Always in Her Shadow

A lost masterpiece about Seattle cult heroine Frances Farmer is out of print, but it may be coming back to life.

Frances Farmer was an outspoken Seattle girl who made a splash in ’40s Hollywood before her mother had her committed to Western State Hospital’s psych ward. There she was subjected to merciless electroshock and (some believe) a transorbital lobotomy. She died anonymous and penniless in 1970, but became a cult figure in the following decades.

The legend among Frances cultists is that she was railroaded by the System, by people who wanted her to be “normal,” who felt she was too passionate for the world. I was part of the Farmer cult from an early age, taken in by Jessica Lange’s scenery chewing in Mel Brooks’ film Frances. What drew me in was the writing of Frances herself, in particular “God Dies,” an essay she wrote at age seventeen, a work of originality and impervious beauty. It won her $100 in a national contest ($1,400 in today’s money). The Seattle Times ran the deadpan headline “Seattle Girl Denies God and Wins Prize.”

In 1935, as a UW drama star, Frances won an all-expenses VIP trip to Russia from Seattle’s communist newspaper The Voice of Action. The Seattle P-I warned, “The Soviet dagger has struck deep in the heart of America.” How could such a promising college girl, so pretty, be won over by the Reds?

Nevertheless, she soon won over an agent and got signed by Universal Studios. Starlets were pampered vassals, living in paid-for Hollywood apartments, waiting to be told what to do. It was a long way from “God Dies” and Russia. As the story goes, it was her life as a kept movie star that led to her undoing: amphetamines and booze were her way of dealing with a life that seemed meaningless to her.

I say “as the story goes” because until recently I didn’t research the myth of Frances — I had just fallen into it headfirst. I learned to recognize other people, usually women, who were part of the Frances cult. A close friend wanted to drive me by Frances’s West Seattle childhood home. I was afraid. I knew she was some kind of key to a dark Northwest history, a symbol — but of what? Evil. Powerlessness. Violent political repression. Kurt Cobain eulogized her in his song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and named his daughter after her. Frances was some kind of Goddess of War for the disaffected.

Maybe I wanted her to remain a Goddess, so I never asked myself the obvious journalist’s question: Why do I know this story at all? Who put her back in the public eye? The answer came one hot afternoon in 2006 in the offices of the P-I, where I was working as arts and entertainment editor and overseeing the film section.

William Arnold was the paper’s gifted staff film critic, a spry man in his early sixties. One day I asked him to review a new Kurt Cobain documentary, About a Son. He uncharacteristically refused. “I have a personal connection to Kurt Cobain,” he e-mailed, “and I would feel a conflict.” Later, in person, he was cryptic at first. “Well, you know about Kurt? How he was obsessed with Frances Farmer?” Yes, I told him, I am obsessed with her too. “Well, I wrote a book on Frances.”

“YOU WROTE THE BOOK ON FRANCES?!?” I exclaimed. “OK, I get it, we’ll hire a freelancer.”

I pressed him for more details. “Kurt had read my book, Shadowland, and he called me all the time, wanting to meet with me. He left messages saying things like, ‘I want to sit down and talk to you about this. I think they are doing the same thing to me that they did to Frances,’ or words to that effect. But by that time, I had heard that kind of message so many times, I didn’t call him back. After his suicide I got a call from a guy who said he was Kurt’s psychiatrist in California, and he went on and on about Kurt’s fixation and about how he was afraid he was going to be lobotomized, and this is why he had killed himself. I suppose it could’ve been a crank but it really freaked me out.”

Shadowland was published in 1978 and is currently out of print but not hard to find online. It is a book of Maileresque ambition and plainspoken populist rage. It ranges from great reporting (at one of her arrests, she “told her examiners they were the ones who should be examined”) to mythic ruminations and facts mixed with hypotheses (like her lobotomy, a hypothesis based on interviews). There is too much secrecy around what happened to Frances, too many destroyed records and unreliable witnesses, for Arnold to write a “straight” biography. So he took some cues from New Journalism and wrote something like a masterpiece instead.

Arnold’s research began in the P-I archives; he combed through the yellowing articles, not quite sure what he was looking for. Then he found her. For years, he would wish he had not come across that file and that serene, staring face.

In the weeks and years after Shadowland was published, flocks of dispossessed, angry, or otherwise Frances-obsessed readers contacted Arnold: Madonna, Tom Cruise, Viggo Mortensen, rebellious adolescents, Frances’s sister (who thought she was killed “by the communists”), feminist writer types (like me), aging Riot Grrls, actresses wanting to play Frances (Lauren Hutton), and mental health patients asking Arnold to save them from her fate.

“There wasn’t really anything I could say to them. It was all in the book. And I was done with the book.” Dwelling in Frances’s shadows took a lot out of Arnold. “All this time, I have wanted to break the association.” He didn’t want to dream about her anymore.

Lately, though, he has allowed her back into his consciousness. He has started to talk about the book and revisit offers to reprint it. West Seattle held a Frances Farmer film festival last winter, and there’s a restaurant/bar on California Avenue SW called Shadowland, in honor of the book. Arnold was gratified to discover this. “You wrote that book,” his wife, also a writer, told him, “but you never read it.” Now he’s reading it. He’s realizing Frances will never let him be. The moment he opened those musty file drawers and saw her face, he was a goner. He will never figure out whether she found him or he found her. •

Photos (from top): Frances Farmer arrested in 1943 after failing to report to a parole officer, collection of William Arnold; the clipping from the March 29, 1935 Seattle P-I that haunted Arnold.