16 June 2021
This entry is for journalists researching feature articles to mark the centenary of the Arbuckle case. But it is also for , historians, cinéastes, and simply the curious who wish to survey any new discoveries on the subject. There is much that has emerged over the intervening years and much of that has gone unquestioned and unrevised with only a few exceptions in print and online. That in itself should pique the readers’ curiosity about what really happened or what could have in a way that departs from previous theories and speculation.
One myth we saw in researching this book is the role of the press in 1921. Did newspaper publishers and editors try to shape public opinion against Arbuckle? Transform him from lovable man-child screen comedian into a drunk and rapist? Body-shame away any doubt that his belly burst Virginia Rappe’s bladder and so cause her death? The basic scenario seemed to speak against him. The Labor Day party, the liquor, the married men inviting unmarried women to their rooms—and Arbuckle himself following Rappe into his bedroom and locking the door. When he opened it, a young actress was laying on his wet bed going in and out of shock and aware that she had been gravely injured.
Publishers and editors reflexively knew that, since Arbuckle was a screen comedian and a living caricature of himself, he should be presented as a figure of fun even in a murder case. They also knew that public sympathy flowed in Rappe’s direction as the victim of this other Arbuckle, this real Arbuckle. For a while, the press stuck to the narrative that Arbuckle was an out-of-control malfeasant, a sociopath (a word still uncommon in American criminology of the 1920s) and Rappe, the silenced innocent, would never experience a full life: getting married to her fiancé, being a mother, serving a slice of apple pie, never see her family, and never get her seat on the lifeboat. She was, almost as long as Arbuckle was figure of fun and immorality, this sentimental image that should bring tears to reader’ eyes. To more serious-minded women, feminists and those who fought for suffrage and prohibition, Rappe was a victim of that deadly combination of male violence against women and alcohol. Her death made for a test case.
Much has been made of the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst’s responsibility for “framing” Arbuckle as a murderer. The British crime historian, David Yallop, the author of The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle(1976), is one if not the source for blaming Hearst for intentionally ruining Arbuckle’s flourishing film career in order to sell newspapers across his vast press empire.
The Hearst press adopted an attitude towards the Arbuckle case that was criminally irresponsible. Feature articles, news stories and editorials in Hearst’s newspapers had but one aim: to boost circulation. In the event, the policy was successful beyond Hearst’s wildest dreams. [. . .] His ruthlessness in boosting circulation was to have a significant effect on Arbuckle’s fate, so it is worth pausing here to describe the man behind the press.
Yallop’s obsessive allusions to the film Citizen Kane (1941) suggest he was more intent on shoring up Orson Wells’ fictional version of Hearst and grinding his ax in a book that was long accepted as a definitive account when under close scrutiny appears to be more and more a work of fiction, an often titillating tale, a book expected to be a bestseller among movie-mad readers. If Yallop’s estate should ever release his alleged though never-revealed primary documents, such as the original trial transcripts and taped and transcribed interviews with people who knew every record spun on the phonograph that blared during Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, we might never question this sensational account again. That said, the Hearst theory in Yallop is only one example that just seems to be, well, Fleet Street, tabloid fare. A deliberate spin to create a sinister portrait of those who stood to gain from Arbuckle’s downfall.
In our research, a cursory look at the headlines and reportage in the Hearst chain’s flagship San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Washington Times reveals that the Hearst newsrooms had their own comedians, so to speak, who didn’t follow any directive or template issued by their publisher. What stands out is how mercilessly they made fun of Arbuckle’s woes during the first week after Rappe’s death, as though he had made the ultimate stage fall, as though their readers might not apprehend this were it not a tragedy that a woman died and a beloved screen comedian had seemingly brought himself so low. The Times, for example, had a field day with the assumption that the obese actor’s weight was the likely cause of Rappe’s death, and reprinted a heretofore innocent publicity photograph of Arbuckle. The image was of the comedian, dressed in a white shirt, trousers, and shoes, sprawled with bottle in hand under the caption “How ‘Fatty’ Looks on Morning After the Wild Night Before.”
The journalistic slapstick had its day and if the Hearst papers can be faulted for anything, their newsrooms excelled. What made it problematic for Arbuckle and those who set out to rehabilitate him was the amount of ink and flattering photographs that elicited sympathy for Virginia Rappe. We see this coverage as more compelling, for it acknowledged women both as substantial segment of the readership and as a political force to be reckoned with, having recently won two significant legislative victories: prohibition of alcohol sales, for reasons including male violence against women, and the women’s right to vote, both ratified in 1920. Rappe was almost a martyr in this respect. (Her presence in San Francisco a year earlier, during the climactic final days of the Democratic Convention of 1920, placed her at the epicenter for the last great demonstration for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. We have many thoughts about this in the work-in-progress.)
