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. An autopsy found her liver filled with barbiturates.
Investigators found a diary that revealed the wanton details of her short, unhappy flapper life. 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 11-year-old Starr Faithfull. And then he paid off her family to keep quiet.
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 could not earn 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 her birth. 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 served as a congressman and Woodrow Wilson’s assistant Treasury secretary before his election as mayor of Boston. Her mother assumed he had an avuncular interest in Starr.
For years afterward, Peters took Starr Faithfull on long automobile trips and stayed with her in hotels. She spent summers with him and his family on North Haven island in Maine.
When Starr reached 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 She grew sullen and withdrawn, dressing in boys’ clothes to hide her femininity.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. An inventor with social pretensions, he 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 Stanley and their mother. They lived a few doors down from New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.
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 Faithfull took a nine-month Mediterranean cruise, the first of seven or eight ocean voyages. She then took three long visits to London. Where the money came from was a question. Her stepfather had no job, and her mother’s inheritance was a heavily mortgaged house in Centerville on Cape Cod.
Starr Faithfull 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, no longer mayor, sought the Democratic nomination for governor, but didn’t get it. In 1928 he seconded the nomination of Al Smith for president.
On June 8, 1931, a beachcomber found the body of Starr Faithfull in a pile of seaweed on a deserted Long Island beach. She wore an expensive summer dress from Lord & Taylor with nothing underneath. Her nails were bright red, her body bruised and her liver full of barbiturates.
She was identified as Starr Faithfull several days later. Authorities then 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.
Murder or Suicide?
Her stepfather insisted someone murdered her to keep her quiet. He also 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 a halt. They found another diary, and authorities said someone who wanted her silenced had pushed her overboard from the Mauretania.
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 wanted,
…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 reportedly had 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. Andrew Peters died of pneumonia on June 26, 1938.
The 1935 John O’Hara novel Butterfield 8 famously retold the story of Starr Faithful, as did the Academy Award winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor.
This story was updated in 2021.