The Long Fall of Fatty Arbuckle
On September 9, 1921, the death of a young movie actress named Virginia Rappe would make newspaper headlines around the world. The scandal that followed her death had nothing to do with the fame, or lack of it, of the pretty actress – it was her link to the man who was known as “America’s Funnyman,” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Virginia’s death destroyed the career of the man who was then America’s best-known comedic actor and created one of Hollywood’s first lingering ghosts.
Fatty Arbuckle was among the first celebrities to be swallowed by the bright lights of Hollywood. There are few actors who have crashed and burned in the way that Arbuckle did. The rotund comedian, nicknamed “Fatty” by his fans because of his 300-pound girth, achieved his original success in the 1910s. He was more popular than even Charlie Chaplin and at the time of his downfall in 1921, he was earning over $1 million a year. But it all came to a crashing halt because of a scandal. Arbuckle had it worse than most. It was bad enough to fall from grace because of one’s mistakes and the scandal that might follow, but it was another thing entirely to be used by an ambitious district attorney for his own political gains, and to be savaged by the Hearst newspapers, which sensationalized Fatty’s plight and made a bundle in circulation sales. Making things even worse, Arbuckle’s own studio led the behind-the-scenes intrigue that sabotaged his career, some say as revenge against a star who had become too big to control.
Roscoe Arbuckle was born (weighing in at a whopping 16 pounds) on a small farm in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887. The following year, his family relocated to Santa Ana, California, and opened a small hotel. In the summer of 1895, Roscoe made his stage debut with a traveling theater troupe. The shy and overweight youngster immediately felt at home on the spotlight. Four years later, his mother died and the boy was sent to live with his father, who was then residing in Watsonville, California. When his father vanished a short time later, a local hotel owner took Roscoe in. When not working at odd jobs, he was tutored by a teacher who lived in the hotel. However, he preferred appearing on amateur night at the town’s vaudeville theater to reading and writing. In 1902, he was reunited with his remarried father in Santa Clara and helped out the family by waiting tables in his father’s restaurant.
Roscoe got into show business a few years later, working in vaudeville and burlesque shows in California and the Pacific Northwest. During a 1908 summer stock engagement in Long Beach, California, he met a singer and dancer named Armanta “Minta” Durfee. The two of them were married and toured the Southern California vaudeville circuit. At some point, Arbuckle decided to try his luck in the fledgling movie industry.
Legend had it that Arbuckle was an overweight plumber when Mack Sennett discovered him. The story goes that he had come to unclog the film producer’s drain, but Sennett had other plans for him. He took one look at Roscoe’s hefty frame and offered him a job. It never happened this way – but it made a great story. Arbuckle’s large frame and bouncing agility made him the perfect target for Sennett’s brand of film comedy, which included mayhem, pratfalls, and pies in the face. He became a member of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in April 1913. He was soon making dozens of two-reelers as a film buffoon and audiences loved him. He made one film after another, all of them wildly successful, and managed to earn a fortune.
In the summer of 1916, Arbuckle joined the East Coast-based Comique Film Corporation as a star and director with an annual income of more than $1 million. The following March, he attended a banquet in Boston hosted by his studio for regional theater exhibitors and this became Fatty’s first brush with scandal. After the dinner, Arbuckle retired to his hotel room, however, company executives (including founder Adolph Zukor) and others continued partying at Brownie Kennedy’s Roadhouse, a tavern and brothel in nearby Woburn, Massachsetts. Almost immediately, news circulated in Boston about the orgy, and the gossip claimed that Arbuckle had been present. In fact, some stories had him dancing on tables with prostitutes in the roadhouse’s backroom. Because of the publicity, the city’s mayor raided the brothel. After paying a fine, the madam was released. However, the stories about what went on that night were too racy to simply fade away. Zukor was informed that unless money changed hands, the bawdy activities were sure to make national news. Zukor paid $100,00 to keep the matter quiet and in the process, did nothing to clarify that Arbuckle had not been present that night.
By October 1917, Arbuckle (along with most of the rest of the movie industry) was back in Hollywood. By now, his marriage to Minta had fallen apart and she remained in New York to pursue her acting career. Although separated, their divorce was not finalized until 1925.
With 1920’s “The Round Up,” Arbuckle began making full-length movies. In January 1921, he signed a lucrative new contract with Paramount Pictures, which led to Adolph Zukor pushing him into an exhausting schedule that ended with him filming three movies at the same time in the summer of 1921. By Labor Day weekend, Fatty was worn out and planned to go to San Francisco to relax over the holiday. Zukor asked him to remain in town to take part in an exhibitors’ convention that weekend and when Roscoe refused, Zukor was enraged. Arbuckle didn’t let this bother him and he went on the trip anyway.
