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Oscar Winner Committed Suicide on Fort Myers Beach
First Published Wednesday August 27, 2014
You probably don’t know his name or his movies or his story. And you almost certainly don’t know that this Academy Award winner killed himself by knotting the cord of his beach robe and hanging himself in a Fort Myers Beach cottage.
His name was John Monk Saunders. He wrote screenplays and at one time was married to movie icon Fay Wray, the beauty from the original “King Kong.” Saunders killed himself March 11, 1940. He was 42.
He seemed to have so much going for him. He was considered dashing, handsome and brilliant. Saunders was a Rhodes Scholar and World War I aviator and wrote the screenplay for “Wings,” the astonishing 1927 silent film that won the first Oscar for best picture.
Saunders didn’t win his Oscar for that. His Academy Award came for best story for “The Dawn Patrol,” which came out in 1930.
I didn’t know all this until recently. I had heard years ago that Fay Wray’s ex-husband had killed himself on Fort Myers Beach. I don’t know how I stumbled upon that tidbit but I mentally filed it away and thought there might be a story there someday.
I didn’t know the ex-husband’s name. Didn’t know anything about him. Never pursued it. Then earlier this summer I was reading Bill Bryson’s “One Summer, America, 1927,” a narrative of much that happened in 1927, including the release of “Wings.” Bryson wrote about Saunders and how he ended up killing himself in Florida.
The tumblers clicked in my head. Oh, he’s the guy. There might be a story here for somebody. I pitched it to a couple of local publications and couldn’t get a slightest whisper of interest from editors.
I, however, think it’s a fascinating piece of local history. I don’t need editors to write about something on my blog. It’s here to tell stories I want to tell and I want to tell the story of John Monk Saunders.
This is part of what screenwriter Adela St. Rogers wrote about Saunders in the Milwaukee Sentinel shortly after the suicide: “…. He was staging his own unhappy ending to a strange not entirely self-imposed exile from the one place he most wanted to be – which was Hollywood.”
Newspaper reports at the time said Saunders had spent some time in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore before coming to Fort Myers Beach. Why was he in the hospital? The reports I found didn’t say why.
There was no doubt, though, about the cause of death.
Here’s this from the Seattle Daily Times: “Coroner Roy Lamberton said there was no doubt that Saunders committed suicide. He said no inquest was necessary.”
During World War I Saunders had been a flight instructor in Florida but never saw combat in Europe. Wikipedia noted that failing to get posted to France was “a disappointment that frustrated him for the remainder of his life.”
How did a man who wrote novels, epic screenplays, was handsome and successful and well-known end up on the other side of the country and driven to suicide?
I don’t know.
I found compelling information and quotes at www.seraphicpress.com, which posted a story last year titled “Fay Wray: Beauty and the Beasts, Part III.”
One of those beasts apparently was one John Monk Saunders.
In an article by Robert J. Avrech, there are quotes from Wray’s autobiography, “On the Other Hand.”
Wray rocketed to fame because of her encounters with a beast in the 1933 version of “King Kong.”
“… another beast … was to play a major role in Wray’s life,” Avrech wrote.
This is what Wray wrote of meeting Saunders on a movie lot, as posted on seraphicpress.com: “I turned to see a very handsome man. It was a warm summer afternoon. He was dressed in white flannels, a dark blue blazer, and wore a white Panama hat. I thought he was astonishingly good-looking. Astonishing because the name Monk suggested someone less wonderfully groomed.”
Saunders, though, was an alcoholic, epic philanderer and raging anti-Semite.
They married in 1928 and were divorced in either 1939 or 1940. Different sources mention different years.
Fay Wray died in 2004, 64 years after Saunders’ suicide. She was 96. Avrech noted that the lights were turned off for 15 minutes on the Empire State Building in her memory.
No such honors were ever likely awarded Saunders.
How did he end up on Fort Myers Beach? I don’t know.
I do know how he was found – hanging in a beach cottage from the knotted cord of a beach robe. And quite dead.
I had to know more, was absolutely compelled to uncover additional information about Oscar winner John Monk Saunders’ 1940 suicide on Fort Myers Beach.
Readers of this blog may recall the piece I posted here about Saunders on Aug. 27. In 1940, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, Rhodes Scholar and ex-husband of Fay Wray of “King Kong” fame killed himself in a beach cottage.
The original post focused mainly on his career, marriage to Wray and stature in Hollywood. I wanted to know more, though, about the suicide on March 11, 1940.
Was it big news locally? What details were in the Fort Myers News-Press in the wake of his death? Was it even considered newsworthy enough to merit coverage?
