70 summers ago, a beautiful young woman’s lifeless body washed up on the sugary sands of the Long Island beach town that I currently call home. Her name was Starr Faithfull, and she was 25 years old. What follows is what we know, and what we don’t know.
Long Beach, NY, is a small jewel of a city on a barrier island off Long Island’s South Shore. It has wonderful restaurants, a state-of-the-art library, and a proudly diverse population. Its cleanliness and proximity to New York City draw droves of tourists in the summer months, and even in the winter it bustles with activity. There are flowers and trees everywhere you look. It’s the kind of place people dream about living in. And people really come here for the miles of white sand and glittering waves.
70 years ago, things were slightly different. Everything was new. 1920s Long Beach was just getting started as a fashionable beach community, with hundreds of Spanish Revival white stucco mansions and bungalows with red tile roofing, as required by the zoning code. Grand hotels lined the boardwalk, and every type of amusement from golf, to tennis, to horseback riding was available. Prohibition was largely a joke here, and it was a flapper’s paradise. Starr must have enjoyed it – as much as she was able to.
But to really understand Starr, we have to go back still further – almost 100 years – to 1917, when she was just 11. Unfortunately, by all accounts, Starr’s parents frequently left her in the care of her middle-aged cousin Andrew Peters, then mayor of Boston. He later became a congressman and was quite famous, even serving as Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary Of The Treasury. He would have been infamous if anyone suspected what he was doing to his 11 year old cousin. He was giving her ether to break down her resistance to his molestation of her.
Like many children in this situation, Starr became withdrawn and reclusive. She even tried dressing like a boy to divert his interest. This failed and the molestation continued for years.
Upon being caught in 1924, Peters paid Starr’s family hush money to protect his career, and they took it. That was it for Starr. She began going to speakeasies and taking cruises to Europe – sometimes not really planning them, but just showing up on board to bon voyage party and simply staying when the ship left. She continued to abuse inhalants and barbiturates.
On May 29, 1931, a drunken Starr was forcibly removed from the Franconia, screaming “Kill me!” and “Throw me overboard!” . On June 5, 1931, her family saw her for the last time, and had reason to suspect that she had sneaked aboard the Mauretania, which was bound for the Bahamas.
On June 8, 1931, her body washed ashore on Long Beach. She was wearing a black and white summer dress from Lord & Taylor with nothing underneath, and her body was badly bruised.
There were several suicidal notes written by Starr, and one was to a doctor on whom she had a crush. There was also a diary detailing Starr’s wild life, including assignations with 19 men and a veiled reference to her cousin. The primitive toxicology reports showed her liver to be full of Veronal, a powerful barbiturate. Although initially suspicious, Nassau County detectives were inclined to leave the case there.
But Starr’s stepfather accused the Nassau County DA of dragging his heels for political capital. Back then, this was more than plausible. He produced – too late – the $20,000 check from Andrew Peters and the 1927 agreement to hold Peters harmless for molesting Starr when she was 11. He accused various political figures of having Starr murdered.
Peters had a nervous breakdown at his office in Boston. The New York Daily News uncovered that Mr. Faithfull was nearly broke and had gone to Boston to get more money from Peters a few days before Starr disappeared. And the Nassau County Police Department held an inquest, which lasted 15 minutes and drew no conclusions.
We’ll never know what happened to this tragic young woman in her final moments. But I hope she found peace. When I’m out on the Atlantic at night and I see the lights of Long Beach come into view, I wonder which ship she was really on, who she was with, what her final thoughts were. It’s easy to feel lonely at sea, even with so many people so close by.
Among the non-fiction books dealing were her death are: “The Aspirin Age” by Morris Markey (1944); “The Girl on the Lonely Beach” by Fred Cook (1954); and “The Passing of Starr Faithfull” by Jonathan Goodman (1996). Her life has been the subject of fiction in a number of novels including: “Some Unknown Person” by Sandra Scoppettone (1977) and “The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull” by Gloria Vanderbilt (1994). On Broadway her life was dramatized in the play, “Courting Mae West” by Linda-Ann Loschiavo (2005).
In 1935, the famous American author John O’Hara wrote a novel on Starr but changed her name to Gloria to avoid being sued by the Faithfull family. In 1960, the novel was made into one of Hollywood’s most famous films, “Butterfield 8.” In this movie the Academy Award was given to Elizabeth Taylor for her portrayal of Starr Faithfull. - Derry Times