Hollywood is home to glamour and success and movies. It has also been home to many scandals through the years from Lana Turner to O.J. Simpson. Hollywood, especially in its early years, proved unforgiving to many people involved in these scandals. Many have been covered up and the truth is still not known. Over 43 years later there are still many unanswered questions in the death of Marilyn Monroe.
The first such scandal to rock Hollywood, and one of the most damaging, involved a popular comic named Roscoe Arbuckle, nicknamed “Fatty.”
“Fatty” Arbuckle was born in 1887 in the small town of Smith Center, Kansas. Arbuckle would later joke, “Two big things blew Smith Center, Kansas right off the map – my birth and a cyclone. No one has heard of the place since.” His weight at birth has been reported as either 14 or 16 pounds. His family, nine children in all, moved to California when he was an infant.
His mother died in 1899, when he was only 12. Shortly after that, his father who had both emotionally rejected him and physically abused him, abandoned him. The teenager supported himself by doing odd jobs in a San Jose, California hotel. He sang while he worked. One day a professional singer overheard him and suggested he accompany her to an amateur night at a neighborhood theater. This theater was of the type where a long hook would come out to draw a performer who was not doing well off the stage. The humiliation of such a dramatic rejection terrified young Arbuckle but he made up his mind that he was going to perform and do well. He sang a couple of songs and then started entertaining the audience with a variety of jigs, somersaults and pratfalls. The hook came out from the wing and a panicked Arbuckle jumped and somersaulted out of its way until he finally dived into the orchestra pit. The audience loved him and he easily won the contest. The acting bug was now firmly ensconced in Arbuckle.
After extensive traveling where he performed on stage, Arbuckle landed at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in 1913 where he performed in hundreds of one-reel comedies, usually as a policeman with the Keystone Cops. In the film “A Noise From The Deep,” Arbuckle became the first to ever take a pie in the face on camera. Soon enough Arbuckle was working with such silent greats as Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
In 1914 Arbuckle began directing some of his own features and soon was making two-reelers. Arbuckle would move to another company, Comique, so he could have greater creative control over his work.
In 1917 Arbuckle discovered who would become one of the greatest of all silent screen stars, Buster Keaton. The two teamed in several two-reelers and, in 1919, Arbuckle moved to Paramount where he would make $1 million per year.
Paramount asked him to move from two-reelers to feature movies but insisted that he continue working at the pace he was working on for the two-reelers. While he did make some worthwhile films, Arbuckle’s work suffered due to the frenetic pace that was resulting in him making at least six movies per year and working on as many as three films at one time.
By 1921 Arbuckle was worn down to a frazzle and he decided to take a much-deserved break over Labor Day weekend to San Francisco with his friend, director Fred Fischbach.
The St. Francis hotel was the home to a big party that Labor Day weekend. Under dispute is whether Arbuckle or Fischbach was the host.
One of the guests at the party that weekend was one Virginia Rappe, a young actress and wannabe starlet. Rappe had been born out of wedlock at a time when being an “illegitimate” child was considered almost criminal. Her mother died when she was 11 and she lived with her grandmother in Chicago where she quickly grew a bad reputation. By the time she was 16 she had had five abortions and suffered many bouts of venereal disease. At 17 she had a child out of wedlock and wisely put it in foster care.
Rappe moved to the West Coast shortly thereafter and soon became a model thanks to her good looks. There are suggestions that she often posed in the nude but that has never been confirmed. She then moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco where she got roles in movies that were always small and usually uncredited. Her career never ascended as she hoped and there are rumors that she worked as a prostitute to pay her bills. She was doing well enough that she was sometimes interviewed for movie magazines and was once asked about Fatty Arbuckle. “He is disgusting and crude, vulgar and disrespectful of women.”
Her reaction was far from the reaction most everyone else had of Arbuckle, who was known as a dapper and polite gentleman. Further investigation revealed that Rappe’s boyfriend at the time had a long running feud with Arbuckle.
Rappe and Maude Delmont, a troubled woman with a long police record, attended the party on September 5, 1921. When Arbuckle first caught glimpse of the two notorious women he voiced his concern that their bad reputations might cause police to raid the party.
