Composing a Nota Bene (N.b.) and filling the pornographic void of the Arbuckle case

We welcome other acknowledgements of the centenary of the Arbuckle scandal, especially the piece at Silentology and its sequel and the credit extended to the pioneering work of Joan Myers. Silentology’s new entries remind us of another centenary being observed, the hundredth anniversary of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuss (1921) and its limitation, that “what can be said at all can be said clearly” and “what cannot be said must be passed over in silence.” This problem very much exists for the Arbuckle case, for it is hard to be silent about it and hard to know when to shut up.

What is he doing in this blog? Ludwig Wittgenstein and his chalkboard, early 1930s

This thought may appear as a nota bene (regard well in Latin) or headnote for a chapter provisionally titled “The Life of the Party.” Here we reimagine Arbuckle’s Labor Day party as it evolves and devolves following Virginia Rappe’s crisis in room 1219. We believe that witness descriptions of events were self-censored so often the number of voids and circumlocutions left the prosecution few stable details with which to piece together a consistent narrative for the jury.

There are clues, indeed, one specific word that gives a hint at what was being covered up in the testimony. That word was “rough” and it was the term chosen by the state’s chief witness, the so-called “Avenger,” Maude Delmont to describe the party. It was used again by a minor witness, Betty Campbell, who was dismissed early but was rather loquacious about the latter half of the party. In the parlance of the early twentieth century, this wasn’t just sexual harassment, that women tolerated. It was aggressive touching, disrobing, grabbing breasts and crotches, giving in to dancing topless or even nude, and relenting to being pulled into side bedrooms for foreplay and sex.

Women were expected to go along with this and not be “party poopers,” so to speak. If a woman didn’t want to be dragged into a room, she shouldn’t be at the party. The testimonies about the Arbuckle party make it sound less licentious than this but at least two woman, Mae Taube and Joyce Clarke, were uncomfortable enough to get out of there.

One need only look at the blue movies and photographs from this era to know what Delmont and Campbell meant: coitus with men still wearing their garters, stockings, and shoes. (This is almost de rigueur in Roaring Twenties pornography). The testimony of every eyewitness tiptoes around this. It is the story that Maude Delmont might have been willing to tell but couldn’t. Graphic details were censored from her published statement.

District Attorney Matthew Brady’s surprise witness at the preliminary investigation in September (the Police or Women’s Court session), was the hotel maid Josephine Keza. She could see into room 1220 and watch men and women in a state of undress. This is what a “rough” party looks like, a sex party.

So, what do we say before one delves into “The Life of the Party”? Given what we have to work with, Occam’s Razor must be tossed out or used in a different way. Three of the principal attendees had excuses for not being there at the crucial moments. Were these excuses scripted and practiced? Was Semnacher indeed elsewhere at the opportune times such that he saw, heard, and said nothing. (He was compared to an evil little monkey by a S.F. clergyman writing for the Examiner.) Did Fishback really go off looking for seals to include in a future movie? He was on hand for most of the party up till then. Lowell Sherman’s testimony that he was too busy on the phone discussing a theater engagement to pay attention to what was happening around him, was proven false when it surfaced that he was with Delmont in a bathroom during the period Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together. Even Ira Fortlouis who was allegedly kicked out of the party earlier made a statement that he was with Delmont at the time that Rappe was allegedly screaming for help.

What we have seen in some of Arbuckle’s offhanded and callous remarks, made before his lawyers silenced him, was this disappointment in Rappe, that she had spoiled his party, that she wasn’t fun anymore, like some broken toy. Therein lies part of the mystery of what happened between these two.

Here, of course, there are several ways to speculate what happened including some that haven’t been raised yet. For example, during his first trial, Arbuckle took the stand and explained that he found Rappe on the floor of room 1219’s bathroom and proceeded to help her to his bed. Is it possible her bladder ruptured when she fell from the toilet or rolled off of his bed, etc.?

Reading the medical journals of the early twentieth century on cystitis and bladder rupture, there are rare instances when, if one cannot urinate readily and tries to force him- or herself to do so, bears down, his or her bladder can burst from the effort, go into shock, be unable to walk.

Imagine Arbuckle waiting on his bed, his potency on the wane, his sweaty back leaching into the sheets, and calling out, “Virginia, please hurry!”

Don’t laugh. This may seem in keeping with the feverish mind of Kenneth Anger, who tried to stick a Coke bottle where it didn’t belong, but it can’t be ruled out that this began as a consensual encounter and was interrupted by a medical emergency unrelated to Arbuckle altogether. Had Rappe’s crisis come purely from excessive fluid retention, it might explain why Arbuckle didn’t express remorse or accept blame for what happened to her.

So, we must have a headnote that tells the reader that the party that Zey Prevost, Alice Blake, Al Semnacher et al. describe reads as too innocent, as if sex wasn’t on the minds of any of these unchaperoned, lubricated attendees. Was the party little more than an afternoon open house or was it something more uninhibited? The possibility of the latter is the first of many “thought experiments,” a term we liberally borrow as well from Dr. Wittgenstein.

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