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Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe Trial: Q&A with Researcher Joan Myers

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle Scandal Headline

Film researcher Joan Myers has been working on a book project that will present the Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle manslaughter trial in a different light.

What trial? Fatty who?

What trial? Well, only the biggest Hollywood scandal of the 1920s – along with the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. (See Time magazine's top 25 crimes of the 20th century.)

Fatty who? Well, only a top – perhaps the top – Famous Players-Lasky (later renamed Paramount) star of the late 1910s; a comedian just about as popular in his day as Charles Chaplin was.

Until it all came crashing down following a "wild party" at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Labor Day 1921. A party guest, actress and model Virginia Rappe, suffered some sort of – as yet unexplained – trauma, felt ill, and shortly afterward died. The official cause of death: A ruptured bladder, complicated by acute peritonitis.

(According to Myers, "most newspaper editors seemed disinclined to publish medical details – they either didn't understand them or felt that the whole subject was vulgar and not suited for publication.")

The scandal began.

Remember, puritans ruled then (as now) and Prohibition was the Law of the Land. The sensationalistic press (just like today's media) made the most – and the worst – of the combination of alcohol, celebrity, money, pretty women, and sex. (Add drugs to the mix, and you get the same sort of morbid exploitation that was recently engendered by Anna Nicole Smith's death.)

Roscoe Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Mabel NormandSo, did our Fatty actually rape Virginia Rappe? Did he really jump on the young actress, thus causing her bladder to explode? How could he? The star of Fatty's Plucky Pup and Fatty's Faithful Fido? The same cute Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle who had made love to perky Mabel Normand in Fatty and Mabel Adrift and Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition?

Much of the U.S. filmgoing public felt they'd been grossly betrayed by their idol. (Ironically, one of Arbuckle's last star vehicles was called Life of the Party.) Censors were called to Hollywood to ensure that film people and their creations wouldn't stray from the straight and narrow.

After two hung juries – and about two gazillion articles on the case – Arbuckle was finally acquitted. His film career a thing of the past, the beloved comedian-turned-despised pariah had to hide behind the camera – under the pseudonym William Goodrich – to direct mostly minor fare for other performers. Curiously, his biggest directorial project was the Marion Davies vehicle The Red Mill; Davies' lover was William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers had helped to turn Arbuckle's trial into a circus fire for the enjoyment of the bloodthirsty masses.

As for Virginia Rappe, she became not only the victim of a ruptured bladder but also of malicious stories. At the time of the trial, rumors began circulating that her death had actually been caused by a botched abortion, while other tales portrayed her as the carrier of every sort of venereal disease known to humankind.

I've asked Joan Myers to answer a few questions about her research, and I thank her for taking part in this q&a. Joan is still working on her book, and would like to hear from anyone who can offer any substantive information on those involved in the Arbuckle trial. She can be reached at missmerrivale at yahoo dot com.

See also Myers' essays "The Case of the Vanishing Juror" and "Minta Durfee and the Last of the Terrible Men." And listen to Myers' audio interview "Joan Myers and the Search for Virginia Rappe in Film History."

Harold Lockwood, Virginia Rappe in Paradise Garden
Popular leading man Harold Lockwood (later a fatal victim of the Spanish flu) and Virginia Rappe in Paradise Garden (1917). © Joan Myers Collection

Why did you decide to write a book about the Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe trial case? Hasn't that been done before? How would your book be different than the others?

I did not start out with the intention of writing a new book about the case. Like everyone else, I felt that waterfront had been thoroughly covered and I was just as happy as everyone else was with the explanations provided. I'd never been satisfied with the way Virginia Rappe had been depicted, though. All of our knowledge about her was unsubstantiated and looked suspiciously familiar – it's pretty much the traditional rhetoric trotted out as a defense in any rape case.

Although to give the rhetoric its due, it had aged like a fine wine and grown astoundingly venomous. It was also absurd. So one day I decided to see if I could find out anything about her. I didn't have anything in mind at the time other than some unfocused digging, maybe ending up as an exceptionally vague article for Classic Images. I didn't expect to find much of anything. How many young women went to Hollywood looking for careers in the movies? How many still do?

So you can imagine my surprise when I did start finding information on Virginia Rappe. In fact, I have more information on her pre-Hollywood career than I do on the Hollywood portion of her life. Color me bemused.

Of course, I couldn't really research Virginia Rappe without looking into the trials, since much of our knowledge of her life derives from trial testimony. So, almost tangentially I started digging away in that gravel pit and found that the information I was turning up didn't support the previous work in the case. In fact, I ended up with what I refer to as The Elephant in the Parlor – it's huge and it doesn't fit anywhere. The only way to get rid of the elephant and get my comfy chair back was to put it all down on paper and shoo it out the door.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle smilingRoscoe Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle arrested

The Arbuckle trial was probably the biggest Hollywood scandal of the silent era. Could you tell us who was Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle?

No. If there is one person who is conspicuously absent from his own scandal it's Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. He became a MacGuffin at his own trials. After four years of research into this case the person I know least is Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.

From the moment Arbuckle's attorneys got involved, which was late on the night Virginia died, Arbuckle becomes a sock puppet. He's acting a part and reading from a script, and he isn't allowed to deviate from it for one minute. Everything he says, every move he makes, what he wears, what he eats, the expressions on his face, every word he utters – everything was scripted for him by his defense attorneys. He probably didn't want to deviate from it, I would imagine he was scared out of his wits. I sure would be. It was the performance of his life, but it was a performance. The real Arbuckle is not there.