I was also inspired to find out more by Fort Myers writer and historian Cathy Chestnut. She wanted to know more, as well.
So on Thursday morning I drove to the downtown Fort Myers public library to look at old papers on microfilm in a research room on the second floor. Would I find anything? What would I find? Could I handle the new-fangled gizmo they have to look at microfilm and print out pages?
Well, it was a historical bonanza of details I didn’t find during my online research for the original Saunders blog. This was yet another example that not everything is on line. Sometimes, one needs to forget Google and search through archives that haven’t, as far as I know, been digitized.
Here is the large headline streamed across the top of Page 1 from the March 12, 1940 edition of The News-Press: Beach Writer Hangs Self.
The story did not carry a byline. The reporter noted that Saunders was staying in a rented cottage.
From the paper: “The lifeless body was discovered by Mrs. Watt Harris, a neighbor who called to see why Saunders had not come to her beach road tea room for breakfast.”
Coroner Roy Lamberton said that an inquest was not necessary. It was clear that Saunders had hung himself sometime late Sunday or early Monday.
“He did it with a red and white cord from his bath robe,” Lamberton said. “The body was slumped down almost to the floor as if the man had relaxed his legs in order to put the pressure on the cord on his neck.”
Saunders was wearing swim trunks and his bath robe. The paper noted that 1940 was the second winter he had spent on Fort Myers Beach.
He had arrived in January with a woman the paper identified as his “secretary-nurse, Mrs. G. M. Dims of Baltimore.”
She had left on Friday, two or three days before the suicide.
“Since then, Saunders had been eating out at different beach dining rooms,” The News-Press reported. “He was in the habit of having breakfast at the tea room operated near his cottage by Mrs. Harris.”
She went to check on Saunders and was the one who discovered his body. What was Saunders doing on the beach?
“Saunders was known to work long and late hours,” the paper reported. “At times he would not leave his cottage for several days and then he would show up on the beach for a swim. He made no friends. In fact, neighbors reported he was definitely anti-social. He walked the beach and swam alone but spent most of his time inside his cottage. He left no note to explain his sudden suicide.”
Although the initial news account reported that he made no friends, the follow-up story in the March 13, 1940 News-Press had this front-page headline: Beach Friends deny ‘Wild Tales’ About John M. Saunders.”
Well, did he have friends on the beach or not? I don’t know. The story never detailed any of the alleged wild tales in the headline.
Here’s the story’s sub-hed: Dead Author Hoped to Regain Health, Stop Drinking, says Mrs. Watt Harris.
The story reported that the cottage was locked on the day his body was discovered. Mrs. Harris prevented the curious from taking pictures.
The paper never gave the address of the cottage or the name of the cottage if it had one.
“Mr. Saunders was our friend,” Mrs. Harris said. “Everything in the cottage will be just like he left it when members of his family arrive.”
She praised the man who wrote the screenplay for “Wings,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 1927, the first year of the Academy Awards.
“Mr. Saunders was a lovable character,” she said. “He was sensitive and nervous and not in good health and insisted on working long hours. Sometimes he drank too much and then hated himself for doing so. He had almost quit drinking which makes it hard to understand why he decided to take his own life. He liked people but did not like crowds. He was fond of children and liked to eat at Nettie’s where he made friends of all her girls.”
The paper reported that in 1939 he stayed in a house facing the Gulf of Mexico. In 1940, he stayed in what was described in the paper as a “neat shingled cottage on the beach road.”
He arrived in January after spending several months at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was treated there for a nervous breakdown.
Later in the story the paper noted that the cottage had a porch and two bedrooms. Mrs. Harris spoke highly of Saunders and said he referred to her as “Mother Harris.”
“He often talked fondly of Miss Wray and missed his little daughter who is in her custody,” Mrs. Harris said. “Miss Wray called me as soon as she heard of his death and I told her all I knew about it.”
Mrs. Harris said “wild tales” were bandied about on the beach but no details were provided. She didn’t believe the tales were true. “We will miss him at the beach and I feel sorry for his former wife and child and family,” Mrs. Harris said.
He was 42.
Donald Trump's plan to fix the immigration system in the U.S., including "building a fence and getting Mexico to pay for it," has been widely reported and discussed. While many feel his early campaign remarks were contentious, leading poll numbers suggest the real estate magnate has hit a responsive chord with Americans who see illegal immigration as one of the top issues facing America. If nothing else most agree that Trump has broadened the national debate on this controversial topic.
