Arbuckle and Rappe, 100 Years Later
On Labor Day weekend, 1921, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, a party took place that caused the death of a woman, the end of a man’s career, and ultimately the implementation of the Motion Picture Code that changed how the movie business operated in Hollywood. Myths about that party abound, and in fact these myths constitute some of the earliest awareness many people have about the silent era. Not surprisingly, silent film buffs have long been dedicated to correcting these myths, but in doing so, some have swung equally far in presenting “disinformation from the other side.” In honor of this strange centenary, I have spent time reading up on this event and have come to some conclusions – some of which may challenge received wisdom on the topic.
So, what really happened? Well, some facts everyone can agree on. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle went up to San Francisco on Labor Day weekend, having just wrapped a grueling shooting schedule to produce three features at once, and, along with two friends checked in to three rooms on the twelfth floor of the St. Francis hotel. A party started early on the next day, with people stopping in, drifting out, and sometimes returning later. There was bootleg booze (Prohibition was on already), a phonograph playing current hits, a mixed crowd, and the big man presided in his pajamas. Several young actresses and models were among the guests, and at some point, a young woman named Virginia Rappe went into the bathroom, passing through Arbuckle’s bedroom. Somewhat later, Arbuckle went into that bedroom and the door was closed for at least a few minutes. When Arbuckle emerged, Rappe was lying on his bed in pain, and various guests went into the room to attempt to comfort her or suggest home remedies – the consensus was that she had had too much to drink. Eventually, a doctor was called, the party ended, and several days later, Rappe died from a ruptured bladder.
After the girl’s death, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office got involved, and, speaking to some of the witnesses, concluded that they had enough evidence to warrant a murder charge. Their version was that Arbuckle had forced himself on Virginia, and, in the violence of the assault, caused the rupture of her bladder. Arbuckle at first refused to speak to the press, then assembled a team of defense lawyers and allowed them to craft his message: he had found Virginia unconscious in his room and had done everything he could to help. The defense insisted that she had been ill for some time, and that her alcohol use in connection with a pre-existing bladder infection had caused a spontaneous rupture, for which Arbuckle was in no way responsible. Three trials ensued, the first two of which ended in hung juries, and the third in full acquittal.
Meanwhile, on the outside, women’s organizations and church groups were decrying Arbuckle as a violent, perverse product of Hollywood culture, and their cries for cleansing went beyond simply his punishment – all of the film industry was a corrupting influence, especially upon children, and this incident only exemplified the need for movie censorship. Hollywood, which like any industry resisted any form of regulation on their production, lined up in two camps: those who insisted Arbuckle was innocent, and the much larger group that used him as a scapegoat, the “one bad apple” who, if purged, would leave the industry clean and safe to go on about its business. Arbuckle’s acquittal ended hopes for that group even as it enraged the moral claims-makers, spurring them to new action against the industry. Facing a real possibility of national censorship, the industry called in the popular figure of Republican campaign manager Will H. Hays to lead a new organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, in an effort at self-regulation of the industry. One of Hays’s first acts was to ban Roscoe Arbuckle from appearing in movies, and he never did again, although after a short time he was directing under an assumed name (William Goodrich).
None of the above is in serious dispute, but a surprisingly large amount of myth, gossip, and rumor has sprung up around the details of the incident. Perhaps better stated, two sets of mythology have been in existence, almost from the beginning: each equally inclined towards falsehood and viciousness towards one or the other of the leading actors: either Roscoe or Virginia. In one version, Roscoe Arbuckle was a lecherous drunk, who may have been impotent and in his rage over failure to perform, used a Coke bottle or a jagged piece of ice to rape Virginia, then tried to cover up by refusing her medical aid and lying in court about his actions. In the other version, Arbuckle was a saint, but Virginia was a slut who threw herself at anyone, frequently got naked at parties, and may have died from a botched illegal abortion. Both of these versions are contradictory to the facts as we know them (there is no evidence for either the Coke bottle or the abortion), yet they have endured and been elaborated upon for one hundred years now.
