Content Warning: Discussion of rape occurs in this tale.
The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been quite the roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The comic icon had only just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control over his own movies.
His humble beginnings nine years ago had to seem a lifetime ago. He first signed up to Keystone Studios for $3 a day, around half the wage of an average, unionised man at the time. Rewind further, to Roscoe’s 12 year old self – things were considerably more dire. Sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father after his mother suddenly passed on; he found his dad had already moved on to the next town. Stuck at a hotel in a strange town, the youngster took any work he could. This included singing for his keep, before dear old dad showed up to collect him a year later. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the rise for the young comic.
Of course, he put in the long hours in order to make that big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest film, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend the actor-director Fred Fishback booked a couple of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, to celebrate. Plans were afoot for a much needed, absolutely booze-soaked getaway. Back to that roller coaster; fate almost intervened just days before – when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag, while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering from second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off the getaway – but was enticed to go by Fishback. Fishback even bought his friend a rubber donut cushion to make sitting more bearable.
So the 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 continuing to keep up appearances – but we should pause for a moment to introduce Virginia Rappe.
Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was just 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. Her fame granting her a platform, she often shared her views women need not be confined to the typing pool, cooking or cleaning if they were, or chose to be, working people. She was also a vocal advocate for people dressing to suit themselves.
Virginia moved to Los Angeles in 1917, in the hope of finding work in the movies. She found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. For a while, Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – even if most of it was bit parts. When the couple separated in 1921, work dried up. She was in a rut when her friend Al Semnacher suggested she needed to be seen out and about more. If you catch the attention of the right people, those people will remember why the loved you. Before you knew it, the work would be flowing in again.
Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel over the long weekend.
On arrival at the Palace Hotel, a friend of Arbuckle’s noticed Rappe – and sent a message to Arbuckle’s pyjama party the model and sometime actress was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back – tell them drop by the Hotel St Francis. Though initially reluctant, Rappe showed up alone around midday. Clearly her kind of scene, she messaged Maude and Al to come join her. Al declined, but the two ladies joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s pyjama party.
A good time was had by all – At least till the day took a turn for the worse.
Much of what happened is disputed; was actually vigorously disputed in several courtrooms after the fact. The following will get a little icky, trigger warning – we are about to discuss rape.
let’s jump into this tale.
Around 3pm, the party was in full swing in room 1221. With the weight of several gin orange blossoms weighing heavy on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men from the party. She yelled at Virginia to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Feeling like she might literally burst, Rappe crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Roscoe Arbuckle got up and – whether intentionally or incidentally we don’t know – followed her over. Once in his room, he locked the bedroom door behind him.
From here the accounts diverge.
Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together in the room for around 30 minutes, before Rappe screamed out in great pain. Her screams were loud and disturbed enough to bring the party guests in room 1221 – Maude included – running to investigate. Several witnesses would initially claim she screamed “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle called out to Maude “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!”
Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her when witnesses entered the room. She bore several bruises. All this, surprisingly, would later be open to interpretation.
Roscoe’s side of the story was he’d gone back to his room to change out of his pyjamas. When he got there, he found Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. He claims he helped her up and placed her on bed to get some rest. Arbuckle claimed all of a sudden Rappe came to. She began screaming, and tore her own clothes off in a mad frenzy. He then called for Maude. Arbuckle claimed he was only trying to be a good host, and when Virginia went mad, he didn’t know what to do.
Virginia’s side, as you shall see, is much harder to parse.
Maude Delmont took Virginia to another room – where she fell into a deep sleep. Virginia awoke around midnight in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter, then left. The doctor was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with her. A little rest would fix her up. Dissatisfied with the first doctor – Maude called on a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. In the following days, Virginia only got worse. She was in constant, writhing agony – and not showing any sign of improvement. It took three days for anyone to take her to a hospital.
Admitted to Wakefield Sanitarium on 7th September; Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. By 9th September, her kidneys packed in and Virginia passed away.
