Today is Frances Farmer‘s 99th birthday. I think about her frequently, mostly because I work diagonally from the Olympic Hotel where she was employed in the laundry room after her first rise and fall. I think about how she walked this same block 60 or so years earlier. To celebrate her birthday, here is the essay that launched her fame and controversy.
Dies: An by
Film star Frances Farmer (1913-1970) was a senior at West Seattle High School in April 1931 when she gained her first taste of national notoriety, with this award-winning essay, titled “God Dies.” The essay won first place and a prize of $100 in a contest sponsored by The Scholastic, a magazine for high school students. It also generated considerable outrage, especially from local ministers.
News coverage of the award focused less on the essay itself than on its provocative title. Front-page articles in Seattle newspapers carried headlines such as “Seattle Girl Denies God and Wins Prize.” The stories were eventually picked up by the major wire services and distributed to papers around the country. Farmer received more than 100 letters expressing shock, dismay, and/or indignation. In Seattle, several churches held special meetings to discuss the “rampant atheism” in the public schools. “If the young people of this city are going to hell,” one Baptist minister reportedly told his congregation, “Frances Farmer is surely leading them there” (Arnold, 31).
Farmer made headlines again four years later, as a drama student at the University of Washington, when she won a trip to the Soviet Union by selling subscriptions to a leftist newspaper. She accepted the prize despite the fierce opposition of her mother, Lillian V. Farmer, who said her daughter had been corrupted by radical teachers. She left Seattle by bus on March 30, 1935, traveling to New York and from there to Moscow on a steamer. When she returned to New York, at the end of May, she cashed in the return portion of her bus ticket home and used the money to rent a room. Within weeks, she had met an agent, had a screen test, and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Some years later, at the peak of her career as a film star, Farmer said the reaction to her high school essay had been a turning point in her life. “It was pretty sad,” she said, “because for the first time I found how stupid people could be. It sort of made me feel alone in the world. The more people pointed at me in scorn the more stubborn I got and when they began calling me the Bad Girl of West Seattle High, I tried to live up to it” (Collier’s).
Farmer starred in more than a dozen Hollywood films and several Broadway plays before her career was derailed by a series of commitments to mental institutions. Judged legally insane in 1944, she spent more than five years as a patient at Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Washington. After her release, in 1950, she settled first in Eureka, California, and then in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she died in 1970.
Here is her essay, as published in The Scholastic on May 2, 1931.
No one ever came to me and said, “You’re a fool. There isn’t such a thing as God. Somebody’s been stuffing you.” It wasn’t a murder. I think God just died of old age. And when I realized that he wasn’t any more, it didn’t shock me. It seemed natural and right.
Maybe it was because I was never properly impressed with a religion. I went to Sunday school and liked the stories about Christ and the Christmas star. They were beautiful. They made you warm and happy to think about. But I didn’t believe them. The Sunday School teacher talked too much in the way our grade school teacher used to when she told us about George Washington. Pleasant, pretty stories, but not true.
Religion was too vague. God was different. He was something real, something I could feel. But there were only certain times when I could feel it. I used to lie between cool, clean sheets at night after I’d had a bath, after I had washed my hair and scrubbed my knuckles and finger nails and teeth. Then I could lie quite still in the dark with my face to the window with the trees in it, and talk to God. “I am clean, now. I’ve never been as clean. I’ll never be cleaner.” And somehow, it was God. I wasn’t sure that it was … just something cool and dark and clean.
That wasn’t religion, though. There was too much of the physical about it. I couldn’t get that same feeling during the day, with my hands in dirty dish water and the hard sun showing up the dirtiness on the roof-tops. And after a time, even at night, the feeling of God didn’t last. I began to wonder what the minister meant when he said, “God, the father, sees even the smallest sparrow fall. He watches over all his children.” That jumbled it all up for me. But I was sure of one thing. If God were a father, with children, that cleanliness I had been feeling wasn’t God. So at night, when I went to bed, I would think, “I am clean. I am sleepy.” And then I went to sleep. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the cleanness any less. I just knew that God wasn’t there. He was a man on a throne in Heaven, so he was easy to forget.
Sometimes I found he was useful to remember; especially when I lost things that were important. After slamming through the house, panicky and breathless from searching, I could stop in the middle of a room and shut my eyes. “Please God, let me find my red hat with the blue trimmings.” It usually worked. God became a super-father that couldn’t spank me. But if I wanted a thing badly enough, he arranged it.
That satisfied me until I began to figure that if God loved all his children equally, why did he bother about my red hat and let other people lose their fathers and mothers for always? I began to see that he didn’t have much to do about hats, people dying or anything. They happened whether he wanted them to or not, and he stayed in heaven and pretended not to notice. I wondered a little why God was such a useless thing. It seemed a waste of time to have him. After that he became less and less, until he was…nothingness.
I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from any one. It puzzled me that other people hadn’t found out, too. God was gone. We were younger. We had reached past him. Why couldn’t they see it? It still puzzles me.