Trump recently published a position piece on his website outlining three principles. His first says that, "a nation without borders is not a nation," a belief that has been constant when speaking at rallies and meeting across the country. Underlining this belief is his call for building a border fence on America's southern border. While some have called his plan "ridiculous" Hungary, a member of the European Union is currently nearing completion of a hundred mile razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia. thousands of Syrian and African migrants have been pouring across its border similar to what is occurring on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump's second call is for Mexico "to pay for the wall" and, to address critics who have said that is not possible and that Trump is just posturing, he gave specifics on how Mexico would pay by calling for increased fees on border crossing between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly where the movement is commercial in nature.
"We will not be taken advantage of anymore," his plan states.
Trump further said, " we need to strengthen the enforcement arm of Immigration and Customs offices," and that will be accomplished by "eliminating tax credit payments to illegal immigrants."
The third principle on the site says, "any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans."
The plan was put up on the website to correspond with Trump's interview on NBC's Meet the Press. Host Chuck Todd conducted an interview that touched upon a wide range issues and encouraged Trump to speak broadly about his plans to deport illegal immigrants who are currently in the U.S.
Trump had questions of his own for Todd: "Do you think there's a high cost for the illegal's that here right now?" Adding, "Do you think there's tremendous crime being committed by illegals?"
One consistent theme in Trump's campaign is the high rate of crime that can be attributed to illegal immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America. "Mexico's leaders have been taking advantage of the U.S. by using illegal immigration to export crime and poverty found in their own country to ours." While there have been reports that suggest Trump may be correct on the statistics, there are others that have found his claims to be wrong. One of the few reliable studies on the matter analyzed traffic arrests in New York and did find a higher rate proportionately for illegals involved in hit and run and driving uninsured. Trump's rivals for the republican nomination, while refuting his claim have offered no information that supports their refutations.
Several of the proposals on his website correspond to the platforms of his republican rivals. These include enforcing a nationwide e-verify system, ending automatic citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. and raising the wages paid for those on temporary H-1B visas.
Trump's approach to solving the problem of illegal immigration on the U.S.'s southern border has raised the ire of Mexico. Last week, Mexico's government said Trump's proposals were unworkable and not smart.
"We continue to stand by our position that these comments reflect prejudice, racism or plain ignorance," Mexico's foreign ministry said in a statement. "Anyone who understands the depth of the US-Mexico relationship realizes that those proposals are not only prejudiced and absurd, but would be detrimental to the well-being of both societies."
Trump was plain spoken in response, "Of course, Mexico doesn't like what I'm saying, they take advantage of our bad border policies to rid themselves of pressure from too many people they don't want to take care of and to get huge amounts of remittances - hard U.S. dollars - sent into their country."
Mexican foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, condemned Trump's statements saying they were "colored by prejudice and racism"
"I talk to border guards all the time and they confirm what I'm saying and the Mexican government knows it too - they have a lot at stake and they're beating us in negotiations and those running the country right now are letting them get away with it," was Trump's reply.
While there have been other government officials in Mexico who have criticized Trump, last week a spokesman for Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto , refused to comment on the issue.
In a related matter, constitutional scholars have been taking a look at how Trump's proposal to deport illegal immigrants would be viewed in light of the 14th Amendment.
Lyle Denniston, the National Constitution Center’s constitutional literacy adviser recently wrote an article: " Constitution Check: Would mass deportation of illegal non-citizens violate the 14th Amendment?" Denniston says, "The biggest constitutional question that hangs over the Trump immigration policy platform, however, is the validity of the idea of mass deportation. If the candidate means that every one of the more than 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally must be sent back home, would Congress have the authority to order that without some justification, individual by individual? In other words, can planes, buses and railroad trains simply be loaded up with illegal residents, and carry them all out of the country nearly instantly?"
First, it is a fact that there is no constitutional right to stay n the U.S. if a person is here illegally. The real question is whether the courts would move to protect illegals from mass deportation on constitutional principles "derived from a reading of the constitution." To some the choice comes down to whether the courts would strictly apple the 14th Amendment or, under the guise of equity or fairness imply a right by the process know as judicial activism; a term long favored by those who see the role of the higher federal courts as requiring "Interpretation" of the Constitution in light of how U.S. society has evolved rather than where it was when the Amendment was adopted.
Nevertheless, If one person can legally be deported, then a group, no matter how large, would be amenable to the same constitutional permissiveness. Despite finding legal grounds to deport, critics of deportation reference point to the Japanese American who were interned during WWII to prevent "collusion with Japan during a time of conflict." These critics speak of the "collective shame" born by Americans who overreacted to circumstance to punish a group solely because of their status. Others though have said the comparison is "apples to oranges" and unfounded since the Japanese were here legally whereas those that would be deported now are here illegally.