Fatty was joined on his trip up the coast by actor friend Lowell Sherman. Then, director Fred Fischbach, whom Arbuckle had known for years, invited himself along. The three men set out on early Saturday morning, September 3, and arrived in San Francisco later that evening. Fatty was driving his flashy new Pierce-Arrow automobile and took his friends to the luxurious St. Francis Hotel. Fatty took three adjoining suites on the 12th floor.
On Sunday, the trio did some sightseeing and visited friends and on Monday, Labor Day, the party got under way. Fischbach got in touch with a bootlegger connection and soon, the guests and the liquor began to arrive. Among the guests was Fred’s friend, film talent manager Al Semnacher, who was in San Francisco for the weekend, trying to concoct evidence for his pending divorce. He had brought along Bambina Maude Delmont, a woman with an extensive police record involving blackmail, prostitution, and swindling, to help him out. A friend of Bambina’s also came along -- a little-known actress named Virginia Rappe.
Virginia came to Hollywood in 1919. She was a lovely brunette whose unfortunate reputation preceded her. It was no secret in Hollywood that she was a girl with “loose morals,” which was saying a lot for the film colony in those days. Rumor had it that she had already had several abortions by the time that she was 16, before giving birth to a child that that she had given away. She caught the eye of Mack Sennett and wrangled some movie roles on the Keystone lot, where she met Arbuckle. It was also rumored that Virginia had worked her way through the cast and crew of the company and at one point, she passed around a rather sensitive infestation of body lice that was so severe that Sennett had to close the studio and have it fumigated. In spite of her drunken escapades and reports of unprovoked nudity, she did earn some film roles, including “Fantasy,” “Paradise Garden,” and “Joey Loses a Sweetheart,” in which she appeared with Arbuckle. Virginia was noticed by William Fox, shortly after winning an award for the “Best-Dressed Girl in Pictures,” and he took her under contract. There was talk of her starring in a new Fox feature and Virginia certainly seemed to be on her way up.
In 1920, Virginia began dating director Jack White. When he left Hollywood for New York, she was left with an unwanted pregnancy to deal with. Her manager, Al Semnacher, suggested that she have an abortion in San Francisco, where there was less chance of the Hollywood gossips finding out about it. Since she was going up north and Semnacher had plans with Bambina Delmont that weekend, he arranged for her to drive there with him on September 3.
Salesman Ira Fortlois arrived at Roscoe’s suite at noon on Monday to find the party already in full swing. Arbuckle was reportedly not happy to discover that Fred Fischbach had invited Semnacher, Delmont, and Rappe to the party, thanks to their questionable reputations, but he was enjoying himself too much to press the issue. At one point during the party, Fischbach suddenly left, claiming that he had business elsewhere. The crowd grew to a couple of dozen people. The young women were downing gin-laced Orange Blossoms, some of the guests had shed their tops to do the "shimmy," guests were vanishing into the back bedrooms for sweaty love sessions, and the empty bottles of booze were piling up.
Meanwhile, Delmont, who was well-liquored, disappeared into Lowell Sherman’s suite with him and locked the door. Virginia, roaring drunk, began tearing off her clothes and screaming hysterically. Because Delmont and Sherman were locked in room 1221, and room 1220 had no bathroom, Virginia was rushed into room 1219, Fatty’s suite, to use the facilities there. Soon, unaware of what was happening, Roscoe tried to enter his bathroom, only to find Virginia vomiting into the toilet. He helped her up and convinced her to lie down and rest on his bed. Next, he went in search of some ice. He hoped that the ice would quiet the woman down as well as determine, by holding a piece of ice against her thigh to see if she reacted to the chill, whether she was suffering from hysterics.
By now, Fischbach had returned. As Roscoe applied the ice to the wailing woman’s leg, Maude Delmont walked into the room. Rappe yelled that she was dying – words heard by several other female party guests. Next, the bathtub in room 1219 was filled with cold water to cool off the distraught young woman. But Virginia suddenly awoke and began screaming at Arbuckle. “Stay away from me!” she cried and then turned to Delmont, “What did he do to me, Maudie?” Virginia was bodily placed in the cold water tub and she seemed to settle down. A short time later, she was taken to another room down the hall where Delmont could take care of her. The hotel doctor was summoned to the room a little while later, but he determined that Virginia was merely drunk.
The party continued, with Arbuckle leaving the hotel for a time to arrange to have his car shipped back to Los Angeles. He planned to return by boat. By the time Fatty returned, another doctor was administering morphine to Virginia. When the physician asked Delmont what had transpired, she calculatedly created a fabricated tale that she later told the police – but never swore to in court.
