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The Mysterious and Tragic Death of Starr Faithfull

Secrets haunted her—and may have ended her life.

starr faithfull
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  • Photo Credit: New England Historical Society

Born Marian Starr Wyman in 1906, Starr Faithfull’s life seemed charmed. Her family moved from Evanston, Illinois to Montclair, New Jersey a year after Starr's birth. Although Starr's parents were cash-poor, wealthy relatives were happy to give Starr’s mother, Helen, money for Starr’s and her sister's education.

One family that helped support the Wymans was the Peterses of Massachusetts. Martha Peters was a well-known socialite while her husband Andrew Peters was a rising politician. Worried about her daughters’ future, Helen asked few questions about why her cousin’s husband would be so willing to give large amounts of money to a non-blood relative. 

As a young teen, Starr began preferring boyish clothes that hid her developing figure. She also became withdrawn, an abrupt change for a child who had always been bright and outgoing. Only two months before her graduation date, Starr dropped out of school.

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Starr led a libertine life after leaving school. She moved to Greenwich Village in New York City with her family, including her mother’s new husband, Stanley Faithfull. There, she took advantage of Jazz Age New York, staying out all night, attending sailors’ parties, visiting speakeasies, and consuming large quantities of alcohol and barbiturates.

During this period, Starr was committed to multiple mental hospitals, including New York’s infamous Bellevue. Her family worried, but it was not until she was nearly 19 that Starr told her mother and stepfather why her behavior was so erratic for the last eight years.

Andrew Peters had been sexually abusing Starr since she was 11. Peters, who had paid for much of her schooling, would stop by and take Starr out of school on spur of the moment vacations, staying in the same hotel room while they were out. He also had the girl spend summers with his family in Maine. He took advantage of this time to molest Starr. He would drug her with ether before his attacks, making it impossible for her to escape.

starr faithfull disappearance
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  • Andrew Peters

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starr’s poverty and youth made her a perfect target for Peters’s abuse. Only after dropping out of school and moving to a different state was Starr able to begin to extricate herself. After Starr told her mother about the abuse in 1924, her stepfather began blackmailing Peters to keep him silent.

As a former mayor of Boston and candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Peters couldn’t afford to let the truth get out. Even after he had left politics, Peters was a prominent member of Boston society.

Related: Who Killed the Black Dahlia? 

The Faithfulls used some of the money extorted from Peters to send Starr on a variety of cruises, perhaps hoping that separation would help her heal. They also hired for her a “sex tutor”, in hopes that she could find a normal way to express her sexuality after being abused for so long.

It’s unclear how much this sex tutor really helped Starr—she continued to attend bon voyage parties, spend long hours in speakeasies and seedy nightclubs, and abuse drugs. In March of 1931, Starr was forcibly checked into Bellevue after she was found drunk, naked, and bruised after a one-night stand.

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  • Carmania, the Cunard liner on which Starr Faithfull spent the evening of June 5, 1931, with Dr. Charles Young Roberts

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At 9:30 A.M. on Friday, June 5, 1931, Starr Faithfull’s family saw her for the last time. She left the family apartment wearing a silk dress and carrying a coat and purse with three dollars. She told them she was going to get her hair waved.

Starr purchased a newspaper at the subway. She went to the Chelsea Piers and had a few drinks. She went to Grand Central Terminal, where she ran into a friend and requested a hair appointment at a beauty shop.

She then joined a friend, Dr. Charles Young, aboard the ocean liner Carmania while it was docked at Chelsea Piers. Starr remained on board with Young until around 10 P.M. Young put her into a cab, apparently on her way to another party aboard another ship.

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At this point, Starr had only about 18 hours to live, and her exact whereabouts are harder to pin down. Some individuals claimed to have seen her arguing with a man later that night at a hotel outside of New York City in Long Beach, New York. Differing reports suggest she left alone or with a different group of men.

In either case, Starr Faithfull left to her death. Her drowned body was discovered two and a half days later, on Monday, June 8. A beachcomber found the bruised body at 6:30 A.M.

Starr was still wearing the dress her family last saw her in. However, she was missing her coat, purse, a shoe, and all of her underthings.

From the very beginning, the investigation of Starr’s death was tangled up.

Two autopsies disagreed on how long Starr’s body had been in the water, one saying 48 hours, the other only 10. They also differed on one key event before her death. One report claimed that Starr was raped; the second said that although there were signs of sexual contact, there was nothing to suggest rape.

No one could decide whether to investigate the death as a suicide, homicide, or accident. At first, it was considered a homicide. Then the police received a letter penned by Starr to her unrequited love, Dr. Carr, in which she stated her desire to end her life. As a result, authorities believed that Starr’s death was a suicide—sad, but not worth devoting significant investigative manpower to solving.

However, the physical evidence seemed to point to murder. Bruises covered her body, and the sand in Starr's lungs suggested that she had drowned in shallow waters rather than the depths of the open ocean. The Faithfull family agreed with this view, pushing the police to investigate Andrew Peters. They believed that he had hired a contract killer to silence Starr once and for all. The family had, by that point, received $80,000 to keep their silence. Nevertheless, the police were unable to accumulate enough evidence to bring Peters to trial.

Related: The Goodbar Murder: A Woman’s Fatal One-Night Stand

Some believed that the Faithfulls had something to do with Starr’s disappearance and death—although murdering the very person who brought in the household's income is hard to understand. Others took a more circumspect route to the Faithfull family’s guilt, suggesting that Stanley had leaned too hard on Peters, backing the man into a corner and forcing him to react.

starr faithfull disappearance
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  • Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous, inspired by Starr Faithfull

    Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Suicide and a hired hitman aren't the only theories that seek to explain Starr's death. Biographer Jonathan Goodman put forth the possibility of mob involvement. The hotel at which Starr was last seen was an infamous mob hangout.

Goodman believes that a leading mobster, Vannie Higgins, found out that the Faithfulls were blackmailing Peters and wanted in on the action. According to this theory, Vannie kidnapped Starr, drove her out on Long Beach, and beat her in an attempt to get the information she possessed. Believing that his associates had beaten her to death, he then had her body dumped in the water, whereupon Starr drowned.

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Other theories include a one-night stand gone wrong, an attack by a jealous sister, or simply that Starr consumed too much Veronal and stumbled into the ocean. Her case was closed with no conclusions made. Four years after her death, Starr’s story would be immortalized as the inspiration for the 1935 novel, Butterfield 8, and its 1960 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor. Her glamorized life lives on, even as her demise remains a mystery.