7. The Trial
So Brooks and Yates went ahead and made the movie.
And there was not much you could do but stand by and watch helplessly?
Well, Marshall sued them, and I joined the suit. This began a process that went on for several years and gradually threatened to consume my life. Discovery. Interrogatories. Depositions. Reading the various drafts of the scripts as they were written by “the boys” and looking for things stolen. Endless strategy sessions with a team of attorneys.
That must have been very depleting, and depressing.
It certainly was, on one level. But it was also rather exciting. There’s a great amount of drama in a law suit between two major Hollywood players, waged by two major L.A. law firms with armies of lawyers and bound to get some splashy national attention. It was a bit like being at the center of a John Grisham novel.
Did it stop work on the novel that was so important to you?
No, in fact it had the opposite effect. For some reason it energized me,
made me tunnel even deeper into the novel. If I hadn’t had the escape of the novel, I would have probably gone out of my mind in this period.
Did the Brooks side make any attempts to settle the case?
Many. But Noel Marshall thought they were all too low. He wanted abig settlement or nothing.
What were they offering?
I can’t remember how high they went. I have one letter here offering a hundred thousand dollars, which is peanuts in movie terms, some kind of screen credit for me and a title card for the book. I wanted to take it but Noel just laughed at it.
Did they make any attempt to settle with you independently of Marshall?
Yes and that’s a story. They set up a meeting between me and Jonathan Sanger and our two personal attorneys. Sanger had produced The Elephant Man for Brooks and he was producing the Farmer movie, which they eventually decided to call Frances. Sanger came to Seattle and we met in the living room of my house on Queen Anne Hill. Sanger was just a little bit older than me, with long hair and a beard, and the thinking was probably that, away from Brooks and Marshall, the two of us would hit it off and become pals and come to terms. But Sanger was the wrong man for the job. That guy had the diplomacy skills of Donald Trump. It was like my second Brooks meeting all over again, with every word that came out of his mouth an insult. I thought: what an arrogant prick! What was it with these people? I was prepared to sign on the dotted line. If they had sent someone with even the most modest and rudimentary human relations expertise, they might have saved themselves a half-million dollars in attorney’s fees.
You turned them down?
No, I just let it sit there. I didn’t respond. After I cooled down, I probably would have accepted some version of it but, as the process continued, I finally got seriously mad.
What specifically made you angry?
First of all, the sheer blatancy of the theft. As they dutifully sent me the various versions of the script as required by the discovery process, it became apparent they were barely even trying to disguise the fact that they were doing a film version of Shadowland. The same structure and arc, climaxing with the Freeman transorbital lobotomy. Essentially the same progression of scenes. It used surmised dialogue from the book or the screenplay I had done, much of it word for word. It was totally the same vision! Above all, they stole my presence in the book.
Yes, and to me that’s the most fascinating part of this dispute. Can you explain it a bit?
As I mentioned before, I gradually discovered that the only way I could make the story of Frances Farmer work was through the eyes of a narrator figure who falls in love with her. That’s what Shadowland is. In my discussions about the adaptation with Marshall and Yates, they both felt the narrator figure would not work in a film dramatization. Mel Brooks also expressed that feeling in my conversation with him. But when I did the first draft script without the narrator figure, it showed, to my mind, the truth of my position. The story just didn’t work without that outside point-of-view. Yates and I talked about this at some length and came to that agreement.
And she apparently carried that wisdom to the Brooks version. It also has the sympathetic point-of-view in the character played by Sam Shepard.
They invented this fictional character to be the narrator of Shadowland, to be me.
As numerous critics of the film, including Rex Reed, later pointed out.
But he wasn’t a totally fictional character, was he? Can you say something about how he entered the story?
Among the many places “The Dark Odyssey” was reprinted in 1974 was a Scientology-linked journal called Freedom. The day after it came out, a guy named Stuart Jacobson went to the editor saying that he had been a private eye in Seattle and had known Frances Farmer. The editor alerted me and I spoke to the man and quickly ascertained that he was a complete nut job. I mean he had stories about being best friends with William Randolph Hearst and having an affair with Marion Davies and all sorts of impossible fantasy and nonsense. Among them was a fantasy that he had been the
Our Socialism Magazine
lifelong best friend and lover of Frances Farmer, which I quickly determined via a few simple questions was not true at all. But he also brought up the story of Marion Zioncheck, an ultra-radical U.S. Congressman from Seattle who may have been murdered by right-wing interests in 1936. A fascinating sidebar I wanted to link to Frances’ story. So I mentioned him in the book, qualifying it with the caveat that there was no way the guy could be totally believed.
And they made him the hero of their film?
Yes, and its shameless because Marie Yates well knew that he was a laughable phony. I had her re-interview him before the book came out and in it his stories become even more delusional. I still have the transcript of that interview. It’s just raving lunacy.
Was Stuart Jacobson a Scientologist?
I believe he was, but to what extent I don’t know.
Weren’t you beginning to get a little wary of the Church of Scientology by now? Marie Yates was a Scientologist and she, in your eyes, stole the project from you. Stuart Jacobson was a Scientologist and he was masquerading as the narrator-figure of the book for her.
I might have but I still had the friendship of Steve Heard, who was appalled by all this and ashamed she was a Scientologist. I also got an official letter from the Church denouncing Marie Yates actions as immoral and seconding my assessment of Jacobson. They did their own investigation of him and determined he was a phony.
Did Marie Yates know this?
I assume she did. The letter was cc-ed to her.
And they went ahead and made him the second most important character and romantic lead of their script anyway, because he could stand in for the Shadowland narrator?
That’s the way we saw it.
What was it like for you when they came to Seattle to film Frances?
It was tough. Because my humiliation was so public. The filming was treated as a major news story by all the Seattle media.
Did people generally assume they were filming your book?
Many did. But there had been a lot of publicity about the lawsuit and, of course, the unit publicist told Seattle journalists the movie had “no relationship” to Shadowland.
One article of the time, which is very pro your case, says something about you “casting the film.” What does that mean?
I suppose it alludes to the fact that I suggested or referred to Yates many of the people who were ultimately in the film. I had seen Jessica Lange in a small part in a movie filmed in Oregon and written by a friend of mine, Bob Kaufman. Kaufman actually suggested her for Frances and I passed that along. The director, Graeme Clifford, who’d never directed before but had edited several films, approached me right after the book came out. We talked for a long time about it and I referred him to Marie Yates. I also recommended Kim Stanley for the key part of Frances’ mother.
Kevin Costner also has an uncredited part as “man in the alley.”
He’s a reporter who fires a question at her. His line was actually in my script, one of the lines we claimed they directly lifted from it. So, since that was Costner’s first speaking part, I could argue that I wrote his first line of dialogue in a film.
A strange bragging right.
I’m perversely proud of it. I’m a big fan of Kevin Costner.
Where did they shoot in the city?
West Seattle, the Paramount Theater (where the Costner bit takes place), the University of Washington campus, I think. I’m really not sure where else. I tried to avoid conversation or reading about it.
Did you see any of the filming?
Only once, by accident. I was going to a screening downtown and some road work detoured me up Pine Street and directly by the Paramount. And there it was. The film company. Reflectors. Trucks. Movie star trailers. Extras dressed in ’30s attire. The Paramount marquee blazed the title of Come and Get It. They were filming the movie’s premiere. This was inaccurate, by the way. The premiere of that movie was at the long-gone Liberty Theater on First Avenue.
How did this make you feel?
I couldn’t help from thinking back on all those times I would come to this theater where Frances had worked as an usherette and, you know, dream of getting justice for her. I think I manifested this moment of vindication and it should have been a highlight of my life. But it was stolen from me. It made me angry. Curiously, this incident happened at about the same time they had upped their settlement offer to me and my anger gave me the starch to turn it down.
They consistently denied having any connection to Shadowland?
