The Tragic Life Of Hollywood Starlet Frances Farmer – Kurt Cobain’s Tortured Muse

As Hollywood starlet Frances Farmer ate breakfast in 1944, she had no idea that orderlies would soon arrive and take her away to a mental health facility. It had happened to Farmer before, mind you, but this time it would be different. In fact, it would be the last visit that the former star would pay to such an institution – and she’d never be the same again. Yet her sad story would also serve as eerie inspiration to a fellow tragic star named Kurt Cobain.

So what happened? Well, Farmer’s parents – Lillian Van Ornum and Ernest Farmer – made for an odd couple, to say the least. Van Ornum was known to make apparent her distrust of Communism as well as openly professing her support of the United States. Her future husband, on the other hand, worked as a lawyer and represented labor organizers who wanted to form unions against the wishes of the country’s elite.

Nevertheless, Van Ornum and Farmer got married and welcomed kids Edith, Wesley and Frances into the world. This third child, born in Seattle on September 19, 1913, was said to be strikingly beautiful as a youngster. And she reportedly had plenty of confidence in sharing her opinions – a characteristic that she supposedly got from her mom.

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Not long into the young Frances Farmer’s life, though, the cracks in her parents’ odd pairing started to show. Then, when Farmer was just four, her mother took her and her siblings from their home in Seattle to Los Angeles. The newly single mom later moved the family again, too – this time to Chico, California. And here, Van Ornum found work as a nutritional researcher.

Unfortunately for Farmer and her siblings, though, Van Ornum felt that raising kids got in the way of her day job. So she shuttled the family back to Seattle – where their father took the reins in raising them. Yet the constant moves and lack of stability apparently had a lasting effect on the young Farmer.

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In Patrick Agan’s 1979 book, The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddess, Farmer spoke about that journey from California back to Seattle. She said, “In certain ways, that train trip represented the end of my dependent childhood. I began to understand that there were certain things one could expect from adults and others that one could not expect.”

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After this last move, mind you, Farmer spent the rest of her childhood in Seattle – where she discovered that she had a talent for writing. In 1931, as a high schooler, she won a competition in a Scholastic magazine. In fact, she earned the $100 grand prize – equivalent to nearly $1,700 today – for a controversial piece on her perception of a world without God.

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In her 1972 autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, Farmer explained that she had written the essay after reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. She wrote, “He expressed the same doubts, only he said it in German: ‘Gott ist tot.’ God is dead. This I could understand. I was not to assume that there was no God, but I could find no evidence in my life that He existed or that He had ever shown any particular interest in me.”

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So, after her writing contest win, Farmer’s next step seemed logical. Yes, she finished up from high school and went on to study journalism at the University of Washington. The hard-working student held a slew of jobs to pay her tuition, too: waiting tables, tutoring other students and even working in a soap factory.

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Enrolling in college proved to be a fateful choice for Farmer – although not for her future as a journalist. That’s because the future star began to participate in the university’s theatrical scene. And these productions were seen as Seattle-wide cultural events at the time. So when Farmer appeared in the play Alien Corn, her performance was later lauded by the press.

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In 1935 Farmer then earned a drama degree from the University of Washington. And that summer she traveled to New York City in search of a theater career. While there, though, she happened upon a talent scout from Paramount Pictures named Oscar Serlin. And after a screen test, Farmer was presented with the opportunity of a seven-year deal with the film studio. She of course accepted.

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From there, Farmer flew back to the West Coast – this time landing in Los Angeles. Paramount executives then had the young actress working long days to hone her craft. By November 1935, though, her hard work had paid off. She had earned her first part in the movie Too Many Parents – a comedy that did well at the box office the following year.

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Yet Too Many Parents didn’t just kickstart Farmer’s professional career. It also introduced her to fellow Paramount actor Leif Erickson, whom she met at the studio. The two got married in early 1936 – just after she had finished filming the comedy. Then she went on to act in the drama Border Flight.

