Frances in the Fog
I never knew her, never spoke to her, but she was my neighbor. I laid eyes on her only once; as if through a fog, the impression of that fleeting encounter has remained with me for decades. I was a boy approaching adolescence, and by then, she was middle-aged but still striking in appearance.
Frances Farmer lived for awhile in a one-story brown house with a gabled roof at 5107 North Park Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana. In the summer of 1961, I was eight when my family moved into a white two-story house at 5210 on the same street. She was a local celebrity, and I first became aware of her when her show, Frances Farmer Presents, came on the television at a friend’s house. My first impression of her was that she was a boring older woman. Her show, her guests, and their topics of discussion were outside my limited sphere of interests.
It wasn’t much later that this immature assumption changed. Our family was seated at the dinner table one night, and she somehow came up in conversation. My father and mother mentioned to my brothers and me that our neighbor had been a famous actress in Hollywood, that she struggled with alcoholism, and that she had once been a mental patient. When I heard those words, something fired in my young mind and echoed in my chest. With the kind of childish resolve that imagines noble and improbable things without taking action, I wanted to save Frances Farmer.
My friends and I walked past her house every weekday on our way to school. That dwelling had taken on a certain mystique after I had learned that someone famous lived there, but she was never out in her yard when we passed by. The one time that I saw her in person occurred while I was with a friend. He couldn’t play until he had delivered all of his newspapers, so I tagged along to keep him company. Frances Farmer’s house was on his route. When we walked into her yard, I looked expectantly at her windows, but her face did not appear. We continued up the walk to her front door. My friend laid the Indianapolis News on the doorstep, and we turned and took a few steps back toward the street. Then it happened.
The details are a bit fuzzy more than half a century later, but I think we heard either her voice or the sound of the front door opening. I remember looking back to get a glance at her. My impressions from seeing her on television had left me unprepared for what remained of the beauty she had once exhibited on the silver screen. Her appearance and poise were beyond my young experience, and these impressions left me in a mildly confused state. Her smile was pleasant, her voice distinctive.
She picked up her paper and went back into the house. The moment was over, and the shortcomings of my immature attention span quickly overcame the confusion of having seen her.
Even after her passing, Frances Farmer remains a lightning rod for conflicting accounts. On cursory examination, it seems that no two descriptions of her life, or of certain incidents in her life, read exactly the same, and certain details they report are of such a contradictory nature that not all of them can be true. Articles and blogs available on the internet have exacerbated the disparities between various biographies and even some of her quoted statements. I do not wish to dwell on these trivialities, but certain details of her life seem important to me for personal reasons.
“God Dies” by Frances Farmer appeared in The Scholastic on May 2, 1931. She was a senior in high school at the time, and I am impressed by the quality of writing and the density of thought this piece reveals. She wrote of feeling clean after bathing and lying down for the night, of correlating this feeling with the idea of God, and of being unable to reconcile it with the grittiness of daily living. Inequality in human suffering (a common discrepancy in any age) led her to conclude that God was useless. She expressed pride in discovering this for herself. Nobody had ever told her that belief to the contrary was a lie, but I myself never suffered that particular deprivation. By the time I was a high school student, atheism was more in vogue.
Her essay generated controversy and criticism from her elders. As a Christian and as a professional educator, I find this social phenomenon interesting. I taught at a women’s college for twenty-seven years before retiring, and I appreciate interacting with intelligent, independently thoughtful women. No matter how flawed the individual, I believe these qualities give God and professors alike something to work with. It is impossible to be certain at present, but I think a young Frances Farmer would have been a welcome addition to my classroom and to my roster of academic advisees.
To the best of my recollection, I became a Christian during the summer of 1964 when I was eleven. My mother required my brothers and me to attend a vacation Bible school at a neighborhood church, and some things that I heard there puzzled me and challenged my conscience. Somewhere between Fifty-First and Fifty-Second streets on North Central Avenue (one block west and around the corner from my house), I made the decision one afternoon. I remember the glare of sunlight off the concrete of the sidewalk as I made my way northward, and I remember being alone.
Roughly four years later and roughly nine blocks farther south, Frances Farmer found herself in the sanctuary of Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church at 4217 North Central Avenue after wandering in out of curiosity. Her description of what happened there is recorded in Moments to Remember by Candida Lund:
“It was quiet and dark, and I studied the massive altar and understood, for the first time, the power and meaning of the Crucifixion.”*
Based on my own experience, her revelation in the sanctuary of Saint Joan of Arc resonated with me when I read about it, and it resonates with me still. Frances Farmer, the controversial author of “God Dies,” actually became a Christian. I did so in full sunlight. At the moment of her epiphany, Frances was indoors and in dim lighting, but like me, she was by herself, an intelligent and thoughtfully independent human being. Such qualities transcend age, gender, and even time. Neither of us responded to a formal invitation in public. We had only the influences of truth and conscience, and we came to the same conclusion.
I grew up in a Methodist family. Frances Farmer converted to Catholicism in 1968. A heavy smoker for much of her life, she died of esophageal cancer on August 1, 1970, at the age of fifty-six.
Such are my thoughts and recollections. I interpret them in retrospect with the benefit, and perhaps the disadvantage, of maturity. In my wallet there is a Medicare card which officially identifies me as old, but I still see her through the fog of boyhood memory: charming, poised, and unexpectedly beautiful to young eyes.
Yes, in some vague and implausible way, I wanted to save Frances Farmer, but in the end, it wasn’t necessary. God evidently did it himself.
*Lund, Candida (1980). Moments to Remember. Thomas More Press.
Robert L. Jones III is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College. His story, “Until the Bubble Pops,” appeared in the March 2021 issue of Sci Phi Journal. He lives with his wife and his reasonably well-behaved dog in southwestern Missouri.
Photo Credit: “Frances Farmer” uploaded by Mike, via Flickr.com.