Not consistently at all. Well before the movie came out, I got an advance press release from its distributor telling how the film’s co-producer Marie Yates had discovered the tattered manuscript of what later became the book Shadowland, whipped it into shape, got it published and guided it to the bestseller lists. Never mind the inaccurate and self-serving insult in that lie, it was an admission that the book was the genesis of the movie. Any reasonable person reading that press release would conclude that Universal Pictures was saying that its movie was an adaptation of that book.
Didn’t Jessica Lange tell the L.A. Times that she got most of her characterization from Shadowland?
I don’t recall exactly what she said but I know she talked about the book in her interviews. And the cameraman, Laszlo Kovacs, told American Cinematographer magazine that he read the book at the suggestion of director Graeme Clifford, and tried to create a visual equivalent.
Why do you think they would be so cavalier about this? It certainly seems to give you ammunition in the suit?
I can only think it was because Universal expected the suit to be settled and part of the settlement would, of course, be credit for the book.
Because the vast majority of suits like this are settled?
I was told that only one in a thousand show business law suits—maybe one in ten thousand—ever goes to trial. The process is structured to make it so difficult for both parties that they will invariably settle at some point along the way just to end the misery.
Were you expected to pay part of the, what must have been, tremendous legal fees? Or was Marshall financing it all?
Theoretically, neither of us was paying. Noel’s regular attorneys believed our case was so strong, and the potential payoff so great, that they were willing to take it on contingency.
Who were the attorneys?
The firm of Levin, Ballin, Plotkin & Zimring.
Being associated with these lawyers over a period of years, you must have gotten to know them pretty well. What did you think of them? Did they fit the caricature of—?
I have nothing bad to say about them. Especially the two I worked with on an almost daily basis for much of that time, Jay Plotkin and Dan Ross. If this was a John Grisham novel, they would be the good guys. Jay did a lot of pro bono work and was one of the most all-around decent people I have ever known. Despite his name (Plotkin, which Dickens might use for a shyster lawyer) and despite his history of representing a show business shark like Noel Marshall, he really believed in the law and also believed we were battling people who had done bad things and should be punished. He was an honest man and I had a lot of deep conversations with him about life, the law and morality that I still often reflect upon today. Dan Ross, who was an associate at the firm, was the son of the head of the William Morris Agency’s literary department. I worked with him even closer and had the same high opinion. I’ll always remember him warning me at the onset that “No one really wins a suit like this, and the further it goes in the process the more it takes out of you, both financially and spiritually. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s a losing, soul-devouring proposition that you’d be better off avoiding.”
I’ve never been involved in this “soul-devouring” experience and don’t fully understand its steps you mentioned before. What is “discovery?"
It’s the first stage in the suit when both sides exchange the pertinent papers or copies of them relating to the matter: letters, contracts, notes of meetings, or anything the other side might specifically request. So the opposing lawyers can poke through it and look for something that might support their case. This is an unmonitored process so the natural tendency among litigants is to want to withhold or destroy anything incriminating or damaging. But attorneys are loath to sanction withholding anything in discovery because the penalties are beyond severe. So that rarely happens among people who don’t want to go to prison. Anyway, the usual strategy is to bury the other lawyers in so much irrelevant paper that it will take them months to wade through it all.
What did they produce that your side wanted to see?
The drafts of their script, primarily. We were suing on the basis of the script, not the film. The two writers, who were also named in the suit, claimed they did their own research and just happened to come up with the same information and reached the same conclusions about Frances Farmer’s life that I did. So we wanted to see the interviews and notes of that research, as well. But they could produce almost nothing and I didn’t have much to read and the discovery process wasn’t as tedious for me as it was for them: I produced an avalanche of letters and interview notes and musings and drafts for them to poke through. I’m not sure, however, they looked through it very carefully.
What happened after discovery?
After discovery came the interrogatories. These are questions, often exceedingly convoluted, posed in writing to the parties on the other side. These have to be answered in writing and if you don’t answer them to the other side’s satisfaction, they come right back at you with still other questions. This turned out to be an enormously time-consuming process. It seemed to me that the questions, and I don’t remember how many hundreds of them there were, were designed not so much to gain new information that could be used against you as they were designed to harass you, befuddle you, break your spirit.
Where do depositions come in the process?
After the interrogatories, in this case some months afterward. And this is the most harassing, dispiriting and anxiety-provoking stage of the suit outside of the trial itself. Because anything you say in deposition has the same weight as testimony given in court. Here they are really fishing for something they can use against you.
How was your deposition experience?
Depleting, to say the least. Since the suit was filed in L.A. Federal Court, I had to come to L.A. for it and come weeks in advance to be coached by Jay, Dan and others on their staff. Then I had to go to the offices of Brooks’ lawyers and sit there while a whole team of them interrogated me for what ended up being several full days. You have one of your lawyers with you but the inquisitioners are pretty much allowed to ask you anything they want and their aim is to break down your defenses and get you so tired you’ll say something irrecoverably stupid that they can later use against you or use to contradict your testimony in court. It’s one of the most agonizing things I’ve ever been through. The only consolation was that our lawyers were doing the same thing to their clients. As I recall, they had Brooks in the hot seat for several full days as well, and they told me he got ever more nasty and defensive as the hours dragged by. I loved hearing that.
Wasn’t this whole legal experience just suicidally depressing for you from the start?
Strangely, no. As the process progressed, I became more and more fascinated with it. Especially when it became clear that we were probably, against all odds, going to trial. I decided to embrace it as a unique life experience and view it in terms of all the courtroom-drama movies I had seen in my life and even try to enjoy it.
You also must have thought you had a strong case.
We thought we had the strongest case imaginable. Frances Farmer was an historical character and, granted, anyone could make a movie out of her life. But surely any judge or reasonable person could see that their movie was the book, point for point, with a personification of its narrator, and scenes and dialogue and a structure I had constructed. Moreover, we had, in the form of co-producer Marie Yates, a link between the two projects who could convey to the Brooks team a library of inside information and hundreds of conversations with me about the movie we would make with Noel Marshall. And still moreover, for an agent’s commission, this woman had signed a contract with me to look after my interests in the movie, which was a staggering conflict of interest, engineered by Brooks. We had Brooks saying, in effect, he was going to steal Shadowland and there was nothing I could do about it. We had the Universal press release implying its movie was based on Shadowland and we had stacks of reviews of the movie identifying it as “the film version of Shadowland.” There was also the ace in the hole of the screenplay adaptation I had written and Yates had read, which had more than the five points of similarity needed in a plagiarism suit: indeed whole scenes, with invented dialogue by me, were almost word for word the same. So, yeah, we thought we had a terrific case. It just went on and on.
Didn’t People magazine, sometime before the trial, do a feature story that said as much?
Of all the media that did stories on the lawsuit, including the New York Times and L.A. Times, People was the best. Their reporter interviewed everyone involved and actually did some digging and came up with things that even we didn’t know that supported our cause.
The reporter interviewed Jacobson and made him look like even more of a psycho liar than we contended, and made ludicrous Brooks’ faith in his credibility. The People story also quoted Lois Kibbee to the effect that she was sure he was a fraud. This was particularly damaging to Brooks because he had hired her to be his credited “historical advisor” on the film.
Stephen Farber, in an American Film feature article called “Whose Life is It Anyway?,” writes that what happened to you “is the nightmare that every author fears, one that raises questions for all writers who deal with biographical or historical material.” It predicted that, win or lose, the case would set an important legal precedent.
It was the one article that tried to examine all the legal issues involved. I frankly thought it was rather confused and missed several major points at stake. But, for this, I blame myself, because I as distracted and not very lucid when Farber interviewed me.
It also, like the People piece, made Marie Yates look very bad in comparison to you.
Other writers were predisposed to loathe an agent who sold out a client’s interest for a hundred grand and a co-producer’s credit.
Why do you suppose Brooks was so loyal to Marie Yates? He didn’t really need her to steal the book. In fact, she was a huge liability to him.
