THE HISTORY OF MY ENCOUNTER WITH JEANIRA RATCLIFFE!By Jack Randall Earles
One Saturday evening in the early summer of 1972, I was reading the Indianapolis News
A book review section was always featured that day on the back page of the last section of that newspaper. I always saved it for last. On this day, I turned to see a photo of Vivian Vance. What started out as an interview with Miss Vance quickly turned into a review for a book that had been edited by her husband John Dodd: Will There Really Be a Morning? , the autobiography by Frances Farmer. (In the subsequent paperback editions it has been called ‘the autobiography of Frances Farmer.’)
The review was mixed giving large play to local individuals mentioned in it. Vivian Vance credited herself with convincing Frances to write her life story. "I told her she must write down what happened," is the quote I remember. She also said that she was a friend of Frances’ in her last years and appeared frequently with her on her television show. Then there was the photograph of the cover of the book itself. If you haven’t seen the cover of the hardback edition, go to the books section of the site and take a look. It is a disturbing photo.
The following Wednesday I went to the L.S. Ayres department store in Greenwood, Indiana, and bought the book. It had been available at the local library but the waiting list was three months long. It cost $7.95 and seemed to be selling briskly. It was on display by itself on a high-volume end shelf. There were a dozen split in half Frances Farmers staring out at the passing shoppers.
I started to read it. I kept reading it. The photograph of Frances being manhandled by a policeman was somewhat shocking -- the tops of her stocking on view to the world. I took it with me that evening to a rehearsal of a play that I was in and read during my breaks. I finished it early the next morning. Then I started it again. And I memorized the poem that gave the book its title.
Something wasn’t quite right. Though my family certainly was not in any way prominent in local circles, I had never heard of Jeanira Ratcliffe or her family. I had done a little research on Frances since she had left television and knew at least one husband was missing. The sequences in the asylum seemed false. Frances’ voice was coming through, but something was wrong. Early in the book, Frances wrote that she was warned that nobody "threw a shoe" to denote a temper tantrum. Later in the book Jeanira admonished Frances after a fit of anger that "you certainly know how to throw a shoe." Frances also wrote that she treasured her time in Europe because it was the only time in her life she was to go abroad. How would she know that? Her life could have been far from over. She might have traveled extensively in her later years. Silly conspiracy theories, I thought….an autobiography by Frances Farmer.
I had watched Frances Farmer Presents when I was growing up. It came as a surprise to me when a teacher in my history class mentioned that Frances had been a film star. He then said something about trouble and mental instability. I watched her closely after that. There was also a morning movie presentation on WFBM, and I saw ‘Exclusive’ there that summer. It was a shock to see the difference between Frances Farmer movie star and Frances Farmer television hostess….all in one day.
I immediately wrote her a ‘fan’ letter. She replied a few days later with a letter and autographed photograph. Both of these are posted here on the site. A few days later, I called the station to thank her, but the sound of her voice scared me and I hung up! "Yes..who is it?" Click. I had also found her number in the phone book listed backwards under Frances Farmer instead of the usual Farmer Frances.
The next summer my mother came home from her family reunion and announced that I should have been there. I had not gone expecting a ‘boring afternoon.’ My mother said she told her cousin Jeanne all about how I liked the Frances Farmer book. She then told me that Jeanne worked for Jeanira Ratcliffe.
"She said if you have any messages for Jean, she would take them for you." I couldn’t believe my luck. It was fate or serendipity or karma….or Jean Ratcliffe needed a good secretary and Jeanne applied for the job! Anyway I set about writing a letter and a rough draft of a screenplay that I had started based on Will There Really Be a Morning? Jean had announced in the newspapers that she was going to produce it herself with Ida Lupino directing and Glenda Jackson starring as Frances. Jean said that Glenda had mannerisms amazingly like Frances.
I also wrote of an incident I had seen on television. A children’s program sometimes preceded hers on WFBM. On this spring day, the host of the children’s program was broadcasting live from in front of the studio. He was talking when around the corner wearing sunglasses and carrying a purse as big as a suitcase came Frances Farmer, head down on her way to the front door. He greeted her warmly. She sized up the situation…’You’re on’….pulled off her sunglasses, and proceeded to converse with a man in a striped coat and straw hat. She mentioned she was almost late because she had been working in her rock garden and had lost track of time. A few moments later she was gone.
I sent off the envelope to Jean through Jeanne and waited. On a Saturday afternoon almost three months later, I got a phone call. The woman introduced herself as Bezie Droege, and said Jean would like me to join her and some friends for dinner the next Saturday night. Could I? Could I? She gave me an address and the time. The first week though, Jean was ill. Bezie called that afternoon and rescheduled for the next Saturday. Talk about impatient!
I was 23 years old at the time and had every ambition of being a writer. By that time Jeanira Ratcliffe had also ghostwritten a book called Kennedy Nurse with Joseph Kennedy’s nurse. The paperback version of Morning had just been released. I was sure she wanted me to write the movie with her…I was just sure of it.
I drove my white MG to the Spring Hill Road address and was the first one to arrive. The woman who greeted me at the door was neither Jean nor Bezie (whose name I had recognized from Will There Really Be a Morning? ). I do not remember her name. She welcomed me into a large comfortable house and offered me a drink. A few other guests arrived. An advertising man, Jim and Bezie Droege, and a young woman whose name I also do not remember.
