Freda Blum’s portraits and poignancies from the Arbuckle trial

Freda Blum’s articles about the personalities of the Arbuckle case first appeared in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, where she was the film reviewer. Unfortunately, this newspaper isn’t digitized or easily accessible at this writing. But her work was syndicated through the Hearst newswire International News Service and appeared in many newspapers too small to send their own reporters to cover “the trial of the century.”

The following are anecdotes about some of the leading and minor figures of the Arbuckle trial. They included Zey Prevost and Alice Blake, Maude Delmont, Ira Fortlouis, Minta Durfee, and Arbuckle himself.

Blum’s eye for the women in the case, of course, is of special interest to our work. One can see, for example, that Arbuckle’s party guests reveal his preference for brunettes, each echoing something of Mabel Normand. Blum is also able to elicit private thoughts by building a rapport with some of her subjects, as in her interview with the Minta Durfee, where the actress drifts into a reverie about Roscoe’s future that sounds both sincere yet also theatrical.

Regarding Blum’s take on Arbuckle, it stands in contrast to the accounts of other reporters, who almost to a man—pun intended—praised unambiguously Arbuckle’s performance in the witness chair as calm and collected. Blum, however, offers something of a psychological portrait that one can read as either for or against the comedian.

Zey Prevost and Alice Blake

San Francisco, Nov. 26—Zey Prevon-Prevost and Alice Blake, the two star witnesses for the state in the Arbuckle manslaughter trial, will stand side by side forever more in the memory of the jury who heard their testimony yesterday.

The five women jurors will remember the two show girls in all their silken-feathered finery, their pale faces and frightened eyes. The men in the jury box cannot help but remember them in all their trimness of ankle, their shapely shoulders and ivory throats.

For all this was too well displayed, too obvious to let observation pass it by. So true to the type were both of them that they can be detailed together.

Both had abandoned their make-up for the showing.

Both have exquisite skin, like the complexion of white roses in bud.

They have large, dark, beautiful brown eyes and black hair. Their lips are full and red and sensual.

The two were dressed in street suits and winter hats. Both carried large beauty boxes, obviously containing the mascara, paint and powder, should it become vital to them as a last minute impulse. Their skirts were noticeably short. Zey Prevost displayed her well-formed ankles in a pair of dainty black satin slippers with sheer hosiery to match, while Alice Blake saw fit to set her costume off with grey suede oxfords and pearl-pink stockings.

Though the day was dreary and cold the two wore only the merest shadow of protection at the throat. This was, in both cases, but the flimsiest of ecru lace vestees, pinned to the coat at a very low angle and disclosing the soft contours of neck and chest.

Be it said of the women sitting in the jury box that they took no cognizance of the smile with which the girl witnesses answered to this and that. After their first official appraisals the women jurors centered their attention solely on the testimony.

One woman juror though studied the girls intently from beneath her large red hat. She had the puzzled express of doubt about her and openly showed it.

The men were curious about the testimony, too. They were attentive and extremely watchful.

But in more than appearance were the two witnesses sisters. Both were called upon to give lurid, morbid testimony, which during the preliminary hearing they had been allowed to whisper to the judge. When it came time for them to say the word, on which a courtroom hung, each in her turn cast an appealing glance all about the courtroom, sweeping the judge, the spectators, counsel and finally the jury.

They forgot they were show girls who are supposed to laugh while their hearts break.

Like the gentle rainfall just beginning to come down from the clouded heavens outside, the natural modesty of all womanhood fell upon them suddenly.

Each in her turn became ashamed, abashed.

They wanted to cry.

However, it finally came out, from both them, the word that counsel insisted upon.

“I want to go home; I want to go home,” moaned Zey when it was all over. “I want to go home to my mother.”

Even the women of the jury saw and heard it all, unmoved.

But just the same they are never going to forget the spectacle.[1]

Maude Delmont

San Francisco, Nov. 26—Bambina Maude Delmont, “the accuser,” has come to sit with the spectators in the courtroom where Arbuckle, charged by her with the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, awaits the vote of the world. This is her first public appearance since giving her testimony at the coroner’s inquest preliminary to the trial.

The very air is charged with her presence. She sits almost in line with the witnesses and directly facing them. Her chair is immediately behind that of Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle.

