No More Laughs for the Fat Man: The Case of Fatty Arbuckle

Mar 24, 2014 - by Benjamin Welton - 0 Comments


When Fatty Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe in 1921 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. The tabloid press went after him with a vengeance.  Eleven years later, despite being exonerated by a jury, he died of a heart attack at age 46 as an outcast.

by Benjamin Welton

In today’s era of a scandal-a-day, the public furor over the case of Fatty Arbuckle and the death of Virginia Rappe seems somehow overblown and unbelievably melodramatic. The fact that Los Angeles crowds once shouted for the portly actor’s blood seems like a moralistic viciousness from a far more Puritan America. Nowadays, we’re far more cynical, and yet there’s something about the rise and fall of Fatty Arbuckle that still holds an inglorious luster.

Part of it is the age-old thrill of seeing great men brought low. The other can be located in Hollywood – a place that was synonymous with scandalous debauchery in the early 1920s. Before New York’s Daily News called him a “Beast from [sic] Gutter” in one of the paper’s typically tawdry headlines, Arbuckle (born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle) was a rotund but agile funnyman who made silent comedy classics. A veteran of the vaudeville circuit, Arbuckle got his first break working for director Mack Sennett – the Canadian-born godfather of American slapstick comedy. Initially, Arbuckle was just another Keystone Kop working for Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Then, in the 1913 short film A Noise from the Deep, Arbuckle took the first ever pie-to-the-face. The person who threw the pie was actress Mabel Normand, a comedienne who would go on to make 17 films with Arbuckle as the beauty to his bumbling beast.

Besides Normand, Arbuckle’s other co-workers and peers included such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin (whose Little Tramp persona owed some of its success to Chaplin’s decision to wear Arbuckle’s large trousers for comedic affect) and Buster Keaton. Keaton and Arbuckle in particular became good friends and business partners, and in 1918, Arbuckle put Keaton in charge of Comique, a film company that Arbuckle had started with Joseph Schenck. Fatty transferred his share of the company because his gold lay elsewhere. In particular, in 1921, Arbuckle signed a three-year contract with Paramount. The contract paid him a million dollars per year, thus making him, for a brief time, the highest-paid player in Hollywood.

Despite his healthy bank account, Arbuckle needed a break. In his 1976 book The Day the Laughter Stopped, author David Yallop describes how Arbuckle’s schedule, which usually consisted of six films a year, some of which were shot concurrently with each other, was taking its toll on the often sickly actor. (Arbuckle’s greatest health problem stemmed from a carbuncle, which, after its lancing and painful draining, forced Arbuckle to take morphine in order to deal with the pain. In his 2013 book Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, The Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, author Greg Merritt alleges that this morphine use made Arbuckle one of Hollywood’s first drug addicts).

St Francis Hotel
St Francis Hotel

The nadir of Arbuckle’s work schedule came when, right before Arbuckle’s planned vacation trip to San Francisco, the actor received agonizing burns on his buttocks. How this happened is not quite known (while Yallop claims that Arbuckle backed into a hot stove, the notoriously suspect writer and historian Andy Edmonds claims in Frame Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle that the actor accidentally sat on a mechanic’s acid-soaked rag), but regardless the injury almost ended Arbuckle’s three-day vacation in San Francisco early. Eventually, Arbuckle was talked into checking in at the St. Francis Hotel by his friend and director Fred Fischbach. To sweeten the deal, Fischbach promised Arbuckle to get some illegal booze in ‘Frisco, which of course would take the actor’s mind off of his aching backside. Arbuckle agreed, and on Labor Day weekend in 1921, Arbuckle, Fischbach and the actor Lowell Sherman were the primary occupants of rooms 1219, 1220, and 1221.

Originally planned to be, in the words of Daily News writer Mara Bovsun, “an end-of-summer ‘gin-jollification,’” the party soon became a bacchanalia full of less than savory folks. Even though it occurred in the midst of that great failed experiment known as Prohibition, alcohol flowed like water at the party. Most Americans disliked the Eighteenth Amendment and its offspring the Volstead Act, so the open flaunting of illicit spirits made Fatty and company rather pedestrian. Virginia Rappe, whom history cannot confirm as either an invited guest or a party crasher, was the opposite of pedestrian, and along with her manager Al Semnancher and the shady Bambina Maude Delmont, Rappe decided to be the life of the party.

