The Frank Fay connection to the Desmond-Donar family is a bit of a mystery. Notes written in the family photo album stated that an actor named Frank Fay was the first cousin of my grandfather, Peter Donar (1867-1929), my mother’s dad.
Various Desmond siblings heard our mother, Dorothy Donar Desmond (1911-1970) state over the years that “the actor, Frank Fay” was her cousin. What she probably meant was that he was her father’s (Peter Donar’s) cousin since the write-up in the Desmond photo album specifically stated that Frank Fay’s father and Dorothy Donar’s father were brothers. If true, I believe that would mean that Frank Fay and my mother, Dorothy Donar, were first cousins, once removed.
To confirm this family legend I have been researching the Fay-Donar connection but, thus far, have had mixed results.
It seems there were two male actors, both of Irish descent, who were named Frank Fay. They were born 26 years apart on two different continents but lived during time periods that overlapped. The first Frank Fay (1871-1931), a dramatic actor, was born in Ireland. The second Frank Fay (1897-1961), a comedic actor, was born in the U.S., in San Francisco, California.
The Irish-born Frank Fay (1871 to 1931)
The Irish born Frank Fay (1871-1931) worked with his brother Will G. Fay (1872-1947) to form the Irish National Theatre, an amateur acting group founded on the conviction that only Irish actors could perform Irish plays. They were both members of the National Dramatic Society, which merged with the Irish Literary Theatre to become the Irish National Theatre Society. That acting company formed the nucleus for the development of the Abbey Theatre, which was established by Frank and Will Fay in Dublin, Ireland, in 1904. Frank’s brother, Will Fay was its guiding force. That theatre is still in operation today.
In 1908 the Fay brothers left the Abbey Theatre to work in England and America. Eventually they emigrated to the U.S. where they appeared in a repertory of Irish plays. I found a reference on the internet to a book titled “The Fays of the Abbey Theatre” written by W.G. Fay and C. Carswell in 1935. It was reprinted in 1971, but alas, it seems it is currently out of print.
One problem: If the Irish born Frank Fay (1871-1931) was my grandfather’s cousin, why didn’t we also hear our mother mention that Frank’s brother, Will Fay, was her cousin as well? We only heard about Frank Fay, not Will Fay. Why? Is this the wrong Frank Fay?
The Desmond-Donar family photo album contained an original, old fashioned cameo silhouette portrait of Will Fay inscribed with the words: “To my kid brother with love, Will Fay.” Why would we have this original artifact from the brother of the Irish born Fay if we were not somehow related? Was it handed down the Donar line? Was it purchased at an antique store? Found at a garage sale?
The American-born Frank Fay (1897-1961)
The younger Desmond siblings heard a different story about Mom’s “cousin” the actor Frank Fay. We heard that he was the Frank Fay (1897-1961) who was once married to screen siren Barbara Stanwyck.
This Frank Fay got his start in vaudeville, worked in radio, and went on to become famous for his portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd in the play Harvey, as a boozer whose best friend was an invisible rabbit. (Note: Jimmy Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd in the movie version of Harvey.) This (American) Frank Fay penned a not very revealing book billed as an “autobiography” in 1935 entitled How to be Poor. My sister, Dorothy Desmond Vaughan, purchased the book online and found it contained next to nothing in the way of useful biographical data. It was mainly made up of humorous anecdotes and adventures that occurred throughout Fay’s life in the theatre.
A look at Ancestry.com shows a private family tree for “Frank Fay (1897-1961) Hollywood Walk of Fame”. The owner of this tree is “orrigami”. Because that family tree is “private,” we have no way of getting a look at it short of messaging the owner through Ancestry.com and hoping he or she would respond.
There is another clue to pursue that offers a glimmer of possibility that the American Frank Fay is a relative. Elsewhere in my research, on a website called whosdatedwho.com, I came across biographical data indicating that Fay was a stage name for the American Frank Fay. According to the California Death Index, 1940-1997, this man was actually named “Francis Anthony Dooner” at birth but took the name “Fay” when he went into acting. Is “Dooner” a mis-spelling of the name “Donar”?
One other question: If his mother’s maiden name was Dooner why was Frank’s surname at birth Dooner? Was she unmarried when she gave birth to Frank Fay? If she was married, it seems like the child would have been given his father’s surname at birth rather than his mother’s maiden name.
In addition I have seen a variety of spellings for the surname Donar on Ancestry.com including Donar, Doner, Dooner, and Donner. I suppose it’s possible that any of those spellings could have been the original spelling of the American Frank Fay’s name at birth.
I have no names or dates for the parents (mother OR father) of either Frank Fay. Therefore, at this time I am unable to make a genealogical link between either one of them to my grandfather Peter Donar. Peter’s father—my great-grandfather—was named William Donar and lived from 1826 to 1899. If we had the names and dates of the parents (fathers AND mothers) of both Frank Fays, I would have a little more information to go on to try to connect one of the men named Frank Fay to my grandfather Peter Donar and my great-grandfather William Donar.
At this time it’s still unclear which (if either) of these actors named Frank Fay, is the cousin of my grandfather Peter Donar.
The mystery continues….
Copyright © 2012 Patricia Desmond Biallas