History 301: The tumultuous life and career of Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer with her third husband, Lee Mikesell (right). She married and divorced Mikesell in 1958.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER Contributing editor

Indianapolis movie and theater actress, television host, interior decorator and shopkeeper, Frances Farmer, is known today – if she is remembered at all – for her troubled life, as chronicled in the 1981 biographical film, Frances. That film stars a young, beautiful Jessica Lange as the young, beautiful and troubled Farmer.

Frances is based loosely on Farmer’s autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, written during Farmer’s final years in Indianapolis. The book and film chronicle her rise to fame, her fall into depression and addiction and an eventual (disputed) diagnosis of schizophrenia that sent her spiraling into a mental asylum for almost a decade.

She was born in 1914 in Seattle, Wash. While a high school student, the whip-smart Farmer won a national essay contest for an essay titled God Dies. The nationwide response to her writing, which discussed how people talk to God only when they need something and request God’s intercession in the most mundane issues, taught her early in life that she could stir up a controversy. She continued to do that throughout her life and even after her death.

After graduating from the University of Washington, Farmer began a career on Broadway and in film in her early ’20s. The beautiful blonde quickly rose to fame playing opposite Hollywood’s most popular leading men of the era – Bing Crosby, Tyrone Power, Ray Milland. She also continued to work in theater, her true love. In the late 1930s she starred in two Broadway productions under famed director Elia Kazan.

By the 1940s, she was back in Hollywood acting in Among the Living, a film about a mentally disturbed man who was kept in isolation in a strait jacket for years by his own father. Aspects of that story sadly presage Farmer’s own mental collapse and institutionalization a year later by her mother.

The gruesome details of her years in a series of asylums are detailed in her autobiography and the film of her life, but the abuse she suffered did not prevent her from eventually, eight long years later, getting out of the institution and making, a new, though still challenging, life for herself.

Farmer went back to the stage, the sort of acting she loved. In 1957, she starred in a summer stock play at the former Avondale Playhouse in Indianapolis, which attracted its fair share of famous actors over the years.

She liked the theater, and she liked the city, and when a member of the management at WFBM-TV, the precursor of WRTV-6, offered her a job hosting a late-afternoon movie program, she said yes to it and to a new life in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis News interviewed her for its TV section in 1960 and reported that, at that time, the show host lived in an apartment at 44th and College (the building no longer exists) and attended St. Joan of Arc Church, where she sang in the choir. She liked her job and mostly enjoyed her fan mail, except perhaps for mail from “men pointing up a[ny] slight mis-statement of fact she has made concerning a technical point.” Farmer, not known for her diplomacy, might have been a pioneer in thus expressing annoyance for “mansplaining,” but she said that most of her mail was “neighborly and typically Hoosier.” 

At the time of the interview, she was scheduled to star in another Avondale play, Present Laughter, a comedy by Noel Coward. 

Frances Farmer Presents ran for seven “tumultuous seasons,” according to an entry about the actress in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. The entry says that the station fired her twice for erratic behavior and drunkenness. Old-timers who remember the show confirm that, even on air, Farmer sometimes appeared a tad overserved.

In 1964, Farmer left her position at WFBM and opened an interiors shop/decorating business with her friend, Jean Ratcliffe. The shop, called Greenbrier, was located at 4211 College Ave., next door to the Uptown Theatre, ironically maintaining for Farmer a physical tie to showbiz. (The location where the shop and theater stood is now a parking lot for a city police station.)

During this time, Farmer purchased a cute cottage in the 5000 block of North Park Avenue and continued to act in plays part time. Then, in 1965, she was arrested for drunken driving while driving home from an appearance in a play at Purdue University.

The interior decorating business continued for another year or so but didn’t make money. After closing it Farmer invested in a line of cosmetics with Ratcliffe, but their business manager absconded with the funds. Farmer lost both her money and her charming little cottage.

She moved to a rental house on Moller Road. It was at this house where Farmer began writing her autobiography. She had not yet finished it when she died of esophageal cancer (after decades of smoking) in 1970, at age 57.

Jean Ratcliffe wrote the book’s final chapter (and perhaps more). It was published in 1972 and caused a sensation with its revelations of the abuse Farmer suffered while institutionalized. Screenwriter and book reviewer Gavin Lambert would write, “Frances Farmer was one of the beautiful and the damned.”

True to Farmer’s often controversial life, the book stirred controversy. Many questioned the veracity of Will There Really Be a Morning; some claimed that Ratcliffe wrote most of it and sensationalized her friend’s life to gin up sales in order to pay off Farmer’s debts.

Whether partially or fully true, it’s a disturbing and sad page-turner. Since her death others have written biographies of Farmer, unwilling to let her rest. But when she told her own story, Farmer wrote that her years in Indianapolis were the happiest of her life. In this city she finally found her peace. 

Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis.