A woman alleges she was sexually assaulted at a party. The accused is a prominent man who has been known to indulge in adult beverages. Evidence is lacking. Witnesses are unreliable. No corroboration is forthcoming. The woman is portrayed as an innocent victim, the man as privileged and arrogant. And the whole fracas becomes a media circus.
No, I’m not talking about the Brett Kavanaugh imbroglio. I’m talking about an incident that occurred almost a century ago.
As often happens in any up-and-coming industry, the early days of the motion pictures witnessed some meteoric upward mobility. Perhaps the most astounding case was that of Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was the next big thing in more ways than one.
Fatty Arbuckle was born in Kansas in 1887 but grew up in Southern California, where he performed in vaudeville as a singer and comedian. In 1913, he joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios (best known for its Keystone Kops comedy shorts). He later moved on to Paramount Pictures, where he was earning $5,000 a week plus a percentage of the profits. By 1921 “the Prince of Whales” had signed a three-year/$3,000,000 contract with the studio. It was an astounding career trajectory. Only in America! But his career was about to take an abrupt U-turn.
To celebrate his multi-million dollar contract, Arbuckle hosted a party to end all parties at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. Originally built in 1904 at the then-astounding cost of $2.5 million, the hotel was damaged in the 1906 earthquake but re-opened the following year. During its long history, the St. Francis has hosted numerous luminaries from all areas of human endeavor. Designed to incorporate the best features of grand hotels in Europe, the St. Francis was a pricey hostelry on the day it opened, and it is a pricey hostelry now. In 1921, price was no object for Fatty Arbuckle.
After driving up the Pacific coast with two of his film colony colleagues, Fatty arrived at the St. Francis on Saturday night, September 3. The party occupied three rooms on the 12th floor, and continued all through Sunday and into Monday. The guests included an assortment of Hollywood types, as well as some San Francisco bigwigs.
Prohibition was in effect, but in those days bellboys were employed to procure spirits from local bootleggers. So booze flowed non-stop and guests, not all of them invited, came and went throughout the weekend.
One of the Hollywood guests was 26-year-old Virginia Rappe. A casual acquaintance of Arbuckle, she was a part-time model and small-time actress. She was escorted by her fiancé, Henry Lehrman, a writer/actor/director/producer. Also accompanying her was a dubious friend by the name of Babina Maude Delmont.
On September 5, Labor Day, the party was beginning to wind down when Arbuckle was informed that Rappe had taken sick in his bedroom. He called the house doctor, who diagnosed drunkenness, took her to another room, and put her to bed. Arbuckle drove back to Hollywood the next day.
On Wednesday, September 7, Rappe was taken to the hospital. She died there two days later. The cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. But that was not the end of the matter. In fact, it was just the beginning.
Over the next few days, Fatty Arbuckle’s participation in her death had morphed from mere party host to rapist. He had the highest profile of anyone present at the party so there was no way to keep his name out of the headlines.
According to one school of thought, he was so obese (266-300 pounds, depending on your source) that when he raped Rappe, his corpulence blew out her bladder. Another theory was that he had done the dirty deed with a bottle. A third theory was that he was so well endowed (highly unlikely given his obesity), he couldn’t help but puncture her bladder. Whatever he did, it didn’t quite rise to the level of murder, but it certainly seemed to fit the definition of manslaughter, or should we say womanslaughter. Fatty turned himself in and was held without bail.
Well, people will talk, but in this case, the wagging tongues were set in motion by individuals of questionable morality.
The San Francisco District Attorney, Matthew Brady (not to be confused with the famed Civil War photographer), was an ambitious man. He realized that if he could nail Fatty Arbuckle’s scalp to the wall, he would reap gobs of publicity from the feat. Since Brady was pondering a run for the governorship, the Fatty Arbuckle case was free political advertising.
