Two lovely ladies who lost it all

Published 9:40 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2016

By Frank Roberts

Mary Eaton and Frances Farmer were beautiful and talented stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and they were on top of the world until their worlds collapsed.

In Hollywood, they were rightly promoted as talented box-office draws, but their curtains were drawn down as each of them spent years in misery.

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Stories of movie stars with problems are commonplace, but no story features as much evil and hatred as that experienced by Frances Farmer, whose mother and career drove her crazy — enough to have cost her eight years in an insane asylum, where she was physically and mentally abused.

Committed to the institution by her mother, Farmer was whipped and she was often isolated in a small room with no furniture and given very little to eat.

Her autobiography, “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.”

Farmer’s troubles were lifelong, she 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 and given good roles, but she was difficult to work with and she was nearly blacklisted. That made her momma, who looked forward to the fame and fortune of a movie star mom, angry and bitter enough to have her daughter committed to a ward in hell.

“For years I died,” Farmer wrote. “Every tick of the clock was a death.”

Death, the real thing, 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-‘22 editions of producer-showman, Flo Ziegfeld’s show. 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 I, she had her Broadway debut in “Over the Top,” which starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele.

Eaton 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.

Critics gave her rave reviews for her looks and for her dancing skills. She was an excellent ballet performer.

As far as Mary was concerned, her showbiz career was going great guns, but it soon faded. She starred in that Ziegfeld movie, but the movie bombed, eventually taking her with it.

By the end of the ’30s, she was no longer in demand, and she turned to alcohol. To make matters worse, Eaton married three times, each time to an alcoholic. Some of her siblings tried, in vain, to help her. Several times, she entered rehabilitation programs, but each time was a failure. Her addiction was stronger than her will.

In 1948, at the age of 47, she died of severe cirrhosis of the liver.

The thrice-wed performer never had children. Her first husband was Millard Webb, a film director. They were married in 1929 until he died in 1935 of an intestinal ailment. The couple made big news when they honeymooned in New York, taking 51 trunks with them. Charles Emery was husband No. 2, from 1937 to 1942. Actor Eddie Laughton was No. 3. The marriage date is unclear. They were together until she died.

Her headstone reads simply “Our Mary.”

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