Frances Farmer’s Unconventional Love Story

By Ben Maddox

Frances         Leif

Everything about this gifted youngster is new and different – especially her marriage to another promising newcomer, Leif Erikson


Frances Farmer’s love story began exactly a month after she arrived in Hollywood, and she didn't want it to start. 

She had no engagement ring, no trousseau, no guests at her wedding.  There were no showers and the courtship was carried on as a deliberate test of each other's tastes. Leif Erikson, her bridegroom, never once took her to a swanky nightspot or a premiere.  But she wouldn't have gone, anyway, because she wouldn't buy an evening gown.  Even though both were moving picture names, the honeymoon trip was an overnight stop in an auto camp and they returned to begin their married life in her one-room apartment. 

Although they have finally moved into a house, Leif doesn't expect Frances to, be domestic.  Hers is a marriage that is not going to be built around a home.  If it had meant giving up her career, Frances wouldn't have married. 

It is, you see, a very "different" type of love, but then everything about this Farmer girl is as distinctive and different as is her new and startling personality. 

The true story of Frances Farmer's meteoric rise in the movies is exciting enough in itself. Everywhere you go now in Hollywood you hear it repeated.  For this girl who was an usher in a Seattle theater has, because of her work in only three pictures, "Too Many Parents," "Rhythm on the Range," and her smashing hit as Lotta in "Come and Get It," become one of the most promising girls ever to enter the movies. 

But her love story in which she has been secretly starring is the still more surprising thing which has happened to her.  I want to tell you of it, for the very first time.   

She has guarded it even from the publicity department of her studio, Paramount.  It's hers, she says.  Hers alone, and Leif's. 

Yet, knowing Frances and her husband and their experiences, I believe you should learn how these two are living in a seventh heaven of their own design, right in Hollywood.  So rarely do people dare to follow their intuition! 

Her love story isn't according to either Emily Post or Hollywood.  She hasn't paid attention to the regular rules for brides nor indulged in the pretentious front that is the standard formula for picture brides. 

 In fact, everything about this great private-life romance which came to Frances Farmer almost simultaneously with her big screen chance is unconventional to the extreme degree.  Only a genuine sophisticate, only one as wise as unfettered, and as gifted with foresight as she is could be courageous enough to thumb her nose at traditions which mean nothing in her case, could be brave enough to live in Hollywood as she and her proud husband are living.   

 When she said she would marry him, just one year ago, she was a traitor to the stern resolution she had made before setting foot in Hollywood.  As far as she was concerned, she disagreed with the whole idea of matrimony.  She realized that an actress is a pawn of destiny, and she understood that she was forsaking the safety of domesticity when she entered her chosen profession. But she wished it this way and she had no intention of giving any man the opportunity to spoil her splendid plan for success. 

Right after the brief marriage ceremony the groom - Leif Erikson, a blue-eyed, blonde modern Viking who stands six-feet-three-and-a-half - glanced down at the slim young wife he had acquired and then once and for all he, too, forgot that he had broken his own oath to stay single. Frances wouldn't have attempted marriage if Leif hadn't had notions that coincided precisely with hers; nor would he have proposed if he hadn't been equally satisfied with her ideals. 

Both of them are career-mad.  They talk, eat, dream and exist for achievement.  Frances is blessed with a terrific vitality which keeps her constantly working towards her goal, and Leif has this same energy.  And in their respective charts emotion towards the opposite sex was classified as an absolute luxury.  After they were tops they figured they might dabble at love. But one point was certain. They wouldn't be trapped by an erratic eroticism; they wouldn't be tied down, chained to a stolid, ruinous routine! Each of them had looked with discerning eyes at the unions around them, and the monotony and unhappiness they glimpsed intensified their desires for a stark freedom.  They steeled themselves to be coldly calculating. 

 Then the irresistible flame of love caught them up.  Frances was a newcomer to Phyllis Laughton's acting classes at Paramount.  Leif was an old veteran of four months.  Paramount had important hopes for both, but assumed they could do with some coaching from the studio drama teacher. 

"I cast them together," declares Miss Laughton, "because I was impressed with the special earnestness both displayed. They were so determined to make good!" 

The Eriksons would die before admitting that they are the least bit sentimental.  They scorn presents on official remembrance days.  But three days before Leif's last birthday I ran into Frances with her arms full of packages.  "I'm in a rush to get these over to Leif's dressing-room today," she explained. And she fancied I didn't detect the hidden ecstasy in her voice. 

And so, this being the way they are, they won't tell of their romance in terms of the usual extravagant adjectives.  They try very, very hard to be most realistic about it all - but it is young and very modern love, nevertheless.  

