Wooden birdhouses askew.

Northwest Nuggets Series: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Seattle, Washington, is well known as the birthplace of both Starbucks and Jimi Hendrix, the home of airline manufacturing giant Boeing, and the mecca of international hipsterdom (spell check says this not a word…but it lies).

Seattle is also the resting place of Bruce Lee, the residence of The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, and the home of beloved Pike Place Market (a little-known feature of which is a large outdoor wall covered in brightly-colored wads of chewing gum, known simply as, well, the gum wall).

Lesser known, perhaps, is the fact that Seattle is also the birthplace of Frances Farmer, a woman whose talent and beauty were overshadowed only by tragedy. Famed critic Roger Ebert once declared that she might have been one of the all-time great actresses, if only she hadn’t been so unlucky.

Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. From an early age she proved to be a stubborn, free-thinking spirit who many people found troubling to deal with. She won a writing award at West Seattle High School for an essay titled “God Dies,” a rather controversial title and subject for a teenager to take on in 1931 America.

She also worked her way through school at the University of Washington, despite being the daughter of a prominent lawyer. In 1935 she won a contest with the leftist newspaper The Voice of Action. The prize was a trip to the Soviet Union, which she accepted in order to attend the Moscow Art Theatre. Again, this was a controversial move in that time and many people branded her communist.

After returning from her Soviet Union trip, this young woman, bursting with confidence, stopped in New York to audition as an actress, and was signed on the spot with Paramount. From there, the stage was set for a fairytale story of success. However, things never quite worked out that way.

Frances Farmer was an achingly beautiful woman with enormous talent. She was also extremely intelligent, individualistic, and hot tempered. She resisted the studio’s attempts to control her and refused to use her personal life as a promotional tool.

She regularly dressed down in frumpy clothes and no makeup, and steered away from Hollywood parties. If she’d been in a different time, or maybe of a different sex in her time, then she could very well have become an outlaw, a countercultural icon.

Unfortunately, she was not born in a different time, or a different sex. Her willful, brash, and erratic behavior was not becoming of a lady in the ’30s and ’40s, and certainly not of a movie star. So, rather than being lauded for her courage, passion, and integrity, she was increasingly branded crazy.

In January 1943 she was arrested for the first time for failing to pay a fine for a driving violation. Simultaneously, charges were leveled that she dislocated a hairdresser’s jaw while working on a movie set.

In court, she accused the police of violating her civil rights and demanded an attorney. She also threw an inkwell at the judge, which probably accounts for her sentencing to 180 days in jail.

Considering that Farmer was asking for her Constitutionally-guaranteed right to an attorney and was not getting it, one must ask the question if the throwing of an inkwell is really so difficult to understand. Regardless, the incident landed her in the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, California, where she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and given insulin shock therapy.

From that point on, Farmer’s life was spent getting into and out of various forms of trouble with the psychiatric industry, the law, and the movie studios. She was also said to be an alcoholic. But, considering the trouble she suffered through her years, one has to wonder if the alcoholism was the cause of any of her problems, or the result.

In the end, Frances Farmer died of esophageal cancer, leaving behind a legacy of unrealized talent and tragedy, which was immortalized by Jessica Lange’s incredible performance in the 1982 film Frances.

Cobain’s lyrics in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” are characteristically ambiguous and enigmatic, but not so much that the song’s meaning is hard to discern. Having been one who also struggled with fame and societal norms, he seems to be saying that he simply wants to be left alone to be who he is and feel what he feels, regardless of how others think about it.

The connection with Frances Farmer is pretty easy to see. They were both passionate, talented, sensitive souls who had ways of seeing life that were very different from the mass of society.

“France Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” was included on 1993’s In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album, released less than a year before Cobain’s suicide. Cobain wanted to title the album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die as a joke, but was talked out of it due to fears that it could lead to lawsuits.

The album reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, UK albums chart, and the Swedish Sverigetopplistan. It climbed near the top of the charts in several other nations, as well.

In the year that was 1993, angst was in style. It was cool to be cynical and to resist the corporatization of the world. Dressing in ragged clothes and railing against authority wasn’t just allowed for celebrities, it was expected.

Looking at it now, maybe Frances Farmer was just born in the wrong time. Maybe she would have done much better in 1990s Seattle.

 

 

This post is part of my Northwest Nuggets series. It originally appeared in Songplaces.com

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