Gradually, in the first week after Rappe’s death, the tone of the press coverage sobered as Arbuckle’s journey through the justice system began. First, Arbuckle’s legal team began giving press conferences and taking reporters aside, reminding the public that their client, regardless of his stature or what his conduct looked like, was “innocent until proven guilty.” Such damage control had the effect of blunting the sympathy for the “poor girl.” Then, Rappe’s liminal presence was eclipsed as Arbuckle’s estranged wife, Minta Durfee, quickly inserted herself. (Despite having lived years apart, Durfee had been capitalizing on his name, branding herself as Roscoe Arbuckle’s wife” in her solo career and screen comeback., so justice for Rappe was an existential threat.)
The Hearst papers took notice of her early on and did so with as much respect for her station as that given to the victim. The first big headlines devoted to the Arbuckle case in the Washington Times devoted its largest typeface to read “ARBUCKLE’S WIFE RUSHES TO AID.” And, as she made her way West, the tenor of the coverage began to change, as did the quality of the reporting. The Examiner assigned Oscar H. Fernbach, its criminal case correspondent at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. The Chronicle put its most prominent female reporter on the case, Marjorie C. Driscoll. The national press featured such bylined reporters as M. D. Tracy of the United Press and Frieda Blum of the Universal Service. They among others began to turn out stories that were balanced, inquiring, objective, and factual whenever possible.
If Arbuckle was “framed,” it would have been only in the initial days when competing newspapers rushed to create narratives. As conflicting details surfaced many readers quickly switched sides, even among the women who crowded the pretrial court proceedings where San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady was forced to reduce a first-degree murder charge to manslaughter. That these men doggedly prosecuted Arbuckle for months with no real chance of a conviction is one of the most curious aspects of the Arbuckle case given that victim, with no aggrieved family pressing the case, was now a ghost fading from view, virtually forgotten. Was Brady’s pursuit of the case politically motivated or was it a more personal crusade, an orphic quest?
The Hearst chain as well as other newspapers took a few last jabs at Arbuckle when, at last, his conduct wasn’t the source of any amusement. During a pretrial investigatory proceeding in the Women’s Court* in late September 1921, Rappe’s manager was compelled by a judge to repeat a story that Arbuckle told his male friends the day after her crisis in his bedroom. The comedian made a joke of inserting a piece of ice into her vagina. (After this revelation, Arbuckle’s chief consul, the Los Angeles-based criminal defense lawyer, Frank Dominguez, said that inserting ice in this manner was a tried-and-true method of bringing an unresponsive female back to consciousness.) Ironically, however, the moral outrage of such an act didn’t have the impact the prosecution hoped for. A judge decided that Arbuckle could only be tried for manslaughter, not murder. And the women who crowded the courtroom to hear the witnesses’ accusations and hopefully see Arbuckle himself take the stand? After Arbuckle paid his bail, he and Minta Durfee were mobbed by well-wishers and most were women. Crowds of women even met the comedian at the train station when he, his lawyers, and Durfee left for Los Angeles.
Because Hearst had his own upstart studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, in partnership with Adolph Zukor and Paramount, he had no apparent reason to personally demonize Arbuckle and the motion picture industry. There is also little evidence to support the notion that Hearst had a vendetta against Hollywood for the treatment of his mistress, Marion Davies who not only wasn’t an opera singer as portrayed in Citizen Kane, but proved to be a capable comic actor. Hearst was grooming her for a career that would require goodwill from the studio moguls. That Arbuckle later directed her in a film shouldn’t be seen as an anomaly.
Indeed, all the newspapers at the time piled on the Arbuckle case and Hearst hardly led the charge. At least there is no extant evidence of that, no memos, no memoirs in which Hearst discusses any intentions toward Arbuckle or his employers. That kind of direction from the top was more in keeping with Hearst’s focus on bigger issues such as the danger a revived Ku Klux Klan posed for the nation. Arbuckle was only a diversion, a clown, albeit a sad and rich one who was not too big to fall.
*A special women’s venue of the Police Court that restricted the number of men, especially when female witnesses were being called and when the crime had involved a woman as perpetrator or victim.
 See Washington Times, 12 September 1921, 1.