Frances declares she wasn't bowled over by Leif.  Still, her indifference to men faded rapidly when she met him.  Each sensed the seriousness of the other about work and that was pleasing.  Rehearsals consumed four hours daily.  They consoled each other when they had to make film tests with aspirants for parts, reassuring one another that the executives would shortly recognize their unappreciated talent being thrown in.  They decided they could improve more quickly if they rehearsed away from the studio, too.  Nothing would have made them admit they wanted to see more of each other. 

They started those after studio rehearsals in Frances’ tiny apartment.  The script Miss Laughton had assigned them called for a fiery dispute between husband and wife and they didn’t spare themselves.  The dialogue was climaxing magnificently when the manager imperiously leaned on the doorbell.  Frances had to produce the script to prove that she and Leif weren’t about to kill each other, that their “quarrel” had all been in the line of duty! 

After that, moonlight drives along the crescent beach of Santa Monica afforded a more attractive locale.  They’d rattle down the broad silver highway in Leif’s Ford coupe, gesturing and speaking potent pages for all they were worth.  They pretended they didn’t notice the moon.  They ignored their own youth and loveliness. 

Leif suggested they intersperse their scenes with some fishing; he kept a small boat moored at Santa Monica.  Picture actresses customarily are fond of exclusive yachting parties, but how many have you ever heard of who’d be a sport on a two-by-four dingy that reeks of mackerel?  Frances is that rare creature, a beauty who isn’t a devotee of the make-up table.  Away from cameras she wears no makeup, and so she could gayly go along and haul in fish without any furtive qualms. 

Next he mentioned hiking.  Riding is the fashionable Hollywood recreation, but Leif was bored with fashionable folk and he wanted to find out if she was also.  Frances retorted that she’d adore to go and she’d put up a few sandwiches if he’d tote some pop.  She scoured the Boulevard for a bargain in high boots and they proceeded to have high times.  They still said they did all these things for their work.  They didn’t suspect for an instant that they were falling in love. 

Nor did Hollywood in general.  Here is a couple that doesn’t care for the showy restaurants, or for the Troc.  When they sought the sun in the desert they headed for plain oases instead of Palm Springs.  They weren’t mysterious, but they simply went about like two normal people who aren’t tempted by paraders.  And so no one noticed them.  

They discovered, soon, that their outlooks were truly alike.  It developed that neither would sacrifice individuality to marriage.  Strangely, Leif hadn’t the remotest inclination for the accepted sort of home, either.  He didn’t yearn to settle down and that made Frances glad.  He anticipated the bewildering responsibilities which are bound to come with success.  Possessions seem like jailors to Frances; she isn’t anxious for a large wardrobe, for jewels, or for property.  And Leif thought this way, too.  He enjoyed living quietly and inconspicuously, but emphatically living to the hilt.   He was on the go.  Frances’ extra money went for dancing lessons, his for singing.  What they could save could be used to advance their careers. 

They had discovered all this in each other when, in the middle of a clinch before Miss Laughton and the rest of her pupils, they didn’t stop.  They went ahead and kissed.  They hadn’t schemed to; but they couldn’t help it! 

The onlookers clapped.  Frances and Leif didn’t blush.  The shock of so suddenly solving the answer to the loneliness which had always engulfed them was so strong that they just turned and bowed, the contact of their hands burning a message of surrender.  Finally they managed to slip from each other’s arms, to mumble to the drama coach excuses as to why they had to rush to appointments elsewhere.  Outside, on the steps of Paramount’s rehearsal building, they hesitated and looked into one another’s eyes.  Smiles swept them.  They ran like kids to the studio gate, clambered into Leif’s old car and drove madly away. 

They still don’t know how far or where they drove.  Finally Leif, so masculine and so thoroughly everything that Frances had supposed the impossible, remarked casually, “Doing anything tomorrow?”  She shook her head sideways.  “You’ll drive to Yuma?”  She nodded.   

So early the next day they rushed through the city traffic and fairly skimmed over a desert that had never been so breathtakingly majestic.  Frances didn’t inform the studio what she was up to, nor did she wire her family.  The responsibility was hers and Leif’s alone.  Three college boys trailed them in Yuma and campaigned desperately for them to be married in three different churches.  But whereas gravity and a sense of forever-and-ever binds the average pair, casualness links these two in an infinite trust.  Frances and Leif ignored the sales chatter and searched out the justice of the peace to read the ceremony that united them. 

