NOLA: Zey handicaps the prosecution

The following passage from our work-in-progress is based on research for an earlier deprecated post and prefaces the third Arbuckle trial narrative.

“Burn it up,” said Frank Mayo, “The Hollywood film colony is a pernicious influence.[1] Scatter it, abolish it—something ought to be down. Burn it up—I say!” The young leading man had been quoted after attending the funeral of William Desmond Taylor, as he reacted to the other actors and actresses who filled the pews of St. Paul’s Protestant Cathedral to overflowing. 

Horse Races, Oriental Park

Horse Races, Oriental Park

He blamed the mind-numbing lack of culture in Los Angeles. “One thing wrong is that there are no outside diversions. The result is everyone is bored to death. All you hear is pictures, pictures, until you are almost frantic.” Although he didn’t mention Roscoe Arbuckle by name, Mayo alluded to those actors who brought so much opprobrium for their “immorality and degeneracy.”

“You forget that some of the biggest stars in the business are among the undesirables. They have been raised to positions for which they are not fitted. They receive enormous salaries. They haven’t the brains or desire to improve themselves and they spend their money like drunken sailors. They are trying always to buy new sensations, bored to death with Hollywood and themselves.

On the day of Taylor’s funeral, February 7, Arbuckle returned to Los Angeles and kept himself and his thoughts on the murder to himself. But lying lower than the comedian was the woman who had told much of the story of one of his diversions from Hollywood on Labor Day last.

Zey Prevost had gone missing after the second trial’s verdict—and District Attorney Matthew Brady had reason to suspect that the defense was behind it. Arbuckle’s attorney Gavin McNab later claimed he had telephoned his office in the hours after the completion of the second trial and requested that “every legal method be employed to prevent the girl leaving the state.” He told Brady that he was just as anxious to have her testify at the third trial as the prosecution—and Brady later challenged that assertion, knowing that McNab was simply inoculating the defense from any insinuation that they had a role in Prevost getting away.

McNab’s telephone call came twenty-four hours after Brady discovered that Prevost had left San Francisco on Monday, February 6,  after he had issued subpoenas for her and Alice Blake to be placed under bond to ensure their appearance at the third trial. Brady also wanted to open a Grand Jury investigation into Prevost and her allegations of coerced testimony—and to pursue charging her as a hostile witness if necessary. If neither young woman could be found, Brady promised to seek bench warrants for their arrest—as well as for anyone helping them to evade his subpoenas.

The same pair of detectives were dispatched to find Blake and Prevost. Thomas Regan and Griffith Kennedy knew their haunts, the people they associated with in San Francisco’s demimonde—but they went to see the mothers first.  Blake’s assured them that her daughter was still in San Francisco and, by Monday night, Alice Blake appeared at Brady’s office. Mrs. Reis said she didn’t know her daughter’s whereabouts.

By mid-week, Prevost was still missing and the search for her widened. “I will lay the case before Chief of Police O’Brien,” Brady told the press,

and request that every police official in California be asked to watch for the missing girl. While not ready to assert positively that she has absconded, I feel nevertheless that I have good reason to take these steps. Of course, should Zey Prevost leave the state, there would be no way to compel her to return. We then would have to resort to reading into the record the testimony which she has thus far given against Arbuckle.

Despite the resignation in the District Attorney’s statement, he was determined to find Prevost. Brady knew she feared being charged with perjury and that he wanted to subject her to a Grand Jury investigation to clear his own office of any wrongdoing in extracting her initial statement as well as keeping her under the watchful eye of “Mother” Duffy. Prevost from the beginning was considered a flight risk and the only star witness known to have been approached by Arbuckle’s lawyers in the forty-eight hours after Virginia Rappe’s death.

Had Brady pressed the pursuit of Prevost across state lines he might have succeeded in pressuring her to surrender and return to San Francisco. But more likely his actions were pro forma. To justify Prevost’s testimony being read into the record of the forthcoming third trial, he had to show the court that had made an effort to find her and bring her back legally.

Although Regan and Kennedy came up empty handed, they had learned from Prevost’s friends that she was in a “Southern city.” She had been seen boarding a train at the Southern Pacific’s depot at Third and Townsend streets and was believed to be “well supplied with money.” The clue meant that Prevost had a week’s head start and that she was probably bound for New Orleans, where she had relatives—and it was the city where she been her reportedly headed when she was suspected of attempting to flee San Francisco before her first Grand Jury appearance.

