You Must Remember This Episode 4: (The Printing of) The Legend of Frances Farmer / by Karina Longworth


Find this episode on iTunes

During the last year of his life, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was obsessed with Frances Farmer, an actress from his hometown of Seattle who died in 1970. Farmer’s beauty and unique screen presence made her a star, but her no-bullshit ballsiness made her a pariah — and a target of the hostile media — in 1930s Hollywood. Farmer’s career went down the tubes in the 1940s when a couple of incidents of inconvenient drunkenness led to her being committed to an insane asylum by her own mother, and given a lobotomy.

Or, so Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, frequently told journalists while Cobain was promoting In Utero, the Nirvana album that includes Cobain’s tribute to the actress, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (Love also claimed to have been married to Cobain whilst wearing a dress once owned by Farmer, and the couple named their daughter Frances, although that was likely at least co-inspired by Frances McKee of The Vaselines). Unbeknownst to them, the notion that Farmer was lobotomized was a fiction invented by a biographer with ties to Scientology, a lie which was then dramatized in an Oscar-nominated, Mel Brooks-produced movie which helped to make Jessica Lange a star. By the time Kurt and Courtney were championing Farmer as a proto-punk martyr in the 1990s, the legend of Frances Farmer as patron saint of…well, women like Courtney Love, had been printed so many times that it had swallowed up the truth of Farmer’s experience, and loomed much larger than her actual body of movie work. Today we’ll explore how, and why, that legend got printed, and try to explain how Frances Farmer became the patron saint of beautiful, bright, potentially batshit women whose self-destruction can be traced back to their signing of a studio contract.

We have special guest stars! Nora Zehetner (Brick, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and most recently IFC’s Maron) played Frances Farmer; Brian Clark played Kurt Cobain, and Noah Segan IS Rex Reed.

And now for a few Show Notes:

Farmerology is a tricky field, because each new contributor to the canon seems to make a point of debunking those who came before them…and also quotes those same predecessors as though their works are unchallenged fact. So while the goal of this episode was to explain how and why Frances Farmer’s legend got printed, I’ve also used aspects of that legend (such as clips from the movie Frances) as “evidence.” When in Rome?

The main texts examined in this episode are Shadowland by William Arnold, and Will There Really Be A Morning? by “Frances Farmer.” As explained in the episode, these texts cannot be taken at face value, and the following resources were invaluable in providing additional information and context: 

“Shedding Light on Shadowland” by Jeffrey Kauffman

“Burn All The Liars” by Matt Evans, The Morning News

Frances Farmer: The Life and Films of a Troubled Star by Peter Shelley

Also cited within and/or relevant:

Hollywood Babylon, by Kenneth Anger

“Dark Side of the Womb, Part 2” Melody Maker, August 28, 1993

“Strange Love” Vanity Fair, September 1993

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

In the podcast, I’ve included a quote in which Kurt Cobain admits that he is worried that what happened to Frances Farmer could happen to his wife, Courtney Love. I could do a second episode just on that, but if you’re at all interested in what’s happened to Courtney after Kurt, read Nancy Jo Sales’ excellent November 2011 Vanity Fair profile, “Courtney Love in a Cold Climate.”

Music used in this episode

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” by Nirvana

“Knife Fights Every Night” by Joan of Arc

“Night City”  by Dirty Beaches 

“Paracosm” by Washed Out

“Lenny Valentino #3” by The Auteurs, remixed by Mu-ziq

“Prelude” by Gene Harris

“ Oh Brother #3” by Joan of Arc

“Pennyroyal Tea [Demo]” by Nirvana

“Rub Til it Bleeds” by PJ Harvey 

“Big Day Coming” by Yo La Tengo

“Asking For It” by Hole