Which faded first, public interest in the Arbuckle trials or the press coverage? Since metrics for the former didn’t exist in 1922, it would seem the latter. As the days stretched into weeks, the number of reporters in Judge Harold Louderback’s courtroom dwindled. The headlines gave way to the death of Pope Benedict XV, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Lenin’s declining health, the Arthur Burch trial in Los Angeles, and the other intractable problems of the world. By the end of the first Arbuckle trial much of the coverage had already been relegated to below the fold and inside newspapers. This became the norm for the second trial. Fewer stories were bylined. But Marjorie Driscoll for the San Francisco Chronicle and Oscar Fernbach for the Examiner soldiered on. Nevertheless, their copy read as though they were bored by the Arbuckle case or believed their readers were. There was little that was new to report. That Arbuckle wore the same blue Norfolk suit to court each day was like a mantra.
For the authors of books and articles about the Arbuckle case, however, the lack of reportage is either a boon if one wants to get in and get out so as to meet a deadline and page count. For us, however, it means inferring from newspaper sources that are, to paraphrase researcher Joan Myers, dicey. But this relative lack of competition allowed the few remaining reporters to focus on details and hope that they could hold the reader’s attention—an expectation that was also placed on three different juries with three different outcomes.
The prosecution and defense virtually repeated themselves in the second and third trials that lasted into spring 1922. Nevertheless, there were subtle changes in strategy. After the second trial ended in a hung jury—10 to 2 for conviction—the defense understood that it could no longer hold back on Rappe’s past. The newspapers reported this as if it were new, but Arbuckle’s lawyers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago had started to deconstruct Rappe’s “good girl” image before she was even buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Ironically, while the press took less interest in the Arbuckle trial, San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants took more interest in the press—indeed, in the earliest pieces written about the Arbuckle case. Therein, they brought into the light the first statements that Arbuckle made to reporters about his Labor Day party and the death of Virginia Rappe.
Curiously missing was the foundation of Arbuckle’s “Good Samaritan” testimony from the first trial, that he gave aid and comfort to Virginia Rappe after finding her writhing on his bathroom floor in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel, leaving it up to the jury and public to see that he should be seen as a decent man rather than an uncaring rapist. The clipped, matter-of-fact testimony that Arbuckle gave was also intended to emphasize that he was alone with Rappe in the bedroom for just eight minutes—a claim that could be corroborated with nothing but circumstantial evidence.
But Arbuckle’s version of events wasn’t heard by anyone but his lawyers until late November, nearly two months after his arrest. Why hadn’t he mentioned his heroics in room 1219 to the two reporters who had contacted him just hours after Rappe’s death and before his arrest? He likely would have saved himself and the motion picture industry a world of grief as it might have prevented the clamor for government regulation of the motion picture industry and de facto the private lives of performers, producers, writers, etc.
Arbuckle’s fantastically opportune testimony came late. It was like the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a story that would dovetail with the established timeline as described by prosecution witnesses and account for the physical evidence that had been presented in court, notably fingerprints.. It rendered Arbuckle an innocent victim of circumstances who had, against the odds, stumbled into a medical emergency and found himself accused of rape and murder. But if this puzzle piece was contrived, carved out of new cardboard, so to speak, as Brady and his assistants believed, it was imperative to attack its cardinal weakness, its timing.
Arbuckle said that his original chief counsel, Frank Dominguez, had ordered him not to say anything in his own defense in September 1921. The public animus against was just too much to overcome in the weeks after Rappe’s death. Arbuckle claimed that he was intentionally silenced. But eventually he had been given the opportunity to speak out and took it.
While he hadn’t been particularly forthcoming when interviewed on the day of Rappe’s death, at the first trial and for the first time Arbuckle inserted an alibi of sorts, that he was intending to get dressed in room 1219 to take a female friend out for a drive in his Pierce-Arrow during the afternoon of September 5 and by coincidence he discovered Rappe on the bathroom floor.
The prosecution believed that what Arbuckle told the two reporters on September 9 was important to have before a jury not for what was said but also for what wasn’t. A close reading, or rather a close hearing of the reporters’ testimony allowed one to infer that Arbuckle was more than a passive participant at the party and his traveling companions were solely to blame for the women, the alcohol, etc. But it was a stretch by the prosecution to believe they could convince a jury that Arbuckle’s omission of discussing his concern for Rappe’s suffering — in light of what he would describe in his sworn testimony two months later — was evidence that he was a man covering up a crime. (see “Arbuckle’s testimony of November 28, 1921).
Warden Woolard of the Los Angeles Times was one of the two who interviewed Arbuckle after the news broke about Rappe’s death and he testified at both the second and third trials. Due to the abbreviated coverage of these trials, we can only infer that he repeated his original reportage of Saturday, September 10, 1921, to one of the two assistant district attorneys who conducted the examination. To him Arbuckle seemed to be a man unconcerned about the problem that Rappe’s death presented and confident he could straighten the matter out with the chief of police in San Francisco. But the prosecution would question why many of the details Arbuckle later testified to were not mentioned on September 9. Woolard’s interview with Arbuckle happened at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater which may sound innocuous but was at the time a seat of power in Hollywood so it’s likely Arbuckle was being counseled by Frank Dominguez or Milton Cohen to arrange for it as damage control. We can infer that the prosecution framed the arrangement of this interview as an indication that Arbuckle’s comments were something less than extemporaneous.
Unfortunately, Woolard’s testimony revealed little beyond what he had originally reported. At the second trial, however, he added that although Arbuckle denied hurting Rappe, he had pushed her down on the bed to keep her quiet. Arbuckle also said that there were no locked or closed doors at the party all afternoon. In regard to Maude Delmont’s description of the party being “rough,” Arbuckle responded that the only thing rough about the party was Delmont herself.
After Woolard left the stand, the jury heard Arbuckle’s first trial testimony read into the record of the second by Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman, who was known for the insinuating tone he added to such readings.
Woolard said that he was prompted to seek out Arbuckle on September 9, 1921, hours after Rappe’s death, because he had read a San Francisco Chronicle wire that, apparently, had been written by someone who had heard Delmont’s side of the story as well as earlier comments by Arbuckle. The San Francisco reporter of these accounts was George R. Hyde. He took the stand at the third trial on March 25, 1922—just after Woolard presumably repeated much of his testimony from the second trial.
We have little to work with regarding Hyde’s testimony, only one detail emerges, that he made a long-distance telephone call to Arbuckle’s house and that someone he presumed to be Arbuckle answered his questions. Unlike Woolard, however, Hyde was asked to provide a carbon copy of his interview notes to the defense though it appears that they provided any useful revelations. That said, we must infer that either Leo Friedman or his colleague, Milton U’Ren, treated Hyde’s published interview as a de facto deposition that could be used to challenge statements Arbuckle later made under oath, such as his declaration that he was never alone with Rappe and that doors were never locked in the suite. Like so many paper cuts, the inconsistencies would not be fatal in themselves but could add up if the jury had the patience to process them.
Neither Woolard nor Hyde were cross-examined. The defense elected not to do so as not to give their stories any more time on the stand . To do otherwise risked calling attention to them, imprinting them on the jurors’ minds. Arbuckle’s lawyers did, however, argue that the two reporters’ testimony should be inadmissible. But the court allowed the testimony. It was then followed by another reading of Arbuckle’s first trial testimony on Monday, March 27 by Leo Friedman.