May 29, 1931—Starr Faithfull had a name practically made for the tabloids, and what happened to her in the hours following this date—the last one on which she was seen alive—assured that she would remain there for weeks.
The 25-year-old beauty, who lived with her family in New York’s Greenwich Village, now went missing from an ocean liner off Long Beach, Long Island, only to turn up just after dawn on June 8—fingernails painted bright red, wearing an expensive fitted black-and-white dress, but face down, seaweed tangled in her hair, dead.
The condition of the body—badly bruised—would, by itself, have been enough to guarantee the interest of law enforcement. But it also turned out that Starr’s liver was found to contain the barbiturate veronal, and that she had kept a diary in which her sexual history—including flings with numerous men—was exhaustively detailed.
With her bobbed hair, taste for liquor and disregard for sexual mores, she seemed to embody an F. Scott Fitzgerald flapper. But just a bit of probing showed that, in one crucial respect, she resembled less one of those "flaming youth" than Fitzgerald’s Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night: both were victims of child molestation.
These facts, coupled with a slow news cycle, guaranteed that the Starr Faithfull case would hit not only the tabloids during the first half of the summer of 1931, but also even the pages of the good, gray New York Times. Four years later, John O’Hara would transform her life and sad end into a bitter dissection of sex and class in Prohibition-era Gotham, Butterfield 8. If the latter title rings a vague bell, it might be from the obituaries several weeks ago for Elizabeth Taylor, recounting that her first Oscar came for her performance in the 1960 adaptation of the O’Hara novel.
Gloria Wandrous, the protagonist of O’Hara’s only roman a clef, or tale based closely on a real-life incident (he normally used the general details of a person’s life while transforming the externals), is seduced as a child first by a friend of an uncle, then by a heavyset school principal.
The facts in the Starr Faithfull case were even more sensational. When reporters burst into the apartment Starr shared with her family on St. Luke’s Place, a few doors down from New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, they discovered in her diaries a reference to a cousin of her mother’s--identified as AJP—who had molested her with the aid of ether while she was a child.
“AJP” turned out to be Andrew J. Peters, who had quit his post as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury to run for Mayor of Boston. Little could anyone have imagined that this successful “reform” candidate, who won City Hall back from the clutches of Irish-American boss James Michael Curley, was, in his personal life, far more vile than his opponent--a cold man who paid off Gloria’s parents--downwardly mobile relations of his--to hush up the explosive scandal.
Part of the money was used to send the young girl on transatlantic voyages, where she developed a taste for high living. None of it, however, managed to still her mounting desperation. "I am playing a dangerous game," Starr wrote a friend shortly before she disappeared. "There is no telling where I'll land."
Just how she landed on Long Beach became the concern of Nassau County's District Attorney Elvin Newton Edwards. Over the next few weeks, the D.A.'s explanations for the event shifted like the sands on which the tragic young woman was found.
First he announced that she had been killed on the liner by two men (one a prominent politician), then taken out in a boat and tossed overboard; then that she was knocked unconscious aboard a boat, then thrown into the water. Then, Edwards announced, the politician was “practically eliminated” from consideration as a suspect. Later, his office turned their attention to "Chicago gangsters" and even questioned publisher Bennett Cerf. Finally, Edwards focused on suicide as the probable cause of death.
Many people, Edwards announced at one point in the investigation, were glad that Starr was dead. In any event, the police ended up destroying her potentially explosive diaries, and nobody was ever charged in the case. The case of Starr Faithfull remains unresolved to this day.
Surprisingly, outside of O'Hara, few writers have treated what was once one of New York's most sensational cases. Gloria Vanderbilt (who, as a child, would have known many of the adult high-society types who would have crossed paths with Starr) imagined what her missing diaries were like in the fictional The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull (1994). The one extensive nonfiction treatment of the case appears to be Jonathan Goldman's The Passing of Starr Faithfull.
Bradley Cooper’s Commando Confession
51 minutes ago