I don’t know. That’s a question we asked ourselves a lot. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? Maybe he was sleeping with her. She got divorced or at least separated during the trial and I know Brooks’ aging libido was going wild at this time.
How do you know this?
Here’s a salacious story. The court reporter who took all the depositions in the case and stayed on all through the trial was this very cute young woman who was in her early twenties but looked about sixteen. She still lived at home with her parents and was a vision of innocence. She got to be very friendly with our side over the course of the many months involved and one day in the downtime of the trial, she told us how, after she took Brooks’ deposition, he made a play for her. He got her address somehow and actually appeared at her house one night after midnight, throwing pebbles at her window and asking her to come down. He vanished when a light appeared in her parents’ bedroom. I’m not sure how much of that story I believe but I swear to God it’s what she told us.
Given your position in the media and known dispute with Brooks, people must have come to you with lots of Mel Brooks stories over the years.
The stories I’ve heard! When he dies someone is going to do one hell of a juicy book on him.
Would that someone be you?
Okay, back to the suit. In the months leading up to the trial, your side seems to have added a new argument that the book’s novelistic structure and conventions should entitle it to the same protection a novel enjoys under copyright law. Have I got that right?
Yes, this was a late addition to our case and, as it turned out, an unwise one.
How did it come about?
In this period leading up to the trial, I sold the Asia novel I’d been working on for so long. In fact, I sold it for what was then the largest figure ever paid for a first novel in the Northwest. Random House was so high on it they used it to launch their new Villard imprint and otherwise ballyhooed it as an “event” book. The movie rights were sold to Charles Roven, an A-level producer, and I was hired to do the screenplay.
Which, I suppose, is another reason the travails of this lawsuit were not destroying you.
Exactly. This was much more important to me than this lawsuit, and it was going well. And at some point after my big sale, in one of those prep meetings for the depositions, someone on our team—it might even have been me, I can’t remember—said, “Wait a minute, this might be something we can use.”
The thinking was that this suddenly gave me great credibility as a novelist. Much more, actually, than as a journalist.
I still don’t understand.
Someone—and, again, it might have been me—said: “Why don’t we just declare the book a novel, your first novel, and demand the copyright protection a work of fiction gets?” When you look at the cover of the book, it certainly looks like a novel. Nowhere on or in it does it say it’s a work of nonfiction. In hundreds of interviews I stated that the framing story is largely a concoction, that, obviously, my investigation did not happen in the strict chronological order of Frances Farmer’s life, that this structure was assumed to present her life in the form of a mystery story and, yes, the narrator was me but he was also not me; he was a character I used for a certain effect. Moreover, the book allows for the possibility that the Freeman lobotomy—which is the climax of its detective story, and also the climax of the movie—may not have happened. It is a deduced probability of a narrator who becomes increasingly less objective as the story progresses.
What about the book’s epilogue, which certainly doesn’t make it look like a novel, and the paperback version, which, unlike the hardback, has her name on the cover and looks like a movie star biography?
True, but I was on record protesting that epilogue as “inappropriate to what the book was” and I had absolutely no input to the paperback. Berkley/Jove didn’t consult me in any way about its cover or style.
It still sounds like a crazy strategy, suddenly declaring the book a novel.
But it wasn’t sudden. In her references to the book, written and otherwise, Marie Yates usually referred to it as a “novel.” We had plenty of paper on that. Brooks referred to it more than once as a novel. I characterized it numerous times in interviews as a nonfiction “novel.” We could find numerous journalistic references to it as a novel. Look, I knew it was outrageous, and risky, but it seemed an absolute killer to their position: icing on the cake of what was already a strong case.
So, with this icing on your cake, you went to trial.
Why did your side ask for a summary judgement from a judge instead of a jury decision?
Because Mel Brooks was essentially on trial and history shows that a jury will not convict a celebrity.
Is that true?
Think about it. O.J. Simpson, Bobby Blake, Errol Flynn, even Fatty Arbuckle got off. A celebrity’s fame always, always, always, works for him in the courtroom.
But judges aren’t seduced by the glare of celebrity?
The thinking in legal circles was that they are much less susceptible.
Who was your judge?
We drew the Honorable Malcolm M. Lucas.
Yet another famous name enters the story.
Yes, he went on to become a California Supreme Court Justice and then still later its Chief Justice. A Reagan appointee. He’s remembered today as one of the most conservative judges in the state’s history.
Did you know going in how conservative he was?
No, and if we had known, we might have thought it was a good thing. Shortly before the trial started I went to his courtroom and watched him sentence two kids to twenty years in prison for some drug offense without blinking an eye. I thought: This is a man not likely to be charmed by a movie star.
How long was the trial?
I don’t remember exactly. But many weeks.
Were you present for its entire run?
Every second. I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. Jay wanted me to be a constant presence at our table as the parade of witnesses came and went. He thought it would make me a sympathetic figure to the judge.
Was it as dramatic, in a Perry Mason sense, as you suspected it would be?
No and yes. The courtroom is kind of an anticlimax to the rest of the process. Everything that can be said is already in the depositions. No evidence can be presented that wasn’t in the discovery. But there’s still room for a skilled litigator to create some excitement with a learned objection or a virtuoso cross-examination.
Was it heavily covered in the press?
If you mean were there reporters there for every moment of the trial, no. It was too long and tedious for a reporter to stay on it for any length of time. Reporters came, listened to a bit of it, and left. There was coverage in Variety, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and a few other places.
How well did Mel Brooks perform?
Even better than we feared. First of all, my heart sank when he took the stand because I could tell the judge was excited to see him there. His whole manner changed and he was very deferential. I thought: Oh my God, we should have gone for a jury. The judge is a Blazing Saddles fan.
Could that have been your imagination?
It could have been. But Brooks, through a whole day on the stand, was just incredibly humble and endearing. I was even liking him again. He made a very favorable impression on the judge.
Were there any other surprises?
I have to say I was surprised by what you might call the “off-camera conviviality” of the proceeding, how in a courtroom setting this long you invariably get to know the enemy on a personal basis. I’m talking about Brooks’ team of attorneys. At first, in the depositions, I just hated their guts. But over time, in the recesses and dead spaces of the trial, I actually got to know and like some of them. I remember this one associate attorney on their side telling me how he hated the law and wanted to become a writer. We had this long conversation about it, in fact, and exchanged lists of our favorite books. Then the judge would come back in the courtroom and we’d all snap back into our adversary roles. Like actors in a play.
How was your own appearance on the stand?
Grueling. I was on it longer than any other witness by far. The cross examination went on for an eternity.
Who was the other side’s chief litigator during the trial?
Morten G. Rosen, who specialized in show business disputes and would later represent Arsenio Hall in a famous 1989 libel suit with the NAACP. It pains me to admit that he was pretty good at his job.
What points did he particularly grill you on?
Well, he didn’t have much to work with. He couldn’t argue that I never met Mel Brooks or discussed the project with him. He couldn’t argue that Marie Yates didn’t sign a contract with me or had not been compensated for it. He couldn’t argue that their movie Frances was not one bit like Shadowland or had not used dialogue from the book that had been surmised by me. So he didn’t bother. He honed in on the notion that the book was a novel and a unique product of my imagination and not mere public domain history.
I’ve read the transcript of the trial and the questions posed to you got to be incredibly detailed and speculative as to what was going on in your mind as you created specific scenes. What you knew as fact and what you made up, or at least shaped.
We took the position that I made it all up, that the book in its entirety was the unique product of my mind, in the same sense that The Executioner’s Song in its entirety was the unique product of Norman Mailer’s mind. Even though it deals with a real character and a real case, Mailer’s mind shaped that material into a literary effort with its own distinctive architecture, thematic concerns and style. They hammered away at that proposition.
It sort of became a test case of the New Journalism and the nonfiction novel, didn’t it?
Without anyone wanting it to be, that’s exactly what it became. Does nonobjective journalism or history written with the techniques and freedom of the novel deserve any of the copyright protection of fiction or does it not?