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Farmer’s good fortune continued through 1936, as it was also the first year in which she got cast in a major motion picture: Rhythm on the Range. And her co-star in the movie, Bing Crosby, made the experience all the more special. According to Agan’s book, Farmer said, “I had had a crush on [Crosby] since my high school days.”

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Because of her long-standing crush, Farmer said, “[I] stood in awe of the fact that in my first important film I was actually working as his leading lady.” The movie did well, too, thus adding to the young actress’ star power. Paramount executives then advised her to start acting like a true Hollywood ingénue – but she bucked that notion.

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Farmer instead apparently preferred to avoid the spotlight. For instance, she reportedly declined numerous propositions to attend Hollywood shindigs in favor of staying home with her husband, Erickson. And as a result, Paramount tried to promote the actress in a different way. The studio called her “the star who would not go to Hollywood,” according to Agan’s book.

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This seemingly marked the beginning of Farmer’s differences with her employer and other filmmaking studios. In the summer of 1936, for example, the actress went to work on the film Come and Get It. First, director Howard Hawks signed onto the project, but the studio swapped him out for William Wyler halfway through production. Yet Farmer didn’t get along with Wyler, to say the least.

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According to Aubrey Malone’s 2015 book, Hollywood’s Second Sex: The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900-1999, Wyler later said, “The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable.” Perhaps that explains why, at the film’s premiere in Seattle, Farmer kept quiet instead of engaging with reporters and guests. Yet this led some people to label her as aloof.

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Still, Farmer continued to earn praise for her acting. After Come and Get It, for instance, some reviewers compared her to screen great Greta Garbo. So the young actress continued to get work based on her talent. But 1937’s The Toast of New York reportedly had similar drama on set – after Farmer found out that the direction for her character had changed.

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Rather than Farmer playing a sassier woman with edge, it seems, her character had become a fresh-faced ingénue – which Farmer hated. Meanwhile, Paramount reportedly continued to try glamorizing the star’s private life. But the truth remained that Farmer drove a clunker, lived in a cottage and dressed however she wanted.

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Still, Farmer’s next movie, Exclusive, thrust her even further into the spotlight. She longed to return to the theater, though, and after a series of interviews in which she flaunted potentially Communist-leaning beliefs, Paramount allowed her to take a break. And yet as she earned accolades for her part in Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy, dislike for Farmer seemingly grew among the Hollywood elite.

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The Group Theater, with which Farmer worked on Golden Boy, had some Communist members. Hollywood conservatives therefore felt suspicious of Farmer’s affection for the theater and her insistence on performing with them. And although it’s an unconfirmed theory, some say that the downfall of her career was formulated by anti-Communist players.

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So it was that after her New York run, Farmer returned to a Hollywood that seemed to have it out for her. For starters, her marriage to Erickson had begun to fall apart; she had reportedly had an affair with Odets while performing in his show. And so, seemingly to spite the actress, Paramount had her star in the low-budget film Ride a Crooked Mile opposite her soon-to-be ex-husband.

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After that, Farmer opted out of Hollywood once again – fleeing to New York and the theater she loved. But her failed romance with Odets had left her so down that she started drinking heavily. Consequently, her show Fifth Column was cancelled. This apparently left her on the outskirts with the stage community, too, as they deemed her unprofessional for her antics.

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So Farmer crawled back to Hollywood, where she faced yet another unwanted assignment from Paramount: playing Calamity Jane in Badlands of Dakota. And around that time, it was suggested that Farmer had started exhibiting some strange behavior. For instance, she disappeared for a month and told the press that she had done so to unwind after a string of demanding jobs. But rumor had it that Farmer had actually experienced a breakdown.

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Farmer’s next movie saw her in a quality role opposite Tyrone Power in the drama Son of Fury. But the job didn’t get her back on her feet. Instead, the actress found herself in trouble with the law after filming. On October 9, 1942, you see, Farmer had driven through an area deemed to be a wartime dim-out zone – with her headlights blazing.

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When subsequently confronted by police, though, Farmer had supposedly reacted angrily to the officers – who had accused her of drunk driving. The story then leaked to the press. And so the actress agreed to work on a film in Mexico, seemingly paying little attention to the fact that she had signed on to act in an amateur film.

