And yeah, this one gets pretty adult. I don’t say this often, but probably NSFW…
The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been one hell of a roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The, in my mind at least, unlikely A lister, had just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control of his own movies – for another year.
This must’ve seemed a lifetime ago from his humble beginnings nine years ago, when he signed up with Keystone Studios for a mere $3 a day. More so for 12 year old Roscoe – sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father, who’d moved on from the hotel his mother shipped him to. The youngster sang for his keep at that hotel for a year, before dear old dad showed up for him. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the accomplishment for the young comic.
Sidebar: To compare – the average unionised male in 1912 was on 70c an hour, double Arbuckle’s starting wage. By 1921 this had risen to $1.25 an hour; annually just over one 357th of Roscoe’s salary (an average working week then 44 hours).
Of course, he had to put in the long hours to make the big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend and fellow actor-director Fred Fishback booked Arbuckle and his friends a couple of rooms and a suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a much needed (and absolutely booze-soaked) getaway. Fate almost intervened just days before, when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off – but was enticed to go by Fishback, with a rubber donut cushion and the promise of a wild time. So it was actor and his entourage arrived at the St. Francis, September 5th 1921. More could be said about his penchant for wild nights out, or his marriage to the actress Minta Durfee – the couple long separated but keeping up appearances so as to avoid a scandal of all things – but we should pause to introduce Virginia Rappe.
Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was 11 years old. Subsequently brought up by her grandparents, Rappe moved out to pursue a career as a model at the age of 16. For some time she was extremely successful in the modelling world, becoming something akin to a supermodel.
Rappe was also an entrepreneur and influencer with her own clothing line – and an advocate for women’s rights. Inasmuch as she often shared the view that women need not be confined to the typing pool, or cooking and cleaning, and that people should really dress to suit themselves.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1917, looking for film work, and found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – though admittedly mostly bit parts. The couple had split up by 1921, and the work stopped flowing in for her. Virginia’s friend Al Semnacher made the suggestion what she needed was to get out and about – be seen a little out in public. Maybe network a little. Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel for the weekend.
On arrival at the Palace Hotel, Rappe was spotted by a friend of Arbuckle’s – who sent a message over to Arbuckle’s party the model and sometime actor was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back, inviting the trio to drop by the Hotel St Francis and have a few drinks with them. Rappe showed up by herself around midday, and soon messaged Maude and Al to come join her. The two ladies enthusiastically joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s ‘pyjama party’ and a good time was had by all – till the day took a darker turn.
There are a number of occurrences not in dispute, so I’ll try to sum those up now.
Around 3pm, the party in room 1221 in full swing, and with the weight of several gin orange blossoms on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men, and told her to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Desperate to go, she crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Arbuckle followed her across, and locked the bedroom door behind him. Beyond this, accounts diverge.
It appears Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together for around 30 minutes. It was soon that Rappe screamed in pain, causing other guests – Maude included – to run to room 1219 to investigate. Virginia may have called out “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle almost certainly told Maude to “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!”
Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her. This, unsurprisingly, would play a sizeable role in later proceedings.
Roscoe would later claim he’d gone into his room to change out of his pyjamas, only to find Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. Being a gentleman, he helped her to his bed. All of a sudden, she became hysterical. She began to scream, and tear her own clothes off. It was at this point he called for Maude – feeling rather put out for making the effort to be a good host to Rappe, and unsure what to do next.
Maude Delmont took Virginia Rappe away, to another room – where she awoke around midnight, still in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter and left. The doctor’s opinion? Nothing much was wrong with her a little rest wouldn’t sort out. Dissatisfied with the first sawbones – Maude called a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. Useless doctors aside, no one took Virginia to a hospital for three whole days. The entire time she was in agony, and showing no signs of improvement. On admittance to the hospital, Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Within a day, her kidneys would stop working. Virginia passed away.
In the meanwhile, Roscoe Arbuckle had jumped on a boat back to Los Angeles. He’d left the following day, having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis. He doesn’t appear to have asked about Virginia, and first heard of her passing when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion to question him about the weekend. They wouldn’t be the only people to come with questions.
On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent San Francisco police officers to arrest Arbuckle. From the offset, Roscoe refused to comply with the investigators. Having carried out an investigation, Arbuckle was charged with murder.
Before the case ever got to a courtroom, the court of opinion had their say on the Fatty Arbuckle case. All across America, his films were pulled from cinemas. At one show in Wyoming, a riot broke out. A group of cowboys in attendance, shot the screen full of holes with their side arms when Arbuckle appeared. The press were just as vicious – newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst particularly. Hearst had his own reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Regardless of reason, Hearst stated the Arbuckle story sold better than the sinking of the Lusitania. While none of the ‘bottle party’ rumours – yes that means what you imagine it means – started at this time, there was much made of Arbuckle’s wild ‘orgies’, disregard for the alcohol ban, and stories aplenty of how Arbuckle used his size advantage to have his way with several young women on the set of a number of Keystone films. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be executed before the trial could begin.