In his questioning of you, Rosen was constantly trying to establish that what happens in the book actually happened and is now history, and you come back saying that, well, maybe it didn’t happen, maybe my perception of the event made it just appear that way.
It put me in the surreal position of arguing against myself and what I said in the book and what I really believed while they were arguing for the truth of the book. We were arguing, for instance, that the lobotomy was not an historical fact, that it was a solution to a mystery in the mind of an unobjective narrator who is, in effect, a character in a novel; while they were arguing that the lobotomy did happen, offering, for instance, testimony from Freeman’s son that his father admitted as much to him.
You said above that this was an “unwise” part of your strategy. When did you begin to feel that way?
As this grilling went on for hours and days, and it became clear Rosen was trying to make this the central question of the trial, I began to realize this whole argument was probably a mistake. Our plagiarism case was strong enough without it and it was pushing me into totally misrepresenting what the book was and perilously close to perjuring myself. It was also giving Rosen something to work with in a case in which he would otherwise have had nothing. It was allowing him to shift the focus away from what Brooks and Yates had done to what I had done, and make me look rather calculating and opportunistic in the process.
How did you sense it was going down with the judge?
We couldn’t tell. He seemed very interested, very engaged and frequently asked me questions to clarify certain points. We were making a very esoteric argument and he must have known that whatever he decided on this part of our case would establish a legal precedent.
Were your lawyers satisfied with your performance?
Apparently. They seemed jubilant. They congratulated me. They felt I had come through the gauntlet relatively unscathed.
I have to say that, from my careful reading of the transcript, your lawyers made a pretty strong case.
I thought so too. We all did. Jay thought we had won.
But you didn’t win.
We spent about a month thinking we had and then Jay called me with the bad news. We lost big. The judgement stated, with no real explanation, that Frances had not violated the copyright of Shadowland. It also bawled us out for the gall of arguing that a book that was widely regarded as nonfiction deserved the protection of fiction. The tactic was even more of a misfire than I feared. It made the judge furious at us.
What about Marie Yates, Mel Brooks, all the collusion between the two works, all your other arguments?
The judgement basically ignored them.
Incredible. Didn’t you immediately think of an appeal?
No, because the Brooks side said that, if we didn’t appeal it, they would not ask for their attorney’s fees, which was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Given the judge’s attitude toward us, it seemed possible he might just award it to them. Jay wanted to appeal anyway but his firm decided they could no longer continue with the case on contingency. And they would have to be paid by me personally, because Noel Marshall had officially declared himself to be broke. In fact, I would have to pay our half of the court costs.
Were those considerable?
It was more than what I had made on Shadowland. It put me in the hole.
Did you ever confront Marshall about this?
No. The last time we spoke was during the trial just before I went on the stand. I told him that as a condition of my not settling with Brooks at the last moment, he would have to assign the film rights of Shadowland back to me. He readily agreed, for what it was worth. I never saw or heard from him again after that. He died of brain cancer in 2010.
Being stuck with the bill for his suit, now that must have been devastating.
You know, it strangely wasn’t. I was fatalistic about it. I felt like it was a tremendous learning experience and maybe I got just what my hubris deserved. I had a good paying job and a big book coming out and a movie version of it in the works. What did I have to feel bad about? I was actually relieved. I thought, okay, now I can finally and forever put Frances Farmer behind me.
8. The Echoes
After the trial, were you able to put Frances Farmer behind you?
In a word, no.
Well, I certainly tried. I stopped doing interviews about the book or trying to promote it in any other way. I managed to deflect Berkley/Jove’s plan to do an unauthorized tie-in with the movie in 1982. But it did no good. The letters and phone calls kept coming in.
Through the rest of the ’80s and first half of the ’90s I could count on getting between twenty and thirty letters a week and a dozen phone calls from somewhere in the world. McGraw-Hill said they had rarely seen such an ongoing response on a book that was not being reprinted. It was its own kind of phenomenon.
Couldn’t you just ignore the letters and calls?
I could ignore the regular bundle of mail and phone messages that was forwarded from McGraw-Hill but most of it came to the P-I, where I was still a columnist. I couldn’t not answer my phone. I couldn’t not open my mail. And I wouldn’t know what it was until I saw that fateful first line: “I just read your book Shadowland.”
After which, with the letter in hand, you had to keep reading?
The problem was that these letters were not hand-scrawled nothings or the kind of dashed off one-liners you would get in the e-mail era. Overwhelmingly, they were thoughtful, well-written, neatly typed communications from people who deserved a response.
What, precisely, was the nature of these letters and calls?
They tended to fall into three categories. The first was from people who had just read the book, felt kicked in the stomach by it and wanted—no, needed—to connect with me and share their grief. Embedded in these was always a question that was not rhetorical and seemed designed to establish some sort of personal bond or relationship.
What was the second category?
These were from people with some experience of mental illness. People in some level of treatment or facing a stay in a facility and fearful they might end up like Frances Farmer. They were hoping I could help them. Often I would get calls from people recently arrested or facing a civil commitment who wanted me to get them out of it. Also in this group were those with a troubled loved one caught up in the mental health system, people who were distrustful of psychiatry but knew nowhere else to turn and wanted my advice. These were the most agonizing.
And the third?
The third group were people who wrote or called to point out a mistake or typo in the book or to offer some new information or theory about Frances Farmer they had stumbled upon or obtained from personal experience or had inherited from their parents. Also in this miscellaneous group were a surprising number of letters commenting on or asking questions about the law suit. For decades afterward, I was getting gentle commiserations or gentle inquiries about it, and I still do. It has its own cult following.
Did you try to answer these letters?
I did, especially at first, especially those from the family members. But as the months turned into years and there was little ebb in the flow, it was a losing battle. I would answer one or two a week and put the others I intended to answer onto the stack that kept growing until I would finally shuffle it into a box just to get it out of sight. Then a new stack would begin. It was oppressive.
Did any of these fans try to seek you out in person?
All the time. I was easy to find. And they would come from all over. When someone makes a cross-country trip just to see you it’s hard to say no. Sometimes they would show up at my house. I’ll always remember this one obviously unbalanced fellow appearing at my door late one night. He wanted to talk to me about the book. It was scary.
Were any of these encounters with your readers pleasant?
Of course. Many of them. There was one very intelligent and sincere Frances Farmer fan from Indianapolis named Greg Fischer who wrote me regularly and over the years we became friends. He came to Seattle once to see me and we had a nice visit. He sent me a framed lobby card of the Frances Farmer movie, Exclusive, that I still have hanging on my wall.
Were there ever times when the book actually helped you in your job as a journalist?
I’d have to say yes, in terms of getting me access to certain people. Because the book was so well known and had a particular following among movie people, it got me through doors that might have otherwise been closed to me or put me in a better position with a celebrity I was interviewing. For instance, I did a lunch interview with Anthony Hopkins shortly after he’d read the book and he was so taken with it, he allowed the interview to run on for nearly three hours. We ended up talking about such personal things—the recent death of both our fathers, for instance—that we were both bawling by the end of it. I’m not sure any other journalist ever had that much access to this great actor on that deep a level and I owed it all to the book.
What other names can you drop in that department?
I’m pretty sure the book was responsible for me getting lengthy, one-on-one interviews with Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen and Madonna.
The book seems to speak to actors in a special way. Viggo Mortensen told me that when he read it as a student in Argentina, it “changed his life.”
He told me that too. I can’t imagine how and I didn’t ask.
What did you hear from the Farmer family after the book came out?
Edith, as you might imagine, was not happy with it. Her letters became even more angry and full of name-calling. She was convinced the book and I were part of the ongoing Communist plot against her sister.
Did you hear anything from the brother, Wesley?
Not a word. But I heard a good deal from the next generation of the Farmer family. The children of Wesley and Edith and their numerous cousins. They mostly all loved the book. They would often stop by the paper to see me when they were in Seattle. One of them, Frank Farmer, I became quite friendly with, and we corresponded for a time.