Bambina Maude Delmont, who had only known Virginia Rappe a short time, accused Fatty of rape. Delmont had a rather checkered past as a madam and an extortionist. Her scam was to hook up wealthy married men with party girls who would subsequently cry rape…unless, of course, the men wanted to cough up some hush money. Since Delmont had arrived at the party with Rappe, her statement carried some weight, perhaps more than it should have. She flat out told the police that Arbuckle had raped Rappe.
Henry Lehrman, Rappe’s fiancé, was understandably upset by Rappe’s death and lambasted Hollywood decadence and degeneracy. Given his own career in Hollywood, and the fact that he had made the trek north to attend Arbuckle’s party, his anti-Hollywood rhetoric seemed to ring hollow.
The major player in the anti-Fatty smear campaign is still renowned today. Born to a wealthy family, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was San Francisco born and bred. In fact, the San Francisco Examiner was his first newspaper. By 1921 his yellow journalism practices had enabled him to build a coast-to-coast publishing empire. And now he had a made-to-order newspaper story in his old stomping grounds, just waiting for him to spread it across the nation. A beloved movie star at a drunken orgy that ends in rape! How could Hearst give this one a pass? It was not the first scandal to hit the movie colony but it was surely the biggest. The Hearst papers played up Delmont’s accusations and the subsequent rumors. Arbuckle, of course, had no choice but to remain silent till he appeared in court. No attorney would ever advise otherwise.
Predictably, prominent San Franciscans who attended the party did not come forward. Curiously, many local nabobs deplored those horrible Hollywood types migrating up the coast to engage in immoral behavior in their fair city. San Francisco, of course, had grown up on greed (the Gold Rush), resulting in the legendary “anything goes” Barbary Coast section of town. All that plus Tong Wars and opium dens. Ironically, Hollywood had been a sleepy rural community where liquor was prohibited before the movie industry set up shop there.
With the Arbuckle/Rappe affair being fanned up in the newspapers, negative public reaction was inevitable. On Tuesday, August 13, a consortium of theater owners, representing some 600 theaters in metropolitan New York City, held a meeting at which they banned all “Fatty comedies.” In other cities, mayors, police commissioners, and local censorship groups enacted their own bans.
Their actions may not have been as much an expression of disapproval as a safety measure. A number of fans had reacted violently in theaters where Fatty’s movies were still showing. When the first trial commenced, someone fired a shot at Fatty’s estranged wife, actress Minta Durfee, who was there to support him.
The initial Fatty Arbuckle trial lasted from November 14 to December 4, 1921. After 44 hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked.
The second trial commenced on January 11, 1922, and ended on February 3, 1922. After 40 hours of deliberation, the result was another hung jury.
The third trial, beginning March 13, 1922, was the charm. After almost a month of testimony (it ended on April 12, 1922), the jury deliberated all of 6 minutes before finding Arbuckle not guilty. In addition, the jury took the extraordinary step of issuing an apology read in open court by the jury foreman:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a grave injustice has been done to him and 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 which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of twelve men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
As is often the case, the more the accusations were held up to light the flimsier they appeared. For one thing, Rappe’s medical history included not only gonorrhea but chronic cystitis. Alcohol should be avoided if one has cystitis, and drinking bootleg booze of questionable quality is even worse. As Virginia Rappe’s background received more attention, her promiscuous reputation could not be covered up. There was even talk about one or more abortions. What was missing was any physical evidence that she had been raped.
After three trials, it was obvious that District Attorney Brady had fabricated evidence and bribed and/or threatened witnesses. Significantly, Maude Delmont never took the witness stand. She was too busy touring the country as “The Woman Who Signed the Murder Charge Against Arbuckle.” The other witnesses were also less than reliable since most admitted to being drunk at the time.
According to William Randolph Hearst, the Fatty Arbuckle affair sold more papers for him than the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. If Fatty was eventually acquitted, it was irrelevant, as the scandal had already served its purpose, namely putting money in Heart’s coffers.
The completion of the third trial should have been the end of the whole affair. Aside from violating Prohibition, Arbuckle had done nothing wrong. (Today, though liquor is legal, Arbuckle might be liable for a civil suit for overserving Virginia Rappe.) But though Arbuckle was officially exonerated, unofficially his woes continued.
