Starr Faithfull in New York

Although Starr Faithfull lived for only 25 years, she inspired several authors to write about her. Born January 26, 1906 in Evanston, IL, Starr died in June 1931 after a Long Island boat party.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Starr Faithfull: O'Hara's Gloria Wandrous

ON THIS SUNDAY morning in May, this girl who later was to be the cause of a sensation in New York, awoke much too early for her night before. . . .

Thus begins the roman a clef written by John O'Hara: BUtterfield 8.
When stylish New Yorkers followed the misadventures of "Gloria Wandrous" they would have recognized the late party girl Starr Faithfull, whose death at age 25 was sensationalized in American and British tabloids during the summer of 1931.
- excerpt from N.Y. Times article -
. . . John O'Hara was the son of a surgeon and though he infuriated his father when he refused to go into medicine, it is clear that the surgeon's method (the aggressive, exhaustive taking apart of the human body in search of disease) became his chief fictional method.
"BUtterfield 8," published in 1935, was based on the true story of a New York party girl whose body was found on a Long Island beach in 1931 and whose case became notorious. (Gloria Vanderbilt drew on the same story for her novel, "The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull.")
"BUtterfield 8" is messier than "Appointment in Samarra," but it hews to the same basic structure. We trail along after Gloria Wandrous as she goes on benders and shopping expeditions, and from snappy wisecracks to bone-deep misery. We learn about her past, we try not to think about her future, we can't help loving her dead-end grand gestures. When we first meet her she is waking up in the apartment of Weston Liggett, a businessman old enough to be her father. He has torn her dress the night before and left her $60 and a note of explanation. So she reads the note, puts the money in her crystal-covered evening bag and walks out of the apartment wearing his wife's mink coat and his daughter's black felt hat.
O'Hara wrote quickly and wantonly. ("Does the word 'rewrite' mean anything to you?" you find yourself snapping whenever he overwrites a perfectly good scene or throws a slapdash change of pace or scenery your way.) But he is full of passion and honest spleen, driven to show why we live and act the way we do. And how he understands class structure, American-style! The comedy of it and the meanness, the social climbing and the downward plunges, the tricky business of balancing your ethnic debits against your physical or financial assets.
Weston Liggett is from Pittsburgh, but his wife, Emily, is from Boston, which makes him "precisely the sort of person who, if he hadn't married Emily, would be just the perfect person for Emily to snub. All her life she seemed to be saving up for one snub, which would have to be delivered to an upper-class American, since no foreigner and no lower-class American could possibly understand what she had that she felt entitled her to deliver a snub."
"Harry Reilly was telling a dirty story in an Irish brogue. . . . His clothes were good, but he had been born in a tiny coal-mining village or 'patch,' as these villages are called; and Reilly himself was the first to say: 'You can take the boy out of the patch, but you can't take the patch out of the boy.'
"He understands the business of keeping a marriage in one piece too. He says of men like Liggett, "In 1930 you would see them on the roads of Long Island and Westchester, in cap and windbreaker and sport shoes, taking walks on Sunday with their wives, trying to get to know their wives, because they wanted to believe that a wife was the one thing they could count on."
And he says of women like Nancy Farley, who hate certain little habits their husbands have: "As for coming right out and telling Paul she objected to his pinching the back of her neck -- that was out of the question. From conversations with her friends, and from her own observations, Nancy knew that in every marriage (which after all boils down to two human beings living together), the wife has to keep her mouth shut about at least one small thing her husband does that disgusts her."
O'Hara was touchy and bellicose about his literary standing, but he got it right when he said, "I saw and felt and heard the world around me and within my limitations and within my prejudices I wrote down what I saw and felt and heard."
These books deserve to be back in print: it's amazing how much he got right. . . .
Published: January 18, 1995, Wednesday
- excerpt from New York Times article -
BUtterfield 8
Author: John O'Hara
ISBN: 084881441X
Publisher: Amereon Ltd 1992-12-01 Format: Hardcover
Random House: Rpt edition (Sept 27, 1994) Paperback: 228 pages
* * Editorial Review * *
"BUtterfield 8 is O'Hara's only roman a clef. On June 8, 1931, a twenty-five-year-old woman with the astonishing name of Starr Faithfull washed up on Long Beach, Long Island. Her death created a sensation that was never resolved: accident, suicide, or murder? It came out that she had hung out in speakeasies, dried out at Bellevue, been in therapy, lived a while on St. Luke's Place a couple of doors from Mayor Jimmy Walker, and been sexually abused as a girl by Andrew J. Peters, the former mayor of Boston. O'Hara re-created her in Gloria Wandrous, who wakes in despair on page one, sentence one of the novel." -- from the Introduction

BUtterfield 8 is John O'Hara's novel of beauty and damnation in the New York of the speakeasy generation of the early 1930s. It was a bestseller on publication in 1935, when Forum magazine described it as a "hard-boiled, sadistic and venemously biting novel."
* * Editorial Review * *
"Like Henry James, John O'Hara could create a world where class and social strictures are all-important but not openly discussed." -- The Village Voice
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