You said that people wrote to point out mistakes in the book. Can you give an example?
Things like having the name of the ship that carried her back from Europe wrong. I had it as the President Cleveland, which a reader pointed out only operated in the Pacific. The ship was actually the President somebody-else. Another reader pointed out that I.W.W. stands for Industrial Workers of the World, not International Workers of the World. Small mistakes that I, or at least a good proofreader, should have caught.
During this period were you still seeking information on the story, still, in any way, investigating the case?
No. I was not actively seeking information, though, as I mentioned, it was coming at me in a steady stream. I couldn’t avoid it.
Can you give an example of this?
One day in 1986 or ’87 I was interviewing the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban and he brought up the subject of Frances’ mysterious episode in Mexico City, in which, she went down there to make a film shortly before her breakdown and ended up being deported. It turned out Montalban had worked on that film in some capacity and knew some of the details. It didn’t clear up the mystery of what happened but it definitely offered some new information and perspective.
Didn’t you also find a new source about Frances’ notorious trip to the Soviet Union?
Yes, in 1983 McGraw-Hill sold the Russian-language rights of Shadowland to the Soviet literary magazine, Inostrannaya Litertura. This was considered a big deal because the Soviets normally didn’t pay good rubles for those kind of rights: they just took them. When it ran in the magazine, several former Young Pioneers who had met Frances in Moscow wrote me with stories and anecdotes that gave a much clearer picture of her time there.
Another episode that jumps to mind is the famous interview she gave to Collier’s magazine that defined her as a nonconformist. In the book I referred to the author of that piece, Kyle Crichton, as “a Hollywood correspondent.” Actually, besides being a fairly well-known author and non-Hollywood journalist, he was also a Communist-party member and one-time editor of The New Masses. The interview was not a chance thing in which she said too much or was maybe even misquoted. She and Crichton knew each other and conspired to give the article just the effect and impact it had. That’s a little shading I’d certainly liked to have worked in.
You said earlier that, after the book came out, you met a number of people who had known her and gave you more perspective on her. Can you give me a for instance?
Martin Ritt, the celebrated movie director, was one. He’d been an actor with the Group Theater and in the cast of Golden Boy. Like everyone else in the company, he’d been madly in love with her. He had some insightful stories about that period that I’d have been happy to use. And there were many others I met or interviewed or got to know who had information about her. Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Earl Robinson, Billy Lee.
Who is Billy Lee?
Billy Lee was the child star of Frances’ very first film, Too Many Parents. I interviewed him in 1986 at the Telluride Film Festival where he was introducing a revival of the wonderful 1940 boy-and-his-dog film, The Biscuit Eater, which was thought to have been lost but had been re-discovered by film historian William K. Everson. Everson pulled Billy Lee out of obscurity for the screening and the poor guy was alcoholic-thin, chain-smoking—nervous and sad as only a fifty-seven-year-old ex-child star who has not made a picture in forty years can be. My interview was a disaster, with Lee answering every question with a monosyllable. Then it hit me. Billy Lee! Frances Farmer! I changed the subject to Too Many Parents and the guy absolutely lit up. Frances had been enormously kind to him, they bonded on the set and he remembered her as a kind of precious mother figure. That would have great to use.
What about the non-Hollywood people in her life?
Every couple of months in those years, someone would approach me with some new story. For instance, one night I was up very late at the paper, covering the Academy Awards I believe it was, and I got in a conversation with this old guy who worked the “rim”—the night copy desk. It turned out he’d been a good friend and drinking buddy of Frances’ second husband, Al Lobley: the man she was briefly married to after getting out of Steilacoom. For a time, he’d been a third wheel to the couple and he saw her almost every day. He told me she had bruises around her eyes that gradually went away during the first three or four months he knew her.
From Dr. Freeman’s special medicine?
He didn’t know. But he believed she’d had the operation. He described her as “zombie-like.” Here’s another interesting incident. One day I got a call from a woman somewhere in the Midwest who said she had just bought a steamer trunk, contents unknown, at a public auction. Apparently it had been sitting in some railway station warehouse, unclaimed, for decades. When the woman opened it, she found it had belonged to Frances Farmer and contained her wedding dress, several scrapbooks she kept of her career, stacks of letters and a treasure trove of her writing. Quite a find. She wondered if I wanted to buy it.
No. I wanted to get away from the whirlpool, not get sucked back into it.
You mentioned earlier that, after the book came out, you learned the identity of the deep throat who called you with the tip about Dr. Freeman.
The man continued to call me every once in a while, we played a cat-and-mouse game as to his identity, and I gradually deduced that he was a certain Dr. Charles Jarvis.
A Seattle psychiatrist. He was well known for being a “court whore,” testifying as an expert witness for a fee at court proceedings. He later became even better known for drawing up an amazingly accurate profile of Ted Bundy, before that celebrated Seattle serial killer was identified. Apparently, Jarvis had been at Steilacoom in 1948 and witnessed some of the Freeman experiments.
Did he actually see Freeman with Frances?
I don’t know. When I asked him that question he wouldn’t say. But he enjoyed teasing me with clues and morsels of information. He was a case himself.
Did you ever meet Dr. Freeman’s son, Franklin, who strongly supported the idea that his father lobotomized Frances?
He called me at one point and we talked about getting together but it never happened. Someone sent me a tape of him making the claim on a 1998 episode of the TV documentary series, Mysteries and Scandals.
Didn’t Marie Yates, around the time of the movie, tell reporters that she had seen “illegally obtained documentary evidence” that proved the lobotomy beyond any shadow of doubt?
That’s what she told the writer Eric Estrin, but she wasn’t able to produce it in the trial.
Did any other information or evidence come to you about the Freeman surgery?
From time to time. Art Forde, the photographer who took those pictures of Freeman in action at Steilacoom, sent me a photo that had never been published or archived. It shows Freeman hovering over a blond woman on a gurney who is a dead ringer for Frances Farmer. But if it is her, it doesn’t prove anything except Freeman’s interest in her. In 1995, the daughter of another nurse who had attended the Freeman surgeries wrote me that, before she died in 1971, her mother told her she had witnessed a Frances Farmer lobotomy. But that conflicts with other, more reliable evidence that he was alone in the room with her when it happened, if it happened.
Did you not think that testimony deserved a news story? You were still an employed journalist, after all.
No. I had written all I intended to write on the subject of Frances Farmer. Anyway, as compelling as it was, none of this new evidence was one-hundred-percent conclusive. The mystery of the lobotomy remained.
That reminds me: did you ever see the display the Seattle Museum of Mystery did on Shadowland? I don’t know if it’s still there but for a long time it was part of their permanent exhibit.
I never saw it.
You should have. They did a terrific job. You would have liked it.
I’ve heard this from others as well. The owners asked if I could contribute something: pictures, research material, a manuscript page, anything. I didn’t respond but they went ahead and did the display anyway. Now I regret not cooperating with them. That museum has become a Seattle institution and a major tourist attraction; and it approaches the Frances Farmer story in the way with which I am most comfortable: as an unsolved historical mystery.
Let’s talk about the Frances Farmer movies a minute. When you were writing the book, many of these films were unavailable. But they’ve since become available on DVD. Did you eventually see them all?
I did, for this conversation. But not in the period we’re now talking about. As the videos and DVDs came out, people would send them to me but I just put them in a drawer. I didn’t want to go there emotionally.
Did you see the other Frances Farmer biographical movies, all of which were influenced by or derivative of Shadowland?
I saw Frances, of course. It was screened during the trial.
What did you think? Your professional opinion?
I generally liked the casting and loved the production values. But that script was hopelessly adrift and Clifford’s direction was barely competent. All the meaning of Frances Farmer’s story was absent.
What about the TV-movie of Will There Really Be a Morning?, which had been rushed out that same year to take advantage of all the Frances Farmer publicity?
That too was screened during the trial. The Brooks lawyers insisted on screening it to show that theirs was not the only movie project that borrowed elements of the book.
