Famous Indianapolis Resident Frances Farmer: The Mystery of the Legend

Frances Elena Farmer made it big as an actress during her lifetime, but it was twelve years after her death before her name became a legend. It was then, in the 1982 movie Frances, that Jessica Lange immortalized the troubled Ms Farmer, and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, which made Frances Farmer one of the famous people from Indianapolis, though she lived in the Circle City for less than ten years.

Video trailer with Jessica Lange in the role of Frances


Frances Farmer was an intelligent and rebellious woman. In High School, for example, she won $100 for her controversial piece, “God Dies.” At the University of Washington, she won a trip to the Soviet Union, which her mother strongly warned against. Both events led to later rumors that Farmer was not only an atheist, but a Communist as well, though these have never been borne out.

At the age of 22, Farmer moved to Hollywood, under a seven year contract to Paramount. From 1936 to 1958, Frances Farmer appeared in 18 motion pictures, three Broadway plays and several television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show and This Is Your Life. Throughout her career, she performed in various stage plays, mostly on the East Coast, including some short stints on Broadway.

Great collection of images of the famous Frances Farmer in this silver screen tribute video


While she achieved a high degree of success and recognition as an actress, Farmer was seen as a professional and social problem child off the set. Independent, smart and outspoken, she refused important Hollywood parties invitations and generally alienated the powers that be by her non-conformance.

Things disintegrated for Farmer and she began to exhibit erratic and dangerous behavior. In 1942, she was arrested and put on probation for a driving violation, which, when she failed to pay, led to her arrest in 1943. She was charged with assault by a hairdresser in the studio who claimed Farmer had dislocated her jaw. She displayed violent behavior in court and was sentenced to jail time of 180 days.

The two faces of famous Indianapolis resident Frances Farmer

Farmer ended up spending about nine months in a mental institution around then, first diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis, and later with paranoid schizophrenia, for which she was given insulin shock therapy. Her mother, Lillian Farmer, wrested custody of her daughter from the institution and the courts after a long battle, and took Frances back to Seattle.

Things went badly in her home town, where mother and daughter experienced constant and bitter fighting, eventually leading to Frances physically attack her mother. Lillian thereupon had her daughter committed to a mental hospital in Washington, where Frances was given electro-convulsive shock treatments and, within three months, released as cured.

Frances Farmer ran from her family back to California, only to be arrested for vagrancy and returned to her parents at the age of 32. She was again committed to the same mental hospital, where she stayed for some five years.

Jessica Lange (L) as Frances (R)

The mega-hit movie about her life portrayed the lobotomy of Frances Farmer, but this event has since been debunked by her family, and there is no record of it in the hospital annals.

Her career as a movie star dashed beyond repair, Farmer gradually lost her footing, and she died in 1970 at the age of 56, of esophageal cancer. Though she was born in 1913 in Seattle, Washington, Frances Farmer’s remains were moved back to Indiana for interment in 1970 in the town of Fishers, just outside of Indianapolis, at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery.