, talented poet, clever wit; she’s also depressive and secretive, suffering at times from crippling insecurity and self-loathing. Another is Lois Kibbee: accomplished actress, decent mimic. The last, Jean Ratcliffe, is uproarious, earthy, and loud of voice (even if not exactly stylistically skillful of prose). These are the voices telling Frances Farmer’s story. Good luck teasing them apart; good luck parsing fact from fiction. Small wonder then that Frances’s biographical corpus is so confused.

 

Clearing up that confusion, then, is what’s kept me interested in Frances since first hearing about her on In Utero. I read Will There Really Be a Morning? and then I read Shadowland and then I read Will There Really Be a Morning? again. On that second read, I noticed again that, although the book was really well written, parts of it were shockingly poorly written. I wondered if there were any unadulterated extant samples of Frances Farmer’s writing. And this led me, eventually, to Kibbee’s papers in the University of Washington Special Collections.

Thus, in June 2009, my wife (eight months pregnant), my daughter (30 months old), and I (many months overwhelmed) flew from Salt Lake City to Seattle. Rainy? Not at all. We enjoyed one glorious week of sunshine, ferry rides, and museums, and I was able to carve out time in the U of W library.

The school’s library occupies two separate buildings connected by a breezeway. The Special Archives are in the Allen Library’s south wing’s basement. The attendants, though clad in mufti, comport themselves as if wearing smocks and white gloves. I checked in, and asked for the Kibbee archives in their entirety, as pre-arranged. I was made to hand over my backpack, my laptop, and the contents of my pockets. The place smelled like polyvinyl-acetate and expensive paper, like the center of a new hardcover, freshly cracked. An attendant informed me that I’d be allowed to make notes only on pieces of special paper, using knuckle-sized golf-cart pencils.

The “Kibbee papers” arrived in two large, cardboard banker’s boxes. The first was filled with correspondence between Lois and Frances and Jean (and a few others). The second box contained only VHS tapes of various of Frances’s Hollywood movies, all commercially available.

“But why knuckle-sized golf—”

Hush! I was told, or shown, by means of the attendant’s index finger pressed emphatically to her lips. I was led to a corner table.

The “Kibbee papers” arrived in two large, cardboard banker’s boxes. The first was filled with correspondence between Lois and Frances and Jean (and a few others). The second box contained only VHS tapes of various of Frances’s Hollywood movies, all commercially available. Which was disappointing.

But the correspondence was no small find. In it, I found abundant evidence that Frances, Jean, and Kibbee had become good friends having a good time, despite the hard work of turning Frances’s painful past into narrative art. The harsher realities are evident only fleetingly. For example, Jean, in one letter to Kibbee, casually mentioned that Frances never slept well—that she often cried out in the night, cowering by the side of her bed like an army vet suffering PTSD. Things like that. The correspondence abruptly ceased after Frances’s 1970 cancer diagnosis, and that silence is its own kind of grim commentary.

What’s most evident from the correspondence is that Will There Really Be a Morning?, as we have it, is a fragmented, unfinished work. Jean Ratcliffe certainly did her best, but I am haunted and inspired by the idea of a new Will There Really Be a Morning? with all the clamor edited out. What’s needed to do the job properly is both the original manuscript as well as the 15 research files and 12 cassette tapes that Kibbee returned to Jean in the fall of 1971.

So where are these materials?

Jean Ratcliffe died in May 1987. A relative who cleaned out Jean’s apartment immediately after the funeral told me that she didn’t find in there anything to do with Frances Farmer.

Graeme Clifford had access to the materials during the filming of Frances. Are they with him or with Brooksfilms, the producer? Sadly, the receptionist at Brooksfilms I spoke with said that archival material from the ’80s had been recently shipped off to a warehouse, stored away, perhaps, forever.

Thus goes the long slog toward getting the telling of Frances Farmer’s life story right: This or that serendipity is followed by this or that dead end.

But hold on, wait: As the psalmist once put it, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Verily, at 9 a.m., in the early part of last month, I received a telephone call from one Hugo Bartoli, who lives in the south of France. He’d heard I was working on this essay. Bartoli has spent the last five years working on a comprehensive Frances Farmer biography. He’s also got a lead on the original Will There Really Be a Morning? manuscript. He thinks it’s with the relative of one of Frances’s Indianapolis friends.

But hold on, wait again: This is no happy ending. The relative is frustratingly elusive. Besides, even if Bartoli finds her, there’s no guarantee that she’ll have the manuscript.

 

We Frances Farmer fans won’t give up. In our own ways, we each add bits of narrative pieces, shards of truth to the composite portrait of Frances Farmer, the human being.

For example, one fan (Fisher, Gregory T.) owns the world’s only collection of Frances Farmer’s cigarette butts. (I invite you to consider, for a moment, the smell.) Frances it turns out, smoked Kents.

Mr. Fisher, who worked on the stage crew for one of the plays in Indiana that Frances starred in, described Frances’s singular pre-performance ritual in an interview with the Indianapolis Star in 1983. She would “stay backstage in her dressing room until [it was] time for her performance, and every night she [would come] out with a cigarette in her mouth, go to the stage, drop the cigarette and walk on stage. She didn’t listen to the play or wait for a cue—she just knew when to come out.”

And so that’s what the legend and story of Frances Farmer comes down to: uncanny timing. Hers, ours, God’s. And although she’s dead, something of Frances remains in her incomplete tale. There she stands, in the shadows, in the wings. She takes one last drag on her Kent, exhales, and, trailing a thin blanket of ash, steps onstage into our various incorrect versions of her life.