In the meantime, Roscoe Arbuckle jumped a boat headed back towards Los Angeles. Having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis, the pyjama party snuck away the following day. He never enquired about Virginia’s health, and only learned of her death when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion asking questions about the long weekend. They were far from the only ones looking to speak with him.
On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent police officers to Los Angeles to arrest Roscoe Arbuckle. From the offset he refused to comply with the investigators. Arbuckle was arrested and charged with Virginia’s rape and murder.
Before the case even made it to a courtroom, the court of opinion weighed in on the case. Protests sprang up outside cinemas showing Crazy to Marry. A riot broke out at one show in Wyoming. A group of cowboys shot the screen full of holes once Arbuckle entered the scene. The press were also vicious towards Roscoe Arbuckle – William Randolph Hearst’s papers especially.
Hearst had his own selfish reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Besides personal reasons to stick it to Paramount, Hearst knew well the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. He’d later claim 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 – preceded the trial; much was made of Arbuckle’s wild orgies and flagrant disregard for the alcohol ban. Tales emerged claiming Arbuckle sexually abused other actresses on Keystone film sets. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be lynched before the trial even began. District Attorney Brady himself was calling for the death penalty for the actor.
As with Olive Thomas’ passing, the Arbuckle case shone a spotlight on Hollywood. As Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed Arbuckle up as ‘a vulgarian from the gutter,’ and stories continued to emerge of Arbuckle and his friends behaving badly – people asked who else was having boozy getaways behind closed doors, and wild orgies? This was still in the prohibition era after all. Paramount head Adolph Zukor, hoping to avoid the opening of a pandora’s box, fired Arbuckle a fortnight later and washed his hands of him.
While fair to say Roscoe Arbuckle certainly appears a churlish, uncaring vulgarian; was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?
The short answer, there was much less evidence than you may think – and disturbingly – by the end of the trials any such evidence would become a moot point. A rumour persisted that doctors were paid to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs – destroying any evidence against Arbuckle. However this was untrue – Rappe’s body was put through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no evidence of a sexual assault. Others asked if Arbuckle might have accidentally killed Rappe by putting his 265 Lb weight directly on her bladder. Again, there was no evidence of this.
But Arbuckle tore her clothes off right? The police almost didn’t have the evidence of this. While questioning the party guests, San Francisco police discovered Virginia’s friend, Al Semnacher, had the clothes in question in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them as he was always looking for rags to clean his car with. Most writers presume he intended to extort Arbuckle, or Paramount studio with the rags – but the police investigation stymied his scheme.
The trial kicked off on November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would face manslaughter charges, rather than murder. This was serious enough, so Arbuckle hired a dream team of top lawyers, much like OJ Simpson would decades later.
The trial was shambolic. In their investigation, the police spoke with a number of partygoers who freely admitted to hearing Virginia screaming in pain. A few witnesses even claimed to hear her say ‘he hurt me,’ in relation to Arbuckle and ‘I am dying.’ When these people were called to give evidence, many of them had come down with a case of amnesia.
Maude Delmont, arguably Virginia’s only friend at the party, was never called to testify. Maude had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours, which brought the acuity of her evidence into question. She was also awaiting her own day in court, facing bigamy charges. The prosecution felt if this was revealed, all her credibility would have gone out the window immediately. Al Semnacher, however did give evidence. His evidence laid the framework for Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger’s claim Arbuckle had a ‘Bottle Party’ at Rappe’s expense. Semnacher testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was out cold on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – well he kind of did. Semnacher, it appears was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’ out loud – so he wrote the word on a piece of paper.
The prosecution also brought forth a security guard who worked at Keystone studios while Arbuckle was there. The guard claimed Arbuckle was constantly trying to sneak into the ladies’ changing rooms. They also made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door at the Hotel St Francis.
