THE FRANCES LABYRINTH
© Jeffrey Michael Kauffman
PRELUDE: GETTING HOOKED
The Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Oregon, is a funky, fairly decrepit affair best-known for its decades-long late night weekend showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s the sort of theater soiled with the detritus of 60 years of spilled sodas and squashed Junior Mints, a place you might briefly consider wearing waders into before you deign to sit on its frayed faux velvet seats, but underneath its shabby façade lies the shimmering ghost of a once-proud neighborhood cinema where people long ago gazed upon the golden age stars and forgot their worldly cares for a couple of hours. Stuck into the corner of an almost European, oddly asymmetrical intersection in the heart of Portland’s once working class east side, the Clinton Street is redolent of times and glories past.
In the late summer of 1983, however, the Clinton Street, whose regular weekly fare catered to the student and art house crowd, featured a double-bill that piqued my curiosity—the Jessica Lange biopic of Seattle’s legendary actress Frances Farmer, Frances, was coupled with the real Frances’ own best-known film, Come and Get It. Little did I know upon embarking for the theater that evening that my life would be forever changed by what I saw, and that four hours inside a movie house reeking of stale popcorn and cola would set me on a twenty year Rashomon-like quest to sort out conflicting accounts of what really happened to Frances Farmer.
Based largely upon the eponymous film purportedly about her, Frances Farmer has achieved an iconic status in the annals of American celebrity that only a very few others—Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, for example—have attained. But Frances’ case is unusual in that even the most basic facts of her life have appeared in radically different forms by people with their own agendas, so that separating truth from fiction has become well-nigh impossible.
That evening, though, I was perhaps only morbidly curious. Would seeing the real Frances Farmer give me a photographed glimpse into the world of the mentally unbalanced? Would I be able to tell she was “off her rocker”?
My own family had seen both sides of the world of mental illness—my late Aunt had been troubled by depression for most of her adult life and had ultimately committed suicide, while my mother had been a psychiatric nurse during World War II (she would joke it gave her the tools to cope with her children), and my sister had been a psychiatric social worker at, in one of many strange synchronicities that would repeatedly occur in this saga, the “sister” hospital of the Washington institution where Frances spent most of 1944-1950.
Frances played first that evening and it was clear to see why so much celebratory newsprint had been devoted to Jessica Lange as Frances and Kim Stanley as her supposedly imperious mother Lillian upon the film’s release several months prior to the Clinton Street engagement. Their performances simply jumped from the screen and I was both enthralled and appalled by the relationship depicted by the film. Though Frances’ motivations and self-destructive tendencies were never fully explained in the movie, the sheer weight of these two actresses’ portrayals lifted the whole sad drama to almost epic Greek tragedy proportions.
After a brief intermission (“let’s all go to the lobby”), Come and Get It played next, and I reacted almost viscerally during the credits when I saw the film boasted not one, but two, legendary directors: Howard Hawks and William Wyler. My curiosity was more than piqued at this point. I knew that Walter Brennan had won the first Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work in this film, and in reading the ubiquitous press surrounding the Lange feature, had remembered reading Frances’ 1970 obituary in Seattle, where I was living as a child at the time. I also recalled having read the Time review of her posthumously published “autobiography” (about which more later). So I was more than casually anxious to see what this once famous actress was really like. But I had no idea she had worked with two of the most famously acclaimed Hollywood directors—on one film!
I had to wait. Come and Get It, based on the best-selling novel by Edna Ferber, is a trans-generational soap opera of love denied turning into obsession, and it is in no hurry to get to the woman who is the lynchpin of its drama.
At its core are the forceful trio (actually quartet) of performances by Edward Arnold, as a lumberjack who becomes a tycoon, Walter Brennan, as his Swedish best friend, and Frances as both a saloon singer who catches Arnold’s eye but ultimately marries Brennan, and then, in the second half of the film, as the singer’s own daughter, who becomes the object of Arnold’s unhealthy attentions. The film takes its time setting up the relationship between Arnold and Brennan and also contains amazing location footage (shot by Richard Rosson) of real logging expeditions, so Frances does not make her almost unnoticed entrance until a good 20 minutes into the film.
In a scene dominated by Arnold, whose character is becoming wise to the saloon’s literal shell game gambling gambit, she is suddenly there, mouth slightly askew, looking world-weary and experienced far beyond her 22 years. She speaks with a strange drawl and sardonic humor, especially after Arnold asks her if she’s lucky. “Would I be here if I was?” she responds ruefully, and even a casual viewer is swept into the intense bravura of a performance that is rightly hailed as one of the all-time greats of late 30s cinema.
She runs the gamut of emotions in the film, from the jaded wariness of the mother character who begins to blossom in an unexpected love, only to be cruelly jilted, to the cunning and ambitious, yet curiously inexperienced, daughter who manages (if only barely) to rebuff the advances of a man twice her age while falling in love with his son. The characters speak differently, move differently, sing differently. If these two characters had been played by two different actresses, they could not have been more distinctly drawn. It was, quite simply, a textbook example of classic film acting technique.
