Arbuckle’s Housekeeper, Secretary and Escort: Catherine Fitzgerald

When Roscoe Arbuckle made his ill-fated journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the first days of September 1921, he left his mansion at 649 West Adams Boulevard in the care of Catherine Fitzgerald. She had her own room in Arbuckle’s home and her job title was secretary and housekeeper. Arbuckle, however, at least according to the 1920 census, also employed two Japanese servants, “Jack” Kakuchi and a young woman, Shino Shizaishi. Housekeeping duties would have usually fallen on them given their status. Another member of the comedian’s household staff was a Word War I veteran who Arbuckle had hired as his gardener in late August 1921, just days before his departure for San Francisco. Since many former soldiers suffered during the postwar recession, providing a man who had served his country with work was considered a noble deed.

During the Arbuckle case in September, October, and November, Miss Fitzgerald’s name appeared from time to time.

In the days following the Labor Day weekend, federal prohibition officials in Los Angeles questioned her about Arbuckle’s personal liquor supply in 649’s wine cellar. She had allegedly had the key to the basement door and was asked to relinquish it. But, as it turned out, Arbuckle had stocked his cellar before passage of the Volstead Act, the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, better known as Prohibition. So the agents had to look elsewhere for the source of the liquor consumed during the Labor Day party, at which the actress Virginia Rappe was fatally injured in Arbuckle’s bedroom in the St. Francis Hotel.

One thing Rappe had in common with Catherine Fitzgerald was that they were the same age, born a month apart in 1891. Fitzgerald, too, with her dark hair light-colored eyes, would not have looked out of place with the other brunettes at Arbuckle’s Labor Day party. Like Rappe, she too had come from humble beginnings.

In Fitzgerald’s case, life began on Louisville’s West Side, a largely African American enclave then as now. Her father worked in a plow factory and, according to the 1910 census, his eldest daughter still lived at home. But she was remembered in Louisville for working the cigar stands in the better hotels before she relocated to Los Angeles after the war. By 1919–’20 she was an extra in the comedies Arbuckle made with Buster Keaton—and befriended Arbuckle’s leading in his 1921 comedies, Lila Lee.

Catherine Fitzgerald (also Katherine) interests us because she was more than housekeeper and secretary. She may have been Arbuckle’s occasional escort to Hollywood events, such as “Photoplay Magazine Night,” where she was a standout at Arbuckle’s table. She was even rumored to be engaged to him—even though he was still married to the actress Minta Durfee.

That Minta Durfee objected Fitzgerald’s presence in Arbuckle’s home surfaced after the former returned to Los Angeles following the preliminary investigation during the last two weeks of September. Fitzgerald was either dismissed or she moved out of Arbuckle’s house on her own to avoid Durfee or make for the wrong impression. She stayed with Lila Lee for a few days and then returned to Louisville only to resurface in Los Angeles in November.

Catherine Fitzgerald at the wheel

Newspaper photograph of Catherine Fitzgerald at the wheel of one of Arbuckle’s
automobiles, September 1921. Note wedding band. (Newspapers.com)

Over the weekend, just before November 28, 1921, when Arbuckle took the stand in his own defense (see Arbuckle’s Testimony), District Attorney Matthew Brady released a list of rebuttal witnesses to the press. Included among them was Catherine Fitzgerald. Rumor had it that she would testify in regard to the nature of Arbuckle’s parties—or bacchanales, debauches, orgies, and the like, to use the period expressions. Rumor also had it that she had been subpoenaed in order to intimidate Arbuckle from taking the stand. But he did anyway and she was, in the end, not called. Our research thus far reveals that she was newsworthy once more in 1922—for income tax evasion.[1]

Would she have made an effective witness against Arbuckle. Likely not given what she said before she disappeared from Los Angeles so as not to be “home” when Minta Durfee arrived to take up her role as Arbuckle’s wife—this despite the innocence of her position as purely “staff.”

Katherine Fitzgerald, long-time friend and beautiful young housekeeper for “Fatty” Arbuckle, is not engaged to marry him. She made it extremely plain today that she was an employee, “just the same as the maids or the cook.” But she does not hesitate to declare that she admires him, and will do everything she can to “help him out of this mess.” As to any deep affection between them: “Why, it’s too ridiculous for words,” said the pretty girl at the Arbuckle mansion on West Adams Street.[2]

Of Arbuckle and Durfee, Fitzgerald said they were the best of friends and that he saw her when he was in New York City last. When asked about the parties at West Adams, she said that they were, without exception, moderate and reserved. “Roscoe is just a big, good-natured boy,” she said, with a slight catch in her voice. “Really, you know, he’s never grown up and I don’t think he ever will.”

[1] Arbuckle’s Housekeeper Charged in Income Tax,” Louisville Courier-Journal, 25 November 1922, 2.

[2] “’Just a Big Boy,’ Housekeeper Says,” Oakland Tribune, 13 September 1921, 3.

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