The Life of the Party

Virginia Rappe

Rappe was originally born a “Rapp,” but added an “e” on her surname because she claimed it sounded “more elegant.” It was all for naught, for Virginia’s unfortunate last name eerily presaged the grand accusation at the center of Fatty Arbuckle’s railroading. Like Arbuckle, whose own childhood was a maze of torment and abuse, Rappe’s early life can be summed up in one word: “tragic.” The illegitimate daughter of Mabel Rapp, Rappe was primarily raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death. As Rappe grew into her raven-haired good looks, she also grew up too fast and began engaging in a lifestyle that would ultimately lead to her death.

Before and during the trial, journalists of the yellow variety did their best to depict Arbuckle as an overweight beast – a latter day Bluebeard with a Kansas-sized paunch. In many ways, the newspapers took over where Arbuckle’s father had left off, and like the comedian’s old man (the party responsible for naming Fatty after his least favorite politician, the Republican party boss Roscoe Conkling) the newspapers of the 1920s did their best to demean and demoralize the once beloved screen idol. As part of this organized character assassination, the newspapers did their best to uphold Rappe as a virtuous and wholly innocent victim of Arbuckle’s deranged lust. She was the white virgin to Arbuckle’s black beast, and her dramatic death seemed perfect for self-righteous pearl-clutching.

In truth, Rappe was anything but virginal. Rappe was raised without a father figure in the bustling metropolis of New York, and as a result she pursued numerous sexual relationships at a tender age and without an awareness regarding sexual contraception. As a result, Rappe suffered from bouts of venereal disease, plus it was rumored that she had had several abortions before the age of 16. At the age of 17, Rappe became the mother of an out-of-wedlock child in the tradition of her own mother.

None of this seemed to drastically affect Rappe’s career; however, and by the time of the party at the St. Francis Hotel, Rappe was a bit-part actress and a relatively well-known artist’s model who had graced the cover to the sheet music for “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Rappe was also engaged to one Henry "Pathé" Lehrman, one of Sennett’s men and an occasional director of Fatty Arbuckle shorts. Lehrman’s working relationship with Arbuckle didn’t mean that the two were close. In fact, Lehrman and Arbuckle were known to have a long-running feud, and Rappe wasn’t above joining in. In “Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe,” Crime Library contributor Denise Noe claims that at one point Rappe called Arbuckle “disgusting and crude...vulgar and disrespectful to women.” While these words would come to haunt Arbuckle during three different trials, Noe sees them as the platitudes of Lehrman’s loyal lover.

Arbuckle’s opinions of Rappe are a little less known to history. Some sources claim that Arbuckle was smitten with the attractive actress, while others insist that Arbuckle didn’t care for either Rappe or her set. Furthermore, on September 5, 1921, Arbuckle didn’t want either Rappe or her friends drinking all of his liquor. By all accounts that’s exactly what they did, and after several hours of imbibing, Arbuckle found a naked Rappe screaming in his room.

 Arbuckle claimed during his testimony that he, Delmont, and other guests initially placed Rappe in a tub full of ice. Next, the group called for the hotel doctor, who injected Rappe with a shot of morphine. In the morning, Rappe’s condition only continued to deteriorate, and finally, after three days of agony, Rappe was taken to a nearby hospital. On the fourth day, Rappe was taken to the Wakefield Sanitarium, an institution widely known for performing abortions. Finally, on Friday, five days after the party, Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.

Almost immediately, Delmont cried “murder.” According to her, during the early stages of the party, Arbuckle had grabbed Rappe and dragged her against her will into his bedroom. Delmont told the police that Arbuckle said: “I’ve wanted you for five years” just before closing the door. After a quarter of an hour, Delmont said that Arbuckle had reappeared as a sweaty, exhausted-looking man. Rappe had remained behind on the bed and told Delmont that: “I’m dying. He did it, Maude.”

From her vantage point, Arbuckle had raped the girl, and furthermore, the actor’s great weight had crushed her, thus causing her bladder to rupture. Years later, smut junkies like Kenneth Anger would claim that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with either a Coca-Cola or Champaign bottle, but at the time of the actor’s ordeal, Delmont’s nebulous accusation of rape was enough to effectively end Arbuckle’s career.

Even before he went to trial, Arbuckle was found guilty in the press. Unfortunately for him, Arbuckle’s case occurred during the height of the tabloid era and the birth of so-called Jazz Age journalism. Ever since June 26, 1919, when the Daily News debuted the tabloid format, American newspapers had given in to printing lurid and sensational headlines that came packaged with plenty of pictures. Arbuckle’s fame, his girth, and his profession all made him a perfect fall-guy for the media’s obsession with Hollywood’s moral rot.