In a remarkable and uncharacteristic bit of naïveté, I walked home from the films that evening believing that Frances had presented an accurate portrayal of Farmer’s tempestuous life. The gut-wrenching finale, with a mad doctor worthy of Ernest Thesiger plunging an ice pick into Frances’ brain, haunted me for weeks afterward. The emotional impact of having seen the sturm und drang of Lange and Stanley followed by the luminous beauty and razor sharp acting of the real Frances in her best film was, to say the least, overwhelming.
I probably wasn’t consciously aware of it just then, but I was hooked on Frances Farmer for life.
CHAPTER 1: THREE SOURCES, THREE VERSIONS
By coincidence, I was conducting a run of Godspell at this time and one of my cast members, hearing me talk about my movie experience, turned out to be a major Farmer fan. As we were rehearsing one of the clown segments, she roller skated over and told me about Frances’ supposed autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning?
I made a special trip to downtown Portland the next day and headed straight for a national chain bookstore, where I found a paperback edition of the book, proudly proclaiming its tie-in with a CBS television movie of the same name. There was a charming vintage color photo of Frances on the cover.
I didn’t wait an instant to begin reading. In fact, by the time my bus came only a few minutes later to take me back home, I had already devoured the first 50 or so pages, and was newly amazed at this woman’s personal accomplishments and professional credits, many of which had either not been mentioned or had been completely glossed-over in Frances.
The autobiography was noticeably silent on the shocking assertion the film had proffered of a late 1940s lobotomy. In fact, the book spent more time on Frances’ post-institution life in Indianapolis, where she hosted a long-running television program, than it did with her Hollywood and Broadway fame and hospitalizations combined!
The book was well-written and had an intriguing conceit—it was non-linear, moving between Frances’ years of tribulations and a thorough history of her ancestry up through her birth. It also attempted some rudimentary Freudian analysis of the underpinnings of her emotional turmoil.
The same Godspell Farmer fan had also told me about a self-published book by Frances’ sister, Edith, but I could not find a copy in any bookstore, and so thought it was out of reach. Tantalizingly, the cast member thought that Edith lived in Portland, but she could not recall her married surname and wasn’t sure of the book’s title either, though she thought it was something like Look Back in Love or Long Ago With Love. The phone book, not surprisingly, contained no listing for an Edith Farmer, so I gave up hope in finding her or the book. I somehow sensed, though, that there was more information to be had and I knew I was on a quest to find it.
It was really no surprise, then, when months after having experienced my first immersion in Frances information, I found Seattle writer William Arnold’s book Shadowland tucked in the shelves of an alternative bookstore in downtown Portland. My quest for information had almost unconsciously led me to this small paperback shoved far back on a low shelf, and it seemed to be just what I was looking for: an investigative journalism piece by a newspaper reporter and one that claimed to have unearthed new and frightening information.
In reading this book (probably even faster than I did Frances’ autobiography) I was again sickened by the apparently “obvious” fact presented in the film that Frances had been railroaded into an institution and ultimately lobotomized. The maze had begun as well—Arnold claimed that Frances didn’t really write her own autobiography, and I began to wonder how much of that book was accurate.
In fact, Arnold alleged that Frances’ late-in-life friend (some say lesbian lover) Jeanira Ratcliffe wrote much, if not all, of the book, and then, in a uniquely self-aggrandizing move, dedicated the book to herself in a final fit of hubris. This seemed to at least explain the strange focus on the Indianapolis years and, even more strangely, the Ratcliffe family, which dominates the final third of Farmer’s autobiography. But it also raised any number of new questions.
Most chillingly, Arnold placed the entire Farmer story in a context of right-wing reactionary politics in Washington state and made a strong case that what happened to Frances, an admitted leftist and rabble-rouser from the word “go,” was no accident. The pit in my stomach ached to know the truth—had I finally found it?
I started frequenting used bookstores and vintage magazine shops looking for more information. Armed with only the minimal information contained in Morning and/or Shadowland I incredibly managed to find three 1937-38 Life magazines with short articles or, in one case, a major feature about Farmer. It was amazing to read these contemporary accounts of an actress who was obviously regarded as being at the head of her class vis a vis young actors just beginning to make their mark circa 1936-37. When one considers that some of the others of this vintage include such legends as Judy Garland and Olivia de Havilland, her accomplishments, in such a relatively short span of time, seem all the more remarkable.
Haunting Portland’s mecca for readers, Powell’s Books, I found several items that provided me with fascinating new glimpses into this long-ago legend: a reprint of articles from Modern Screen, including a fantastic one on Frances called “Nobody’s Yes-Girl”; several compendiums of actor biographies from the 1930s and 1940s, each with great, rare photos of Frances; and supporting information about her in books either about or by Clifford Odets and Harold Clurman. Slowly, a picture was emerging of an inordinately talented, and equally inordinately complex and emotionally fragile, woman.
And then, in one of many fortuitous serendipities that would descend upon my research from time to time, I happened to mention to an independent bookstore owner that I was looking for a self-published book by Frances Farmer’s sister, Edith. I had little to go on: no married surname and only the vaguest idea of what it might be called.