As every witness takes the stand—doctors and nurses who were in attendance while Mrs. Delmont hovered like a lioness beside the bed of the deceased girl—she listens carefully without show of emotion. She hears her own name mentioned, but gives no sign of sympathy.

Mrs. Delmont is alone and unattended. Yesterday marked her first courtroom appearance.[2]

It was she who swore to the original statement charging Arbuckle with the murder of Virginia Rappe after the party in the St. Francis rooms. And now as the law grinds its course and the trial is well under way, she has come mysteriously and unbidden out of the hazy delirium of the past to listen.

Mrs. Delmont is a tall, athletic woman and pretty with silver gray hair. Her costume yesterday was gold and brown with a spray of holiday berries pinned to the neckpiece of her coat.

All heads looked toward her and whispered.

She suffered a single dramatic incident yesterday.

That moment came when suddenly the eyes of “the accuser” and those of the accused’s wife, Minta Durfee Arbuckle met for an instant and then clashed.[3]

San Francisco, Dec. 3—Almost directly overhead the courtroom where eager throngs await the jury’s decision in the Arbuckle manslaughter case, Bambina Maude Delmont, who signed the warrant for the actor’s arrest, lies on a cot in the city prison.

She has been on a hunger strike about 14 hours. Mrs. Delmont is booked on a bigamy charge pending before R. E. Cornell, justice of the peace of Madera County.

Since the fatal party at the St. Francis hotel on Labor Day, Mrs. Delmont has been so steeped in misery and “bad luck” as she calls it, as to lose all interest in the trial she started.

“I have done my duty that is all. I am still sorry for that poor child that had the life crushed out of her by the big blubbering fat man. I do not care about the outcome of the jury’s decision.”

Mrs. Delmont when taken into custody pleaded illness. She lies now in a pink and white embroidered kimono, tossing on the prison cot, moaning and crying that she is deserted by all.

“Where are Virginia Rappe’s family? Why don’t they come to help me?” she queries.

“Oh, why didn’t they let me tell my own story on the stand. Why didn’t the district attorney let me testify?” Mrs. Delmont mutters in hysteria.

She will be taken to Madera in charge of the officers within the first few days.[4]

Minta Durfee

San Francisco, Nov. 19—What sorrows sees the heart of “Fatty” Arbuckle in the tumultuous days of his trial, is not known to any but Minta Durfee Arbuckle, his wife.

What frightful dreams harass the nights of the comedian, in fitful spasms of sleep, only Minta Durfee Arbuckle knows.

She knows of the stinging bitter thoughts that eat at the mind of the man as he daily sits in court and awaits his fate.

Each hour is intense for her, each morbid and depressing thought of his is hers to battle with and overcome; each terrifying fancy a thing to fight unto the death.

All this she told me today.

As the precious minutes of the trial move swiftly towards the end she dreams of better things.

“I never think of defeat,” she protested to me, with wistful bravado. “I am making plans.”

“What are those plans?” I asked her, conscious of her child-like confidence.

“That I will take Roscoe away from it all here, high up into the mountain air; and that our three dogs shall come along.

“Or, perhaps, that he shall go alone; if he so prefers.

“Or that we shall be on a sea voyage somewhere with the blue waters and the pale skies to help us both forget.”

Mrs. Arbuckle is a mere wisp of a girl, and dainty as Dresden china.

“You know—it may be—well, we might not be able to go at all.”

She turned a searching glance upon me here and I could see how piteously her lips quivered. I thought of a drowning person fighting for life.[5]

Ira Fortlouis

San Francisco, Nov. 25—In all the crowded courtroom and among witnesses, kin and friends of the dead Virginia Rappe, for whose death “Fatty” Arbuckle is being tried, there is none so bewildered, so conscious of being a tool in the hands of Fate, as Ira Fortlouis.

By the merest chance Ira Fortlouis happened to stray into the lobby of the Palace hotel on the morning of September 5. He had in his hands suitcases containing fashionable dress creations for women which he had come west to sell.

Chance led before his eyes the vision of Virginia Rappe, fresh from her morning’s toilette. The jade green dress she wore was very simple yet it became her elegantly. Fortlouis noticed that. He noticed carefully her graceful carriage, her tall slender figure. It forcibly occurred to him that she would make a splendid model on which to display the goods he had on hand. That would help them sell.

