Of a Book
1. The Reissue
Wallace Reid Boyd: My first question to you is: why now? After all these decades and long after all its controversy has passed, why have you suddenly chosen to reissue Shadowland at this late date?
William Arnold: The short answer is that I’ve recently learned that if I didn’t, I might lose the copyright. The current law, granting a copyright for seventy years after an author’s death, went into effect in 1978, which was the year the book was first published. But the contract was signed in late 1977 and I was advised by an attorney that this was a technicality that could put its copyright in question. The easiest and fastest way to firmly root the book in the new era of copyright law was to simply re-publish it as an e-book.
What’s the long answer?
The long answer is the subject of this conversation.
Okay, then, let me start by asking you why you nixed a reissue of the book in 1982 when Frances, the Hollywood movie based on it, was released?
Since I was suing its producers it would have been pretty hypocritical for me to try to cash in on the movie at the same time, don’t you think?
What about in the mid-’90s, after all the publicity about Kurt Cobain’s obsession with the book, and speculation about the role it might have played in his death?
The very last thing I wanted at that time was more publicity about this unwanted connection. I wanted to distance myself as far as I could from the book. I wanted it to disappear.
Just after the turn of the Millennium, the paperback publisher, Berkley/Jove, tried to do a reprint and you stopped it.
They wanted to take advantage of a new round of controversy that had erupted on the internet. But their rights had long since lapsed and I wanted the book to stay out of print.
In a 2009 article about you called “Always in Her Shadow,” you indicate you had finally stopped running from Shadowland and had come to terms with it. Embraced it, even. A cover-line says, “A lost masterpiece is out of print, but may be coming back to life.” But it didn’t. How come?
Everything in that article is true. My attitude toward the book did do a turnaround at that time, and I decided to take another look at the Berkley/Jove offer. But by this time and without any heat of controversy, they had lost interest in putting it out again.
So, in the meantime, what happened?
A few years after that, the author Greg Olson contacted me with the idea of reprinting it as part of a line of vintage true-crime e-books he was sponsoring. The idea intrigued me but I couldn’t do it then because I was heavily involved in another project. You see, there were so many mistakes that needed to be corrected and so much new material that had come to light about Frances Farmer in the years since its publication, and there were so many things in the book that now seemed clumsy and embarrassing to me, that I figured I would have to completely rewrite it.
How did the copyright issue come up?
When this e-book idea was first proposed, I checked all the contracts to see where the rights stood. That’s when the complication jumped at me. So I knew I had to do something but it wasn’t until two years later that I finally went all-in on the idea.
What does “all-in” mean?
You know, throw myself into the effort. Understand, this was a subject I had not looked at in nearly forty years. So first I had to go back and reread all my old research material, look up all the interviews I had given and wade through the forest of paper from the movie lawsuit, the depositions and transcript of the trial. Then I had to read all the research and new books written on the subject in the years since and face the seeming infinity of material on the internet, some of it praising me but most of it damning me. And since all the Frances Farmer movies had become available on DVD since my time with her, I wanted to see these as well, several for the first time. My idea was to come to terms with all this and incorporate it in a corrected and updated Shadowland Redux.
Which you didn’t do.
Well, I mounted that campaign but I didn’t do the Shadowland Redux. When I tried to rewrite the book in light of all that followed from it, it destroyed what the book was: a detective story set very much in the paranoid ’70s. It was also imposing an old man’s sensibility on a young man’s book. It just didn’t work. It had become somewhat outdated, an antique if you will, but still very effective and, I judged, a unique reading experience that deserved to survive in something close to its original form. So I decided to just correct the typos (of which there were many) and some of the more embarrassing errors, and to get rid of the epilogue and acknowledgements which I had never wanted to do in the first place, but to otherwise let it stand.
What about all the material that came out of your campaign of re-research?
I decided to do a whole new book about the things that happened after the book was written, about equal the size of Shadowland, in close to the same style and called Shadowland Revisited. I actually wrote a draft of it but I didn’t like the way it came off, overall.
You abandoned that idea too.
That’s too bad. I’d be hard pressed to think of another book of the past half century that has had such an epic post-history, involving so many celebrated people and so much controversy and courtroom drama, bringing in so many social and political and even religious interests into the mix, in such an ironic and Kafkaesque way. It’s worth a book.
That may be but a book about a book written by the author of the book himself is hard to bring off without it seeming an exercise in self-aggrandizement. I couldn’t do it. So I finally decided that the best way to tell the story was in a Platonic dialogue with someone like you, who knows the book, knows the movie business and has often been critical of me in the past.
And you think this will work while your other two efforts to revisit Shadowland failed?
2. The Inception
In the book, your journey with Frances Farmer begins when you chance upon a revival screening of Come and Get It. Is that the way it happened?
Pretty much. Later, in the editing stage, it was decided to move that meeting up a year, to when I was first employed as a journalist. An economy move that, in retrospect, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But otherwise the framing story is basically the way it happened, and it did begin with that revival.
Can you pinpoint the precise date of that fateful meeting?
Yes. It was August 12, 1972 at the Edgemont Theater in Edmonds, Washington, a town about seventeen miles north of Seattle where my parents had retired. The theater was built in 1924 as the Princess and had only recently changed its name and gone to a revival format.
I remember that cozy little cinema well from when I worked in Seattle in 1969. I assume it’s long gone.
Amazingly, it’s still there. While all the other classic theaters in the Seattle area have vanished or converted to another use, the old Princess remains a single-screen theater showing first-run Hollywood movies on the little main street of Edmonds. A miracle of survival.
Were you already, when you first glimpsed Frances Farmer, a fan of classic movies?
An addict. I couldn’t get enough of them. Like so many others in the baby-boomer generation.
You were in rebellion against everything your parents’ generation—which, incidentally, is also my generation—stood for, except our movies.
We appreciated them in a way you had not—as art. The early 1970s was, for us, a great era of movie discovery.
Let’s go back a step from there. You’re—what—a few years younger than Scorsese and Lucas and Coppola, about the same age as Spielberg, correct?
So you were largely a product of the movies of the 1950s. What are the first movies you can remember seeing?
The first movie I can distinctly remember seeing is Quo Vadis? when I was probably five years old. I saw it at the Melba Theater in Batesville, Arkansas, where we were living while my father was in the Korean War. It was love at first sight. Later, when we moved to Seattle, I made a fetish out of lolling over the movie ads in the newspaper every day. I used to cut out and save the ones that especially appealed to me. Sometimes I’d draw up my own. I remember drawing my own ad for When Worlds Collide and nailing it to the telephone pole outside our house on Northgate Way.