What did you think of it?
It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Frances I knew.
Did you see Committed (1984)?
I didn’t. I know it has some fans. I vaguely recall one of the two women who made it approaching me but I can’t recall if I actually had a conversation with her or not. Wasn’t it shot in black & white?
I believe it was. What about the plays? Do you know about them?
I know there was a British play about her called The New Garbo. A journalist friend of mine saw it in London and spoke to the playwright, Doug Lucie. He told her he had a similar experience to me: he saw one of her movies, was blown away by her and got intrigued by the mystery. He said Shadowland came out while he was writing the play and he admitted changing it to reflect the book. Lucie went on to become one of Britain’s most important avant-garde playwrights of the 1980s.
What about this other play, the one that’s actually called Shadowland?
One day our theater critic showed me a press release from the Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, announcing a play called Shadowland, written by its artistic director, Joel Germann. I thought: this can’t be about Frances Farmer. But, sure enough, it was. The playwright obviously thought, if I’m going to steal the book I might as well steal its title too. I thought there was a strange kind of honesty in that. I recently looked up the Broom Street Theater on Wikipedia. It went on to become one of the Midwest’s most successful theater companies, and Germann, now deceased, is remembered as a major force in regional theater.
I count three other plays in New York in this same period, The Frances Farmer Story, Golden Girl and I Died Yesterday; and one in L.A. called Steilacoom. USA Today did a story about the plays called “The Frances Farmer Deluge.”
I didn’t read it and I don’t know anything about those plays. Were any of them successful?
Apparently not. But, you know, it surprises me that no one ever thought of doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style musical of the Frances Farmer story. It has the kind of epic quality that lends itself to the genre.
Actually there was, or almost was. A composer—I can’t remember his name but he had some Broadway credits—wrote me about it. He also sent me a tape of his score, fully orchestrated and performed by professionals. I think it may have gotten as far as an out-of-town try-out before collapsing.
You maintain that, in the decade and more following the publication of the book, you were distancing yourself from it, and letting it die a quiet death.
But my research shows that, during this period, you sanctioned a braille edition of the book.
The National Institute for the Blind asked me. There was no money involved. It was a donation. You’d have to be a real hardass to say no to something like that.
You also, I see, sanctioned an audio-book version.
No, I didn’t. Up until 2016, there was a program on National Public Radio called The Radio Reader that read books in serialized segments on the air. The show was phenomenally popular for more than fifty years and was the forerunner, really, of the audio-book industry. Dick Estell, the founder of the show, read Shadowland but didn’t ask me for permission or even tell me he was going to do it.
Did you hear it?
Yes, because I was a regular listener to the show. One day I turned on NPR as I drove to work and there it was.
You also, during that decade, sanctioned the use of the book as a text in Seattle high schools.
I had a friend named Clay Eals who was, at this time, a teacher, editor of the West Seattle Herald and a fellow movie-theater preservation activist. He asked me if I had any objection to his using the book in his senior English classes. I said, “Fine with me.” Several other teachers followed and, for a while it was a standard text in the city’s senior English classes, a kind of Catcher in the Rye. This was not because of any literary merit but because it was short, sensational in a way that tended to grip 18-years-olds and filled with local references. But I had no connection to any of this. I never addressed or monitored a single class, though I was frequently asked to. I once started to read through a pile of senior essays on the book but found it distressing and soon quit.
Wasn’t all this ongoing attention and interest gratifying to you on some level? If you were really honest with yourself.
On some level, sure, but in the weeks and months and years and decades after the book I became less and less fond of it. And gradually I developed what you might call an authentic aversion to it.
You wanted to disown it?
No, because there was nothing in it I didn’t believe. But I would have been happy for it to go away and be forgotten.
Because of the responsibility it placed on your shoulders to counsel the mentally afflicted and their families?
It was more than that, and more than just the mistakes and the usual author regret over some of the choices he made in haste. When I wrote the book, I had only a limited knowledge of, and no experience in, the Hollywood film industry. But for more than thirty years after I wrote the book I covered that industry on an everyday basis and worked on films in numerous capacities. And the more I learned, the more I realized how naïve the young narrator of Shadowland was. It got to where I could pick up the book and read any random paragraph and its inexperienced mentality would make me wince. It embarrassed me.
For instance I straightaway refer to Frances Farmer in the book as a “great” Hollywood star. Well, she wasn’t a great star. She was a secondary star.
I could argue that she was a great star. She was a unique actress with a riveting persona who made a handful of diverse and several truly memorable films. She was that rare Hollywood star who went on to become a significant Broadway star and she played the lead in one undisputed landmark of the American Theater, Golden Boy.
I don’t want to argue this particular point with you. Surely you can see what I’m getting at. I had an annoying tendency to hype her. Also, the truth is that when I wrote the book I didn’t know anything about actors. In the years since, many, maybe most, of my friends have been professional actors and I’ve learned a great deal about the unique and immensely vulnerable nature of this distinct personality type that should have been in the book and wasn’t.
If you thought about it long enough, you could probably think of a million things that are missing from the book. Or any book.
Another thing that distanced me from the book was my increasing realization of just how much of its sensibility was the product of the passion and intolerance of youth—my youth. As I grew older, I became more tolerant of human weakness and appreciative of how hard the human struggle can be.
Give me a for instance.
For instance, when I wrote the book I could only see her post-institutional life as a long depressing slide into oblivion. I didn’t give her or her hustling third husband Lee Mikesell the credit they deserved in pulling off her “comeback” in the ‘50s, modest though it was. As I grew older and more versed in the unforgiving cruelty of show business and the energy and fortitude required to combat it, I came to realize just how difficult that effort must have been for her and to view it as much more of an achievement.
Age gives us more perspective. It’s supposed to.
When I wrote the book I had no sympathy for Frances’ family, in particular her siblings. My attitude was: how could they let this happen to their sister? But with the perspective of time, I can see how difficult this situation must have been for them, to see how they very well might not have understood or been aware of what was happening. What a tragedy for a family to have to endure! Then to have some kid who thinks he knows everything come along and stir up that tragedy in a whole new way. What an awful thing to do. Poor Edith.
You’re being way too hard on yourself.
I can see that intellectually but it doesn’t matter. That was how I had come to feel emotionally. Moreover, with that perspective of age, I began to resent the young author who had been me, and his lack of objectivity in his pursuit of the story.
But you were very upfront about this aspect in the book and in all its publicity: the detective falls in love with the object of his investigation. That was the element of the book people responded to most.
My opinion of the book was also affected by the fact that the New Journalism, with its trademark lack of objectivity, began to grow out of fashion in those years. As this happened, and as backlashes and scandals were created by its greatest abusers, whatever achievement the book might have had dwindled in my mind to nothing.
Ironically, the new Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s has recently been making a big comeback with readers. Books in this genre by Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson are bestsellers all over again.
That’s neither here nor there as to how I was feeling about it in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Was anything else helping to generate this growing aversion to the book in this period?
Yes, and it’s harder to explain, but over the years, the whole Kafkaesque episode of the movie and the lawsuit and the trial and its bad outcome, instead of disappearing, began to weigh on me more and more.
But wasn’t this, by now, old news?
It should have been. But it curiously wasn’t. People were forever asking me about it, and wailing on its injustice. This became a permanent part of my life. Numerous legal scholars and historians have approached me about it with the notion that it set a very negative precedent in copyright law and represents an historical low point in the protection of intellectual property rights. As you probably know, judgements in the years since have tended to go in the favor of the copyright holders not the usurpers. Two different screenwriters approached me with the idea of making a TV-movie based on the trial, a courtroom drama in which I would be portrayed, I guess, as something of a patsy. I wanted no part of these projects and, mercifully, they eventually went away.
This all weighed on you?