On top of this, the death of Virginia Rappe was just another shocking case from the film world. Earlier, in 1920, the actress Olive Thomas had died after drinking a lethal quantity of mercury bichloride. The chemical compound belonged to her husband Jack Pickford, a handsome screen idol whose short life was ruled by scandal, drink, and drug abuse. Rumors had it that Pickford used the mercury bichloride to treat his syphilis, plus even more wagging tongues proclaimed Thomas’s death an act of suicide. Even though it was eventually ruled an accidental death, much of the American public believed Hollywood to be viper pit controlled by immorality.

Arbuckle’s trial, plus the concurrent scandal of the still unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, put Hollywood squarely in the sights of moral crusaders. William H. Hays, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the one-time Postmaster General, was eventually called in to be Hollywood’s in-house policeman and censorship board, and on April 18, 1922, Hays banned Arbuckle from making any more films. Although the ban was lifted in December 1922, the damage to Arbuckle’s career was irreversible.

The sad thing here was that Hays’s ban had been enacted on an innocent man. After three trials, which lasted from November 1921 until March 1922, Arbuckle was finally acquitted on all charges. In the first trial, Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter, but after giving convincing testimony on the stand, Arbuckle and his defense lawyer netted a hung jury, with 10 to two in favor of not guilty. 

During the second trial, Arbuckle did not take the stand. Coupled with a generally poor defense, Arbuckle’s silence caused yet another hung jury, this time 10 to two in favor of conviction. During the third and final trial, Arbuckle once again took the stand, and after the prosecution’s star witness (Zey Prevon, a showgirl and model) was charged with perjury, the jury only took minutes to reach a decision of not guilty. Most of the jury’s time spent deliberating was actually put towards drafting an apology letter to Arbuckle, which the jury foreman read aloud:

            Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for   there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of 14 men and woman who have sat listening for 31 days to evidence, that Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Despite his exoneration, Arbuckle was forever tainted as some kind of monster. During the trials, his films were banned across the country, while constant newspaper coverage did untold damage to his character and his reputation. But while Arbuckle’s life was being ruined, the newspapers were having a field day. William Randolph Hearst, the man in charge of the San Francisco Examiner and one of America’s first media moguls, once boasted that the Arbuckle case sold more newspapers than the sinking of the Lusitania.

Because of this undue media attention, the Arbuckle case attracted more than just readers. Various con artists and hucksters, along with the professionally outraged, all gained some notoriety because of the Arbuckle case. Delmont for a short time became a public speaker and a crusader against the social excesses of Hollywood, but her second career was cut short after it was revealed that her previous job included blackmail and extortion. In particular, Delmont was known to set-up famous people for the purposes of blackmail, and she may very well have intended for Rappe, a heavy drinker with a penchant for taking off her clothes while drunk, to seduce Arbuckle during the party.

Other colorful characters in the case included Lehrman, who used the case as a way to further his career, Semnacher, a small-time hood who changed his testimony halfway through the case, Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s San Francisco defense attorney who later represented heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey, Milton U’ren, the Assistant D.A. who was so dedicated to convicting Arbuckle that he charged Prevon with perjury after she refused to say that Rappe had incriminated Arbuckle in her presence, and a little known Pinkerton detective named Sam Hammett.

Before he took to calling himself “Dashiell,” Sam Hammett was a private detective in San Francisco with a serious case of tuberculosis. Despite his rapidly declining health, Hammett was hired as one of Arbuckle’s guards throughout the trials. Although the experience was only a small part of Hammett’s career as a detective, it nevertheless made an impression on the budding writer. On the one hand, Hammett claimed that: “The whole thing [the Arbuckle case] was a frame-up...arranged by some of the corrupt newspaper boys,” while on the other he openly loathed the portly star. In fact, writers such as the novelist Ace Atkins and the scholar Dr. William Marling have often claimed that Hammett used Arbuckle as the model for his obese villains such as Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.

By the time that The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930, Fatty Arbuckle was no longer “Fatty Arbuckle.” Working under the pseudonym William Goodrich, Arbuckle spent the early ‘30s as a director of short comedies. Then, in 1932, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner Bros. to star in a handful of two-reel comedies as “Fatty Arbuckle.” Although these six films were successful in America, the long shadow of Virginia Rappe’s death continued to haunt the actor, and when trying to show the film Hey, Pop! in the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Censors cited the 1921 scandal as a reason for refusal.

On June 29, 1933, Arbuckle died of a heart attack at age 46. The once adored comedy star ended his life as an outcast: An innocent man suffering because of an unscrupulous media and an occupation’s bad reputation. Even though his nimble exploits and comedic timing make him the forefather of John Belushi and Chris Farley, Arbuckle will forever be associated with a three-day party in San Francisco. This is probably the greatest crime of all.

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