So you must have grown up watching old movies on television.
Oddly, I didn’t. My father was a career Army officer and, when I was ten, we moved to France. After a few years there, we moved to Germany and I went to high school in Taiwan. They didn’t have television yet in any of those places. So most of the movies I saw growing up were in theaters. In France and particularly in Taiwan, they were always showing old Hollywood films. I saw tons of them—things like Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and John Wayne in The Wake of the Red Witch—in the Shihminting theater district of Taipei in the early ’60s.
Did you, after high school, have an ambition of working in movies?
I did, and at one point I wanted to go to the UCLA film school. But this was the mid-’60s and there was Vietnam and the draft and the counterculture exploding all around me and it’s too long a story to go into but I ultimately didn’t. I ended up at the University of Washington studying English. After college, I lived a more or less hippie existence for a while and it was during this period that I happened to see Come and Get It at the Edgemont Theater.
And Frances Farmer knocked you out?
She absolutely did. I thought she was one of the most incredible stars I had ever seen. And I was struck by the paradox: why had I never heard of her?
Did you try to look up information about her?
I did, but there was nothing, or almost nothing. The only thing I could find was a brief entry in Leslie Hallowell’s Dictionary of Film, a British book. It listed a couple of films and stated that she had “retired due to ill health.”
You must not have looked very hard. I can’t believe that—
Understand that this was more than a decade before the explosion of movie reference books in the ’80s and ’90s, and two decades before the internet. None of the standard movie references of the time mentioned her.
How much time elapsed before you did find out something more about her?
Probably a year. It was after I got a job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which was the morning daily in Seattle and the oldest newspaper in the Northwest.
You were an editorial writer?
Yes, I wrote editorials and op-ed pieces, edited the letters to the editor and sometimes made up the editorial pages in the back shop.
Were you actively trying to research her during this year?
Not actively. But I kept an eye out for that enticingly alliterative name in the TV late-show listings and her image stayed in my head. I kept thinking about her. She was like my own personal woman of mystery.
What happened next?
I was in my local drugstore near Green Lake in Seattle when something caught my eye in the paperback rack. A strangely familiar face on a book cover. The book was Will There Really Be a Morning? by Frances Farmer. Billed as “The searing personal story of a great Hollywood star’s descent into hell.”
Had you seen no previous publicity for the book?
None. It was just suddenly there. But it had been originally published, with very little fanfare, about the time I saw Come and Get It the year before. I bought it and read it in one, day-long binge and it utterly destroyed me.
Destroyed you how?
First of all, there was this incredible coincidence that she was from Seattle and had gone to the University of Washington, where I’d toiled for over six years. Then there was the incongruity that this vision of beauty and intelligence I had been nursing in my head for the past year could go violently insane, which was hard for a smitten twenty-six-year-old to accept. And then there was her gut-wrenching description of being locked up for five years in an unnamed Washington State mental institution so brutal and inhuman it rivaled a Nazi concentration camp. I was actually taking a week off from work at the time and reading the book ruined the vacation. I didn’t sleep for the next two nights.
Why do you think this hit you so particularly hard?
What do you mean?
I mean, why do you think you were predisposed to respond so deeply to this story? And, ultimately, to be hooked by it for years of your life? Why weren’t you able to simply shake it off?
Well, I have a penchant for historical mystery. The first thing I ever published was a story about the world’s tallest grove of trees that once stood in Seattle’s Ravenna Park but mysteriously disappeared just before WWI. After I was done with Frances, as you well know, I would spend years researching and writing works that explore, in both fact and fiction, the mysterious deaths of two other historical figures, the artist Vincent van Gogh and President Warren G. Harding. So this is something for which I have a natural affinity.
As true as that may be, I happen to know that you have a more personal reason for being shaken by this particular story. Why don’t you just say it?
Yes, I do have a family connection to psychiatric abuse, if that’s what you’re talking about. During WWII, my father endured months of some of that war’s most intense hand-to-hand fighting in the jungles of New Guinea. He came out of it with severe battle fatigue—what we now call “post-traumatic stress”—and to treat it the Army gave him, against his will, an intensive program of electric shock treatments at the base hospital of Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. By his own admission, he was never the same after those “treatments.” They destroyed a large part of the man he had been. I grew up with that legacy. So, yeah, I guess I was predisposed to respond to such a harrowing tale of psychiatric abuse on a deeper level than most people.
I have a feeling, from observing the way this subject seems to have sobered you, that there may be an even more personal reason.
You’re right. A year or so before I saw Come and Get It, I had a very bad experience with LSD. My first and last taste of that drug. A bad trip. For days I was in its grip, in an absolute terror of paranoia and panic, fearing it would never end and I would be locked up in some institution forever. The horror of this left me violently anti-drug, violently anti-anything that messes with your system and feeling that I knew what it was like to be insane. Thinking about it now, I realize that this devastating experience probably also predisposed me to be morbidly, perhaps even masochistically, attracted to the Frances Farmer story.
Alright, let’s get back on track. You read the book and it depressed you, immobilized you. How did you get out of that state?
After about three days, I was rescued by the idea that I could actually do something about it. I could write a story about this forgotten psychiatric commitment, in light of her book. An op-ed piece. I could name its unnamed institution and maybe even some of the doctors and lawyers involved.
You were thinking of a kind of feature book review?
Not exactly, because the book was more than a year old. But by this time, I had read that there was movie interest in the book. Charles Bronson wanted to produce it as a vehicle for his wife, Jill Ireland. I wanted to do a piece that would tie-in with that possibility. You know, like, tell how they were going to make a big movie about this horrific long-forgotten story in our civic past, and tell some of that story and question whether or not it could be true.
So how did you go about this?
The first thing I did, after I returned from vacation, was to head straight for the P-I library to see what we had on her in our card files.
I think I know what a newspaper card file is, but maybe you should explain it.
It was like the card catalog you used to see in every public library, only the cards were a bit larger than the standard index-card size. On them, generations of librarians had typed summaries of every story the newspaper had published about a certain person or subject. The system was very low-tech but also very efficient, with coded information about the editions in which the stories ran and the reporter and photographer involved.
Did you expect to find much on her?
Frankly, no. I expected to find something about her early movie-star years and maybe the commitment. But I was bowled over by what was there. Her cards just went on and on. And lots of them dealt with the period before she became a movie star: stories about the controversy she had aroused as a student radical. It was an incredible treasure trove of information. The number of words the P-I had devoted to Frances Farmer over the first thirty years of her life would fill a book.
