Frank Fay: Fact, Fiction or Family Legend?

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.

Frank Fray (1870 – 1931)  a portrait by J.B. Yeats

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.

Silhouette portrait of Will Fay (1872-1947) from the Desmond family photo album

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?

And yet…

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)

A young Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay, (courtesy of

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 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 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, 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”?

Frank Fay (1897-1961) Photo courtesy of

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 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.

Future Research

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.

Could I be related to an actor named Frank Fay? If so, which one? The Irish-born dramatic actor (1871-1931) who began the Abbey Theatre in Dublin or the American-born comedic actor (1891-1961) who was once married to Hollywood’s Barbara Stanwyck?

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

This entry was posted in Family Legends and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Frank Fay: Fact, Fiction or Family Legend?

  1. Barb says:

    Welcome to the world of Blogging. I enjoyed reading several of your posts, because I have Chicago and Kalamazoo ancestors, your blog might have the best of those worlds. I doubt if you will run out of things to talk about, there is always something. I’m happy to have you join us!

  2. Thanks so much for the welcome, Barb! We must certainly talk further about some of those ancestors of yours, especially those from Kalamazoo–it’s a pretty unique name for a town! I still have family living there today.

    Pat B.

  3. Connie says:

    Hi Pat! I saw your post on Marian’s Facebook page and thought I’d take a look. A couple of ideas came to me:

    1. Did you know the Fays of the Abbey Theatre is on

    2. Have you checked newspapers to see if they have any stories about the actor Frank Fay? He might have said something along the many interviews he likely had, especially around the time he married Barbara Stanwyck.

    I like your posting style! Hopefully someone comes up with something to help you narrow down your possible Fay connections.

  4. Hi Connie ~ Thanks for your kind comments about this post. It’s a real treat to know people are reading it and take an interest in what I may have to say. No, I didn’t know that book was available in digital format, so thanks for filling me in. I scanned it rapidly online and will have to go back for more detail. At first glance it doesn’t look like there’s much traditional genealogical data but there is a reference to plays they did in Chicago in 1929 (pp.245-247) when my mother was 18. She is long gone but family members recount how she used to comment about reading in the paper that her cousin “Frank Fay” was in town to do a play. Also, that’s a great tip you gave me about checking California papers for the other FF. It never occurred to me. Looks like I have another trail to follow!

  5. Pingback: What Do You Think? Frank Fay: Fact, Fiction or Family Legend? « DuPage County (IL) Genealogical Society

  6. Anne S says:

    Hi Patricia ~

    I have just come across your story while doing a bit of research myself. I’m currently on holiday in Portugal, with a copy of ‘The Abbey Theatre’ by Gerard Fay on my lap. My maiden name is Fay, and my father told me his uncles had something to do with the start of the Abbey Theatre.

    My research in the UK and on a short trip to Dublin suggests he was the (illegitimate) son of one of the younger sisters of Francis (Frank) and William (Willie) Fay. Frank and Willie’s father was William Patrick Fay who married Martha Dowling in 1869. William Patrick had a younger brother, John Moses and it looks like he married Mary Jane Dowling, so there are two brothers married to two sisters. That is as far as I have gotten.

    It is a continuing interest for me, and I plan to track the Fay family back further to their Galway roots on another visit to Ireland. William Patrick’s dates are 1842-1917; Martha’s are approximately 1843-1908. William Patrick Fay is listed as a widower in the 1911 census.

    If you are interested in seeing what I have pieced together on the family tree, just drop me a note.


    • Hmmm…interesting situation, Anne!

      I will definitely have to email you. Thanks for contacting me. I will be in touch.

    • mary fay says:

      hi, ive come across this while looking back through my past, my family have always had the fays of the abbey book and the only thing I know is they are relations on my fathers side, my nan was born in Dublin around the early 1927 (or there abouts) named Margret fay (maiden name), my father was born out of wedlock and so took his mothers name, would be interested if anyone knew how I could research any more info backwards from my nan to see the connection

  7. My family lore has passed down that my grandfather, Francis Fay, was first cousins to Frank and William Fay. My grandfather died at the age of 42 in 1929 in Somerville, Mass. He had a small business and played the piano in the evening at bars. He left a wife and six kids. My grandmother’s maiden name was Lombard. We know she came from Cross Haven, Ireland and we have relatives there with the last names of White, Gilligan and Lombard. We believe my grandfather came to America in 1892. My name is Michael D. Fay, and I was the official war artist for the United States Marine Corps from 2000-2010. There is a definite streak of artistic and musical talent in the bloodline from my grandfather. He supposedly died of pneumonia.

Leave a Reply to Patricia Desmond Biallas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s