Zey’s great escape; or the fall of a star witness

Zey Prevost—born Sadie Reiss—and known by various permutations of her professional name, gave statements as well as testified at one preliminary investigation as well as the first two Roscoe Arbuckle trials. During the second trial, her testimony had changed enough to help Arbuckle, so much so that the prosecution wanted her declared a hostile witness. But she had always been hostile save for her earliest statement, which she later claimed was coerced.

We use that statement in our narrative primarily to reconstruct the “life” of Arbuckle’s Labor Day party as well as the condition in which she found Virginia Rappe in room 1219, with important details that hardly seem coerced, just matter of fact (e.g., Rappe’s eyes rolling upward, the wet bed on which she lay, and so on).

During the first days of the Arbuckle case in mid-September 1921, Prevost denied that she had tried to leave for San Francisco for New Orleans. But detectives had heard her say that she had been told to “keep her mouth shut.” And she did admit to meeting one of Arbuckle’s lawyers on the street before her Grand Jury testimony.

From the beginning the San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady regarded Prevost as potential hostile witness and successfully detained her for several weeks—a precaution that Arbuckle’s chief lawyer, Gavin McNab, used to assert that anything Prevost said to aid the prosecution’s case was coerced.

Prevost was called an actress and a model. She was undoubtedly a former Mack Sennett bathing beauty who boldly appropriated the name of another and more famous one, Marie Prevost. While her trip to New Orleans may have been arranged by Arbuckle’s lawyers—given her loyalty to the comedian. She may have made the move on her own. In any event, she had undone much of the damage she had done to him by her initial statements and testimony—and she also genuinely pitied him.

The following article comes in the wake of nationwide search for Prevost after she bought that train ticket to New Orleans on February 6, 1922, after the second Arbuckle trial had ended in a hung jury, this time the vote was 10 to 2 for conviction. Several jurors attributed their vote to Prevost’s reluctance to testify on the stand. This didn’t go unnoticed by Arbuckle’s lawyers.

Brady responded late on February 11, issuing a “foreign subpoena” for good reason. According to “Miss Tease Dowling,” a burlesque performer and one of Prevost’s girlfriends in New Orleans, said that “if Zey ever got to New Orleans, she’d hike right out to Cuba [. . .] she’s in Cuba by now. Sure ‘nuff.”[1]

Two San Francisco detectives was sent to New Orleans to locate Prevost and bring her back to California. Although they found her living at the Chalmette Hotel registered under the name Zaybelle Elruy, Prevost managed to escape. While two local toughs prevented the detectives from getting inside her room, she lowered herself and her suitcase on a rope into a courtyard and fled.

Eventually Brady received a telegram informing him that Prevost frequented the race track—meaning the Fairgrounds—in New Orleans and that she had no intention of returning to San Francisco for the foreseeable future. And he could do nothing.

He could only complain impotently to the press what he believed or what was true, that Prevost “was living in luxury” in New Orleans, subsidized by Arbuckle’s lawyers, and devoting much time to playing the races. “When the state had her in charge,” he said, “she was begging us for money to buy silk stockings.”[2]

Despite his “foreign subpoena,” California law was clear. Prevost couldn’t be compelled to return to California unless she were facing a criminal charge. With Mardi Gras only days away and the race track still open, Prevost remained ensconced in New Orleans for the duration of the third trial.

Race Track at Fairgrounds, New Orleans (private collection)

P.S. “Lawyers connected with the defense learned this week learned this week that Miss Prevost had made application through the office of Harry Weber, variety booking agent in New York, for a tour in vaudeville. She proposes, it is understood here, to appear in a sketch, together with Mrs. Wally Schang, wife of the catcher for the New York Yankees. Presumably Miss Prevost will trade upon the notoriety given her through the Arbuckle case, and that Mrs. Schang will try to ‘get over’ partly through the prominence of her husband in baseball.” The Knave, “Miss Prevost Heard from,” Oakland Tribune, 28 May 1922, S-8.

Arbuckle to Be Pitied, Says Zey Prevost
Missing Witness in New Orleans Gives Chronicle Views on Case
Not to Return Here
Actress Kept in Southern Metropolis by Lure of Racing Ponies

Special Dispatch to The Chronicle

New Orleans, Feb. 24. – Zey Prevost, missing witness for the state of California in the prosecution of Roscoe Arbuckle on a charge of manslaughter in connection with the death of Virginia Rappe, motion picture artist, is still in New Orleans. Lure of the ponies is the only reason for her continued sojourn in the Crescent city, frankly admits the young woman, who District Attorney Brady of San Francisco would like to see back on the coast.

But for all Zey cares, Brady and the other prosecutors can paddle their own canoes in trying to convict the comedian. Although her testimony at former trials of Arbuckle as to certain details of the party was considered one of the main points on which the state based its hope for conviction, Zey now sings a different tune.

Friday, when greeted on Canal Street by a Chronicle representative, Miss Prevost talked freely of the Arbuckle case.

“If you followed the trial closely, big boy,” she said in a bantering tone, “you know they ain’t no case. The would-be reformers just want to ‘pop it’ to Roscoe, and so they painted him as black as they could.

“The truth about the whole thing is that ‘Fatty’ was just giving a little party like many other persons in the moving picture and theatrical world have been accustomed to give. Fact that Miss Rappe was taken seriously ill at this party and died shortly after naturally was considered to be a result of the party.

“Personally, I think Arbuckle was absolutely innocent of any direct causes of her death. It is true a gay time was had by all, but I do not think the fun-making should have been construed as a wild orgy, for this certainly was not the case.

“Roscoe is more to be pitied than condemned. He was really a victim of circumstances. The fact that he was one of the most famous and most widely known comedians in the world naturally resulted in his being the center of publicity. Had the party been given by some lesser light in all probability little would have been said or written about it.”

[1] “New Orleans Search Proves Fruitless,” Minneapolis Tribune, 12 February 1922, 11.

[2] United Press, “Arbuckle Will Face Third Trial Monday [. . .] Witness Doing Well,” Ft. Wayne Sentinel, 12 March 1922, 1.

One thought on “Zey’s great escape; or the fall of a star witness

  1. Pingback: Alice Blake breaks down on the stand, March 23, 1922 | Spite Work: The Trials of Virginia Rappe and Fatty Arbuckle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s