Would this be a different book than the autobiography?
In many ways, yes. I could see that our files contained a great deal of material, whole chapters of her life, that was not covered by the autobiography.
Were there photos as well?
Yes, the Frances Farmer packet in the library’s photo file was even more of a bounty. It was as thick as the Tacoma phone book. Baby photos, elementary school photos, high school photos, college photos, all obviously given to the newspaper by her mother at various times over the years. Photos of the Russian trip, tons of publicity stills, photos taken at her commitment and inside the institution. It amounted to the world’s greatest Frances Farmer photo archive.
At this point, she had been dead for only three years. Surely there were people working at the newspaper who knew of her and her story.
Amazingly few. My boss, a woman named Ruth Howell, had gone to school with her at the University of Washington and knew the general outlines of her story. And the newspaper librarian, Florence Frye, also knew of her. But they were both women in their sixties. Otherwise, there was no sense of her at all.
How could that be?
I didn’t know and it was one of the things about the story that most fascinated me. How could anyone this famous, and this famous locally, be so completely forgotten? It just didn’t make any sense.
To what did these women attribute this strange oblivion?
The librarian Florence Frye, who became a great ally to me, believed it was the stigma that earlier generations placed on mental illness. People just didn’t like to talk about it. As if it might be catching.
What did Ruth Howell think?
She thought it was due to Seattle’s curious relationship to its past. Its way of promoting itself as America’s “City of the Future” while conveniently forgetting or covering over the more embarrassing incidents of its history. Frances Farmer might have been a Hollywood celebrity but she was also linked to a dark chapter of its labor history that it wanted to forget. She gave me quite an education on this subject.
When did it first occur to you that maybe Frances Farmer had not been insane at all, that maybe she had been railroaded into that mental institution?
Pretty much right away. Understand, I was operating off her movie image: a persona that exuded not just patrician beauty but also intelligence, reason, emotional depth and idealism. No way could I accept the idea that such a vision could just, out of nowhere, go stark raving mad. I was prejudiced from the start and, over the next six months, as I read all our stories on her, and read her FBI file, and read her responses to her inquisitors in her kangaroo court of a commitment hearing, it was easy to find plenty of justification for my prejudice.
Did any of the stories you read from the ’40s share your feeling or indicate a feeling that there might have been a political motivation behind her commitment?
Only one. A rather strange piece written by Ed Guthman for the Seattle Times in 1947, which was more or less the beginning of the McCarthy Era. It was an interview with Lillian Farmer in which she goes on and on about how the Communists harangued her daughter into insanity and how lucky she was to be safely locked up in the Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, where they could no longer get at her.
The author of this piece was the Ed Guthman?
Yes, the same Ed Guthman who a couple years later would win a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering how a Washington State Un-American Activities committee had deliberately withheld information that would have cleared a University of Washington professor it had charged with being a Communist. After that, he was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, both as Attorney General and as U.S. Senator. At this time he was national editor of the Los Angeles Times.
You mention in the book, I believe, that you spoke to him.
Yes, and though he couldn’t recall the specifics of Lillian’s charges, he remembered that, by letting the old woman hang herself with that long paranoid rant, he had been subtly suggesting that perhaps she was the crazy one of the pair and that the daughter, Frances, might be the victim of her mother and others’ anti-Communist hysteria.
Did you tell Guthman what you were doing?
Yes, and he couldn’t have been more encouraging. He said he’d thought for a long time that the Frances Farmer commitment was a fascinating footnote of that scoundrel time which deserved to be examined a little more closely.
You say you spent six months reading all this material you dug up in the newspaper file? Why so long? Was there really that much of it?
This was in no way my fulltime job. I could only get at it when my other duties were done. And, gradually, it became a sort of hobby that I let draw out. I mean I was really enjoying it, the mystique of it all. And gradually I got hooked on some emotional level I had never experienced before and didn’t understand. I was totally absorbed by her. I began making pilgrimages to the various places in the city she knew—the schools she attended and the house where she grew up in West Seattle. I would spend hours looking at her photos. There was one picture that particularly struck me, taken when she was working her way through college as an usherette at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. She’s standing next to this beautifully sculpted, stand-alone drinking fountain, looking just excruciatingly innocent and beautiful. I knew the theater very well. I knew that very drinking fountain. I found myself returning to it again and again. Obsessed, you might say, by the ghost of this dead woman.
Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
You’re making fun of me but you’re not that far off.
But you did eventually write an article.
Yes, six months after I read the autobiography and some eighteen months after I saw Come and Get It, I wrote a piece for the op-ed page that I called “The Dark Odyssey of Frances Farmer.” I put everything I had into it and it got into the paper only through great conniving on my part.
Why did you have to connive?
Because, first of all, it was longer than possibly anything that had ever run in the paper before. It was also written in a rather unobjective way, in which the barely suppressed rage of the reporter and his sympathy for his subject were palpable—very much in the style of the New Journalism, which was not the house style at all. Also, it was a huge slap in the face to many elements of the city and state government. When he read it, the paper’s managing editor, Jack Doughty, didn’t want to run it at all.
What changed his mind?
Doughty was an old-school journalist if there ever was one, but he was sensitive to the changing times and he sensed that this could be a splashy story. Since I had written it on my own time, if he didn’t run it, I could freelance it somewhere else, where it might have an impact that would be embarrassing to him. So he finally said it could run sometime—he was vague about when—but it would have to be cut way down, perhaps as much as by half, and divested of much of its New Journalism passion.
This, I assume, is where the conniving came in.
Ruth Howell, the editorial page editor, also thought the piece would have to be diluted and cut way down. But I had an ally in her assistant and my direct superior, the third person in the department. He thought the piece was terrific and had to run as it was written. So we waited until a week when Howell and Doughty and even the publisher were all out of town and we snuck it into the Sunday paper, taking up one whole page and jumping it into another.
And no one noticed what you were doing?
There was no one above us to notice. But that was not the end of the conniving. The day before the piece was to run, minutes before I was about to go to the back shop to make up the pages, my friend and ally in this snafu came back from lunch drunker than a skunk.
Wait a minute. Back shop? Make up? You’ve used these terms before without explaining them. For those unfamiliar with the stone age of journalism, can you elaborate a little about this process?
