Bright star that faded way too fast

Published 9:42 am Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mary Eaton – Frances Farmer. They were beautiful, they were talented – they were on top of the world until their world collapsed.

Then they hit bottom – rock bottom, going from a heavenly life to a hellish existence. The actresses were movie stars in the ‘30s and ‘40s until their stars faded into a devil’s playground.

In Hollywood, they were rightly promoted as talented box-office draws, but their curtains were drawn down as each of them spent years and years in misery. The leading ladies were leading lives easily described as unimaginable.

Stories of movie stars with a variety of problems are almost commonplace but, no story features as much evil and hatred as that experienced by Frances Farmer whose mother, and career, drove her crazy – literally crazy – crazy enough to have made her spend eight years in an insane asylum where she was beaten – physically and mentally – by the personnel. She was whipped constantly, she was often put in isolation in a small room with no furniture, and given very little to eat. The once bright star was, at the urging of her mother, treated far worse than anyone could ever imagine. Her mother, who made the Wicked Witch look like Mother Theresa, had her star/daughter committed.

Her auto-biography, “Will There Really Be A Morning?” tells how this once lovely, in-demand star, “passed through such unbearable terror that I deteriorated into a wild, frightened creature. I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped into straitjackets, and half-drowned in ice baths.”

The mother-daughter situation was almost beyond belief but, it was documented. She was born into a hate-filled family where arguments and viciousness were commonplace. Farmer said, “I never knew the comfort of feeling loved, or even wanted.” She fought back, but every fight was a losing battle for her.

There wasn’t much of a battle on the road to stardom. She was seen, appreciated, signed, given good roles but, she was difficult to work with and those disagreements just about blacklisted her. That made her momma, who looked forward to being a movie star mom and enjoying the accompanying fame and fortune, was angry and bitter, angry enough and bitter enough to have her committed to a ward in hell.

Farmer was released, but returned to the snake pit because her mother complained about her behavior. She had few friends in the movie world, a select few on the outside. Most of her adult life was a descent into hell.

“For years I died – every tick of the clock was a death.”

Death, the real thing, as it were, came in February 1970. She died alone.

Eaton was born in Norfolk into a show business family billed as The Seven Little Eatons – hot stuff in the ‘20s. She was a big draw in the 1920, ‘21 and ‘22 editions of fabulously popular producer-master showman, Flo Ziegfeld. Eventually she replaced a ‘biggie’ star Marilyn Miller, who was giving her producers a hard time.

On stage, her career was flourishing. During World War 1 she had her Broadway debut in “Over the Top,” which starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele.

Mary E was Eddie Cantor’s leading lady, and star roles were coming thick and fast. She co-starred with The Marx Brothers in “Cocoanuts,” then grabbed the lead role in the Ziegfeld movie, appropriately titled, “Glorifying the American Girl.” All those blonde beauties and she was top of the pack.

Toward the end of the ‘30s none of the Eaton clan were in demand. Mary, as well as brother Charles and sister, Pearl, turned to alcohol. The danger of that is, to this day, bloody apparent. To make matters worse, Mary married three times and, each time, to an alcoholic.

In 1948, at the age of 47, she died of severe cirrhosis of the liver. (Sister Pearl was murdered. The killer was never found. On the other hand, Charles died in 2004. He was 94. Going him one better, sister Doris died in 2010 at the age of 106. Neither one were drinkers).

Farmer and Eaton – two lovely, talented ladies who had it all but, eventually, lost it all.


Frank Roberts, who is 87, spent 60 years writing and talking. He and his wife, Valeria, have three children, five grandchildren, and three great-granddaughters. He loves to write.