Murder! Mayhem! Drunken Debauchery! No, I’m not talking about the Kardashian’s annual Christmas Party, I’m talking Hollyweird of yesteryear. Hollywood has always been a land of what’s going on and who’s doing it with whom. Seriously, modern day scandal-mongers have nothing on the days of old.
In the early heyday of Hollywood, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of Tinseltown’s favorite comedians. A large man, Arbuckle clocked in at 250 to 300 pounds and stood 5’10”. His stature helped to rocket him to success as he use it in his physical comedy. By 1921, Arbuckle signed a one million dollar contract with Paramount, the largest of its kind at the time.
In September 1921, Arbuckle took a break from his hectic shooting schedule and decided to get down and party with some friends. (It is worth noting that he was suffering from second degree burns on his butt from an accident on the set at the time. This has no bearing on the following scandal other than I think booty burns are kind of funny. ) He drove to San Francisco with two friends and rented three rooms in the St. Francis hotel.
The party got started early with young starlets and dashing leading men, day players and questionable chaps from down the way all drinking bathtub hooch and dancing the hoochie-coochie. By three in the afternoon, Fatty excused himself in order to get dressed for sightseeing with friends.
Here’s where the story takes a nasty turn. One of the party guests happened to be a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe. There are two conflicting stories as to what really happened to Rappe in those rooms. One story belongs to Bambina Maude Delmont. Delmont, a woman known for setting up celebrities in order to blackmail them(think of her as the precursor to paparazzi and Access Hollywood) stated she saw Arbuckle herd Rappe into the bedroom. She claimed he menacingly said, “I’ve waited for this a long time.” A few minutes later Delmont claimed all the party heard screams coming from the other side of the door. According to sister sledge, when Arbuckle exited the room Rappe was found naked and bleeding behind him.
Next up on wheel of honor, we have Fatty’s side of the tale. Fatty went into the room to change and found Rappe praying to the porcelain god in the bathroom. He helped clean her up and put her in bed to rest and returned to the party for help. Arbuckle claimed that when he returned with help, Rappe was tearing at her clothes. (This apparently was something she did when really hammered…which was often.) With others to “look after” Virginia, Fatty got dressed, headed out for sightseeing and then went home to La-La land.
Three days later Rappe was still experiencing stomach pains and was taken to the hospital. (She wasn’t taken earlier because her friends figured she was sick from the rot gut she had consumed at the party) She died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder, which was common in back alley abortions, and according to her friends Rappe had had such a procedure a few days earlier. Arbuckle was soon arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe.
Those charges against Fatty spiraled out of control, thanks in part to William Randolph Hearst and his yellow journalism. The media portrayed Fatty as a gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent young girls and assaulted them. The newspapers first reported he tried to rape the girl by crushing her, then that he had had so much to drink he couldn’t get it up and had to utilize whatever was nearby. In some cases the papers said it was a champagne bottle. In other instances it was a coke bottle.
It took three trials for Fatty Arbuckle to be acquitted of all charges but his career never recovered. He directed some shorts under the name William Goodrich but rarely acted again. In 1932, he signed a contract to shoot two short films. After those were completed, he was signed by Warner Brothers in 1933 to a feature length film. The night he signed the contract, Fatty died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 46 years old.
The saddest part about Fatty Arbuckle’s tale is the sheer fact that no one really knows what happened. Some believe that Fatty was innocent as there was no evidence that Rappe was sexually assaulted. Fatty was known throughout the back lots as a gentle giant who was so shy he rarely raised his voice.
I guess we will never know what happened that day at the St. Francis and Fatty Arbuckle will continue to be a tale of murder and mystery to stand alongside the Black Dahlia or the death of Marilyn Monroe.
You can find the surviving films of Fatty Arbuckle on Netflix and Amazon.