Reasoning further, he argued that she probably would be at leisure to accept the work form him; that she appeared to be not too expensively dressed and did not give the impression of being employed. Then he inquired and learned of her name.

Later that morning in Arbuckle’s rooms he told Fred Fischbach of the stunning girl he had seen a few hours before. Fischbach attended to the conversation listlessly. Fortlouis persisted in explaining.

“Her name is Virginia Rappe,” he said.

“Oh, that’s different,” said Fischbach, “I know her. You are quite right. We’ll have her come up here and make a party.”

Such was the prologue written before the final chapter of Virginia Rappe’s life. From such a stray thought did the whole whirlwind evolve.

Fortlouis, with the exception of testifying at the coroner’s inquest, has not, as yet, been sent to the witness chair. [6]

Roscoe Arbuckle

San Francisco, Nov. 29—When Roscoe Arbuckle took the witness platform yesterday and stood, a funny little fat man wildly gesticulating with his chubby hands the events which took place at the fateful party in the St. Francis rooms, the audience, though outwardly suppressing it, was hysterical at heart. Picture yourself a comic toy, on a string, forcing you to laugh at its grotesqueness. Then picture to yourself that toy, a human thing, begging for itself human consideration, and you see Arbuckle on the stand.

His voice is clear and as you listen, it becomes convincing. His forehead lines with wrinkles as he concentrates for a clear understanding of the cross examination. When something puzzles him, and he searches his mind for an answer, he gazes on the floor, looking at his dull leather oxfords for inspiration. His fat fingers constantly play at the single button on his jacket. He is wearing a neat blue suit, a simple black tie on his immaculate white shirt and is freshly shaven. His skin is as pink and rosy as a child’s.

As the long questions are propounded to him, Arbuckle puckers up his lips as if he had a bitter nut meat in his mouth. Then he begins to get nervous and moves about in his chair. First one arm goes over the back of his seat—then he takes it off and fumbles with a pencil and you can see his hands are slightly trembling.

He has trouble fixing his eyes where the scene will not disconcert him. He does not seem to like looking at the jury. He avoids glancing towards his counsel. When he casts his eyes among the spectators it makes him more nervous to find them staring at him, some with their mouths wide open in curiosity. He cannot look into the judge’s face because he would then have to turn his back on the jury.

The defendant knows where his wife is sitting, but dares not rest his eyes there. He has just had a glimpse of her, with her face very pale and her lips silently moving, as if in prayer. The play of expression and emotion on the actor’s face is superb.

Fatty decides finally where he will focus his attention. He shifts his chair and looks into the eye of Leo Friedman, who is conducting the cross examination. Friedman is very small, very blonde and very young.

Roscoe Arbuckle looks him fair and square in the eye. And answers up! Somehow tragedy seems to fall away when the comedian is talking. Every one grasps at straws in his testimony at which to smile. There is a slight titter when the defendant says, “search me” or “a whole lot” or makes common expressions.

Finally, finis. Roscoe Arbuckle is done with his performance. The stupendous scene had been taken and enacted with only court records to show what has been said and done. No celluloid this time. No celluloid will ever show the likes of it or scenario will be the equal of it. It is Fatty’s masterpiece. [7]

Was Arbuckle attracted to dark-haired women like Virginia Rappe? (Private Collection)

[1] “Sordid Details of ‘Fat’ Arbuckle Case: Girls on Stand Tell of Happenings at Disgraceful ‘Picture’ Orgy,” Hammond [Indiana] Times, 22 November 1921, 1.

[2] Actually, Delmont had been attending the trial since the first week.

[3] “Accuser of Arbuckle Trial Sits at Trial for First Time Since Case Is Begun,” San Antonio Evening News, 26 November 1921, 1.

[4] “Maude Delmont, Who Filed Warrant, Is Facing Trial on Bigamy Charge,” Tribune [Coshocton, Ohio], 4 December 1921, 1.

[5] “Fatty Arbuckle’s Sorrows Known Only to Faithful Wife as Trial Drags On,” Pittsburgh Press, 20 November 1921, Additional News Section, 12.

[6] “Idle Inquiry Leads to Death of Rappe Girl,” Oakland Tribune, 27 November 1921, 11.

[7] “Fatty, Testifying, Like Animated Comic Toy on String, Forcing You to Laugh Over Grotesqueness,” San Antonio Evening News, 29 November 1921, 3.

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