Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

American film star Frances Farmer was stopped by police for a traffic violation and found to be drunk and driving without a license. She argued with police and was arrested, convicted, and put on probation. When she failed to show up for her probation officer, she was taken to the Hollywood police station; she listed her occupation as “cocksucker.” After a violent episode in court, Farmer was taken away in a straitjacket and later put in a mental institution. It is the scandal of Farmer’s life after Hollywood that remains her most lasting legacy.

Summary of Event

By 1942, the fortunes of Frances Farmer, a talented Hollywood actor who had risen to fame in the previous decade, had begun to decline. She no longer had first-rate roles in successful films. She had achieved a reputation of being difficult to work with and of throwing temper tantrums on the set. As a result, she had an erratic work history. A volatile person, she also was behaving eccentrically, showing signs of stress, alcoholism, and instability. In October, she was arrested while on her way home from a party. [kw]Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized (Jan. 14, 1943) [kw]Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized, Film Star Frances (Jan. 14, 1943) Farmer, Frances Farmer, Frances [g]United States;Jan. 14, 1943: Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized[00710] [c]Law and the courts;Jan. 14, 1943: Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized[00710] [c]Public morals;Jan. 14, 1943: Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized[00710] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Jan. 14, 1943: Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized[00710] [c]Hollywood;Jan. 14, 1943: Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized[00710] Farmer, Lillian Van Ornum

Frances Farmer after her arrest for driving while drunk.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Farmer was driving with her lights on in a “dim-out” wartime area in Santa Monica, California. She was tried for driving without a license and driving while drunk and was sentenced to 180 days in jail (a sentence that was suspended) and fined five hundred dollars. After paying only half of the fine and promising to pay the remainder later, she left for Mexico to work on a new film.

In two weeks, Farmer was back in Southern California, having quit the film in Mexico and leaving yet another contract unfulfilled. She soon discovered that in her absence, her belongings had been moved out of her house and into a hotel because of her dwindling resources. In January, 1943, Farmer began a new role in No Escape. On January 13, while on the set, she slapped a hair stylist. The stylist, who was knocked to the ground and was injured, notified police. Police officers already had been alerted to her failure to complete her previous legal obligations. She fought with police officers when they arrived at her residence the following day. They arrested her for assault and for violating her probation. In court, she was a shocking figure—defiant, disheveled, and belligerent. When denied a call to an attorney, she harassed the judge, assaulted a court matron and two police officers, and was carried out of the courtroom, screaming.

Farmer was transferred to the psychiatric ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital and was placed under the care of a psychiatrist, with whom Farmer refused to cooperate. He diagnosed her with manic psychoses and had her moved the next day to Kimball Sanitarium Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, in the foothills north of downtown Los Angeles.

Farmer’s life had been considered scandalous long before the episodes of the early 1940’s. In high school, she had written the essay “God Dies!” for a Scholastic magazine contest and won one hundred dollars. Public outcry was swift, and it revived four years later when she sold subscriptions to a leftist magazine and won a trip to the Soviet Union. Farmer considered this trip an opportunity to visit the New York theater scene, the object of her greatest ambition. Her mother, Lillian, opposed the trip to New York, but Farmer did go to Moscow. Her mother maintained later that Farmer’s insanity arose from her close contact with communism.

Soon after her return from Moscow to New York, Farmer had found an agent, passed a screen test, and landed a part in a Paramount studios feature film. In Hollywood, she made four films rather quickly, moving into a significant part in Come and Get It (1936), a film directed by Howard Hawks, who was impressed with her performance. She flew back to Seattle for the film’s world premiere and was the “Cinderella girl” of her hometown. However, at the height of this achievement, her personal life began to ebb.

Farmer had married actor Leif Erickson earlier that year and soon separated in what began a lifelong pattern of moving from one relationship to another. She went to New York and was given the part of the female lead in the Group Theater’s production of Clifford Odet’s Golden Boy, whose phenomenal success owed no small debt to Farmer’s brilliant performance. The play ran for two hundred fifty performances and then toured the United States. Farmer had fallen in love with Odets, but her tumultuous relationship with him ended with the return of his wife from Europe. Farmer’s position with the play was terminated when it began its European tour.