According to her version of events, Fatty, wearing only pajamas and a bathrobe, had steered a drunken Virginia into his suite at around 3:00 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Delmont stated that the festivities in the adjoining suites came to a halt when screams were heard in the bedroom. She also said that weird moans were heard from behind the door. A short time later, Fatty emerged with ripped pajamas and he told the girls, "Go in and get her dressed. She makes too much noise." When Virginia continued to scream, he yelled for her to shut up, or "I’ll throw you out the window." Delmont and another showgirl, Alice Blake, found Virginia nearly nude and lying on the unmade bed. She was moaning and told them that she was dying. Bambina later reported that they tried to dress her, but found that all of her clothing, including her stockings and undergarments were so ripped and torn, "that one could hardly recognize what garments they were."
Arbuckle knew nothing of the story that Delmont was spreading and on Tuesday, September 6, he checked out of the St. Francis, generously covering everyone’s expenses. By now, Virginia, at Delmont’s direction, was being treated by another doctor, this one associated with the private Wakefield Sanitarium. Having been assured that Virginia was in no danger, Arbuckle and his friends returned by ferry to Los Angeles.
On September 8, the still-stricken Virginia was transferred from the hotel to the Wakefield Sanitarium, where she died the next afternoon. An illegal postmortem exam was conducted on her body and her ruptured bladder and other organs were placed in specimen jars, which would prevent a proper autopsy by the legal authorities. Convinced that she could turn the entire incident into something she could profit from, Delmont swore out a complaint against Arbuckle with the police. Back in Hollywood, Roscoe’s new film, “Gasoline Gus,” had just opened successfully and at the same time, he learned of Virginia’s death. Shocked, he volunteered to return to San Francisco. Paramount, meanwhile, panicked at the possible repercussions of the weekend, hired attorneys to represent their high-priced star.
From the start, the newspapers were filled with lurid headlines (“Fatty Arbuckle Sought in Orgy Death”) and graphic, false details supplied by Delmont. Newspapers around the country were revealing shocking “truths” about the alleged events in the death of the virtuous Virginia Rappe at the hands of the lust-crazed Fatty Arbuckle. Everything from Arbuckle’s past was raked up, including the false story that he had been party of the 1917 orgy in Massachusetts and new stories claimed that he had killed Virginia because she had rebuffed his advances. They also claimed that he had killed her because his immense weight pressed down on her too hard during sex. And it was no longer just sex, the newspapers told a nation of stunned fans, but "strange and unnatural sex." According to reports, Arbuckle became enraged over the fact that his drunkenness had led to impotence, so he ravaged Virginia with everything from a Coca-Cola Bottle, to a champagne bottle, to an over-sized piece of ice. Other stories claimed that Fatty was so well-endowed that he had injured the girl, while others stated that the injury had come when Fatty had landed on the slight actress during a sexual frolic.
Soon, churches and women’s groups were crusading against the “lustful” Arbuckle. In Hartford, Connecticut., a group of angry women ripped down a screen in a theater showing an Arbuckle comedy, while in Wyoming, a group of men opened fire in a movie house where another Arbuckle short was being shown. Thanks to the newspapers, Arbuckle had been found guilty in the public’s eyes before charges have ever been filed against him. Angry, and increasingly boisterous, voices were calling for Hollywood to clean up its act. Finally, Arbuckle’s films were pulled from general release. Arbuckle had been placed on suspension by Paramount, invoking the morals clause in his contract.
San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady hoped the Arbuckle case would be his ticket to the governor’s office. The coroner’s inquest met on September 12 with Brady demanding that Arbuckle be charged with murder. By then, he knew that most of what had been printed in the newspapers were lies but since his vow to prosecute the movie star to the fullest extent of the law had already been featured in the press, he proceeded with the case. Over the next few days, with Arbuckle jailed without bail, a special grand jury voted to indict the actor on a manslaughter charge. It was their belief, based on the evidence, that Arbuckle had used “some force” that led to Virginia’s death. On September 28, a judge ruled that the defendant could be charged with manslaughter, but the rape charge was dismissed. Arbuckle was released on his own recognizance and returned to Los Angeles. He was accompanied by his estranged wife, Minta, who had arrived to offer moral support.
The trial began on November 14, 1921, with Roscoe taking the stand and denying any wrongdoing. The defense introduced evidence of Virginia’s past medical problems (including chronic cystitis) and her recurrent bouts of abdominal pain that often led to her yanking off her clothing. The key witness, Maude Delmont, never took the stand to continue her fanciful claims against Arbuckle – something that the defense pointed out several times to the jury. After much conflicting testimony, the jury remained deadlocked after 43 hours of deliberation. One juror was adamant that Fatty was guilty “until hell freezes over.” The judge declared a mistrial.