The defence called on a nurse from Wakefield Sanitarium, who testified Rappe told her she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. A second nurse claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form when it came to tearing her own clothes off at parties while intoxicated. Virginia Rappe, when autopsied was noted to have several bruises on her – what say the defence? They explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she wore that night.
At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited into his toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, picked her up, placing her back on his bed to recover.
After some deliberation, the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour – which was recorded as a hung jury.
But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, with the jury unable to come to a unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot potentially damning evidence – it seemed a wave of amnesia had settled over Hollywood at this time. However, one apparently solid witness was brought in. He was another studio security guard, who claimed Arbuckle paid him a lot of money for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This was hardly the smoking gun you’d think it would be. The defence revealed this same man was awaiting his own day in court – for sexually assaulting an eight year old child. More witnesses were found who could testify to seeing a drunken Virginia Rappe tearing her own clothes off at parties.
The jury eventually 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. This trial mostly played like the first two – forgetful, and untrustworthy witnesses and all. This time there was one big difference. The defence dream team went all in, trying to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman. The mores of that time – and sadly another celebrity trial in April 2022 suggests plenty of people still hold similar views if an accused abuser is sufficiently charismatic – all but stated a woman lacking in virtue could not be considered rape-able. Essentially, how could you damage someone already broken beyond repair? The defence played on her alleged bladder problems, claiming it was proof she was a loose woman. They claimed that by the age of 30, the allegedly promiscuous Rappe had gone through four abortions.
In the prosecution’s favour the public were well and truly convinced Arbuckle was a creep by this time. His films were banned in a number of cinemas. Maude Delmont was travelling the country fronting a wildly successful public speaking tour. She spoke volubly on the evils of the Hollywood film industry. The media continued to pile in too. By the time the third trial came along, the public had read seven solid months worth of exposes on wild Hollywood orgies, the extramarital love lives of their stars, and of course – of a certain murder. 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, or what he may have done. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty.
All the same, whether a just finding or not – it would not resuscitate Arbuckle’s career. In spite of a number of high profile supporters backing him, he never worked in front of the camera again. Arbuckle found a little work treading the boards in Vaudeville. He was eventually allowed back behind the camera – so long as his work was credited to a Will B. Goodrich. Prior to the trial he was long separated from his wife, Minta Durfee. The couple had never split both for religious and good PR reasons – but following the media uncovering Arbuckle’s every indiscretion – Minta saw no reason to stay, and divorced the comic. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle seemed broken in his final years, and shuffled on till he died suddenly of a heart attack aged 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.
Other cases would arise. In 1923 Wallace Reid, a popular romantic lead would die while being weened off morphine in a hospital. Reid had injured himself in a crash a few years earlier, and become addicted to the stuff. The 1926 death of Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino would be shrouded in controversy. An exceptionally pretty man well loved by female moviegoers, he was accused of causing the feminisation of the American male. Some mocked him with homophobic slurs, commented on his jewellery and alleged he wore make up in public. Valentino’s open challenges to several of these commentators to meet him in the boxing ring went unanswered. Following his passing, rumours spread he was a beard for his lesbian wife, and that he himself had been having an affair with fellow Latin lover Ramon Navarro. Navarro, it turns out was gay, and his outing just outside of the scope of this tale ended his career as an actor.
And none of this is mentioning the elaborate show Polish actress Pola Negri put on at Valentino’s funeral.
In 1922, Audrey Munson, a former model turned actress attempted to commit suicide – it should be pointed out after a former landlord killed his wife in 1919 so he could be with Munson – who was none the wiser of his intent. But she was bundled in with all the others. Then in 1926, the pioneering film producer Thomas Ince died in mysterious circumstances while on a boat with, among others, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. Decades later it would be claimed, wrongly I believe, he was accidentally shot when he got between Chaplin and Hearst – but at the time it was just another odd story in the press.
Then there was the baffling case of William Desmond Taylor. His story was the unravelling of Hollywood – and we’ll tackle it in a fortnight’s time, to bring this series to an end.