Then in a burst of energy and greetings Jean arrived carrying four pizzas from Noble Romans. We were introduced and all sat in the living room. Jean asked the hostess if Betty Whitaker was going to come and the hostess said no that Betty was not going to make it. We ate the pizza which Jean had paid for had cokes and wine…or beer. The conversation the beginning of that evening ran the gamut from Silva Mind Control to the possibility of everyone in the room being an alien from outer space. I felt very comfortable with the group of people but didn’t participate much in the conversation, a detail that did not escape Jean’s notice. After every opinion, she would ask me what do you think?
Jean returned my script saying she was planning to write one herself (the later teleplay did not mention her although Farmcliffe Enterprises was credited). I said that I had enjoyed the book but that I was disturbed by it. I asked if she would mind talking about Frances. She said of course not. Some of the others present had also known her. Because the evening from this point seemed to fly by, my impressions are in no particular chronological order.
Jean offered the following personal observations:
- Frances loved to garden. She often stuck her fingers in her house plants to test for moisture and left fingerprints all over the refrigerator.
- Leif Erickson was still in love with her and wanted to spend the night with Frances when he was in town. She refused.
- Before going out, Frances waged what she called "the battle of hair and makeup" to make herself presentable.
- Frances loved animals, particularly her dog Sport.
- Jean’s family had been horrified by the book.
- Jean had been working with Vivian Vance on an autobiography to be called There Is a Mountain Beyond a Mountain Beyond a Mountain. This book had been mentioned by Vance in the original article I read. Jean said she sincerely hoped the woman got a book but that she wasn’t the one to write it. Vance refused to be honest about certain parts of her life and would not tell the truth about her bad relationship with her own mother saying "My public would never accept this…." A recent biography of Vance mentions this ordeal although it names its would be co-author Jean Radcliff.
- Jean did write the book after Frances’ death. The editor insisted she leave many things out and some women at GP Putnam’s refused to read the manuscript because of its nature.
- Lois Kibbee and Gerold Frank had both decided against writing the book after Frances’ death. John Dodd, the eventual editor, had himself offered Jean no encouragement to complete the project but when it was finished said that Frances’ name alone should appear as author to increase sales and for critical attention.
- Frances’ sister Edith had appeared at the funeral demanding to know "where is the money?" Jean said Edith did not ask a thing about Frances’ last days of suffering. Edith left the funeral and went back to the house. Jean said many things seemed to be missing when she herself returned. Edith (who Jean claimed bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz ) was tracked down at her hotel and told to bring back anything she had removed from the house. Awhile later she appeared on the front step with a suitcase from a Goodwill store which held some second hand clothing Jean did not recognize. She said Edith threw the suitcase in the front door with a cry of "There!" and left.
- After publication of Morning Edith did write a couple of letters that were published in the News accusing Jean of making up lies and describing the book as a slander of her family.
- Jean told the story of Bing Crosby setting up a deal whereby Frances would become a spokeswoman for Minute Maid Orange Juice. When the advertising executives came to town she met with them several times. On the day the contract was to be signed (this is reported somewhat differently in Rita Rose’s newspaper series), one of the men asked Frances what Tyrone Power was really like. Frances became incensed, rose from her chair and said, "I do not know Tyrone Power. I fucked him a lot, but I do not know him. Gentlemen, this meeting is over." She left the room.
These are my immediate memories. Jean asked me how she could help me. She told me that she planned to write the screenplay for Morning herself. She told me she would be glad to read another screenplay and give me some tips if I wanted her to. Jean had brought along some scripts of films that I might want to see to understand how a screenplay was written. At the end of the evening, I started to take them with me. To my embarrassment, Jean had intended for me to study them there and asked that I not take them. She wrote out an address and gave it to me. She said I could send my material there. I later found out that it was the address of her father’s barbershop. I sent another letter and a script a few weeks later. I never got a reply. That was my last brush with Jeanira Ratcliffe.
My personal impression of her is that she was an interesting looking woman. She resembled photos of the young Sophie Rosenstein. She was a woman of ambition and charm. She was very bright and personable. I am still uncertain as to her sexual orientation.
I know she was very important to Frances in the last years of her life. I am not so certain that most of the relationship described in Morning is accurate. Time frames and locations and residences just do not add up.
We also owe her a great debt. Without Jean first taking on the challenge of writing Frances’ story, we would not have a beginning from which to explore her life. All of us owe this debt not only to Jean but also to Lee Mikesell who found Frances on the streets of Eureka, California, and put her back in the public eye. They were a couple of people that might have seen in Frances some of the things they lacked in their own lives.
That they profited from their relationships with her (Jean more so than Lee), was just another link in the chain of Frances’ life. There is a lot of evidence to say they hated each other and that Frances was caught in the middle.
Thanks, Jean, for the dinner, for being a friend to Frances Farmer, and for pointing us in the right direction. You were not completely honest. But you did all of us a great favor.
Jeanira Ratcliffe died about ten years ago of
cancer. She is not buried in Oaklawn Cemetery.