Crime and Scandal

The Mysterious Death of Starr Faithfull Reveals a Boston Mayor’s Sordid Secret

Starr Faithfull

On June 8, 1931, the bruised body of beautiful socialite Starr Faithfull was found on a deserted Long Island beach. She wore a silk Lord & Taylor dress and nothing underneath. Her liver was filled with barbiturates.

Starr Faithfull

Starr Faithfull

During the investigation that followed, a diary was found that revealed her short flapper  life had been wanton and unhappy. It included references to sexual liaisons with 19 men, including AJP:

Spent night AJP Providence. Oh, Horror, Horror, Horror!!!

‘AJP’ was a powerful politician named Andrew J. Peters, her mother’s cousin by marriage. As mayor of Boston he had sexually abused Starr Faithfull when she was 11 years old. And then he paid off her family to keep quiet.

Family Misfortune

Starr was born Jan. 26, 1906 in Evanston, Ill., to parents who came from old New England families. Her father was Frank Wyman, a Beacon Hill ne’er-do-well working for an investment brokerage firm in Chicago.

Her mother, Helen Pierce, came from the impoverished branch of a wealthy family. Helen’s father and, later, her husbands were unable to make or keep money. As a child Helen was sent to live with her grandmother at the old Alanson Tucker mansion in Derry, N.H., a town founded by one of her ancestors, the Rev. James MacGregor.

Starr’s parents moved to New Jersey after she was born. She grew into a bright, outgoing child. At 11, her rich cousins and aunts paid for her to attend an exclusive boarding school, Rogers Hall Academy in Lowell, Mass.

One of her Massachusetts relatives, 45-year-old Andrew J. Peters, took an interest in his young cousin. Peters had been a congressman and Woodrow Wilson’s assistant Treasury secretary before he was elected mayor of Boston. Her mother assumed his interest in Starr was avuncular.

Some Uncle

Andrew Peters

Andrew Peters

She was only 11 when Peters doused her with ether, read instructions on sex from books by Havelock Ellis and seduced her.

For years afterward, Peters took Starr on long automobile trips and stayed with her in hotels. She spent summers with him and his family on North Haven in Maine.

When Starr was in her teens, she went through periods of odd behavior her family didn’t understand. She grew sullen and withdrawn, dressing in boys’ clothes to hide her femininity. Two months before graduation, she dropped out of Rogers Hall to live a life of Jazz Age depravity.

During that time her mother divorced her father. In 1925 Helen married Stanley Faithfull, her neighbor in Brookline, Mass. He was an inventor with social pretensions who hadn’t made a dime in years. His first wife, who died, had been Leverett Saltonstall’s governess.

Starr and her younger sister Tucker took the Faithfull name and moved to Greenwich Village with him and their mother. They lived a few doors down from New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Starr Faithfull

The young woman now known as Starr Faithfull continued her erratic behavior. Sometimes she seemed normal: happy, outgoing and well-dressed in stylish clothes. But at 19 she spent nine days in a Boston mental hospital. She was committed to Bellevue in New York after she was found drunk, naked and beaten up in a hotel room.

On July 1, 1926, Starr took a nine-month Mediterranean cruise, the first of seven or eight ocean voyages. She took three long visits to London. Where the money came from was a question. Her stepfather was unemployed, and her mother’s inheritance was a heavily mortgaged house in Centerville on Cape Cod.

She liked to show up at bon voyage parties on Cunard steamships and stay on board when the ship left, trysting with ships’ officers.  She abused alcohol, barbiturates and inhalants like those Peters had first given her. She seemed happy during her trips to London, but on one visit she took an overdose of sleeping drugs and nearly died.

In 1924, Starr Faithfull told her mother what Peters was doing to her.  At some point Peters began paying Helen and Stanley Faithfull to keep quiet.

Peters was no longer mayor by then. He sought the Democratic nomination for governor, but didn’t get it. In 1928 he seconded the nomination of Al Smith for president.

Oblivion

Starr Faithfull, discovered on the beach

Starr Faithfull, discovered on the beach

On June 8, 1931, a beachcomber found Starr Faithfull’s body in a pile of seaweed on a deserted Long Island beach. She was wearing an expensive summer dress from Lord & Taylor with nothing underneath, her nails were painted bright red and her body was badly bruised. Her liver was full of barbiturates.

She was identified several days later. Authorities retraced her last movements. On May 29, 1931, she had been put off the Franconia on a New York dock, drunk and screaming, “Kill me! Kill me!” On June 5, she left the family’s apartment at 9:30 a.m. with $3 in her pocket. She apparently sneaked aboard the Mauretania, bound for the Bahamas.

The autopsy revealed she had drowned, but her bruises suggested she had had help.

Dr. Otto Schulz, who performed the autopsy, said as much, according to the Brooklyn Standard Union:

…his examination of the body led him to believe that Starr had been drowned in shallow water, and that she had been roughly handled. It is his assumption that two men held her head under water until she was dead.

A police officer found her diary – her ‘Mem Book’ -- which detailed a decade of her sexual assignations with 19 men, including ‘AJP.’ The tabloids picked up the less steamy entries and reporters began to associate AJP with Peters. Rumors flew, and the former mayor had to issue a statement denying he’d had improper relations with Starr Faithfull.

Her stepfather insisted she’d been murdered to keep her quiet, and accused the district attorney of dragging his feet for political gain. Stanley Faithfull produced a check for $20,000 from Peters and a copy of the 1927 agreement to hold Peters harmless.

Then the New York Daily News broke the story that Faithfull had gone to Peters a few days before his stepdaughter’s death to ask for more money.

Her body was about to be cremated when the district attorney ordered it to stop. Another diary had been found, and authorities said they were convinced she had been pushed overboard from the Mauretania by someone who wanted her silenced.

Several days later, they changed their minds. A Cunard ship’s surgeon, Dr. George Jameson Carr, returned from England and revealed he had received several letters from Starr. She fell for him after he pumped her stomach the morning after a night of heavy drinking. He hadn’t returned her affections. In one letter, she wrote she was determined,starr faithfull butterfield

...to end my worthless, disorderly bore of an existence before I ruin anyone else's life as well. I certainly have made a sordid futureless mess of it all. I take dope to forget and drink to try and like people, but it is of no use. Everything is an anti-climax to me now. I want oblivion.

Officials closed the investigation, but Stanley Faithfull continued to claim Starr Faithfull was murdered.

Late in the year, an inquest into the cause of her death was held. It reached no conclusion.

Peters was said to have a nervous breakdown after she died. Two of his sons, John and Alanson, died of polio in 1932. Another son, Bradford, died in a car crash in 1933. He died of pneumonia on June 26, 1938.

The story of Starr Faithfull was famously retold in the 1935 John O’Hara novel Butterfield 8, which was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

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