Leo Guild’s The Fatty Arbuckle Case

Four years before he coauthored Ecstasy and Me (1966), the autobiography of Hedy Lamarr, Leo Guild published The Fatty Arbuckle Case (1962), the first book in English to tell the “true” story of the death of Virginia Rappe and the three Arbuckle trials.[1] Guild’s previous credits included Bachelor’s Joke Book (1953), The Loves of Liberace (1956), Where There’s Life There’s Bob Hope: The Hilarious Life Story of America’s Favorite Funny Man (1957). He would go on to write a series of nonfiction books that can only be called “blaxploitation,” such as Some Like It Dark: The Intimate Autobiography of a Negro Call Girl (1966), Street of Hos (1976), Josephine Baker (1976), and Black Streets of Oakland (1984), and the Black Bait (1993).

Guild’s Arbuckle book is worth reading because he (cf. Clifford Irving’s attempt to write a biography of Howard Hughes) faced an enormous problem in that he had limited time, sources (no Internet, real library research with stacks, microfilm machines, etc.), and witnesses long dead or very old, even in the early 1960s.

Guild wasn’t unaware of the steep learning curve he faced in writing about events four decades ago. From his foreword:

The writing of a book such as this is a monumental research job. It entails conversation with people who were on the scene; a search for their friends, relatives, acquaintances; study of the court records, the newspaper stories of the trial, magazines which contain much pertinent material about the case. People only remotely involved with the subject or the circumstances must be questioned. One interview always leads to another and another until the list of prospects becomes so long it seems impossible to write or to see all of them. But all must be reached.

But likely very few were “reached.” In the list of names of people he thanks is not one recognizable name from the reportage of 1921–’22.

Thus, much of the book is a mix of facts, factoids, and even material that appeared to be made-up. Much, too, was accepted as gospel and repeated in other books and articles over the years. Nevertheless, as a denizen of Hollywood, Guild may have gotten some things right.

But the problems with Guild’s book are legion and while The Fatty Arbuckle Story is a work of entertaining pulp nonfiction that has a certain cultural value for being so wrong, there is very little that is reliable.

The first pages are larded with untruths. Arbuckle didn’t live alone in his West Adams Avenue mansion. He had a live-in secretary, Katherine Fitzgerald, who had to leave when Minta Durfee returned to perform her role as Arbuckle’s estranged but devoted wife. Virginia Rappe’s love interests from her youth, the sculptor “John Sanple” (sic) and “Robert Moscovitz,” “the heir to a considerable dress manufacturing dynasty,” never existed. Further on in the book, three chapters are devoted to the Arbuckle trials. There District Attorney Matthew Brady conducts his own spirited examination of witnesses in the three Arbuckle trials. In reality, his deputies did all the courtroom performances because Brady likely had a lowkey courtroom demeanor when compared to Arbuckle’s lawyers, Frank Dominguez and Gavin McNab, who were both orators and politicos.

We will likely reference Guild’s book in our introduction, which features a “review of literature” that our book (and this blog) will put in perspective as being useful, misleading, entertaining but all in some way the inspiration for our revisionary treatment.

Leo Guild’s career might have been very different had his fifty-cent paperback been turned into a motion picture to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Arbuckle’s death.

In the May 1963 issue of Variety, reported that the producer Richard Bernstein had bought the rights to The Fatty Arbuckle Case and had budgeted $500,000 to begin production in September 1962. Bernstein was also negotiating with the actors Victor Buono and, incredibly, George C. Scott to play the male leads.

Undoubtedly, Buono—who played the piano teacher in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and perhaps more familiarly as King Tut in the Batman TV series (1966)—was intended to play the title role with Scott as Gavin McNab. [1]

In the same Variety column, another Arbuckle biopic was allegedly in the works based on a forthcoming Broadway play by the screenwriter Harry Essex. The latter work, unlike Guild’s, had the cooperation of Minta Durfee. Ultimately, however, Essex’s play, titled Fatty (an “execrable production,” according to the Los Angeles Times) wouldn’t be performed until 1985 and only for a very limited run at LA’s Tiffany Theatre.

Front cover of the The Fatty Arbuckle Case (1962)

[1] Guild’s book appeared after the publication of the French edition of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylone (1959).

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