It did, progressively. It’s funny because, at the time, I was just glad to have the trial over. I was in no way devastated by its verdict. I shrugged it off. But, over time, it did bother me. I began to really regret not trying to find the money to appeal the verdict, as impossibly expensive as that would have been for me. Gradually, my feelings segued into a sense of injustice. And at the same time, I also felt guilty for having taken part in the lawsuit and trial, for being part of that whole greedy spectacle, trying to make money off this woman’s tragedy. So it was a conflicting stew of emotions about the event that festered with time. In a way, I think it was like post-traumatic stress syndrome. The more I’ve read about that condition, the more I think I suffered from some shade of it. In any case, it scarred me.
Scarred in what way?
After the book tour for China Gate, which happened a year after the trial, I did not do another interview for twenty years. By that I mean I did not sit for an interview. I was still doing interviews with celebrities. I was still part of that process. But I was in control of it, participating in the publicity machine from a position of safety. I was appearing in print every day but I developed an authentic phobia of exposing myself, especially on television or radio.
So you were really haunted by this.
Well, in a way, yes. And the problem was that I could not get away from it. Frances was always in the next envelope or phone call, or suddenly staring me in the face like the ghost in Portrait of Jennie or the femme fatale of a film noir. Because I was forever having to go to an event at the Paramount Theater or the Admiral in West Seattle, her neighborhood theater growing up. Since the Olympic Hotel has always been Seattle’s finest, it is where all the visiting celebrities stay and where I would do interviews with them. Not once in the hundreds of times that I went there did I not see Frances being feted in that famous party after the premiere of Come and Get It or working in the hotel laundry after her release from Steilacoom.
Has anyone ever suggested to you the possibility that there might be a curse involved with Frances Farmer?
Many times, and in fact Los Angeles magazine did a feature story in 1982 called “The Curse of Frances Farmer.” But, in my case, it’s not true. I’ve given you a false impression, I’m sure, and exaggerated how much of my life was taken up with the aftershock of the book. I was haunted, to some extent, but I was not cursed. The other ninety-nine percent of my life was nothing but blessed. I had a great marriage, a daughter I worshiped, two successful books, lots of glamorous travel and a job that was the envy of everyone I knew.
It was toward the end of this period we’ve been talking about that the first article appeared denouncing you for being a Scientologist. Did that add to your bad feelings for the book?
Actually no. When I saw that piece, in Premiere magazine, my emotion was amusement—it seemed that far off base.
Can you tell us something about that article?
Premiere was the thinking-person’s movie magazine in that era and its top investigative reporter, John H. Richardson, was a writer whose work I’d really admired and always looked forward to reading. In October, 1993, he wrote this article about the growing influence of Scientology in Hollywood that named me as one of the most influenced, based solely on the fact that I had acknowledged the work of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights in a book published fifteen years earlier.
In fairness to Richardson, you also acknowledged Heber Jentzch, the President of the Church of Scientology.
That’s true. I put his name, without explanation, in a list of people who had been helpful in the research. But he attained that presidency many years later. He was a media liaison the one time I met him.
How did he help you?
He got me access to several celebrities I couldn’t otherwise get to that I needed to interview. Later, after Marie Yates did what she did, he wrote me the letter condemning her actions and he also interviewed Stewart Jacobson and helped determine that he was a fraud. That was the extent of our relationship. But I have to say that, in those dealings, he was upfront and never tried to influence me in any way. He was a decent guy.
But the CCHR (Citizens Commission on Human Rights) does have links to Scientology?
Yes, I suppose it does. But that doesn’t abrogate the pioneering work it has done in the field of mental health abuse. Here’s an analogy: for more than a decade my wife and I have sponsored a Muslim child in the slums of Nigeria. We do this through World Vision, which is a Roman Catholic organization. Now I don’t think, because I do this, that I need to apologize for the sins of the Popes, nor do I think I should stop supporting that child in Africa because it’s come out that Boston is overrun with pedophilic Catholic priests.
Didn’t Thomas Szasz say something similar to this when he was criticized for working with CCHR?
Yes, in 2009, to the Australian Broadcasting Company. I have it here. He said: “I got affiliated with an organization long after I was established as a critic of psychiatry, called Citizens Commission for Human Rights, because they were then the only organization and they still are the only organization who had money and had some access to lawyers and were active in trying to free mental patients who were incarcerated in mental hospitals with whom there was nothing wrong, who had committed no crimes, who wanted to get out of the hospital. And that to me was a very worthwhile cause; it's still a very worthwhile cause. I no more believe in their religion or their beliefs than I believe in the beliefs of any other religion. I am an atheist, I don't believe in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Buddhism and I don't believe in Scientology. I have nothing to do with Scientology.” That pretty much says it for me, except that I’m not an atheist. I’m a Presbyterian.
But the Premiere article named you as a Scientologist?
That was the inference any logical reader would draw from it.
It groups you with John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Have you ever met these two most famous movie Scientologists?
I’ve interviewed them both. But the subject of Scientology sure never came up between us.
And you reacted to this article, you say, with amusement?
I was not unduly bothered by it. It was such a preposterous claim. But many of those around me were less cavalier about it than I was.
How did they react?
Some with panic. The stigma against this religion was just beginning at this time. I remember Ruth Hayler, the major domo of the Seven Gables Theater chain and my friend—she was the one who first called my attention to the article—telling me I must call or write them at once and straighten this out. I said, “Why?” To react like that implies I think there is something awful about being a Scientologist. I don’t. If someone called me an Eskimo would I feel the need to call a press conference to proclaim that I was not an Eskimo? I have nothing against Eskimos. The only thing that really griped me about the article was that Richardson could have picked up his phone and called me at the paper before he named my name and I would have been happy to explain the acknowledgements. But he didn’t bother. That’s hard to excuse in a reporter.
In retrospect, do you wish you had stood up and said, “Hey, not me!”?
Probably I do. Once something is said about you in print it’s hard to shake off. It’s like McCarthyism. When someone calls you a Communist, you’re a Communist in the world’s eyes until you prove differently. And the Scientology tag would, as Fred Hills predicted all those years ago, continue to cause me a good deal of grief.
Also, by the early ’90s, your Frances Farmer association must have finally been waning. You probably didn’t want to do anything that might call more attention to it.
That’s exactly right. I didn’t want to jump back into the fray in any way. I remember thinking, I’m finally about free of this. Just let this Scientology thing slide. I had no way of knowing that exactly six months later a whole different kind of Frances Farmer bomb would drop on my head.
9. The Fan
Do you recall the first time you heard of Kurt Cobain?
Not really. I vaguely recall hearing the hard alliteration of that name from time to time in mid to late-1993—around the time of the Premiere article.
You were not a rock music fan?
I was, immensely, but it was the music of the ‘60s and early ‘70s that I loved. It’s a generational thing.
You were a player in the Seattle arts scene. How could you not know about the grunge rock music phenomenon being born in your city?
It was easy. In the early ’90s, Seattle had the most vibrant and voluminous movie scene in the country, averaging at least one new Hollywood or American independent or foreign film released a day. It was a tunneled-in struggle to keep up with this flood. I gradually lost all track of what was happening in pop music and, more importantly, in television—which was gradually replacing movies and theater as the most innovative and creative arena of dramatic art.
Did you have any clue that Frances Farmer was being regarded as a hallowed figure, almost a patron saint, by many young members of this exploding rock music scene?
I did have a sense of that. I was introduced to a fellow who played in the group Alice in Chains. He told me about this cult following. Later, the leader of the group Pearl Jam told me the same thing.
No one told you there was a popular local band called the Frances Farmers?
No, I heard about that group much later. You have to understand that people who knew me well knew that I didn’t like to talk about Frances Farmer and they generally avoided the subject.
When do you first recall hearing the name of Kurt Cobain in relation to Shadowland?
Sometime in early 1994. As I arrived at work one morning, my editor came to me and said, “Kurt Cobain just called us; he wants to meet you.” I said, “Who is Kurt Cobain?” She couldn’t believe I had no idea who he was. She said, “He wants to talk to you about Frances Farmer. You need to call him.”
