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.