The party had catered food and snacks and plenty of bootleg alcohol plus a Victrola playing loud music for many dancing in the room.
At about 3 p.m. Arbuckle decided to leave the party to go visit a friend who lived in town. He went into his adjoining bedroom to change clothes and what happened next has been under dispute since that day.
According to Arbuckle, in a story that he never changed and always stuck to, he went into the bathroom to find Rappe sprawled out on the floor in a dead faint. Arbuckle picked her up and placed her on his bed. Rappe weakly asked for a glass of water and Arbuckle fetched it for her. Thinking she had had too much to drink, Arbuckle left the room to change for his ride into town. When he returned Rappe had fallen off the bed and was writhing in pain on the floor. He helped her back on the bed and then went for a bucket of ice. Buster Keaton had once told him the one sure way to discover if someone was faking a fainting spell was to place ice on his or her thigh. Arbuckle returned with the ice and Rappe barely flinched when a cube was placed on her.
Maude Delmont came into the room and saw Arbuckle placing the ice cube on Rappe’s thigh. She discerned, much like Arbuckle, that Rappe had had too much to drink.
Suddenly Rappe started tearing at her clothes and screaming. It was later disclosed that Rappe, when intoxicated, would sometimes rip her clothes to pieces and claim she had been attacked. The sounds of her screams caused a few partygoers to come into the room. Believing that Rappe was drunk and purposely making a scene, Arbuckle told them “Shut her up! Get her out of here. She makes too much noise.”
Rappe turned to Arbuckle and screamed, “Stay away from me! I don’t want you near me!” She then turned to Maude Delmont and said, “What did he do to me Maudie? Roscoe did this to me.” Those words would forever haunt Fatty Arbuckle for the rest of his life.
A bathtub was filled with cold water and Rappe was placed into it. She seemed to calm down after a time and then Arbuckle, along with Fischbach, took her to a nearby room. Maude Delmont accompanied them. Arbuckle phoned the hotel manager and hotel physician and, after examination, the physician diagnosed her as being drunk.
The party continued on and Arbuckle decided to leave to visit his friend. When he returned the physician came to see Rappe and gave her a shot of morphine, which caused her to sleep for the night. The next day Rappe was given more morphine and catheterized when Delmont informed the physician that Rappe had not urinated in many hours.
Later Delmont called a man she knew personally who came to check on Rappe. Delmont told him that Rappe became ill after Arbuckle dragged her into the room and either attempted to or actually raped her. The man found no evidence of a rape and treated Rappe for pain and urination problems.
The day after Labor Day, Arbuckle checked out of the hotel.
Two days later Rappe was finally taken to a hospital with an extremely high fever and died the next day of peritonitis, an acute infection caused by a ruptured bladder. Why that bladder ruptured would become a matter of great dispute and the most serious importance.
Authorities would allege that Rappe’s bladder tore because the overweight comedian sexually assaulted her. Rumors swirled around that he had also raped her with an instrument like a Coca-Cola bottle or a champagne bottle. However, these rumors were undoubtedly false. No such attack was even alleged in court.
The newspapers were filled with headlines about the sexual horror Arbuckle supposedly perpetrated against Rappe.
Newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, had a field day. Yellow journalism was at its peak and readers were regaled with stories about Arbuckle’s supposedly debauched private life and his alleged cruelty to the deceased Virginia Rappe. Hearst once bragged, to Arbuckle’s good friend Buster Keaton that the Examiner had sold more newspapers because of the Arbuckle case than the sinking of the Titanic.
Arbuckle was arrested and originally charged with first-degree murder, a crime punishable by death. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter, which carried a maximum prison sentence of ten years.
Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s first marriage from many years earlier, believed in her husband’s innocence despite their previous marital problems. She visited him in jail before he was bailed out and point blankly asked him if he was in any way responsible for Virginia Rappe’s death?
“Minty, I swear to God I never touched that girl the way they say I did.”
Minta never doubted Arbuckle for a second after that and was consistently in the courtroom to show her support.
The first trial began on November 14, 1921. The first witness called was a nurse who constantly glared at Arbuckle, obviously convinced of his guilt. She testified that Rappe had bruises on her body and her organs were torn in a way that suggested brutal force.
Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s attorney, got the nurse to admit that the ruptured bladder could have been caused by cancer and the bruises could have been caused by heavy jewelry Rappe liked to consistently wear.
The next witness was the hotel physician that treated Rappe. He admitted that Rappe had never mentioned being attacked and that surgery might have benefited her. When asked why surgery wasn’t ordered for Rappe, the physician did not reply.
Prosecutor Matt Brady called Betty Campbell to the stand. She was a model who was at the party and admitted that Arbuckle, seen an hour after the alleged rape, seemed relaxed and sober and was enjoying himself. Brady tried to use this to show that Arbuckle had no remorse for the rape he had committed. Under cross-examination, McNab got Campbell to drop a major bombshell. Campbell confessed that Brady had threatened her with prison if she didn’t testify against Arbuckle. Two other witnesses would come forward to claim statements they made against Arbuckle were made under duress.
Understandably, Brady went into a frenzy of objections.
On November 28, Arbuckle eagerly took the stand in his own defense. His story was the same as it always was before and after. Not a single detail ever changed. Upon a brutal cross-examination by the assistant district attorney, one that lasted almost four hours, Arbuckle remained steadfast and confident and never cracked under the pressure.
Maude Delmont was, oddly enough, never called to testify for the prosecution.
On December 4, 1921, the trial came to an end. After 43 hours of deliberation the jury reported they were deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal. One of the holdouts, an older woman, claimed she had made up her mind when Arbuckle was first arrested and would never change it.
The prosecution pressed for and received a second trial against Arbuckle. This time the defense made two crucial errors. First, feeling confident that there was no case, they didn’t let Arbuckle testify. Second, McNab didn’t even make a closing summation. This backfired on the defense as jurors felt the lack of a strong defense was an admission of guilt. This time the jury was deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of conviction.
Arbuckle went to trial a third and final time and this time the defense went all out to secure a not guilty verdict. Arbuckle took the stand and, once again, kept his cool and never changed even the smallest detail in his story.
The jury not only came back with a quick acquittal but also, on their initiative, issued an apology to the accused saying he had been wronged. “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle,” the jury’s statement began. “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 crime.
“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 fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”
Although there are many theories, no official explanation has ever been given as to why Rappe had a ruptured bladder. One theory is that she had recently had an abortion that was botched. Several of her organs, including her uterus, were secretly destroyed after the autopsy. The man behind this was reportedly doing illegal abortions and he may have wanted to hide evidence that he had recently done this to Rappe.
Another theory is that Arbuckle was known for being ticklish and would often double over and jerk his knee up when tickled. Perhaps Rappe tickled Arbuckle who impulsively jerked his knee up into her stomach causing her to double over and flee to the bathroom.
As silly as it sounds it might explain why Rappe said of Arbuckle, “What did he do to me?” and “He did this to me” without meaning to accuse Arbuckle of anything criminal.
After the trial Arbuckle lost his home and cars due to debts incurred by his defense team. He also became the first actor “blacklisted” when his movies were removed from circulation in 1922. It would be ten years before Arbuckle was allowed to step in front of a camera again.
After a few years Arbuckle was able to work as a director under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich, his father’s name. For years rumors swirled that Arbuckle really used the pseudonym “Will B. Good” but this appears to be an urban legend as no evidence has ever surfaced that he was ever credited under that name.
During that time Arbuckle married and divorced a second time. In June 1932, Arbuckle married Addie McPhail and things were starting to look up for him. He made a series of two-reelers that became very successful and proved that his fan base was still high and had forgiven him if, indeed, they were ever against him.
In 1933 Warner Brothers offered Arbuckle a lucrative film contract that he eagerly accepted. Sadly, fate stepped in one last time. The evening of the contract signing, Arbuckle and Addie went to a fancy dinner to celebrate their first wedding anniversary and the contract. After returning home Arbuckle went to sleep and never woke up. He died at the age of 46 of a heart attack.
Buster Keaton would say, “Roscoe died of a broken heart.”
Many of Arbuckle’s films have been lost forever but in April of 2006, New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a month long, 56-film retrospective of Fatty Arbuckle’s career. The museum reported it was a huge success. Fatty Arbuckle had been discovered by a new generation of fans.