The helpful owner said, “Well, let’s see if we can find it in Books in Print.” Lo and behold, there it was; my Godspell friend had remembered correctly after all—the book was called Look Back in Love. Edith’s married name was Edith Farmer Elliot and she had evidently moved from Portland to Sequim, Washington. The address for “Gemaia Press,” no doubt her home, was right there. I copied it down and breathlessly hurried home to send off a letter.
Books in Print had contained a price for Edith’s book, so I wrote a check and a brief note about how much Frances’ story meant to me, and sent it off. Within a week, a padded envelope arrived with the trade paperback-like Look Back in Love, personally inscribed to me with a small note attached, “Thank you for your interest in the truth.”
I set out reading Edith’s exhaustive (and exhausting) account on a temp job I was working, sneaking in ten or twenty pages here and there between the menial tasks of the day. The book had obviously been typed, not typeset, personally by Edith and was stuffed to the virtually non-existent margins with information about her ill-fated sister. Evidently equal parts packrat and journalist, Edith had saved virtually every scrap of information about her sister that had ever passed through the family’s hands: Frances’ personal letters, court documents, medical records, the list went on and on, and it was covered in minute detail in page after page of Edith’s labor of love. I couldn’t help but be impressed, but also saddened, at the thought of this aging woman devoting so much time and energy for what was probably a very limited audience.
Taking a chance, I wrote her again, giving her a little insight about my family history which, like the Farmers, was riddled with leftist intrigue and madness. I also asked her to send me another copy of the book. To my surprise, I received a multi-page typewritten response, like her book virtually marginless, in which she opened a dialogue with me about what it was like to have a family member’s memory, in her words, dragged through the mud of misinformation.
It was Edith’s long and often tortuous interaction with me that really started me wondering about depictions of Frances found in both the purported autobiography and Arnold’s seemingly more factual book. To Edith, Will There Really Be a Morning? was “lesbian pornography” promulgated by Jeanira Ratcliffe, and her verdict on Shadowland was, if anything, even more vitriolic.
Edith excoriated Shadowland’s author William Arnold as being a Scientologist hell-bent on making Frances his poster-child for Scientology’s well-publicized attacks on psychiatric abuses. (I personally have no knowledge of the author’s “religious” beliefs, but he does thank two well-known Scientologists and Scientology groups in his acknowledgements for Shadowland, and his contentions with regard to Frances’ supposed mistreatment and lobotomy are a major part of Scientology’s public relations campaign decrying psychiatry). She also maintained she could prove Frances was never lobotomized and discussed Frances’ private medical records with me in some detail. In fact, she claimed that it was her threat to have Frances’ body exhumed that led to Arnold becoming more reticent to discuss his allegations in public.
It was also Edith who brought home an ironic fact—my family had actually known the Farmers quite well. In one of her phone calls with me, she mentioned that Frances’ real downfall began with her association with Communist front organizations like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the volunteer army that fought Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Initially, this passing remark made little impact on me, though over the course of a few days, I became aware that I had somehow heard of the Brigade previously, and I couldn’t quite recall where.
It came to me, as information welling up from the unconscious so frequently does, in the middle of the night one night. My late Uncle had been an infamous leftist, Communist Party member and, in a fitting touch of synchronicity, a public relations guru for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; I had read about his involvement with the Brigade shortly after his death, when a foundation set up in his name published a four page glossy life story about him and had mailed me a copy. I phoned my then still living other Uncle, actually another “black sheep” in the family who had been arrested during the Berlin Wall crisis for being a Soviet Spy, and asked him if he remembered Farmer and any connection with my other Uncle. “Of course I remember her,” he said. “She made your mother seem like Pollyanna,” he laughed, referring to my mother’s often none-too-pleasant temperament. He also said he thought that his brother had been instrumental in getting Frances and then-husband Leif Erickson to become “celebrity spokespeople” for the Brigade and other organizations supporting what was, in essence, a Communist counter-offensive to the fascists controlled by Franco.
And to round out this growing six (probably fewer) degrees of separation, I soon found out my father, a US Army General (and oldest brother to the two aforementioned errant Communist Uncles, for which there was much family mishegoss), had been Army buddies with Frances’ and Edith’s brother, Colonel Wes Farmer. Suddenly, the Farmer story seemed to be strangely intertwined with my own family’s dichotomous history of true-blue patriotism and counter-revolutionary rabble-rousing.
Look Back in Love, though somewhat bizarre in its extreme level of detail, was a treasure-trove of information about Frances and the family’s reactions to a situation obviously beyond their control. Edith was adamant, however, that Frances had never been lobotomized, and, indeed, refuted much if not most of the depictions of her family in both Will There Really Be a Morning? and Shadowland. She insisted her parents had completely supervised Frances’ treatments, and that her Uncle Frank, a noted doctor, had also been intimately involved and had in fact (perhaps presciently) told Lillian and Ernest that lobotomies were a “guinea pig operation”. According to Edith, the elder Farmers visited Frances weekly during her hospitalizations, and, though overwhelmed by the calamity facing their daughter, never gave up hope and did everything within their power to help Frances recover and lead a normal life once again.
It had taken close to a year, but I finally felt I knew something approximating the truth about Frances Farmer. But did I?