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Kurt Cobain lead singer and songwriter of Nirvana was known for drawing inspiration from various sources, including literature, film, and personal experiences. In “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” a song included in the last original album by the Seattle-based band, “In Utero,” Kurt Cobain explores themes of alienation, persecution, and the pressures of fame, drawing parallels between Frances Farmer’s tumultuous life and his own experiences with celebrity and mental health issues.

In this article, we will talk about who this American actress was, and how she was on the verge of becoming a huge Hollywood star but ultimately failed to do so mainly due to her temperament and struggle with mental health. And of course, what was Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s fascination with this Hollywood icon and how they paid homage to her?

 

Who Was Frances Farmer?

 

Frances Elena Farmer, born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington, was an American actress who appeared in over a dozen feature films. Farmer’s upbringing was in West Seattle. Her father practiced law, while her mother was a notably assertive social activist. Her parents would later divorce.

Frances gained fame in the 1930s for her talent and beauty, starring in several notable films such as “Come and Get It” (1936), a tremendous success with “Rhythm on the Range” where she starred with Bing Crosby, and “The Toast of New York” (1937). However, Farmer’s career was overshadowed by personal struggles and controversies, including her outspokenness, erratic behavior, and battles with mental illness.

Frances Farmer’s tumultuous life took numerous turns after her release from Western State Hospital. In the 1950s, following her newfound freedom, she worked at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Despite personal setbacks, Farmer continued pursuing her passion for acting, appearing on television shows and returning to the stage. Farmer’s resilience and determination remained evident as she navigated her personal and professional life complexities.

 

What Happened to Frances Farmer?

 

Despite early success in Hollywood, Frances Farmer faced mounting challenges. Clashes with studio bosses and legal issues strained her career. In 1939, battling depression and heavy drinking, she dropped out of a play based on Ernest Hemingway’s work, marking the start of a downward spiral.

Accusations of atheism and communism swirled around her too. Reports of erratic behavior soon followed, leading to multiple arrests and involuntary commitments to psychiatric institutions. Ultimately, Frances Farmer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and confined to Western State Hospital in Washington for several years, at the behest of her family.

The harsh realities of her treatment fueled public curiosity and speculation. At just 29, she was locked away for eight years (1942-1950). Her autobiography, “Will There Really Be a Morning?“, details the horrors she endured: “unbearable terror,” alleged abuse by staff, and brutal conditions. While the book’s accuracy is debated (it was published posthumously with help from a friend), it’s confirmed that Frances Farmer faced harsh conditions, including insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, a common practice at the time.

Despite rumors, there’s no evidence actress Frances Farmer underwent a lobotomy. Her family and friends dispute the claim, while some biographers have retracted sensationalized accounts.

Following her release in 1950, Farmer fought for independence from her mother’s control and attempted to revive her acting career. Sadly, in 1970, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, likely a result of heavy smoking. After a brief hospitalization, she returned home for a short time before succumbing to the illness in August 1970 at the age of 56.

Frances Farmer’s story continues to captivate. Several films and books explore her time in institutions, where she claimed to have suffered abuse.

 

The Fascination of Kurt Cobain with Frances Farmer

 

When Kurt Cobain’s grandmother was ten, her father attempted suicide by stabbing himself in front of the family. He survived but was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, the same one where actress Frances Farmer would later receive shock therapy.

Decades later, Kurt Cobain’s fascination with Frances Farmer began in his high school years. Fueled by a controversial 1978 biography, “Shadowland” by Seattle critic William Arnold, Cobain felt a deep connection to Farmer’s story. This connection intensified after Nirvana’s success. He identified with her rebellious spirit, her fight against commercialism, and the media scrutiny she endured.

Kurt Cobain even attempted to contact Arnold on several occasions, but his efforts were unsuccessful. News reports later revealed a message Cobain left for Arnold, hinting at a personal connection to Farmer’s case. Sadly, Arnold never returned the call and expressed regret upon learning of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

In the aftermath, journalists and biographers drew parallels between Kurt Cobain and Frances Farmer. An article by Arnold titled “Cobain Found a Kindred Spirit in Frances Farmer’s Troubled Life” explored this connection. Similarly, Nirvana biographer John D. Luerssen noted their shared rebelliousness and artistic defiance.

 

Courtney Love Uses Frances Farmer Dress in Her Wedding with Kurt Cobain

 

On February 24, 1992, and in a clear demonstration of tribute, Courtney Love wore a dress that once belonged to Hollywood’s tragic actress, Frances Farmer when she married Kurt Cobain on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. The ceremony was small, with only eight attendees, and occurred at sunset. Kurt Cobain wore green flannel pyjamas, adding to the unconventional nature of the event.

Unbeknownst to many, Courtney Love had already acquired Frances Farmer’s dress in the 1980s. Numerous photographs capture Courtney wearing the dress between 1991 and 1992, primarily at concerts and backstage events. This was before her marriage to Kurt Cobain.

 

Nirvana’s Song: A Tribute to the Cult of Frances Farmer

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The song’s title and lyrics reference the American actress Frances Farmer, a native of the band’s adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington. Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad referred to Frances Farmer as the “patron martyr” of Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, who identified with her in part because they saw parallels between her mistreatment by the media and their struggles with the press.

Kurt Cobain discussed the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” in depth in Azerrad’s 1993 biography, “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana“, saying “I guess that’s my way of letting the world know that bureaucracy is everywhere and it can happen to anybody and it’s a really evil thing. The story of Frances Farmer is so sad and it can happen to anybody and it almost felt at a time that it was happening to us…but it’s mainly just exposing the Frances Farmer story to people.

However, as per the writer’s commentary, the lines “In her false witness/ We hope you’re still with us” were an attack on those who believed the claims in a September 1992 Vanity Fair article, which alleged that Courtney Love had used heroin while pregnant. In the song, we can observe a certain theme of revenge in the lyrics “She’ll come back as fire/ And burn all the liars/ And leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” was written in 1992. The band’s drummer, Dave Grohl, reminisced about hearing it for the first time during a rehearsal in his basement that year, realizing that the band would soon commence recording a new album. According to bassist Krist Novoselic, it was brought to the band “pretty intact,” although the “lyrics were left for last.”

The final studio version was recorded by Steve Albini in February 1993 and was released on “In Utero” in September 1993.

Frances Farmer left a significant mark on pop culture, inspiring numerous bands in the 80s and ’90s to write songs about her, including Everything but the Girl’s “Ugly Litlle Dreams” about Frances Farmer’s reputation for defiance against societal and showbiz norms, evident in her rebellious behavior and of course, Nirvana. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics about Farmer’s life have resonated globally, sparking curiosity about their meaning among millions of listeners.

We were also quite impressed with the song. In a recent article, we wrote about Nirvana’s most underrated songs, and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” stood out in our top 10 list. It’s not just a song with an enigmatic and interesting backstory; it’s also a great rock anthem that sometimes gets overlooked among the great songs that are part of the band’s last studio album from Seattle.

 

Is Frances Bean Cobain named after Frances Farmer?

 

Frances Bean Cobain was born on August 18, 1992, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. She is the daughter of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Frances Bean was named after Frances McKee, the guitarist for the Scottish indie pop duo The Vaselines, one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands of all time. Also, they called her ‘Bean’ because Kurt Cobain thought she resembled a kidney bean on the ultrasound.

Contrary to common assumption, Frances Bean Cobain was not named after the American actress Frances Farmer.

 

 

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