We can never know for sure what two long-dead people did behind closed doors. With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and tell you what I believe really happened. I’ve spent a good part of this year reading up on the incident from various viewpoints (see the clumsily annotated bibliography at the end), looking carefully for bias and for hints of the real personalities involved. I think I’m right, but like anyone who’s ever written about this subject, I may be saying more about myself than I can about Roscoe or Virginia.
I think that in that hotel room with the door closed, the two of them started to engage in foreplay. Roscoe got on top of Virginia, she said, “Ow! Stop.” or something along those lines, and, despite being a little tight and not actually a saint, he was a decent enough non-rapist to comply. He stayed for a minute or two hoping she would change her mind (possibly while one or more other guests knocked in concern), then went to the door and let others in to help her. In this version, Virginia’s death was accidental, but it was caused by Arbuckle. He might be liable in a court of law, but not for murder. One could argue that he and the other guests were negligent for not calling a doctor immediately, however given the responses of the medical professionals that were eventually called (“she’s just had too much to drink, let her sleep it off”), it’s unlikely that doing so would have saved her. Someone needed to do a serious examination and stop the internal damage quickly, and that probably wouldn’t have happened in any event. Some people may think I am fat-shaming Arbuckle by implying that he burst the bladder of a young woman just by trying to have sex with her, but from what we know about Rappe’s condition, it’s likely that any fully-grown adult who mounted her clumsily under the influence of alcohol could have done the same. Rappe was 26 years old, an age at which it’s hard for people without visible disabilities to believe they are sick enough that indulging in normal activities like alcohol and sex might actually be fatal, but she was.
How consensual was the sex, if sex (or an attempt at sex) occurred? There is a school of thought today, increasingly common in institutions of higher education, that any use of alcohol makes consent impossible, and by that definition, an attempt by Arbuckle to have sex with Rappe would have been attempted sexual assault. Arbuckle wouldn’t have seen it that way, and the question always arises for me: what if both parties are equally drunk? Who is the non-consenting party in that case? If someone starts, but stops when the other party says “no,” does that change the degree of non-consent? Sex and alcohol have been intricately linked in many cultures since its intoxicating effects were first detected. In judging events of one hundred years ago, I would not argue for abandoning our own ethical codes, but tempering them with an awareness of those in place at the time. Declaring Virginia to be a slut because she was in a hotel room with a man in his pajamas is taking that too far, allowing that the rules of alcohol use were different in that time and place seems appropriate.
What I have found most disturbing about much of the literature written by silent film historians and fans is simply this: the real tragedy of that day isn’t the end of Roscoe Arbuckle’s career as an actor, it is the death of a young woman. Somehow, certain writers become so incensed about the former that they treat the latter as an annoying inconvenience: how dare that horrid creature die and make life hard for Arbuckle? Some of this, interestingly, comes directly from Arbuckle’s first wife, Minta Durfee, from whom he was already estranged (though not yet divorced) when it happened. She stuck by him loyally, however, and it took quite a bit of reading before I understood why: he was her sole source of income. Arbuckle cut her loose rather cavalierly when he formed his own company, and her efforts at making a career of her own stalled every time afterward – in part because the male agents she spoke with always said, “well, Fatty’s supporting you, isn’t he?” This patriarchal situation reduced her to having to stand by the man who failed to stand by her when it counted.
This does not exculpate later film historians for repeating her bizarre and illogical slut-shaming statements about Virginia Rappe, however. Somehow, the “fact” that Rappe had spread syphilis among the Keystone Company and that Mack Sennett had to close and “fumigate” the studio after she left gets included without comment in a number of otherwise reasonable accounts. (One does not “fumigate” to get rid of syphilis and there is no record of a closure or a wave of cases at Keystone). Durfee’s statements are valuable to the historical record, but need always to be approached with caution, as frankly is the case with all entertainers’ memories. Film history suffers when it takes all witnesses at their word, rather than looking for verifiable facts and natural biases. This, I think, is probably one of the best lessons to learn from the Saint Francis Hotel and the death of Virginia Rappe.
New York Times archives search for “Arbuckle.” Ordered by date, begin 09/01/1921. While Yallop (see below) claims that the NYT was unfairly prejudiced against Arbuckle, the articles published in the early days of the scandal appear divided between reporting on the public outrage against him and defenses offered by Durfee, the defense team, and Arbuckle himself.
