Young woman's death sparked controversy

WAY BACK WHEN

June 29, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

This was no ordinary corpse that washed up on a lonely stretch of Long Beach, N.Y., on June 8, 1931.

A beachcomber out for an early morning walk discovered a twisted body brought in by the tide, clothed in an expensively designed and fashionable silk dress, resting in a pile of tangled seaweed.

Her coat, one shoe and underwear were missing. Her greenish-cream-colored pale hands, withered by exposure to salt water, were illuminated by 10 carefully manicured fingernails buffed to a glossy high red.

Her stylishly coifed brown hair, re-arranged by the swirling waters of the Atlantic, was in disarray. She lay face down in the wet sand.

Who was this young woman who appeared to be in her 20s, and what brought her to this remote sandy beach on the south shore of Long Island?

"She had dark brown hair, apparently hennaed, well-manicured nails, finished in a bright red polish, and perfect teeth," reported the Nassau Daily Review.

The body was first thought to be that of Elizabeth Wardwell, the daughter of a prominent upstate New York banker who had turned up on the missing persons list. Or it might have been Catherine Hill, 26, of Provincetown, Mass., also on the list.

Several days would pass before the identity of the body was known, and when it was, the name resonated like that of a tragic character out of some F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Starr Faithfull, a 25-year-old good-time girl whose life was defined by bootleg liquor, psychological problems, drugs and one-night stands with a string of unsavory characters, was the stepdaughter of Stanley Faithfull, a retired chemical company executive.

Faithfull, a well-known habitue of New York speakeasies and shipboard bon voyage parties, passed herself off as a sometime actress and writer.

She lived with her stepfather, mother and sister at 12 St. Luke's Place in Greenwich Village, several doors down from James J. Walker, the city's colorful and popular mayor and Tammany Hall stalwart.

"She drank a lot to `like people,' and then she took sedatives to forget what she had done with them," wrote author Frank McShane in his book, The Life of John O'Hara.

The toxicologist's report stated that Faithfull was "drugged into a sleep before entering the stormy waters of the Atlantic," reported The Sun.

He also concluded that the dead woman's liver contained sufficient quantities of a narcotic to have "put her in a sound sleep, but not enough to kill her."

Nassau County District Attorney Elvin Edwards advanced the theory, based on Faithfull's bruised body, that her death was certainly caused by "foul play." He rejected the notion of suicide.

He told the Nassau Daily Review, "Do you think I would be working like this if it were a suicide?"

He hinted that he was pursuing two men seen with Faithfull the last day she was seen alive. Then the story veered to Boston, where suspicion fell on an unidentified prominent man who had made payments of more than $20,000 to settle a claim with the Faithfull family.

Dr. G. Jameson Carr, a ship's physician aboard the Franconia, a Cunard Liner, produced two letters for the grand jury written by Faithfull apologizing for her behavior after becoming intoxicated. She was put off the ship after it sailed when it was found she had no ticket.

As she was placed aboard a tug, she screamed, "Kill me. Throw me overboard."

Planning to end her life, Faithfull wrote Carr: "By the time you read these words I shall be dead. If I don't watch out I will wake up in a psychopathic ward, but I intend to watch out and accomplish my end this time. No ether, Allonal or window jumping. I don't want to be maimed. I want oblivion."

In a conference with Harold King, Nassau County police inspector, Faithfull's father reported that on the last day Starr was alive, she told him she was going to visit an artist friend.

Elizabeth Tucker Faithfull, her sister, hinted at a darker side of the family's tempestuous relationship with Faithfull.

"I'm not sorry Starr's dead. She's happier. Everyone is happier," she said, sobbing.

"The girl then told him that Starr had ruled her family, slapping them and pinching them if she did not have her own way," reported The Sun.

It also was revealed that the wealthy Bostonian was none other than former Mayor Andrew J. Peters, a relative who "corrupted" Starr Faithfull when she was 11 years old.

Her stepfather charged that her life was "blighted" by Peters, a "man old enough to be her father," reported The Sun.

Faithfull's diary, documenting her relationships with rich men and underworld figures, was seized by police. Its contents proved far too racy even by New York's tabloid standards for excerpts to be printed.

In the end, there were no indictments. Faithfull's stepfather complained that police were afraid to make arrests because "big people were involved," said the Nassau Daily Review.

The case is still unsolved, and even Edwards' records in the case have vanished.

It has been suggested that Faithfull's diary eventually made its way back into Peters' hands.

Apparently, he locked it away in a box hidden in the library paneling of his Boston home, and it was found years later by new owners of the house. Its whereabouts today is unknown.

In his 1935 novel, Butterfield 8, John O'Hara used Faithfull's life story as the model for his character Gloria Wandrous, the upper-class New York call girl. Elizabeth Taylor played the role in the 1960 movie version and won an Oscar as Best Actress.

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