His legal fees amounted to $700,000. He had to sell his house and fleet of cars to pay his attorneys. If he could have resumed his career under his Paramount contract, he might have recovered. But that was not allowed to happen.
On December 8, 1921, U.S. Postmaster Will Hays was hired as the first-ever chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. He took over his new position on January 14, 1922. Unofficially, he was the industry censor. One of his first acts was to ban Fatty Arbuckle’s films from being shown in the United States. The decree was particularly expensive for Paramount, since they had a backlog of Arbuckle’s movies that could not be distributed. Obviously, his contract was null and void.
Arbuckle had plenty of friends and character witnesses in Hollywood but they were advised to remain silent. No matter what they said, they could not help him. In truth, Fatty Arbuckle was not on trial – Hollywood itself was on trial and anyone who worked there was suspect.
The high-living nouveau riche world of cinema folk (movie production in Los Angeles dated back only about one decade before Arbuckle’s woes) did not play well in rural America. Any number of preachers, teachers, and civic leaders had found the Arbuckle trial the ideal vehicle for moralizing.
And so it was in the Kavanaugh hearings. It was never about whether or not one adolescent groped another three and a half decades ago. As Arbuckle symbolized all of Hollywood, Kavanaugh symbolized the patriarchy. Even more specifically, Arbuckle and Kavanaugh were privileged white men who had victimized defenseless women, and that is as good a way to motivate a lynch mob (literal or figurative) today as it was a century ago. Of course, there are always spiteful, envious people who enjoy seeing someone prominent in hot water, deservedly or otherwise.
Fatty Arbuckle was not only a movie star, he was the very caricature of a bloated capitalist. In truth, the public has always had a love/hate relationship with movie stars. On one level, they are entertained by them, in some cases enthralled by them, and in rare cases obsessed with them. Movie fan magazines go back almost as far as the movies themselves. Yet deep down many people simultaneously resent celebrities. You might call it the “What’s he got that I haven’t got?” syndrome. Once envy kicks in, public opinion can turn on a dime, particularly with a little help from the media. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. No one would care about the misdeeds of a relatively obscure supporting actor.
Brett Kavanaugh’s initial crime was being born into a good family and receiving a good education. His rise to prominence was nowhere near as swift as Arbuckle’s. His nomination to the Supreme Court was hardly a gimme. Never mind that he had to do his homework and do it well in order to rise to the top of his profession. The public doesn’t see any of that. Instead, they see Georgetown Prep and an Ivy League background: Yale undergrad and Yale Law School. He had it made! So it was class war, white privilege, male privilege, and a damsel in distress versus a cad. Times have changed since Arbuckle’s woes, but some things remain the same.
When Virginia Rappe died, the Roaring 20’s were just getting started. Remember, women had just been given the vote, and elected officials were figuring out that they had to champion womanhood if they wanted to be reelected. Urbanization was spreading but small-town values still prevailed over much of the country and besmirching female virtue (even with the likes of Virginia Rappe) was a big time no-no. By the end of the decade, wild parties, excessive drinking, and lawbreaking (thanks to Prohibition) were commonplace. But that was no help to Fatty Arbuckle.
“[Turn Out the Lights,] The Party’s Over” could have been Fatty’s swan song. His income dropped precipitously but he was not destitute, as he was able to earn a living working as a writer and director under an assumed name. He did not return to the screen under his own name till 1932. He died the next year at age 46. Given his morbid obesity, it is impossible to assert that his legal ordeal and subsequent dispossession hastened his demise, but it certainly didn’t help.
Don’t know what the future holds for Kavanaugh. He has already lived longer than Fatty Arbuckle, and he has a lifetime job. But no matter how long he lives, no matter how long he serves on the Supreme Court, or how much Solomonic wisdom he dispenses, he will always be remembered as the spoiled rich boy who molested that poor girl way back in the summer of 1982.