A shadowy figure says he was Frances Farmer's lover, but a lawsuit claims different
People Weekly, March 21, 1983 v19 p38(3)
Joshua Hammer

Full Text: COPYRIGHT Time Inc. 1983

Apart from the tormented title character played by Jessica Lange, he is Frances' most intriguing--if improbable--figure. The shadowy Harry York (played by Sam Shepard) appears repeatedly to bed and befriend the doomed actress Frances Farmer in her downward spiral through alcohol, despair and a Dickensian insane asylum. But is the York character, as the New York Times says, "a figment of the writer's desperation" or, as Universal Pictures claims, part of the "true life story of Frances Famer"? That question has embroiled the widely hailed hit in a lawsuit that raises doubts about the business practices of Mel Brooks, whose company produced Frances--and about the veracity of the film itself.

Last week, rising to defend the integrity of the film, frances' co-producer Marie Yates, 39, brought forth one Stewart Jacobson, 69, a Seattle elevator operator, detective and ex-convict who claims to be the real-life Harry York, Farmer's occasional lover and longtime confidant. Like York in the film, Jacobson says he met Farmer shortly after she wrote her controversial "God Dies" essay in high school and stayed in intermittent touch with her until her death from throat cancer in 1970 at age 56. Both he and Yates contend that his intimate relationship with Farmer was the major source for the film. "Jacobson provided the love story," insists Yates, "and the viewpoint that we wanted to present."

Hogwash, charges Bill Arnold, 37, a Seattle-based author who signed a contract with Yates to sell movie rights to his 1978 Farmer biography, Shadowland. Arnold, who is bringing the suit against Yates, Brooksfilms and producer Jonathan Sanger on copyright infringement and related charges, says Jacobson was used by Brooks and Yates as a means of "stealing my book." Noel Marshall, executive producer of The Exorcist, who was originally slated to produce Arnold's Shadowland before Yates defected to work with Brooks on Frances, agrees. "Mel Brooks is a crook and an incredible cheat," he says, citing the similar controversy that erupted when Brooks successfully used the title of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play The Elephant Man for a film; he was able to do so by claiming that all the source material for the film was in the public domain.

People who were close to the late Frances Farmer insist that Jacobson's claims are of dubious validity. "I don't recall Frances ever mentioning Stewart Jacobson," says Lois Kibbee, an actress in The Edge of Night and a writer. Before Farmer died, Kibbee interviewed her over several months in Indianapolis for what ultimately became the Farmer autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? "I'm sure that Jacobson was not her lover," she declares.

Clearly, the man who claims to have been frances' longtime lover has less than impeccable credentials. Born in Eastsound, Wash. and raised in Seattle, Jacobson managed to compile an extensive rap sheet. It began in 1939 with a murder charge (he was acquitted) and included arrests for vagrancy, tampering with a witness and assault, and a conviction for pimping. His record continued through a 1953 conviction for operating as an unlicensed private investigator. Jacobson says that he first met Farmer in 1931, while working as a detective in King county, Wash. (he would have been 17 at the time), and that he sometimes used the name Harry York. He says he had been sent to investigate Farmer and her "God Dies" essay, which had enraged some of the locals. His portrayal of the relationship that allegedly followed borders on the fantastic. Among Jacobson's highly dubious claims: that he set up a sexual liaison for Frances with Justice William O. Douglas in 1941 at a hot springs resort (Douglas "never got over Frances," says Jacobson); that he personally perksuaded Sen. Joseph McCarthy not to accuse Frances of being a Communist agent; and that he arranged Farmer's last job, as a TV movie show hostess at an Indianapolis station. Jacobson also swears that William Randolph Hearst wanted to kill Farmer because she had witnessed the murder of a producer who had been making love to Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, aboard the publisher's yacht in 1924. (Frances would have been 10 at the time.) The absence of any photos showing Farmer and Jacobson together is easy to explain, Jacobson claims, because "everything has been destroyed." And the lack of any mention of Jacobson in the Farmer autobiography is, he says, in compliance with "my direct orders."

The ties between Jacobson and Yates are equally disputed. The story begins in Seattle in 1973, when Seattle Post-Intelligencer film critic William Arnold embarked on a biography of Farmer after being intrigued by a revival of her 1936 film Come and Get it. An article about Arnold's planned book that appeared in the Scientology publication Freedom brought him together with Yates, then a struggling Hollywood producer-agent anxious for a promsing property. Yates became Arnold's literary agent and negotiated a movie deal with Noel Marshall. It stipulated that Arnold would write the Shadowland screenplay and Yates would be associated with the film's production.

Meanwhile Jacobson surfaced in the Freedom editor's Hollywood office and reportedly offered to reveal important secrets of Farmer's life for $25,000. Arnold claims he sent Yates to meet with Jacobson but dismissed Jacobson's statements as "outlandish." But sometime later, according to Marshall, Yates started up a side deal with Brooks, who was interested in acquiring the Farmer property. "Brooks apparently offered her a better position in the making of the Frances film if she could get him the rights without paying me fees as co-producer," Marshall says. (Yates has earned about $100,000 in association with Brooks as well as "co-producer" billing.) As Marshall states and Arnold confirms, "Mel Brooks told Arnold that his lawyers could get him [Arnold] out of the contract and that they could easily 'f--- Marshall.'" But Arnold says he found Brooks "cruel and unpleasant" and refused to dump Marshall. There the matter rested for "a few days," recalls Arnold, "till I saw a piece in Variety that Brooks was making this movie about Frances Farmer and that Marie Yates was the co-producer. Just like that. She didn't even call me and tell me. I was really mad and phoned her and said, 'You can't do this, you're still my agent.' She said that, well, she thought she could. But she had a contractual obligation to me. She got 10 percent of my book, and then she sold me out."

Though Arnold charges that the resulting Frances screenplay is "a complete adaptation of my book," Yates insists that what was not in the public domain came from extensive interviews with Jacobson. For instance, there is the gruesome scene near the end of the film in which a doctor performs a lobotomy on Farmer, of which no mention is found in Will There Really Be a Morning? The operation is described in great detail in Arnold's Shadowland, but Yates claims that the scene was re-created from "Jacobson's records." Yates further claims that her discovery of Jacobson "never came through Bill Arnold" but rather from her own research and her interviews with Seattle judges. "I don't want to mention their names," she says.

Arnold scoffs at Yates' alleged research. "It was easy for her to believe Jacobson because it was convenient for her," he says. "She was a person who had been around Hollywood a long time and had never made a feature film. This was her big opportunity. You get around the big money and the big glory and the temptation is great." Retorts Yates: "Mel Brooks wanted him to come aboard at one point, but he didn't. It's a pure case of sour grapes." Though Brooks has declined comment, the sniping continues as both sides gear up for further nastiness when the lawsuit comes to court, possibly in June. As for Frances Farmer, who gave up her film career rather than subject herself to the mores of Hollywood Babylon, she would doubtless be watching it all with a keen sense of irony.

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