Since U.S. policy on immigration is now viewed as a top issue of "the political agenda" in recent months, constitutionality of any intended actions has become a crucial threshold question.
Foreign nationals in the U.S. illegally do not have fully protected constitutional rights. They are precluded from voting, for example, but they are afforded some limited measures of protection like humane treatment. In other words, notions of human rights are transcendent to an extent.
A nation has broad powers to secure its borders, decide who may enter or who has to leave (deportation) or what a non-citizen can do while they are here. The right to work falls in this latter category. Essentially Congress decides by passing the laws but, according to Denniston, "the Executive Branch has very wide discretion to decide the particulars of enforcing those laws."
Neither the Executive nor the Legislative branch of government can take away "life, liberty or property" from illegals and the individual states are equally constrained.
Many have been pressing for immigration reform and it is likely that in the next couple of years, the Supreme Court may make substantive rulings with an eye to allocate specifically what respective responsibilities and powers each branch legally has. There are already several major cases pending in the lower courts dealing with issues created by President Obama's executive orders used to unilaterally fix deportation policies.
For example, Trump has proposed that the federal government should "impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages." Practically that means illegals working in the US who attempt to send money back to their home country would risk having that money taken.
If Trump were elected and tried to implement his proposal immediately civil rights organizations or special interest groups would no doubt sue claiming an unconstitutional taking of private property. Would their assertions pass muster in the courts" These are the types of questions likely to arise as the issues play out in the forum of public debate. In this regard, it may well be that what citizens will accept as constitutional becomes equally as important as what the courts say.
To find a palatable solution the Court will inevitable be drawn into an analysis of the 14th Amendment and the limits it imposes of what each branch of government can legally do about the estimated 11.7 million illegals already in the U.S.
Running up to the presidential elections of 2016 these issues will increasingly dominate the public debate. Already, Donald Trump's plan for mass deportation of illegals has brought this constitutional debate into sharper focus. The need for immigration reform is evident to those on both sides of the political fence. The shape that reform will take is not so evident.
Final Update: Tropical Storm Erika was downgraded to a tropical depression and posed no threat to Florida despite early forecast models that created alarm for the Sunshine State. Above average rainfall and a few isolated weather related power outages were the only significant changes to late August Florida weather conditions.
11 P.M.: Floridians have eyes on Tropical Storm Erika as it continues to move west by northwest, gradually increasing in strength. Erika may threaten South Florida as early as late Sunday or early Monday. According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm is 1,470 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral with winds of 40 mph, gusting upwards of 50 mph.
6 P.M.: Erika will move over the Leeward Islands tonight with little chanbe in wind speed over the next two days. Winds may increase to 75 miles per hour as she moves over Florida early Monday morning. Forecasters say it is too early to be definitive as to Erika’s effect on Florida and urge a “cautious view.”
“One should remember to not focus on the exact forecast track, especially at the long range where the average NHC track errors during the past 5 years are about 180 miles at day 4 and 240 miles at day 5,” the Hurricane Center posted.
The Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Cabo Frances Viejo, southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands are now all under a Tropical Storm Watch.
Storm force winds, with maximum sustained speed of near 45 miles per hour are extending outward up to 105 miles primarily east of the storm’s center.
As a follow up to our environmental article, “Ocean Slaughter Touches Florida,” Sunbaypaper.com has learned that another ocean-going crew, this time based out of the Netherlands, recently mapped a massive mound of trash that is floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Donald Trump has taken an even greater lead among the Republican candidates seeking the nomination for the next U.S. Presidential election cycle. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, continues to see her front runner status slipping as she is now much lower inthe polls than when she launched her bid. Vice President Joe Biden fairs better than Clinton when measured against Republicans, a poll revealed on Thursday.
India has long favored men when it comes to marriage laws and traditional family values for its Muslim population. That may be changing. A recent study by a women’s rights organization of India’s Muslim women found that over 90 percent of them favored ending the “triple talaq” ritualized divorce and seek to ban polygamy through civil family law in the nation.
The Justice Department has taken a position on enforcing federal marijuana laws on Native American Indian reservations – it plans to stop enforcing them.
Britain’s government announced last week that illegal migrants working in the country will be subject to “earnings seizure” under new rules promulgated in response to the movement of increasing numbers of migrants attempting to reach Britain via the “Chunnel” connecting France and the British Island nation.