Hell, no. My relation to the Frances Farmer story was my own business, not the newspaper’s. I ignored the command.
When did he first call you directly?
I don’t know. Probably shortly thereafter. He left a voicemail. After that blessed innovation arrived, I rarely answered my phone personally.
And you didn’t respond?
No I didn’t.
How many times did he call and leave messages after that?
Maybe a half-dozen times over a period of a month or two. One of those times he and a girl with him left a long, rambling message in which they were both obviously stoned on something. The time of the message was way after midnight.
What did he want?
He wanted to talk about Frances Farmer.
And you didn’t want to talk to him about Frances Farmer?
I certainly didn’t. That was about the last thing I wanted to do.
At one point, I understand, he came to the paper to see you.
He just popped in. The security guard thought he was high and almost called the police. He waited for me but I escaped the building via the garage entrance.
When was the last time he left a message on your phone?
Probably the last part of March, 1994.
What did he say in the message?
I can’t recall word for word. Things like, “I really need to talk to you, man” and “I feel just the way you do” and one rambling line that he mumbled over and over that went something like, “I’m me and I’m you and I’m her.”
And he killed himself on April 5.
How did you learn about it?
Our rock music critic, Gene Stout, told me. He knew Cobain and knew about his Frances Farmer fixation.
Do you remember your reaction?
My first reaction was shock, not so much that he shot himself but that he did it, as the reports were saying, in his “turn-of-the-century Lake Washington Boulevard mansion.” Mansion? I pictured the guy living in some Capitol Hill flop house, not a mansion.
Did the extent of the national and international news coverage that day also surprise you?
Totally. It was being treated like the death of Elvis, or the assassination of John Lennon. I was stunned by it. I had no idea.
Did you feel bad, at this point, for not talking to him when he had been so desperately trying to see you?
Not at first. That came later. I didn’t have too much time to feel guilty that morning because within what may have been minutes Gene Stout came back to me and asked if I would go with him to the death scene and meet with Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, who was flying in from somewhere—California, I think. Stout said the widow was not going to talk to any member of the press except him and she would only talk to him if I came along with him. She specifically wanted to talk to me.
Which, I assume, you didn’t want to do.
No, I didn’t. But I had no choice. I could see by now that this was a huge news story. So the appointment was made for the two of us to meet her at the mansion.
Mercifully, no. There was some complication with the police and then with her flight and it was postponed and then didn’t happen at all. In preparation for that meeting, however, I boned up on the subject of Kurt Cobain and Frances Farmer.
What did you learn?
I learned, among other things, that he had read Shadowland when he was a kid growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, and it had an ongoing impact on his life. His wife, Courtney Love, was a kind of Frances Farmer figure—tall, blond, talented and outspoken. She shared this fixation and, in their marriage ceremony, wore Frances Farmer’s wedding dress (acquired, no doubt, from the lady who had bought the lost steamer trunk). The couple named their daughter, born the year before, Frances. One of the songs on his group Nirvana’s last album, In Utero, was called “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” It was probably the last song he ever wrote.
You later read into the lyrics of that song a de facto suicide note?
Yes, I stupidly wrote something to that effect about a week after the suicide. I don’t know what I could have been thinking. I must have been unhinged.
How did that article come about?
The paper knew about this Frances Farmer angle to the Kurt Cobain story and as that story grew by leaps and bounds over the next week, I was being urged to write something about it. And during this same week I was becoming more and more consumed with guilt for not talking to the guy when he was so frantically trying to see me. I couldn’t sleep at night and finally I decided I had to write something about it, a sort of mea culpa. It was the first time I had written anything mentioning the name of Frances Farmer in well over a decade.
It was a rather long feature, bannered on page one, and widely syndicated.
I was just babbling incoherently, trying to get the weight off my chest. I so regret doing it.
Because it linked me to Kurt Cobain for the next twenty years. Ultimately, it made me a target. Not so much then as in later years.
I’ve heard the story that one of Cobain’s psychiatrists blamed you for his suicide. Can that be true?
Can you tell me about that?
Sometime after that article came out, I got a call from a psychiatrist in California who treated Cobain several times in the year before his suicide, or said he did.
What did he want with you?
He wanted to tell me that, in his eyes, I was responsible for Kurt’s suicide.
In what way?
He said Kurt was obsessed with my vision of Frances Farmer to the point where, as he became increasingly famous, he developed a pathological fear that, like her, he would eventually be incarcerated and lobotomized. That concern was originally for his wife, Courtney, who he saw as Frances. But, over time, it transferred to himself. Increasingly, he saw himself as Frances and the Freeman transorbital lobotomy became his demon, the center of all his nightmares. Finally, in an unbalanced effort to escape that fate he feared so much, he took his own life.
How did that affect you?
It devastated me.
You felt responsible for his death?
How could I not?
But that’s not reasonable. An author is not responsible for how his work might impact an unstable mind. He can’t possibly foresee such a thing.
I couldn’t let myself off the hook that easily.
The Catcher in the Rye inspired the shooters of both John Lennon and Ronald Reagan. But I’m betting J.D. Salinger never lost one night of sleep over it. He knew he bore no responsibility for how some wacko kid interpreted it.
This was different.
It’s maybe hard to explain. I knew the book—not just the Frances Farmer story but the way it was written, the sensibility and pull of the narrator “character,” the “me” of the book—had a certain power over the adolescent mind. I knew this from all the mail I’d received over the years from young people and it was expressed often eloquently in the essays about the book that Clay Eals had regularly forwarded me from his senior English classes.
So the “me” of the book, with which these kids identify, was me but he was also not me. He was a literary device, a tool of the New Journalism, concocted for a particular effect.
You speak as if there’s something dishonest in that.
Wasn’t there? When it sucks an innocent mind into an unhealthy identification like this? I thought so. But it was more than that. The thing that drove Cobain to his act, if the doctor on the phone is to be believed, was an abnormal fear of having what happened to Frances Farmer happen to him—a lobotomy—and he acquired this fear from reading the book. But the transorbital lobotomy of Frances Farmer may not have happened.
You allow as much in the book.
But I make the case that it did happen: the reader is convinced, Kurt Cobain was convinced.
It’s a strong case and most of the evidence that has emerged since the book supports it.
Still, that five percent doubt that it happened had lingered and now it tore at me and made me feel that my irresponsibility in embracing the idea and my skill in presenting it might just have killed this poor kid.
You felt profoundly guilty.
God help me, I did.
How did this manifest itself?
I shut down in regard to anything that had to do with Frances Farmer.
But you must have spoken to Dave Thompson, who wrote Never Fade Away, the first of the many Kurt Cobain biographies, because he devotes a lot of space to Cobain’s obsession with Frances, and he quotes you.
I did speak to him but it was before the call from Cobain’s doctor.
The second biography, Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain, also mentions you.
But I didn’t speak to the author.
The third and most substantive biography doesn’t mention you or Frances at all.
I knew the author, Charlie Cross, somewhat, a local guy who wrote for the Seattle Rocket. He emailed me some questions and I composed an email begging him to please not put me in his book. I’m not sure if I actually sent that email or if I just ignored his but, in any case, he didn’t mention either Frances or me, for which I am eternally grateful.
I’m really surprised your publisher didn’t come out with a new addition of Shadowland to cash in on this publicity. Even if you didn’t sanction it.
Berkley/Jove no longer had any rights to it and McGraw-Hill had abandoned trade books by this time so there was no one around but me with the power to make that decision.
But, Jesus, the suicide of Kurt Cobain was one of the biggest news stories of the decade. The book directly tied into it. You could have made a killing.
It would have been blood money. I wanted no part of it.
What was your feeling about the book at this juncture?
I hated it. I had no affection for it at all. I could have cut off my hand for writing that stupid article bringing it all up again. More than ever, I just wanted the fucking thing to go away, to finally and forever just disappear. And I didn’t speak about it again, publicly or even privately, for the next fifteen years.