It was Saturday so they just had that fleeting weekend to be away from Hollywood.  They had never planned to honeymoon at a ritzy hotel and they didn’t.  Impetuously they drove to San Diego and registered at an auto camp! 

On their return to Hollywood there was a tentatively sad reaction to the congratulations which were heaped upon them.  They had been such arguers against matrimony that they became self-conscious with each other with the fuss that was made.  But that passed. 

Frances’ one-room apartment proved so crowded that they moved to a three-room suite.  The streetcars were so noisy that they resolved to retire to a house.  “All we want,” they chorused, “is a fireplace a room to eat and sleep!” 

In wooded Laurel Canyon they stumbled upon their retreat.  It is a little rustic cottage of studio design, nestling up a dirt road under giant evergreen oaks.  They haven’t gone shopping for furnishings – they don’t want to own any!  In the nonchalant living room there are an old-fashioned davenport and a couple of armchairs beside a Hungarian peasant fireplace. There are a one-tone brown rug, a piano hardly in the mode, a comfortable squashy couch and an overburdened magazine rack.  It's just as the landlord left it, except for the books here and there, and you don't have to be fussy.  Whichever one of them is near a wood yard orders a sack of wood tied onto the Ford - Frances has a yesteryear's model which she drives - and thus the heating problem is handled.  If the lone fire threatens to fade, Frances calmly picks up the bellows and peps it up. 

At first they were determined to do their own cooking, or eat out.  But you can't prefer modest restaurants indefinitely and you can't do all the housework and play moving picture leads at the same time.   So they inherited a maid of all duties from a friend.  They haven't bought dishes, silverware, or service plates, so it's a cook's paradise.   

While Frances has demonstrated that it isn't necessary to behave like an orthodox bride, not long ago she did get her first evening gown.  An invitation came to a formal supper and they couldn't get out of attending.  So Leif, who isn't a bit sentimental either, you'll recall, stole down to a Boulevard store and selected a gorgeous gold bracelet that teams with Frances' unadorned gold wedding ring.  "'The long dress' had to have something to set it off," he grins.  He invariably refers to her formal satin as "the long dress!” 

They revel in studying humanity.  Frances evolved her hard-boiled character for "Come and Get It" by dropping into a Western Avenue beer parlor with Leif.  The Eriksons, in ordinary attire, had only a quarter with them.  The hostess felt sorry for them when they'd spent their fun allowance and insisted upon treating them.  They went back several evenings, Frances absorbing the woman's attitude.  "She claimed she could cook a marvelous spaghetti dinner and we asked her to come up and prove it.  But she never did.  We guess she didn't consider us worth cultivating!" 

Frances and Leif assuredly are worth cultivating and not merely because they are in pictures. Although Frances did usher in a theater, she also is an outstanding graduate of the University of Washington.  She was born in Seattle, the daughter of a lawyer, and she worked her way through college.  She didn't waste her time in the jolly whirl of sororities, but concentrated on the drama course in which she majored.  The constant training she secured is why she has scored so promptly; she was already familiar with the technique of acting. 

When she got her diploma she had no money to finance an attack on Broadway.  A newspaper aided her.  It wanted a representative college girl of known intelligence to make an inspection tour of Russia.  And so when she departed on the bus it was en route to the land of the Soviet.  She went alone.  "And why not?" she queries, her superb sapphire blue eyes reflecting her wonder at anyone presuming that she might have been frightened.  

On the Atlantic, returning, she met a doctor, who, being acquainted with theatrical folk, listened to her tale of acting ambition.  In New York he introduced her to a friend who immediately escorted her to the Paramount scouts.  She was obviously a natural.   

In the meanwhile Leif, a native Californian and son of a North Pacific skipper, had quit U.C.L.A. to sing with Ted Fio Rito.  He enacted a repertoire of principal roles in Reinhardt's road version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and was singing in vaudeville when Paramount signed him as a leading man bet. 

So you see this is a marriage of minds as well as emotions.  Frances doesn't have to pretend to like what her husband likes.  She hasn't been betrayed into a routine because they haven't infringed upon each other's individuality.  They haven't stooped to jealousy. Each of them is just twenty-two.

With their first year together nearly a matchless memory, the Eriksons have maneuvered a vacation to celebrate - even if they won't wait for the proper date and won't call it a celebration. Yes, and in spite of their Hollywood position, they are blithely stopping at auto camps! 

Are they kidding themselves when they say they do not want the staid bulwarks of conventional marriage?

Or is Frances smarter than most women in completely understanding herself and not letting the prescriptions of others badger her?


Article appeared in Movie Mirror - 1937