Brady dispatched his detectives to New Orleans and an Associated Press wire datelined Saturday, February 11, confirmed that Regan and Kennedy were heading in that direction. Quoting “Miss Tease Dowling,” a burlesque hall performer, whose artistry was implicit in her stage name, refused to say that Prevost was in the city. “But if Zey ever got to New Orleans, she’d hike right out to Cuba. She’s in Cuba by now. Sure ‘nuff.”

The next day Regan and Kennedy arrived and were tipped off by the local press and police that a pretty young woman in silk stockings and a new fur coat who answered to Prevost’s description had been located at the Chalmette Hotel registered under the name “Zaybelle Elruy.” When a newspaperman addressed her as Zey Prevost in the lobby, Miss Elruy hotly denied being the same person—and, according to guests, claimed to be en route to Cuba.

On Monday, February 13, while the young woman kept to her room on the third floor, Regan and Kennedy staked out the lobby along with a number of reporters. As the time passed, the two detectives began to realize something wasn’t right. They went up to the Elruy room and encountered two “toughs,” one older and one younger, barring their way. While a scuffle ensued between the four, Elruy lowered several suitcases on a rope and then herself into a courtyard and fled.

Eventually, the local police arrived and arrested her champions, Arthur J. Kleinmeyer, aged 52, and George J. Beckett, 23, for disorderly conduct and interfering with police business. Inside Elruy’s room, was a theatrical trunk that likely further confirmed her real identify. But Zey Prevost didn’t need to travel on to Miami, Florida, and set sail for Havana—by steamer or the new flying boat service.

Matthew Brady, after conferring with his assistants Milton U’Ren and Leo Friedman, withdrew the detectives. California law was clear. Prevost couldn’t be compelled against her will to return to California unless she faced a criminal charge. Obviously, her daring escape spoke for her. With his limited funds, Brady would have to read Prevost’s testimony into the record. There was no other option. But her further actions, in any event, indicated the influence of Arbuckle’s defense team.

With Mardi Gras only days away, Prevost remained securely ensconced in New Orleans—and Brady followed her there in private telegrams sent by such sources as the chief of police in New Orleans, Guy Molony. He asked Brady, “Do you want her? If so, wire this office at once, stating charge.” Molony also informed Brady that Prevost was enjoying the winter racing season at the Fair Grounds until it moved on to Oriental Park in Havana—hence her desire to travel to Cuba.

Not unlike her demand that the District Attorney pay her a witness fee before the second trial, Prevost’s chutzpah before the third became public in the San Francisco Chronicle in the waning days of February.

The 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 funmaking 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.” 

Crescent City Jockey Club/Fair Grounds Race Course, 1900s (Library of Congress)

[1] 000–000: Mildred Morris, “‘Burn It Down!’ Mayo’s Advice on Hollywood,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 February 1922, 2; “Prevost Girl Enigma of Arbuckle’s Third Trial,” San Francisco Call, 25 February 1922, 3; “Prevost Is Center of New Arbuckle Row,” San Francisco Call, 10 March 1922, 1; Oscar H. Fernbach, “Zey Prevost Again Cited,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 February 1922, 16; “Two Arbuckle Girls Missing; S.F. Hunt On,” San Francisco Examiner, 6 February 1922, 13; Oscar H.

Fernbach, “Zey Prevost Flees, Brady Starts Hunt,” San Francisco Examiner, 7 February 1922, 13; “Zey Prevost Flees State,” San Francisco Examiner, 10 February 1922, 6; “Trace Zey Prevost,” Birmingham News, 11 February 1922, 1; Associated Press, “Zey Prevost in 3 Floor Drop Evades Sleuths,” San Francisco Call, 13 February 1922, 1; “Zey Prevost Is Traced to New Orleans,” San Francisco Examiner, 14 February 1922, 1; “Arbuckle Case Witness Hides; Charge Needed for Return,” San Francisco Call, 24 February 1922, 3; “Arbuckle to Be Pitied, Says Zey Prevost,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 February 1922, 13; “Brady Planning to Use Girl’s Testimony,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 February 1922, 13; “Prevost Girl’s Return Asked,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 February 1922, 7.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s