A look back at how famed actress Frances Farmer left Hollywood for Indy
By Michelle Williams
Driving by Oaklawn Memorial Gardens has been commonplace for many Fishers and northeast side residents over the last 60 years. The funeral center has been serving Indianapolis residents since 1954. But in 1970, one such resident just happened to be famous.
Her name was Frances Farmer – a headstrong woman in her time. Originally from Seattle, Wash., Frances made a national name for herself before her acting career ever began through an award-winning high school essay and a college trip to Russia.
After a brief acting career that some describe as brilliant, Farmer spent the better part of eight years in and out of mental institutions. She had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and struggled with alcoholism. Years after her life ended, author William Arnold’s account of her life entitled “Shadowland”, purported that Farmer had undergone a transorbital lobotomy during the years she was kept in sanitariums. However, Arnold later recanted the lobotomy allegation in a court case — although the rumor is still widely debated today.
Following her release from the hospitals, Farmer found her way to Indianapolis. “She had married an Indy native named Lee Mikesell during her 1957-58 comeback, and she ended up in Indy after doing summer stock at the Avondale Playhouse in 1958,” said Jeff Kauffman, a researcher and journalist who has maintained extensive contact with Farmer’s friends and relatives. She later divorced Mikesell and bought a home at 5017 North Park Ave. She lived there for the greater part of her time spent in Indianapolis.
She was discovered by executives at WFBM, and was offered a job hosting the afternoon television show “Frances Farmer Presents,” a daily series that showcased vintage films. It was among the first locally-produced television programs that had been broadcast in color. Although she had made a valiant comeback, she was fired by WFBM twice over a seven year period for erratic behavior and drunkenness.
Farmer was reportedly a regular at Red Key Tavern on College Avenue. Owner Russ Settle tended bar and waited on Farmer on the evenings she’d visit. “She used a cigarette holder and drank Manhattans, quietly sitting in the red booths, not paying much attention to her surroundings. Russel said that she was a handsome woman with a deep voice. When leaving she would walk by Russ saying; ‘Russel, you make the best Manhattans!’” said Lana Seacott, a 20-year employee of Red Key Tavern.
After the falling out at WFBM, Farmer remained in Indianapolis for the rest of her life. She entered into the interior decorating business with her long-time friend, Jean Ratcliffe. She also began writing her autobiography, “Will There Really Be a Morning?” She and Ratcliffe suffered a failed investment in a cosmetics company that cost Farmer all of her remaining assets, including her house on Park Avenue. She spent her remaining years in a rented farmhouse at 6000 Moller Road.
In January of 1970, she visited the doctor complaining of trouble swallowing. Farmer underwent a biopsy at Indianapolis Community Hospital that revealed an inoperable malignant tumor. Months later, she died on Aug. 1, 1970. Accounts imply that Ratcliffe handled the funeral arrangements and Farmer’s burial at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens.
To this day, Farmer remains in an indoor crypt at the east side of Oaklawn’s cemeteries. Every once in a while, a distant relative or an inquisitive admirer will stop by to visit and recall the troubled, yet remarkable life that she lived right here in Indianapolis.
Full name: Frances Elena Farmer
Born: Sept. 19, 1913 Seattle, Wash.
Died: August 1, 1970 Indianapolis, Ind.
School: University of Washington
Occupation: Actress, television host
Films: Come and Get It (1936), The Toast of New York(1937), Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake(1942), Rhythm on the Rance(1936)