Farmer’s life began to unravel. Drinking heavily and dependent upon amphetamines to control her weight, she returned to Hollywood—a place she criticized heartily—and accepted several smaller roles in less important films. She continued to display eccentric and temperamental behavior, which led to her being shunned by a growing number of directors, or replaced by other actors. She eventually was neglected by major studios altogether. After the devastating plunge in her career, she spent a great deal of time by herself in 1942, drinking and attempting to write her memoirs in an effort to cleanse herself. She reportedly became involved in several altercations prior to her infamous arrests of October, 1942, and January 13, 1943.


The scandal of Farmer’s life after Hollywood remains the most lasting legacy of her career. She remained at Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta for more than seven months while being treated with insulin shock, a treatment so horrible that her mother finally secured her release. Mother and daughter then returned to Seattle, where after six months of fighting each other, Farmer’s mother had her declared insane and sent to the Harborview Hospital for observation. In March of 1944, at a King County Commission sanity hearing, two psychiatrists said she was legally insane, and she was committed to Western State Hospital Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington.

Farmer’s stay at Steilacoom provided the basis for even more scandals. For the mentally insane housed there, electroshock therapy was the most widely used technique, and Farmer reportedly received two or three applications per week for a period of three months. Farmer also was forced into so-called hydrotherapy, wherein she was placed in an ice bath for between six to eight hours. Said by authorities to be cured, she was dismissed, only to be recommitted by her mother, into whose custody she had been placed, in the spring of 1945. She was to remain in this hospital for over five years.

In the dilapidated, decaying state hospital that was understaffed, whose requests for funding were mostly ignored, and in which patients were kept in bed twelve hours a day for want of supervision, Farmer reportedly endured even more electroshock treatments. In 1947, Walter G. Freeman, a prominent Washington, D.C., neurosurgeon and psychiatrist, arrived in Steilacoom to demonstrate the newly developed process called transorbital lobotomy, which was demonstrated on several patients at Steilacoom. During this procedure, “simplified” by Freeman, he inserted an icepick under a patient’s eyelid and then into brain tissue. Freeman performed this procedure on thirteen patients, one of whom he identified as Farmer; a picture, allegedly taken during the process, was circulated to the media.

The scandal of Farmer’s treatment at Steilacoom continued after her death in 1970 in a controversial biography of Farmer called Shadowland (1982), written by William Arnold. Arnold contends in the book that in addition to the lobotomy, Farmer was kept for hours in a straitjacket and was chained to her cell. She was chewed by rats, Rape;of Francis Farmer[Farmer] raped and gang-raped, and used as a guinea pig for Experiments;pharmaceutical experimental drugs. Arnold later retracted his claims. Three feature films and a documentary were made using Arnold’s biography as a basis for their representations of Farmer’s life. Her scandals were perpetuated through popular song lyrics and by artists assuming her persona or her name. Farmer, Frances

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, William. Frances Farmer: Shadowland. Reprint. New York: Berkley Books, 1982. The controversial biography of Farmer that first claimed she had been lobotomized and gang-raped. Arnold later retracted his claims, admitting that he had fabricated much of the work, including the lobotomy story. An oft-criticized but revealing work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farmer, Frances. Will There Really Be a Morning? An Autobiography. New ed. New York: Dell, 1982. Farmer’s posthumously published autobiography, often criticized for its sensationalism. Ghostwritten by Farmer’s friend, Jean Ratcliffe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waites, Kathleen J. “Graeme Clifford’s Biopic, Frances (1982): Once a Failed Lady, Twice Indicted.” Literature and Film Quarterly 33, no. 1 (2005): 12-19. Examines Graeme Clifford’s biographical film Frances in the light of its main sources: Shadowland and Farmer’s autobiography. Because the autobiography is a questionable account and the accuracy of Shadowland has been challenged, Clifford’s biopic is also a marred account of Farmer’s life.

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