Okay, at this time—the first week of January, 1974—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer operated exactly like a newspaper in the 1880s. I wrote the story, on a typewriter of course, and then my editor edited it, pasted the pages together, rolled them up and sent them via a pneumatic tube to the composing room—the back shop. Here, an operator typed the copy into a linotype machine that spit out the lines of type in rows, or galleys, of hot-metal slugs. Then a proof of the galleys was tubed back to the editorial-page office, which we read for mistakes and sent back. Then an editor—me—would go back to the composing room and supervise a printer as he put the rows of type and engraved copies of the pictures and ads we were using into a medal frame or “chase” the size of a newspaper page. Then the printer made a page proof that we would read for more mistakes. Then, once that was approved, a papier-mâché mold of the page would be made which would be attached to the great rotary presses in the basement to run the edition.
Okay, I think I have that. So you were about to make up the page and your colleague came back drunk.
This was not unusual. It was an era when newspaper people tended to drink their lunches. But this particular newsman, my boss and friend and ally, had a real problem with it and he returned from this particular lunch with a drunken whim that my story needed to be suddenly reedited after it was in page proof. He took out a pencil and started changing the wording and adding qualifiers and cutting the length of sentences and tossing out full paragraphs—in a way that, to my mind, utterly destroyed the piece.
Couldn’t you argue him out of it?
It would only have made him more belligerent. I knew him pretty well and this was his nature. I also couldn’t go over his head, because our superiors were all gone and we were doing this behind their backs anyway.
Then what did you do?
At this point, my duty was to return to the back shop with the page poof filled with his chicken-scratch editing and be in charge as the new lines of type were made and the printer substituted them for the old ones. Then a new page proof would be made which I would read right there for any new typos. But what I did was none of the above. I simply approved the page the way it had been before my boss made his drunken changes. This was an unthinkable act of mutiny for which I could have been summarily fired.
But the piece ran exactly as you wrote it?
Exactly, and the morning it ran—a Sunday—as I gazed upon it in its full glory, I felt it was worth being fired for. I knew it was going to have a seismic impact.
When I drove to work the next morning—Monday—I heard three different deejays on three different radio stations talking about it. “Wow, did you see that story in yesterday’s P-I about that actress?” That sort of thing. This is hard to imagine in today’s world when information is so diffused. But in those days there was only three television stations, a smattering of radio stations and two newspapers. And the TV and radio stations took their lead from the newspapers. So that morning the city was wired to Frances Farmer.
What did your boss have to say to you?
Either he didn’t know I hadn’t made his changes or he simply ignored it. He just smiled at me and said, “The phones have been ringing off the hook.”
Who was calling?
A mixture of people who were so moved by the story they felt they had to tell me. Among them were a number of people who had known Frances Farmer in various stages of her life and wanted to impart some information or anecdote about her. I also got a call from a fellow named Thom Gunn, who had an afternoon talk show on KVI radio. He was so taken by the story that he wanted to bounce his scheduled guests and have me for the entire show that day.
Where do I know that name?
Thom Gunn had been the most controversial student body president at the University of Washington in the ’60s. The Frances Farmer of my day there. I couldn’t resist this and I’m glad I didn’t because that show ended up being a gold mine of sources for the book.
In what way?
Two separate women who had been nurses at Steilacoom during Frances’ time there called in with grisly memories that strongly confirmed her horror story. I later stayed in contact with them and they were able to put me in contact with a lot of the former staff. There was another caller that day I’ll never forget, an old man just overcome with guilt, who said he had been among the gangs of soldiers from nearby Ft. Lewis who had been sneaked into the institution for clandestine sexual encounters with Frances and the other women patients.
One of her rapists?
He gave a detailed account of how this pimping operation worked and he broke down and wept as he related it. I cried too. So did Thom Gunn. So did the rest of Seattle. It was a seminal moment that confirmed to me how powerful this story was, not just to me personally, but to the rest of the world as well.
Was this the moment when you decided to do a book?
No, because I figured there was probably room for only one book on Frances Farmer and it had already been written. But the response, and all the new information that was suddenly flowing to me, not just from this radio talk show but from a deluge of letters and phone-calls I was getting at the paper, certainly fed my obsession and the I need I felt to continue investigating her commitment. The response had also been so great—Florence Frye claimed it was the largest, in terms of mail, that any P-I feature had ever received—that Ruth Howell wanted me to do a follow-up. This, ostensibly, was what I was now doing.
Was that—the follow-up—now your full-time job?
God, no. I still had all my other duties. But I was spending a couple hours every day on the newspaper’s time happily talking to people who were suddenly dying to tell me their Frances Farmer stories. Until one day I got a call summoning me to the office of the managing editor, Jack Doughty. As I stood before his immense desk, he hurled a piece of paper on it, growling, “This is a letter from Frances Farmer’s sister. She says she’s going to sue us.”
Did you know about the sister?
I knew that she had one, but I assumed from talking to people in the old neighborhood that she was dead. And her letter was just overflowing with threats and name-calling. It was typed but also full of abuse written by hand in between the lines and into the margins. It looked like one of the crazy letters I was accustomed to seeing as the vox pop editor.
Was the newspaper panicked by this?
Not panicked. Doughty had already run it by the lawyers and they weren’t overly concerned. But he told me to write her back and try to placate her. I did this and the next thing I knew she drove up from her home in Oregon to see me. Her name was Edith. Edith Farmer Elliot.
That must have been an interesting meeting.
Was it ever. I met her in the P-I cafeteria, a little old woman who looked not one bit like her beautiful sister. In fact, she was the embodiment of their hawk-faced mother. She was carrying the manuscript of a book she was writing called My Sister Frances: A Look Back with Love.
What was her contention?
She contended that none of the horror happened, that Lillian Farmer was the greatest mother in the world, that the Communists had driven Frances insane but the Steilacoom institution, a swell place run by inspired doctors, had fixed her up. She also contended that the autobiography was a fake, entirely written after Frances’ death in Indianapolis by a malevolent Lesbian named Jean Ratcliffe (to whom the book was dedicated).
Could there be any truth to this?
Well, I knew she was in denial at least about Steilacoom. The P-I had even done an expose of the horrific conditions there in the late ’40s. The reporter, Lucille Cohen, won a national award for the series. I also had the testimony of those nurses and a number of former patients or their families who had called me in recent weeks.
Had she visited her sister in the institution?
No, she was living in Hawaii all during Frances’ commitment and never visited her. This, to my mind, disqualified her as a source on this matter. But I was intrigued by her stories of Frances’ last days in Indianapolis and her insistence that she had not written “one single word” of Will There Really Be a Morning? So, after Edith left, I called the book’s publisher in New York, G.P. Putnam’s, trying to learn how that book had come about. And they absolutely stonewalled me. All they would say was that the editor of the book—who they wouldn’t name—was “no longer with the company.”