Virgnia Rappe in A Twilight BabyAnd who was Virginia Rappe?

Exactly who she said she was. A model and a clothing designer who had a successful career and a relatively high profile one given the development of the fashion industry at the time. If we must make a cheese whiz modern comparison we could say she was the Cindy Crawford or the Linda Evangelista of her day. That's not really valid, however, because the fashion industry was in its infancy and functioned differently than it does today, but it will serve as a starting point.

Was Arbuckle accused of raping Virginia Rappe?

He was initially accused of rape, during which attack her bladder ruptured. He was charged under section 189 of the California criminal code, which defined a death caused during a rape (or other attack) as murder. The Grand Jury, Coroner's Inquest, and later Preliminary Hearing dropped the charge to manslaughter, as there was absolutely no physical evidence of rape.

The difference, then as now, is that murder is defined as "wilful" whereas no intent needs to be proven for manslaughter. Even though he was charged with manslaughter, I think that rape was still uppermost in everyone's mind. Even today if you mention his name to people they usually vaguely think he was tried for rape.

What actually happened to Virginia Rappe?

She suffered a trauma. How the trauma occurred and what it was is something I don't know and never will. But bladders don't rupture due to illness. There has to be a goodly amount of force involved.

Have you discovered anything new about the case? I understand you will present your findings when the book comes out, but is there anything at all you can tell us about your discoveries?

The short answer is "yes." I have a lot of new information about the case and the people involved in it. And now, on to the longer, more waffly portion of the answer:

History is never really finished, is it? Since the last histories of this case were written we've seen a real explosion in the availability of primary source materials. Digitized newspaper databases make it possible to do longitudinal searches for information, searches we couldn't have done before. Genealogists are particularly active on the internet and are a very chatty and helpful bunch. Many vital records databases are now online, finding aids for archival collections are online, blah, blah, blah. Those sources weren't readily available [whether online or not] even 15 years ago.

That said, I've still spent so much time at library microfilm readers that I've developed a large square eye in the middle of my forehead and my floor is covered with various flavors of vital records. You can't do it all through the internet. You still have to do a lot of old-fashioned excavation.

My approach to the material is also different. I'm taking a – I guess you'd call it "multi-disciplinary" or "global" approach to the story. I was very curious about all the people involved in the case and wanted to know more about them. Who were they? How did they get involved in the case? How did it affect them? What happened to them afterward?

Much of what I've found could have been found before. And frankly, it should have been found before. It wasn't hiding, it was just laying there waiting to be picked up. The first step in any historical inquiry is to look. Conversely a lot of information is irretrievably lost – because no one was looking for it.

Also – as corollary to the looking part – a good rule of thumb is just because some old actress told you something, that doesn't mean it's true.

What happened to Arbuckle after the trial?

I'm not even close to being an expert on Arbuckle's career and I've confined myself to the period of the trials, so there are probably better people around to answer that question. In general terms, his film career ended as a result of the scandal, although he worked occasionally behind the scenes. He went back to stage and vaudeville work, and was extremely successful in those ventures. He married Doris Deane, a marriage that failed. He then he married Addie McPhail, who was as cute as a bug's ear. I don't know why bug's ears are considered the avatar of cute, but whatever, she was bug-ear cute. He had just signed a contract with Warners when he died suddenly in 1933.

And finally, do you personally believe that justice was made?

Absolutely not. Everyone involved in the case was damaged by it. Except the lawyers, [Arbuckle's first wife] Minta Durfee, and [Hollywood columnist] Adela Rogers St. Johns. They did OK.

Arbuckle's lawyers, of course, made scads of money. Everyone was very cagey about how much they were paid. I've never seen a reliable figure quoted, but I think we can err on the safe side and say "Lots."

Adela Rogers St. JohnsA lot of people dined out for years on knowing the "inside scoop." You know that. How many completely untrue but firmly believed stories did you have to wade through while doing your bio of Ramon Novarro? If you believe Adela Rogers St. Johns [left], she knew everything about everybody because she was sitting in people's laps during all these famous (and yet mythical) moments. Have you ever tried to tease a fact out of one of her little stories? A date, a time, something verifiable? She was a reporter, for heaven's sake, she knew exactly what she was doing. She's entertaining as all get-out, right up there with Kenneth Anger as a Dealer in Fabulous Dish. But I'd sooner trot out Winnie-the-Pooh as a source.

Minta Durfee made a career out of being Mrs. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. It was a saleable commodity for her, and if you don't believe me check her contracts file at the [Academy's] Herrick Library. She was lying relentlessly and grandiosely, of course, but what the heck, it sold. There are more ways to pay for something than with money, though; I think Minta liked the attention.

That doesn't mean she wasn't loyal to Arbuckle in her own way, or that she wasn't fond of him – unless the picture she was presenting of him conflicted with the picture she was presenting of herself. When that happened, she deep-sixed him every time. In The Gospel According to Minta, Arbuckle was a genial but half-witted saint who couldn't find his own way out the door in the morning. I don't believe that. I don't think he could have risen from his rat-poor beginnings and accomplished what he accomplished without being a pretty bright boy.

[Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Minta Durfee were divorced in 1925. Arbuckle died of a heart attack at age 46 on the night of June 29, 1933. Earlier that day, he had signed a contract with Warner Bros. to make a feature film for the studio.]

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