Unwilling to give up, D.A. Brady pushed for another trial. One of the tactical errors this time around was made by the defense. Overly confident that Arbuckle would be acquitted, they did not have him testify again and simply read his prior testimony into the record. This made Arbuckle look cold and uncaring about the young woman’s death and made the wrong impression on the jury. In addition, his attorney, assured of victory, never bothered to make a closing statement. After many more hours of deliberating, the jury was deadlocked again, although this time they had almost voted in favor of conviction. Fatty had not been convicted, but he was paying for his “crime.” He had been forced to sell his home in Los Angeles, along with his luxury automobiles, to pay lawyer’s fees that the studio was no longer footing the bill for.
Unbelievably, Brady took Arbuckle to trial a third time. This time, Fatty took the stand and patiently answered questions about the fateful party for three hours. The defense introduced evidence about Virginia’s questionable past, the prosecution’s intimidation of witnesses, as well as the fact that the prosecution still had never produced Maude Delmont to testify. This time, the jury adjourned for only five minutes and returned with a vote of acquittal and a written apology:
"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a grave injustice has been done him and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime. We wish him success, and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free of all blame.”
Fatty may have been free, and cleared by a well-meaning jury, but he was hardly forgiven by Hollywood. Paramount canceled his $3 million contract and his unreleased films were scrapped, costing the studio over $1 million. Fatty’s career was finished after he was banned from the movies by Will Hays and his Hollywood Production Code. Hays wanted to show that he meant business when it came to cleaning up the movies and decided to make Arbuckle an example. Strangely, Hays acted at the urging of Adolph Zukor and Paramount Pictures. Years later, it was also discovered that Zukor had made a mysterious payment to D.A. Matthew Brady on November 14, 1921. It was assumed to be a possible bribe to control the case’s outcome – although not in Arbuckle’s favor. Some have also theorized that Zukor, eager to regain control over Arbuckle, had masterminded the St. Francis Hotel party through Fred Fischbach (who mysteriously vanished for a time), but that the situation, which was simply to make Arbuckle look bad, got wildly out of control.
By Christmas, Hays had rescinded his ban on Arbuckle in Hollywood productions, but civic groups and the press remained opposed to his return to film. Because of this, the studios just couldn’t afford to have his name connected to their pictures. Only a few friends, like Buster Keaton, remained by his side. In fact, it was Keaton who suggested that Arbuckle change his name to "Will B. Good." Actually, Arbuckle did adopt the name William Goodrich in later years and he was able to gain employment as a gag man and as a comedy director. Friends helped him as best they could, but the next few years were difficult ones. He tried stage and vaudeville work and opened a club and a hotel, which closed down during the Depression. He married and divorced a second time, and then found happiness with his third wife, actress Addie McPhail. In 1931, Roscoe appeared in a fan magazine article, begging to be allowed to return to the screen. Hal Roach offered him a contract, but pressure from several women’s groups caused the deal to fall through.
After again turning to vaudeville, Arbuckle was given a contract by New York’s Vitaphone Studios head, Sam Sax, to star in a 1932 film short. The “comeback” Vitaphone two-reeler was so successful that Sax gave Fatty a contract to make five more, in preparation for a feature film with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, Arbuckle died on the night following the completion of his last Vitaphone short “Tomalio” on June 29, 1934.
Even in death, Fatty Arbuckle could not find peace. The slanderous stories about him still exist today and despite evidence presented to the contrary, he continues to be perceived as the “lustful rapist” portrayed in newspapers of the day.
At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a lonely stone marks the grave of Virginia Rappe and the site is said to be home to her ghost. Little explanation needs to be offered as to why Virginia’s spirit might be a restless one. She lost not only her life over the course of the Labor Day Weekend of 1921, but she lost a promising career and her tattered reputation, as well. Was it a fate that she brought on herself? Perhaps, but the press was nearly as savage to the sickly and misguided young actress as it was to Fatty Arbuckle.
While most newspapers painted Virginia as an “innocent” victim of Arbuckle’s lust-crazed advances, the Hearst newspapers were especially cruel to the actress and managed to turn the affair into a national scandal. While Heart’s papers were always known for their yellow journalism and lurid headlines, the Arbuckle case received even more coverage than normal. As it happened, Heart’s affair with a starlet named Marion Davies became big news at the same time that details began to emerge about Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. Marion Davies’ career began to suffer and rumor had it that Hearst gave the go-ahead to his papers to exploit every Hollywood scandal of the time, including Fatty’s, to take the focus off of himself and Davies. This made the unlucky Virginia Rappe an easy target.
For this reason, it’s not surprising to hear reports that her spirit still lingers behind. Visitors who come to Hollywood Forever Cemetery have reported hearing a ghostly voice that weeps and cries out near Virginia’s simple grave. It is believed by many to be her ghost, still attached to this world, and still in anguish over her promising career, which was, like her life, cut short before it could really begin.