The media circus shone a light on Hollywood, and got several people asking what else was going on in Tinseltown? Paramount, feeling the heat from the scandal, fired Arbuckle a fortnight after he was charged.
Now would be a good time to pause a second. While people were baying for Fatty Arbuckle’s blood – D.A. Brady himself asked for the death penalty – and referring to him in terms such as a ‘vulgarian from the gutter…’, (Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed him up thus) – was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?
Well, this was fraught too – but no. Despite a rumour the doctors at the hospital tried to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs, destroying evidence – her body went through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no sign of sexual assault. There was a question of whether her bladder burst because someone put a lot of weight on her, however. It was stated Arbuckle, all 265 lbs of him, effectively crushed Rappe to death while forcing himself on her.
Oh, and another thing I should mention now, before we get on to the trials. When the police were questioning the party guests, they discovered something odd at Al Semnacher’s house. He had Virginia’s torn clothes in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them for rags to clean his car with. Some suggest he had them in the hope of extorting Arbuckle, or the studio, but was stymied when the police opened an investigation.
The first trial opened November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would be facing manslaughter charges, rather than murder – but that was serious enough for Arbuckle to hire a dream team of top lawyers. I won’t go deep on the trial – this was meant to be a five minute essay on the story, but police witnesses who initially claimed to have heard Rappe scream “I am dying” or even, as a few suggested “he’s hurt me” rescinded their claim.
Maude Delmont, as per this and all future trials, was not called to testify. That she had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours was one thing which brought her evidence into question – that she was awaiting her own day in court on bigamy charges was another entirely. Al Semnacher, on the other hand laid the framework for Kenneth Anger’s ‘Bottle Party’ claim. He testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – and Semnacher had to write this down as he was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’.
The prosecution did manage to find a security guard working at Keystone studios, who claimed Arbuckle was always trying to get into the ladies’ changing rooms. They made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door. A nurse at the hospital testified Rappe stated she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. Another claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form for tearing her own clothes off at parties when intoxicated. They also explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she was wearing that night.
At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence – his testimony as above. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited in the toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, he put her back on the bed.
After deliberations the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour.
But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, the jury unable to come to an unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot whatever damning evidence they gave the first time. One apparently solid witness, a security guard who claimed Arbuckle bribed him for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This witness was shot down by the defence, who pointed out the man was facing charges himself, for sexually assaulting an eight year old. More witnesses were produced to testify Virginia Rappe liked to tear her clothes off when drunk. They claimed she was promiscuous. In spite of this the jury came in 10 – 2 again – but this time in favour of conviction.
With two hung juries, the district attorney went for a third, and final try on 13th March 1922. It was much the same as the previous two, except this time the defence dream team went all in to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman, and as per the mores of the time, not someone who could be raped. They played on her alleged bladder problems, and how she was a loose woman who had, by the age of 30, gone through four abortions.
In the prosecution’s favour, public perception was now well and truly coloured by events. Arbuckle’s films were not just not showing anywhere – but were banned from being shown. Maude Delmont was touring the USA as a public speaker, lecturing on the evils of Hollywood. There had now been seven solid months of stories in the press about Hollywood orgies, of stars love lives, and of murders.
Hollywood had gone from a plucky little startup, to the fourth biggest sector in the economy by this time – and some people were starting to worry about the moral effects these folk could have on America.
But Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s dream team were absolutely on point this time. By thoroughly branding Virginia Rappe a slut, it didn’t matter terribly to the jury what kind of person Arbuckle might have been. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty.
I’m a little wary of trying to compare and contrast this tale to the happenings of the ‘Me Too’ era. I don’t believe he was a murderer, but suspect he may have been a creep who tried to take advantage of a drunken party guest. Truthfully, due to what looks like witness tampering, it is very hard to say. Some of the ethics of the day – certain people happy to ban the consumption of alcohol in bars. Many of those same people just as happy to walk away from a victim of a binge-drinking incident, the moment she becomes ‘problematic’ to them – well they are one of the unheralded villains of this tale, quite frankly. Roscoe Arbuckle was likely a creepy guy. Maude Delmont, Al Semnacher, and those first two doctors were also all kinds of negligent for not getting Virginia the medical help she so clearly needed.
On a personal level, the trial ruined Roscoe Arbuckle’s career. Sure, he had his supporters – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among them – but would never work in front of the camera again. Minta Durfee had no reason whatsoever to stay married to him, and the couple soon divorced. Arbuckle found a little work in Vaudeville, and eventually snuck back in to Hollywood – directing films under the nom de plume Will B. Goodrich. The actors he worked with commented he seemed a broken man, who more or less directed as if on autopilot. He’d die of a heart attack at the age of 46.
The public perception of Hollywood was much changed for many also, in the wake of the trial. It lifted the curtain, revealing lives which were starkly different to the studio spin. This gave power to those anti drink wowsers who had gotten alcohol banned, and who had been eyeing Hollywood up ever since.