True, but I quickly figured out that it probably stemmed from the fact that Edith had been sending them letters threatening a lawsuit as well as us. I think she must have had them thoroughly intimidated. But I managed to track down the editor, whose name I forget. He was working for another publishing house. He turned out to be very forthright and helpful.
Did he refute Edith’s contention that the autobiography was essentially a fraud?
No, he confirmed it. He said Frances’ friend Jean Ratcliffe wrote the book after Frances’ death. He said Frances, already ill with the cancer that would kill her, contracted with a writer named Lois Kibbee to do the book. Kibbee was the niece of the character actor Guy Kibbee and an actress herself who was just about to start her decades-long role on the soap opera, Edge of Night. She had previously done as-told-to books with Joan Bennett and the sex-change pioneer Christine Jorgensen. Kibbee recorded a series of interviews with Frances but pulled out of the project for various reasons before doing any actual writing.
Why did Kibbee pull out?
I tracked her down to find out. She told me it was largely a personality conflict with Ratcliffe, who had by this time taken possession of Frances’ affairs and was irritatingly intrusive to the writing process. Also, it was clear to Kibbee that there was so much Frances didn’t remember about her life that the whole undertaking was futile. All she had to go by to stoke her faded memory was her mother’s old scrapbook. So Kibbee eventually left the project and then, after Frances died, Ratcliffe took a transcript of the tapes and fashioned the “autobiography” around them.
Did you ever talk to Ratcliffe?
I tried but she wouldn’t come to the phone.
Did Kibbee know about “The Dark Odyssey”?
Yes, someone had sent her a copy and she loved it. She said there was a great deal about the commitment that smacked of a political inquisition. She thought Frances probably never really knew what had happened to her and, if she ever did, she was so “fuzzy-brained” by this time that she didn’t remember it. She thought the story really needed to be more fully investigated from the Seattle end. She couldn’t have been any more encouraging. She said: “You should do a book.”
This was the game changer?
It was. The autobiography had been discredited in my eyes by its editor and its original author, and that author was offering to send me a transcript of the recordings she’d made with Frances and help in any other way she could. I still wasn’t sure there was a book in it but I was so charged up by the open door that I jumped on the trail and spent most of the next three years trying to find out everything I could about the suspicious civil commitment of Frances Farmer and the various personalities involved.
3. The Search
I assume that, unlike the way it’s presented in the book, your actual search over those three years did not proceed in the chronological order of her life.
Of course. This was a literary device that all but a few readers “got.” During those years, information was coming at me from every period of her life and from all directions at once.
You said before that, initially, getting people in Seattle to talk about Frances Farmer was like pulling teeth. But that seems to have changed after “The Dark Odyssey.”
Yes, suddenly people were calling me wanting to share their memories. Neighbors in West Seattle. Schoolmates in grammar school and West Seattle High and the UW. Ex-patients and staff at Steilacoom. People who knew her in the few years after she got out but was still living in Seattle.
Were you able to use Edith’s unpublished book as a source, at least for the family years?
I tried not to. Because she kept showering me with threats of lawsuits. But I did read her manuscript. I thought it was kind of a fantasy. She presented the Farmers as The Waltons, a kind of TV-perfect family. I wasn’t sure I could believe any of it. It was valuable to me to the extent that, at least from Edith’s point of view, there was no hint of any kind of mental illness in Frances’ growing up. In fact, it was just the opposite. She seemed a paragon of mental health to just about everyone who knew her.
So you kept your connection to Edith?
Oh, yes. We continued to write each other all through the next three years and periodically for years afterward. And the correspondence never got very friendly from her end. I think she loved to have someone to rant at, about all sorts of subjects, and I was a submissive audience. Over the years, in a strange way, I actually got to like her, though she never ceased scaring the hell out of me.
How valuable to you was Frances’ high school teacher and mentor Belle McKenzie?
The book couldn’t have been done without her. She was the most important influence on Frances’ development and her confidante throughout her life. She had piles of letters from Frances and copies of her poetry and all sorts of stories and insights into her character. She was like Frances’ second mother really, her liberal mother and the polar opposite of Lillian. I was very, very lucky to have such access to her in this period shortly before she passed away.
How did Edith feel about her?
Edith thought she was the antichrist.
What was Belle McKenzie’s take on Frances’ mental breakdown and incarceration?
She firmly believed Frances was never close to insane. She believed her commitment was politically motivated, a prologue to the McCarthy witch hunts.
Did she never try to see her in Steilacoom or protest to anyone?
She claims she did, but had no success. I never knew the circumstances of it.
Being based in Seattle, how difficult was it for you to research Frances’ Hollywood and Broadway years?
It was no handicap at all. First of all, Seattle has long had the reputation of being the nation’s bellwether movie town, so I found that just about everyone in the movie industry would take the call of a writer from Seattle’s morning daily. Second, after “Dark Odyssey” came out, I changed jobs. I became editor of the P-I’s weekly entertainment magazine. I also wrote a weekly column, and in this capacity I was able to take occasional movie junkets to L.A. and New York.
Was your beat primarily movies?
It covered the whole spectrum of arts and entertainment. But I wrote a lot about movies. The first movie column I did was a valentine, in the wake of Watergate, to the continuing relevance of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A couple of days later, I got separate thank-you letters from Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart. I thought, wow, I like this job.
For those who might not know, what exactly is a movie junket?
It’s a now mostly vanished boondoggle in which the movie studios would fly-in journalists, usually first-class, and put them up in the Beverly Hilton or the Plaza or some other five-star hotel in New York or L.A. to see their movie and then interview their stars. There used to be one almost every week. So one day I would see, say, Star Wars at Fox, weeks or months before its opening, and interview its stars and filmmakers. Then the next day I would stay on in L.A. and seek out people who had known or worked with Frances Farmer.
Sounds like a cushy way to research a book.
I recommend it highly.
How many people would you estimate you interviewed in Hollywood or New York?
It’s a vast list. I, or someone helping me, interviewed everyone still alive we could find who had known her, and that included at least one survivor from every one of her pictures and plays and radio shows. Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Bob Cummings, Howard Hawks, Joel McCrea, Hurd Hatfield, Henry Morgan, Gig Young, Ray Milland, Rowland V. Lee, Susan Hayward, Dennis Morgan, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman. Many more.
That sounds like a who’s who of the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway.
It was and, in retrospect, I wish I had spoken to some of these people about more than just Frances Farmer, because they’re all now long gone and the things I could have but didn’t ask them about their careers seems a lost opportunity.
What kinds of questions did you ask them?
Not the kinds of questions a normal biographer might ask, trying to nail down details of a life and career. It was more to the point of trying to figure out just how radical this woman was, whether or not she was really crazy, and exactly what happened during the steps of her breakdown and commitment. I particularly wanted to know if these people had ever witnessed a psychotic episode on Frances’ part.
No. By the early ’40s, her career was on the skids, her marriage had dissolved and her life had become troubled in several ways. But almost everyone I spoke to liked her and had been shocked and surprised by her alleged mental breakdown. Not one of them had witnessed a psychotic moment.
Who among this list was most helpful?
Probably the actress Jane Rose, who at the time was in the cast of the TV show Phyllis. She was invaluable because she’d been a friend when they were in the UW drama department and also roomed with her in New York after the Russian trip. The actor Henry Morgan was also quite helpful. He loved her, thought she was just a terrific human being. I remember him saying, “Frances was probably the sanest person I ever knew.”
Just how active was she in left-wing politics during this period?
Much more active than the “autobiography” would later maintain, for sure. Her FBI file, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, considered her a determined Communist Party member, which is probably going too far. But I think her mother was right, to a certain extent, when she said, “Frances gave away all her money to the Communists.” And to the parade of McCarthy blacklist victims we spoke to—people like Herbert Biberman, Marsha Hunt, Will Geer and so many others—she was a true radical heroine.
And this also made her a lot of enemies in the establishment of Hollywood.
Paramount basically wrote her off and began to put her in lesser roles in lesser films. But it was not just her politics that was causing her trouble. There was a kneejerk defiance and stubbornness in her character that manifested itself throughout her life. But, far from psychosis, most of the people I spoke to regarded that rebellious streak as an admirable quality, as courage and idealism.
The arc of her Cinderella story really begins its nosedive after she was arrested for drunk driving. Did she have a drinking problem?
At this point, I don’t think she did. Later, after her five years of incarceration, she did develop one. But when her trouble with the law began, if she had a substance problem at all, it was probably Benzedrine, which was widely prescribed for weight control in those days. Her arresting officer in that first incident, who was still alive in 1975, thought that she was “hopped up on bennies.”
Then came the famous incident at the Knickerbocker Hotel. It’s still not entirely clear what happened that day, is it?
Not really. She got into a spat with a hairdresser on the set of a movie she was working on at Monogram. She apparently took a swing at the woman, whose name was Edna Burge. When I spoke to the woman all those years later she could not recall any details other than that she phoned the cops. That night, they came to the Knickerbocker, where Frances was living at the time, broke down her door, arrested her for parole violation and hauled her off to the L.A. County jail. She did not cooperate.
This is such a crucial turning point in her life, were you able to find any first-hand witness of it other than Burge?
Only one, an old fellow who had been one of the arresting officers that night. He walked me though the event from his point of view at the Knickerbocker, which in 1975 was still standing on Ivar Street in Hollywood but had become a rather seedy retirement home. He remembered the “the animal fear in her eyes” as they restrained her.
That must have been an eerie experience, considering what a slum that particular part of Hollywood, my poor hometown, had become by the 1970s.
It was a slum, but it had a great Raymond Chandler atmosphere that I loved. From that spot on Ivar, the fictional location of Philip Marlow’s office was only a block or two to the south. And just a block to the north was the Alto-Nido Apartments, where William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard lived. I felt I was in a film noir.
The grubby atmosphere excited you?
It made me feel like an archeologist. I could add that at least three of your fellow blacklist victims could also be found living in considerable poverty in that area in 1975. John Bright, the screenwriter of Public Enemy, was living only a block or so away from the old Knickerbocker in very sad circumstances.
In any event, it was from this low point at this spot on Ivar Street that Frances gradually came into the grip of organized psychiatry and stayed in it, kicking and screaming, until it destroyed her.
That’s more or less it.
And the bulk of your research was into the various characters involved in her commitment and incarceration and the methods they used to “cure” her.
You ultimately conclude that these people, because of her political past and rebellious spirit and their preexisting prejudice toward her, were predisposed to view her fierce independence as mental illness.
It’s perhaps a little more complex and shaded and open-ended than that flat statement, but, yes, this is essentially the conclusion I reached.
Several times in talking about the research, you’ve used the collective “we.” Just who are “we?”
I had plenty of help, from, for instance, the ACLU and the offices of two state legislators.
What was their interest in this story?
In the early 1970s, Washington State passed a rather enlightened mental health legislation that made it much more difficult to commit someone against his will. In the year or so after it passed, a movement arose to reverse that law, under the argument that it was releasing too many dangerous people on the streets. After “The Dark Odyssey” came out, the local ACLU and two of the representatives who had sponsored that liberal legislation contacted me and offered their help in any effort I might make to further investigate the Farmer case, which they saw as the ultimate horror story of what could happen under the old system. Their offices were very helpful to me in terms of gaining access to certain records, including her FBI file.
Who was Jack Vanderman, who you acknowledged in the original postscript?
He was a fellow P-I reporter who had done some groundbreaking reporting on mental health abuse while working for a paper in the South. For one story, he actually got himself committed to a mental institution and reported on it from a patient’s point-of-view. He linked me into a network of journalists who specialized in the subject and were willing to help me out. For instance, when I needed someone to look up records and witnesses to Frances’ mysterious arrest for vagrancy in Antioch, California, Jack was able to put me in touch with a sympathetic Bay Area reporter who could do the job for me.
Who was Steven R. Heard, who you also acknowledged?
Steve Heard was a minister in the Church of Scientology in Seattle who called me up after “The Dark Odyssey” was published and offered his help in any ongoing research I might be doing on the Farmer story.
Did you know anything about Scientology at this time?
Nothing, and I still don’t. But he explained to me over a very pleasant lunch that the subject of psychiatric abuse was dear to their hearts. They had recently joined together with Dr. Thomas Szasz and Dr. Peter Breggin—two celebrated anti-psychiatry psychiatrists who had nothing to do with Scientology—to form an action group called the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights. As it was explained to me, the prime mission of this group was to investigate instances of abuse, and to lobby for the rights of mental patients and against the power of psychiatrists in the courtroom.
Was Heard the one who introduced you to the work of Dr. Szasz, who clearly had a great impact on the book?
Yes and no. I knew about Szasz and his work. But Steve did introduce me to the more recent activist work Szasz was doing and he got me to read Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness and The Manufacture of Madness.
What role did Heard play in this process?
