2 June 2021
This blog is a work-in-progress about a work-in-progress: a reconsideration of the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle case and its principals, Virginia Rappe and Arbuckle himself, and what took place at a Labor Day party in San Francisco on September 5, 1921 in the St. Francis Hotel. The book we propose is provisionally titled Spite Work: The Trials of Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. “Spite” for what may have been the motivation of one or more individuals and “trials” because more than just one person was judged. Indeed, both the dead actress and the living comedian were on trial for their lives—and still on trial after the San Francisco courtroom drama took place a century ago. In acquitting Arbuckle of manslaughter with the spectre of a murder charge in the background, Virginia Rappe had to be misrepresented in court such that the victim was a victim of herself, of her own body, of her imperfections. One need only go, like a middle school student, to the Wikipedia entry for Virginia Rappe for a briefing on the litany of mistakes that have come to represent her, beginning with the year of her birth.
Rappe’s life story will receive an overdue remediation if not rehabilitation. We wanted to know the person who died on September 9, why she had no family, why thousands who never knew her came to see her buried, as well as Mildred Harris, the estranged wife of Charlie Chaplin, who provided the gown Rappe was buried in. Conversely, we don’t believe Arbuckle was a criminal or sociopath. Nor do we believe he was framed and entirely innocent, at the least his acquiescence to the defamation of Rappe’s character during his trials while pragmatic was morally craven. After all, he knew her. He knew her well.
Though Arbuckle was considered one of the two leading comedian–directors of the silent era in 1921, Chaplin being the other, he was still an employee and a valued brand of Paramount Pictures and its uncompromising chief, Adolph Zukor. Millions of dollars were at stake, and in an era when the film industry was feeling an encroaching threat of censorship. Indeed, the Arbuckle case proved to be the catalyst for the so-called “Hays office” and Motion Picture Production Code. He was too big to fall and yet he still fell. There was no justice for Rappe in that, just further infamy.
That feature of the Arbuckle case first attracted one of us in the late 1970s after discovering Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon in the library of a college friend. In that notorious book, there is one of the first, and most salacious, attempts to tell the story of what happened in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel. It gives ink to such myths as Rappe being penetrated with a Coca-Cola bottle and the trashed hotel room photograph, erroneously said to be the scene of the crime, that continues to be re-used as a shorthand emblem of the scandal. Nevertheless, Anger imparts the pathos of the story, that something unfair happened to Rappe. If nothing else, the man who made Scorpio Rising, by his sloppy research, presented us with the orphic challenge of bringing the dead actress to the surface to give her due The book will also serve to illuminate how history is often written, when facts are missing and unreliable witnesses (and authors) have been used as principal sources.
Coming from the vantage point of Rappe, from her victimology, allowed us to wade through the reams of Arbuckliana that is factual, factoidal, and fabricated in the tradition of Clifford Irving’s fictional “autobiography” of Howard Hughes. We saw problems in reporting, much of it due to a lack of proper legwork, even when there is some intellectual honesty. When confronted by the learning and research curve in writing about the Arbuckle case, with such challenges as the make-believe of Hollywood that permeates its real lives, the passage of time, hostile witnesses, missing court transcripts, the journalism that was lost until the invention of OCR technology, and the many voids in documentation, we found that the most often cited authors seem to have made up facts rather than be stymied by a gap in their narratives. Their self-interest rivals that of the many reluctant witnesses who testified against Arbuckle, knowing that their careers, too, were on the line. And then there are those writers who simply accepted the fixed narratives and agendas set by their predecessors, that Rappe was a diseased tramp, Delmont was a swindler, and Arbuckle was robbed of his career.
Arbuckle was a gifted physical comedian and the talented director of many wonderful comedies but it’s important that the artist and the real person are recognized as discrete entities. Nevertheless, the well-intentioned efforts of others to restore his name and reputation have been invariably made at the expense of a woman, who in the kindest versions is dismissed as a “bit player” in a handful of mediocre silent movies. Nor was Rappe a vector of sexually transmitted disease and promiscuous as declared by Arbuckle’s first wife, Minta Durfee, who seems to have set that persona in cement in interviews with authors conducted decades later. Nor should Rappe be seen as an accessory to an extortion ring. Nor should she be reduced to a female bladder in a specimen jar.
