Troubled Hollywood beauty arrested in East Bay

No, I’m not talking about Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. It involves an actress whose story I came across when I had some free time the other night to surf the Internet and read different articles on one of my favorite guilty pleasures: Hollywood scandals of the past.

The actress is Frances Farmer. She was 32 at the time of her arrest in Antioch, and her arrest took place more than 50 years ago. 

You might have never heard of Farmer but her brains, talent, and blonde beauty made her a top Hollywood and Broadway star in the 1930s. She was declared “the next Garbo.”

While the Seattle-born star was considered brilliant, she was also willful, and rebellious. As a Seattle high school student in the early 1930s she won a national writing contest with an essay, “God Dies.” While studying drama at the University of Washington, she won a trip to the Soviet Union to see the famed Moscow Art Theater, a trip that earned her the label “atheist” and “communist.”

By 1937, the 24-year-old was in Hollywood, signed to a seven year contract. Even with everything going for her, her talent for self-destruction and mental illness quickly became apparent and she wound up being declared legally insane and institutionalized for more than six years.

Her fall from fame, and her battles with Hollywood, the legal system, and the mental health system created a legend around her, inspiring three books, three movies—including the 1982 film Frances, starring Jessica Lange—several off-Broadway plays, and a song by none other than fellow Washington native, Kurt Kobain. In his song, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” he sings the line: “She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”

According to the legend around her, described in this Washington State history online encyclopedia, the “the idealistic young actress challenges the hypocrisy of her world and becomes the victim of a spiteful mother, a vengeful Hollywood, and a cabal of callous and arrogant psychiatrists. Together they force her into a state mental hospital, where she is brutalized by electric shock and other barbaric treatments; raped by orderlies, fellow inmates, and soldiers from a nearby Army base; and eventually lobotomized. Her rebellious spirit finally shattered, she leaves the institution an atomized half-woman, only a shadow of the vibrant artist she had once been.” (Other strong evidence suggests her treatment was never so brutal, and there was never any lobotomy.)

At one point in her slide into madness and institutions, she turned up in Antioch, where in July 1944, she was arrested for vagrancy. (The photo here shows her being arrested in Santa Monica in 1943). This was after her second hospitalization, and after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and undergoing repeated rounds of insulin shock therapy and electro-convulsive shock treatment. During a respite from hospitals, she traveled with her father to visit an aunt in Reno, but she ran away and spent time with a family who picked her up hitchiking. Her vagrancy arrest in Antioch received wide publicity.

A July 24, 1944 article in the San Jose Evening News, says “Blonde actress Frances Farmer, 30, who graduated from the University of Washington into a brief Hollywood movie stardom, was picked up today on a vagrancy charged three weeks after she was released from a Washington state sanitorium.

“She is broke and on her uppers,” said Antioch Police Chief Al Leroy. “Sometimes she makes cracks about cops, but we change the subject and get along fine with her. She seems to be in good health, mentally and physically.”

Leroy said Capt. Harry Boyer of the Antioch police picked up Miss Farmer beside the highway outside Antioch during the night. Farmer had been missing for about three weeks, and had been the subject of a secret search for 14 days. Farmer had been staying with her father in Reno, when Frances just disappeared “without even taking a toothbrush,” her mother told the news.

14 thoughts on “Troubled Hollywood beauty arrested in East Bay

  1. Ms. Crazy,

    Oh, but to be as perfect as those who constantly critique and find fault. The article was very enlightening and fun to read. Thanks for your continued reporting of local events. Keep up the gooid work, errors and all.



  2. Scooter,
    Thanks for your note, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I was indulging my own guilty pleasure and interest. It's okay if people point errors, big and small. One nice thing about online is that I can at least fix them.

    Have a great Sunday.


  3. Interesting, indeed!

    Side note: Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love's daughter is named Frances Bean. Coincidence or not? I think not.


  4. CS,
    That was my thought, too. That Cobain and Love named Frances Bean after Frances Farmer. Hey, maybe they had both Frances in mind.

    What's up with Courtney Love these days anyway? Was Frances Farmer some kind of role model for her, too, including with all the erratic behavior?


  5. At the time that Frances Bean Cobain was born, there were a lot of media reports that Kurt and Courtney had named her after Frances Farmer. I'm kind of glad to find out now that she was named after Frances McKee–who's a funny, whimsical type. Just seems like a better choice for a daughter's namesake. The Vaselines are actually from Scotland.

    RIP Frances Farmer–very sad story.


  6. They named her after Frances Farmer. Kurt also bought Courtney a Frances Farmer gown that Courtney wore for their wedding. He also wrote a song called “Frances Farmer will get her revenge on Seattle”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s