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Farmer then fled the Mexican film set with the help of the American Embassy – and the press found out about that, too. It claimed, however, that she had been deported from the country and that she had checked into a sanitarium. The actress denied the stories written about her, mind you, but her responses seemingly fell on deaf ears.

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From there, things continued to spiral for the once-promising Farmer. On the set of another movie, for instance, she violently assaulted an on-set hairdresser. And her rage appeared consistent with excessive drug usage. It’s claimed, in fact, that Paramount had previously given her a weight-controlling amphetamine that could have contributed to such behavior.

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For the on-set attack, though, Farmer went to court and was sentenced to jail for six months. But she wouldn’t spend a full half-year behind bars. Instead, she was soon placed into psychiatric care for what her doctor described as “manic depressive psychosis.” So Farmer entered into the mental healthcare system at a time when patients had few protections – leaving doctors to experiment with new therapies.

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Indeed, Farmer potentially underwent one called insulin shock – wherein doctors overloaded the body with the hormone. They thought this would overwhelm the brain, you see, thus forcing it into some sort of reset. And while in the sanitarium, it’s said, Farmer lost some of her memory and couldn’t focus – both side effects of insulin shock.

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Still, therapy didn’t render the actress completely unable to think for herself. One day, in fact, Farmer climbed a wall, escaped the mental health facility and made for her half-sister’s house. And from there, she got in touch with her mom – who demanded Farmer’s permanent release from the facility.

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Farmer subsequently returned to Seattle, and she appeared to start recovering. For one thing, she didn’t want to go back to Hollywood, where her mental health had been so troubled. But behind her back, her mother started reaching out to studios to say that Farmer wanted to act again. Then when her daughter found out, the two women fought.

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The fighting between Farmer and Van Ornum got to the point where the actress’ mother apparently started believing the diagnoses handed down by her daughter’s former doctors. So, as Farmer ate breakfast one morning in 1944, a trio of orderlies arrived to drag her away to a facility in Seattle. Then a court deemed her to be legally insane.

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Farmer was reportedly in the sanitarium for five years – and underwent a slew of horrific treatments. For instance, doctors allegedly tried shock treatment as well as hydrotherapy, during which she spent hours submerged in icy water. Some staffers apparently didn’t believe that Farmer had a mental illness, mind you. But requests to remove her from the facility were nonetheless denied.

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Some say that Farmer’s treatment also included a transorbital lobotomy, as performed by the procedure’s developer, Walter Freeman. The physician believed that detaching nerves at the front of the brain could stop uncontrollable behavior like Farmer’s. So allegedly, in 1948 or 1949, Freeman performed shock therapy on the actress until she slipped into unconsciousness. No one knows what exactly happened afterward, though – because Freeman reportedly asked staffers to leave the room.

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But after Farmer’s supposed treatment with Freeman, her behavior did apparently change considerably. The actress stopped arguing with her doctors, for instance, instead agreeing with them that she had acted wrongly in the past. So in 1950 the medics determined that they had cured their patient and finally let her leave the facility.

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Farmer then returned to the world, working in a hotel’s laundry room and avoiding the spotlight – at least initially. In the late 1950s, though, she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to sing a pair of folk songs. She also performed in plays, made a TV appearance and acted in a low-budget teen movie. And yet she struggled to learn her lines and drank too much, too often.

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In the end, Farmer’s final gig would be on local television, where she hosted a program called Frances Farmer Presents from 1958 to 1964. Then, in 1970, the one-time star received a diagnosis of esophageal cancer and died from the disease that year. She now lies in a grave – a basic resting place that doesn’t attract attention – just outside of Indianapolis. Regardless, her story has touched many individuals since her passing.

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Perhaps most notably, in fact, Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, likened himself to Farmer in the track “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.” In the song, the music icon compared his frustrations with the music industry – which he saw as creatively stifling – to what had happened to Farmer in Hollywood. Multiple movies have shared her story, too, keeping her legacy alive in the decades since her death.

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