He was a great encourager, the first person who said, “You must do a book.” We were about the same age and had similar interests in music, movies and politics, so we gradually became very good friends. He was invaluable as a sympathetic sounding board and he was full of creative ideas and strategies to obtain certain testimony or records. Steve was smart and idealistic and, all told, one of the best people I ever knew in my life. Later on, he became a documentary television producer and won a Peabody Award.
Let me ask you this point blank, because it’s going to come up again. Did he ever try to convert you to Scientology or ask you to act in its behalf?
Never. He correctly sized me up right away as the cynical non-joiner type. I gave his religion the same respect—but wary arms-length—I gave to the creeds of my Mormon, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim friends.
Okay then, let’s get back to your investigation of the commitment. How difficult was this, considering the people involved were all long dead?
They weren’t all long dead. They were, for the most part, only shortly dead, with one degree of separation. Many of her doctors were still alive. The others had friends and relatives and nurses and secretaries who were alive. They had records that were not impossible to find.
And at the conclusion of your investigation into this almost unbelievably horrific situation, you found that no one had done anything illegal?
That was the most horrific thing about it.
What about the judge who committed her? John Frater? You say he had denounced her in the past and otherwise showed a prejudice against her. Wasn’t that a conflict of interest that should have disqualified him from presiding over her case?
It would have been in a criminal case but not in a psychiatric one.
How do you know these incriminating things about Judge Frater, by the way?
It wasn’t that difficult. Frances’ father, who was a lawyer, knew Frater and was actually bawled out by him in court. Control your daughter, goddamnit! There’s a good account of that in one of his letters. We had three people who remembered him calling her a “crazy red” around the time of the Russian trip. A photo of him addressing the American Vigilantes of Washington ran in the P-I. It goes on.
You say in the book that the defense attorney Frater appointed for her, her guardian ad litem, probably did not even speak to her. Wasn’t that illegal?
I said there is no record that her guardian, whose name was Charles Stone, ever met with her, but I can’t say for sure. Stone’s former law partner said he “doubted” they met because Stone was a fall-down drunk in this period of his life and he frequently took these guardian assignments in civil commitments because he didn’t have to do anything for the money except sign a paper or two.
Stone later killed himself?
He did, but I don’t know the circumstances. The former partner said he carried a “heavy burden of guilt” that probably had something to do with it.
You contend the head of the group of doctors who examined her, Dr. Donald Nicholson, also had made prejudicial statements about her that, from a moral standpoint, should have disqualified him from passing judgment. How did you learn this?
He was the easiest of anyone involved in the commitment to research because he was such a respected and successful figure in the Northwest. Its preeminent psychiatrist and, truly, one of its first citizens. The primary source on him was his daughter, who was still alive and living in The Highlands, Seattle’s most exclusive, old-money gated community.
What was such a blue-chip physician doing presiding over a routine civil commitment? Wasn’t that considered grunge work?
He apparently asked for the assignment. And he periodically descended from Olympus to put away other crazies of the wrong political persuasion. There’s an interesting factoid about Nicholson that was not in the book which you might appreciate. His nephew was Archer Winsten, the longtime film critic of the New York Post.
Ouch! That name is like a knife to my side. He savaged two of my pictures.
He told me that he had no idea his uncle had any connection to Frances Farmer, who, interestingly, he interviewed when she was doing stock in Upstate New York in the late-‘30s. He later wrote a story about his strange dual connection to the story, allowing that “quiet, calm Uncle Don” was a very conservative man.
What about the other examining doctor who signed her commitment papers, George E. Price?
I was never able to ascertain that Price was specifically prejudiced against Frances Farmer but an examination of his previous civil commitments showed, as for Dr. Nicholson, a tendency to find left-wing radicals desperately in need of treatment.
Which of her doctors were you able to interview?
There were four or five of them still living at this time, none of whom would admit to more than a causal connection to her case. The most prominent of her doctors still around was a man named J.G. Shanklin. He was at Dr. Freeman’s side when he performed his transorbital lobotomy experiments. He’s pictured beside Freeman in the operating room.
Did you speak to him?
I tried, by phone and by mail, many times over the years, but he never responded.
This gets us to Steilacoom. How many ex-patient survivors who had been there in Frances’ time were you able to locate and interview?
About thirty, though many more than that contacted me after the book came out.
What about the administrator of Steilacoom, William Keller? What was your source on him?
He left a library of his letter carbons but the best source on him was his former secretary. She was enormously loyal to him and sympathetic to his plight as the harried, put-upon administrator of an overcrowded, understaffed, underfunded public institution. She painted him as a basically decent fellow who did not sleep nights. She claimed Keller objected strongly when the state gave Freeman permission to do his experiments in Steilacoom, though I’m not sure that’s true.
Is it fair to say that Freeman is the climax of your vision of the Frances Farmer story?
It’s fair to say.
In a line, who was Dr. Walter Freeman?
He was one of the two fathers of psychosurgery and America’s foremost practitioner of lobotomy.
In the book, you’re led to him by a tip-off telephone call from another journalist. Is that the way it happened?
No and yes. That was shorthand for several calls over a longer stretch of time from this fellow, who gave us a phony name and identity. But yes, it started from his tip.
Did you ever learn the identity of this Deep Throat?
Yes, and it’s an interesting sidebar but it comes later in the story.
Okay, but before you got this tip you say you knew some sort of climax had to exist. Why?
Mainly because of Edith. She told me that Dr. Keller had contacted the family in late 1948, or maybe early 1949, saying that Frances’ case was so hopeless that they wanted to lobotomize her. The mother raised a stink, as only she could, and they backed off. Then a few months later Frances was released as “cured.” So, obviously, something drastic had happened in that brief space of time between “hopeless” and “completely cured.”
Did you immediately think of lobotomy?
Not at all. Because a prefrontal lobotomy would have likely left her as a mental vegetable with a massive scar. Clearly that was not the case.
But Dr. Freeman’s transorbital lobotomy would leave no trace of itself?
His operation consisted of tapping an icepick under the eyelid and into the brain. It left a little bruising around the eye that disappeared within a few days but no scar.
Wouldn’t it leave the patient noticeably, drastically diminished?
Not necessarily. Most patients who had that procedure returned to some semblance of their former lives. Only docile and more obedient. The most vocal of Dr. Freeman’s several thousand lobotomy victims was a man named Howard Dully, who received the operation when he was twelve years old and fairly recently wrote a book about his experience of trying to find out what had happened to him when he was a kid. He couldn’t actually remember having had the lobotomy and he functioned through the rest of his life, though he and everyone around him had a sense that something essential was missing from his makeup—his creativity. You could say the same thing about Frances Farmer after her release from Steilacoom.