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Dell, 1975.
As everyone says, this book is essentially dedicated to sleaze and scandal, with little regard for fact. In fact, if you read between the lines it is easy to see that Anger is deliberately ignoring sources other than tabloid headlines, in order to perform a socio-magical experiment in eroto-deification of the Hollywood mythos. This goes over most people’s heads, and they just notice that he got his facts wrong. His version of the story is the one everyone else is arguing against – Fatty raped Rappe, possibly with a Coke bottle, then stood by indifferent while she screamed in pain (tossing the bottle out the 12th story window). Maude Delmont is Virginia’s only steadfast friend, and male doctors are accomplices to Arbuckle’s crime. The death was caused by “266 pounds of flying Fatty,” not any preexisting condition. He also recounts an earlier incident in which Arbuckle supposedly participated in an “orgy” in Boston during a tour to celebrate his Comique deal, which was hushed up by a $100,000 bribe to a District Attorney, paid by Paramount. On careful reading, however, Anger is more nuanced than the above implies. He is careful to repeat that the bottle story originates with “rumors” and says that D.A. Brady “wanted to nail Fatty in the worst way.”
Billingsley, Kenneth Lloyd. Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Rocklin, CA: Forum, 1998.
“Those covering Hollywood were used to writing about wild antics and scandals of personalities from Fatty Arbuckle to Errol Flynn.” (p. 77).
Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co, 1981.
“Arbuckle was still extremely popular and made eight successful features for Paramount between 1919 and 1921, when his career ended in a catastrophic scandal that rocked the movie industry and changed the course of Hollywood history.” (p.212) P.213 summarizes the case based on Yallop (see below). Were all 8 of Arbuckle’s features “successful?” Three had yet to be released at the time of his arrest, some of them only ever getting limited European releases.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
“Arbuckle and Mary Miles Minter were immediate and very useful scapegoats. Completed Arbuckle films were totally abandoned and never released, and this extremely talented comedian, on the threshold of major stardom since he was in the vanguard of comedy stars switching to features, found himself frozen out – able to work only under an assumed name as a director and banned from appearing entirely.” (p. 297).
Jones, Marty, “Hollywood Scapegoat,” American History, Feb2005, Vol. 39 Issue 6, p40-47.
A neat linking of the Hays office with the Arbuckle scandal, doesn’t add a lot of detail, but does stick closely to the facts.
Koszarski, Richard. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1990.
“Of the last 164 films released by the company [Famous Players-Lasky], only nine had failed to pay their expenses. Four of these were Arbuckle films, caught up in the scandal.” (p.110). “Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, one of the most popular and highly paid of all Hollywood stars, was being held in San Francisco on murder charges. At a wild party thrown by Arbuckle at the St. Francis hotel, a would-be starlet, Virginia Rappe, was taken violently ill and died soon after in a local sanitorium. Her associates brought charges against Arbuckle for the death. The evidence against Arbuckle was clearly suspect, but the ambitious District Attorney, Matthew Brady, decided to pursue the Hollywood star in the courts with a case based on sensationalism and innuendo.” (p. 206, citing Yallop as only source)…”By the time Arbuckle’s second trial began on 11 January, 1922, industry leaders had already announced that Will Hays, President Harding’s postmaster general, was leaving the cabinet to supervise the cleanup of Hollywood.” (same source).
Marr, Johnny. “Fatty Arbuckle Takes the Rap(pe).” Murder Can Be Fun (#5), 1987.
This was where I first learned about the events of the St. Francis Hotel, in a little exploitation zine back in the 1980s. MCBF was one of the first sources that convinced me that historical research was interesting. Marr follows Yallop slavishly, and even adds to his slut-shaming with his own speculations.
Merritt, Greg. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.
Best and most recent source on the tragedy, one which takes Rappe seriously and documents her life as well as her death in more detail than any other. Challenges the narratives of both the more extreme anti- and pro-Arbuckle writers. Goes into detail on each trial without reproducing as much transcript as Yallop, but nevertheless is able to portray a more reasonable view of the prosecution and a more critical view of the defense, without going overboard the other direction. Doesn’t go quite as far in speculation as I do, but supports my thesis as a possibility.
Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933. Jefferson, North Carolina & London: McFarland & Co, 1994.
I know Stuart Oderman as the pianist for silent pictures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but he also had done extensive oral history interviews in the late sixties and early seventies with various former silent film stars. This one is based almost exclusively on interviews with Minta Durfee, along with some secondary sources (a biography on Buster Keaton is prominent) and his extensive knowledge of musical and music-hall history. Would have been better billed as a biography of Durfee – where it really adds anything to the record it does so by telling about her life. The information on Rappe and the St. Francis incident is biased in the extreme, based on both Durfee and Adela St. Johns, Roscoe’s relative and a gossip comlumnist.
Petersen, Anne Helen. “The Rules of the Game.” Virginia Quarterly Review Winter2013, Vol. 89 Issue 1, p46-59.
This article uses the Arbuckle case as a jumping-off point for the entertainment industry’s development of PR in order to avoid destructive scandal, which reached such an extreme in the 1930s-40s that gossip columnists could print almost nothing salacious or even negative about stars. Shows how Arbuckle leads to Hays, who serves the moguls as a “cover” for misdeeds – in part by banning Arbuckle at their behest.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
“Among the men [of Keystone], none was more curious than Henry ‘Pathé’ Lehrman…He was an usher at the Unique Theater whither Mack Sennett repaired one day to watch some movies. Lehrman approached him, flattered him and insisted that he was recently back from Paris where he had learned all the tricks of the art at the highly regarded Pathé studios…It was Lehrman who introduced Fatty Arbuckle to Virginia Rappe, the extra girl (and prostitute) who died in mysterious circumstances after the infamous party that cost Arbuckle his career.” (p.128). No source given; neither Yallop, St. Johns, nor Durfee appear in the bibliography, but they would be the usual sources to support Rappe as a sex worker. P. 461 mentions Griffith expounding on morality in pictures right after the murder of William Desmond Taylor and while the Arbuckle case was still in court, but no direct connection is made.
Sides, Josh, “The Normal Excellence of Long Accomplishment: A Brief History of California History” California History Vol. 91, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 2-9.
Even though this article is about the history of California History, it talks about the last trial of Fatty Arbuckle and a visit by the jurors to the St. Francis Hotel.
Whitehead, Aaron T. “The ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Scandal, Will Hays, and Negotiated Morality in 1920s America.” MA Thesis for Western Kentucky University, May, 2015.
Draws heavily on Merritt (above) for most information related to Arbuckle, the original research mostly involves reading Hays’s letters, telegrams, and memos. Documents the way in which the Arbuckle scandal led directly to the Hays office and how Hays sought to manage public opinion in the matter.
Yallop, David A. The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
This is the one Arbuckle’s defenders draw from. Sources such as Wikipedia take the narrative here and expand upon it, sometimes citing other sources (see for example https://web.archive.org/web/20080917054657/http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/classics/fatty_arbuckle/2.html) which are effectively summaries of this. Does not give proper citations, but does quote extensively from interviews with survivors (including Minta Durfee) and court transcripts. In general, a thread of misogyny runs through the book, and the worst invectives are slung at “club women” who expressed outrage at the death of a young woman at an “innocent” party. Still, when it comes to drawing from the court records (and the middle third of the book is thick with these), Yallop makes a convincing argument that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office tried to make political gains by pressing a case with insufficient evidence. Sympathetic judges are shown to have suppressed as hearsay direct evidence of witnesses who heard Rappe deny that Fatty had hurt her, while allowing testimony by witnesses who claimed the opposite – or were badgered into sort of agreeing that she might have said so. Less convincing is his argument that the real cause of Rappe’s death was a botched abortion attempt subsequent to the party. At any rate one thing is certain: to Yallop, the end of Arbuckle’s career is far more tragic than the death of a human being. Yallop also celebrates a 1929 Supreme Court decision that, “It is prejudicial to the defendant to exclude testimony about the morals of the plaintiff, even though she was under age” in a rape case. Thus were 100 years of victim-blaming born.