The ill-fated society girl, again in fiction

December 08, 1994|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Special to The Sun

That outlandish, fairy-tale name! But Starr Faithfull was a real-life "society girl" who roamed Boston and Manhattan in the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her fatal leap from an ocean liner off Long Island in 1931 thrilled tabloid readers.

When reporters invaded her apartment afterward, they found diaries full of sex descriptions that they didn't dare print -- despite the juicy fact that the initials of Faithfull's wealthy, middle-aged cousin, a former Boston mayor, appeared prominently. "Oh God -- strike me dead," she had written after one tryst with "AJP." Police detectives seized the diaries and supposedly destroyed them.

Starr Faithfull's tragic tale has continued to resurface in literary accounts, such as Francis Russell's 1987 historical memoir, "The Knave of Boston," and no biography of flamboyant Boston mayor James Michael Curley would be complete without her.

Her legend got its widest airing in the 1935 John O'Hara novel "Butterfield 8," the movie version of which won Liz Taylor an Oscar in 1960. Now she returns in Gloria Vanderbilt's novel "The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull."

Why does Starr Faithfull intrigue us decade after decade? Her star was an unlucky one, and her faith misplaced. When she was 12, Andrew J. Peters, her patrician, 45-year-old cousin, dosed her with ether and seduced her.

It was 1918. Boston pols had decided that the best way to beat popular incumbent Michael J. Curley was to rig the mayoral election in favor of the politically inexperienced Peters -- "an innocent dupe for a conscienceless corps of bandits," Curley called Peters and Peters' graft-ridden backers. Peters held on to that innocent image. Once elected, he used a shrewd blend of cloying attention and cold withdrawal to keep the young Faithfull in line.

Starr Faithfull's mother was harder to fool, though. Helen Faithfull required large, regular cash pay-offs to stay quiet. After Starr drowned, reporters learned that her stepfather, Stanley Faithfull, hadn't made a nickel in years.

And what of Starr's father, Frank Wyman? A "Beacon Hill ne'er-do-well," Frank had a tendency to skip town at the least provocation, and in Ms. Vanderbilt's novel, "Daddy" is forever storming out of rooms, slamming doors, and inspiring a hopeless yen for heels like himself in his impressionable daughter Starr. With guardians like this, the poor girl never had a chance.

How do you spend 300-plus pages locked inside the head of a doomed person? It's not easy -- for writer or reader. Authorial adherence to Faithfull's restricted point of view puts limitations on the novel. Readers may long to retreat into some other character's perspective for a few pages, but "Memory Book" insists that we live the unhappy heroine's ordeal right along with her.

Gloria Vanderbilt, the artist, author and socialite, has tried to imagine what Faithfull wrote in "Men" -- her affectionate nickname for her diary. Despite the sordid interludes with Peters throughout her adolescence, Starr remained a sheltered girl of normal intelligence. Her fondness for girlish slang of the era is both endearing and irksome. The author portrays her as a "soul murder" victim with a frail sense of identity.

Ms. Vanderbilt made headlines as a child when she denounced her jet-setter mother during a custody battle. She draws on her 1985 memoir -- "Once Upon a Time" -- to re-create Starr's childhood with a scheming mother who urges Starr to shut up and smile.

The creepily erotic seduction scenes with Cousin Andrew show how easily an affection-starved child can be persuaded to accept dangerous affections. Starr looks forward to Cousin Andrew's ether bottle ("creamy dreamy," she calls it) and eventually graduates to alcohol, wild young men, and the unobtainable older lover who will break her heart for good.

In years past, art critics have praised the "innocent frolic" and "touching whimsy" of Ms. Vanderbilt's paintings. These qualities keep "Memory Book" from turning into one long, fast slide to oblivion. Her Starr Faithfull has an earnest, bright-eyed, questing air that keeps us hoping for a last-minute rescue. "I have plans and things I want to do in the world," young Starr cries, "even tho' I don't yet know what they are and it's going to take years and years to get them all done."

Faithfull turns to Jungian psychology and writes a deceptively perky letter begging Carl Jung to help her figure out who she really is. He doesn't answer. Too bad Ms. Vanderbilt didn't take a little poetic license here -- a la Doctorow -- and have Jung drop Starr a few lines about archetypes and identity. It would have injected more color into this somber story of family betrayal.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Massachusetts.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull"

Author: Gloria Vanderbilt

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 320 pages, $24

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