It’s not a procedure that was, in the mid-’70s, well known to you.
When I first stumbled upon it, no one I contacted in the mental health field claimed to have ever heard of it.
The patients chosen for this procedure, I understand, were typically not hopeless lunatics or the criminally insane.
Dully was lobotomized because he couldn’t get along with his stepmother. Freeman lobotomized one child who was only two years old. Disobedient and dissatisfied housewives were turned into Stepford Wives. Homosexuals and masturbators were also deemed prime candidates for this miracle operation. I was shocked, by the way, to learn just how many people had been involuntarily committed to Steilacoom because they were caught masturbating. Consider that a minute.
Did you know that a Freeman-like doctor performing transorbital lobotomies is the punch line of the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Shutter’s Island? Played as pure horror.
The procedure seems to have joined the repertoire of Grand Guignol. A recent biographer claimed Freeman has become the most despised doctor in history, outside of perhaps Josef Mengele. But that was not at all the case in 1975. Freeman had only been dead for three years. He was a forgotten figure but not yet a reviled one. He had been president of the American Medical Association, which was, to a certain extent, still trying to protect his image. So he was by no means, when I first became aware of him, the stock Halloween figure he would become.
Shadowland, you might argue, made him a horror icon right up there with Victor Frankenstein and Norman Bates.
If that’s true, I’m proud of it.
How long, after the telephone tip-off of the name “Freeman,” did it take you to get to the specifics of Dr. Walter Freeman and learn about his adventures in Steilacoom?
Not long at all. I went to the Steilacoom cards in the newspaper library and read down the notations of the 1940s until I hit the name. His visits were well publicized and right in the middle of that window of time in which I deduced something drastic must have happened to move her treatment along.
Had none of the former Steilacoom staff you interviewed mentioned Freeman or these operations before?
No, and not because they had forgotten about them. There was a general fear among those involved that the Freeman experiments would someday be viewed as a medical atrocity.
Which turned out to be true.
But they were not illegal and I had to break down the idea that they might be before I could get anybody connected to talk to me about them.
Who did eventually talk?
All told, five former staff members remembered seeing Frances in the company of Dr. Freeman or one of the other two doctors he was training, Dr. J.G. Shanklin and Dr. Charles Jones. Three said she was in a treatment room alone with her.
You maintain that Freeman knew about her case in advance of his first visit. How did you know that?
It was in his records—which were still in his Sunnyvale office at this time and not shielded. Freeman was fascinated by her unusual case and it was probably the thing that most attracted him to this particular institution. There were indications of this in his notes.
Did you find any written evidence that he actually performed the operation on her?
Yes and no. He made three trips to Steilacoom in the last three years Frances was there and gave the icepick, according to their records, to some 250-plus patients. One of the patients on the list of his first, August, 1947, visit is “Ethel Anderson.” Frances was committed as “Mrs. F.E. Anderson,” her married name. She was generally referred to in the institution as “Mrs. Anderson.” And since no one knows what that initial “E” stood for (there’s no middle name on Frances' birth certificate), many people think this Ethel Anderson must have been her.
But you don’t seem to think so.
It’s possible, but that mid-1947 date is a little too early for my scenario. Both Keller’s secretary and two of the nurses told me they saw Frances wheeled into a treatment room with Freeman toward the end of her stay there. Those ’48 or ’49 dates also jive better with when Edith said she learned they were planning to give Frances a lobotomy and also coincide better with her 1950 release from the institution.
But there’s no mention of her in the ’48 or ’49 lists?
No. There’s no mention of him lobotomizing anyone in 1948, no lists at all, and because that whole visit was carried out in great secrecy, with none of his usual accompanied publicity, I believe that this is the most likely date.
Why would Freeman need to do it in secret?
Because her family was on record saying that they didn’t want her to have the operation. This was a public institution and he didn’t need their permission but he also didn’t need a big public fight with them either.
So you speculate that he just went ahead and did it and kept it to himself.
What do you think? He was the most arrogant, egotistical, damn-the-rules doctor this side of Hannibal Lector. He was there to test what he considered a miracle cure for mental illness. She was the most celebrated patient to ever find herself locked up in a public mental institution, regarded as hopelessly incurable and, by law and no matter what her family said, subject to whatever he wanted to do to her in the way of treatment. She was the reason he had come to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest in the first place. Would he not give her the procedure? Mind you, we’re not talking about anything complicated here. It only took a couple of minutes, not much more time than a flu shot. He used to do house calls.
At this time, how certain were you that Dr. Freeman went ahead and did the trick on Frances Farmer?
As I finished up the research period in 1977, I would say I was ninety-five percent sure in my mind, with maybe a five percent nagging doubt.
How did the people she knew in Indianapolis, where she spent her last years, feel about the question of the lobotomy. It seems to me they would be in the best position to judge. Did you put it to any of them?
I did, and when I explained the transorbital procedure and its most common aftereffects, they overwhelmingly tended to say: “That’s Frances.” Ed Keyes, who did a series of interviews with her in 1957 for American Weekly, was totally convinced she had had the operation.
Didn’t Walter Freeman’s son come forward at about this time and say his father told him he lobotomized Frances Farmer?
No, that was later, after the book came out. He told an interviewer that, in private, his father claimed the kill. The year Franklin Freeman gave for his father’s operation on Frances, by the way, was 1949.
Doesn’t that prove the point?
To any reasonable mind, perhaps. But there was still nothing definitive on paper.
Did it frustrate you that, as you finally sat down to write the book, you didn’t have that piece of paper?
To be completely honest, it didn’t. There’s no disputing that Freeman came to Steilacoom three times over three years and callously lobotomized scores of its patients. There’s also no disputing, to my mind, that the creative entity that was Frances Farmer was destroyed in that institution. Whether it was from Walter Freeman’s icepick or the electric, insulin and hydro shock treatments and experimental drugs or even just the general abuse she received there doesn’t really matter. The fact that she brushed so close to this barbaric “final solution” of psychiatry was alone enough to give a unique ghoulish mystique to her epic story and, if you will, an added luster to her legend. Instinctively, I think I felt that the five percent of doubt would help the story, not hurt it; and that I would be much better off playing her parable less as a journalistic fait accompli on my part as a still-unsolved historical mystery that could evoke a world of controversial possibility and be endlessly debated in the years and decades ahead.
Which turned out to be the case.
Which definitely turned out to be the case.