We shall undo many of these received notions, including the one that would seem the least likely to be challenged, that she was just another ambitious young woman struggling to make it in Hollywood. Virginia Rappe emerges here as a person of interest in her own right, no longer lost in an echo chamber of libelous claims passed down as facts..
Another irony to consider is that in unearthing what is known about Virginia Rappe, she would have been not unlike the reluctant witnesses who testified in the trials. By nature, she wouldn’t have faulted Arbuckle in court but rather addressed him in person, as a personal matter between two friends. If Rappe had been deposed, she likely would have abided by the kind of omertà observed by the other witnesses who attended the Labor Day party. Despite the constant pain, Rappe wasn’t seeking vengeance against Arbuckle, instead her expectations were little more than a show of sympathy from him and that he pay her modest hospital bill of $60—an incredible bargain given what Arbuckle later incurred in legal fees and the enormous setback to his career in a peculiar form of American excommunication or shunning that we see now in the so-called “cancel culture.”
Books that see “Fatty framed” and the like often interweave the text with an early specious biography of Arbuckle where Rappe is presented as a femme fatale, a “juvenile vamp” as she was once called, who picks Arbuckle’s bedroom as a place to die. We don’t believe Rappe’s presence at the St. Francis Hotel was a coincidence but rather closer to matchmaking, even an assignation. Arbuckle was shopping for the next Mrs. Arbuckle even before he had asked his estranged wife for a divorce.
The Labor Day incident should be seen as a personal tragedy and that is the real reason for not making this revisionary view of the Arbuckle case simply about him. We understand that what happened behind closed doors can only be conjectured. But something did happen to Rappe in that room that had the traumatic force of a motorcycle accident. Because of Arbuckle’s silence on possible causes one cannot disregard the possibility that he was involved somehow. We also recognize that Rappe was not quite the “healthy, normal girl” portrayed by Arbuckle’s prosecutors. She was an analysand, not the Freudian or Jungian kind, but rather by a “metaphysician,” a term still used by holistic life coaches and the like.
Rappe and Arbuckle were tête-à-tête during the first hour of the Labor Day party, inseparable. If we reconsider where that rapport came from, we can begin to see something other and larger than what a jury turned into a nonevent with Arbuckle’s acquittal coming in three minutes. We also see why the prosecutors spent so much time and effort on a hopeless case, an exercise in vanity or . . . spite. The facts don’t support the long-held belief that District Attorney Matthew Brady was angling to become the next Democratic governor of the state of California—given that Arbuckle’s lawyer Gavin McNab was known as a kingmaker in the state and was opposing Brady in the most high profile case of their careers. Brady’s idea of ambition was along the lines of undoing the miscarriage of justice in the case of labor activist Tom Mooney. Brady perhaps saw the outrage of Arbuckle’s Labor Day party and the expensive legal counsel to defend him to be in the same league as the fraudulent conviction of Mooney who was serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison.
Brady also surely apprehended that Arbuckle’s Labor Day party was important to women after they had earned the right to vote. The militancy of the Suffragist Movement was being channeled into the criminal justice system—and the women who attended Arbuckle’s party and testified gave it a certain democracy. They sat at the same table and spoke familiarly and informally to Arbuckle. They included a former Mack Sennett bathing beauty; a San Francisco nightclub entertainer and single mother; a bigamous mule trader’s wife who was intimate with A-list Hollywood actresses; Virginia Rappe, of course, with as many films to her credit as could be counted on one hand; and her companion, Maude Delmont, an erstwhile couturier now selling ads for a farm labor journal. Delmont signed the murder complaint against Arbuckle and was considered Rappe’s “Avenger.” As with Rappe, much of what has been previously written about Delmont—that she was an extortionist, a divorce correspondent, a groomer of white slaves—is also a myth that has lingered for a century.
This “democracy” in our book makes Arbuckle less a central figure and, at times, peripheral. Nevertheless, he is a presence and we mark his progress the way one might revisit the iceberg approaching the Titanic. (The Arbuckle case, incidentally, does have an encounter with ice.)