Photo Essay:

The Dark Odyssey of Frances Farmer

As a West Seattle high-school junior, Frances Farmer first received national attention by winning a magazine’s student writing contest with a controversial essay entitled “God Dies.”

After high school, she began working her way through the University of Washington as an usherette at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. She later said the job gave her a lifelong distaste for the movies.

Frances as a freshman journalism student in 1931, selling subscriptions to the college humor magazine. After the first year of college, she switched her major to drama. 

Frances, at lower right, rehearsing for a university play.

A publicity photo for a university production of Alien Corn, a play that made her star of the drama department. 

In March, 1935, Frances won a contest sponsored by Seattle’s Communist newspaper, The Voice of Action—and a first prize VIP tour of the Soviet Union. The controversy over this trip turned into one of the most heated episodes in the history of Northwest radicalism.

Frances at age twenty, leaving for the Soviet Union aboard the Manhattan. Despite her denials, the Russians regarded her as the official representative of America’s Communist youth.

Within weeks of returning from Russia, Frances was given a screen test and a long-term contract with Paramount Studios. Shown here in an early publicity shot. 

Frances had been in Hollywood only a few months when she became a hit in Rhythm on the Range. Bing Crosby starred.

With her parents, Ernest and Lillian Farmer, on the set of Rhythm on the Range

The film version of Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It made her a major star at the age of twenty-one.

With Bobby Driscoll on the set of her last movie, The Party Crashers, a 1958 teenage exploitation picture.

With Edward Arnold and Jack Oakie in RKO’s Toast of New York in 1937. Cary Grant co-starred. 

Escape from Yesterday, 1938.

With her first husband, actor Leif Erickson, and her mother, just before leaving Hollywood to join New York’s Group Theater for Golden Boy

Frances and Erickson, vacationing in Seattle shortly before their separation.

With her parents in Seattle, soon after filming Badlands of Dakota in 1940. This was her last public interview before her arrest and a decade of troubles with police and psychiatrists.

In 1942, she co-starred with Tyrone Power in Son of Fury, a role which promised to revitalize her career.

Shortly after finishing Fury, Frances was arrested for a minor traffic violation and sentenced to 180 days in jail, suspended. Shown here after booking at police station, October, 1942.

In January, 1943, she was arrested in her hotel room and dragged to Santa Monica police court and charged with failure to report to her parole officer.

Denied use of the phone after sentence was passed, she got into a physical and verbal brawl with matrons, officers, and reporters and was hauled off to jail to serve her sentence.

Lillian Farmer leaving for California after the courtroom incident, January, 1943. Frances was confined to a private mental institution and given massive doses of insulin shock. 

Some months later, her mother committed her to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington. Judge John A, Frater, shown third from right with Boy Scouts, was the influential political figure in charge of the mysterious legal proceedings.

Frances reading fan mail after release from her first round of treatment at Steilacoom, July, 1944.

Placed under her mother’s guardianship, Frances made several escape attempts. In July, 1944, she again made headlines when arrested for vagrancy in Antioch, California. 

Lillian Farmer shows reporters how she helped identify Frances from the Antioch photographs. 

In May, 1945, her mother inexplicably committed Frances to Steilacoom again, where she remained for the next five years—most of that time in the violent ward under appallingly primitive conditions. Above, a typical Steilacoom ward in the 1940s.

Lillian Farmer, posing for a photographer during her last interview in October, 1947. She blamed her daughter’s tragedy on “World Communism.”

Electroshock administered at Steilacoom. Frances was subjected to hundreds of such treatments yet remained defiant of hospital authorities. 

Her case attracted some of the nation’s leading psychiatrists to Steilacoom—including Dr. Walter Freeman, the dean of American lobotomy, shown here explaining his theories on an early television broadcast.

Dr. Freeman performing transorbital lobotomy experiments at Steilacoom in 1948.  

After her release from Steilacoom in 1950, Frances left Seattle and lived for several years under her married name in Eureka, California. In 1957, reporters found her working as a clerk in the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Hugh O’Brien and Martha Hyer welcome Frances back to Hollywood in 1957 in an unsuccessful comeback attempt. 

The Las Vegas wedding of Frances and promotor Lee Mikesell in 1958.