When Self-Righteousness and Profit Merge …

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

By Greg Merritt

Who was Fatty Arbuckle? What happened between him and Virginia Rappe in Room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel? Why should we give a care about an incident nearly 100 years old?

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular (second only to Chaplin) screen comedians of the silent film era. He innovated much of the slapstick still with us today. He was among the highest paid performers of his day. He had it all, fame and power. On September 5, 1921, Arbuckle was at the height of his fame and fortune and still on an upward trajectory.

And then he left for a Labor Day romp with buddies in San Francisco. In a suite of rooms at the St. Francis, he partied with his friends and girls, among them, actress and clothing designer Virginia Rappe. Then something went horribly wrong. Rappe was injured, spent several days in agony, and died. After that, Arbuckle’s life became a living hell. He was transformed into a monster, a sexual predator, a drunken sod in the eyes of the nation. He endured three trials, the last acquitting him of manslaughter. In fact, though, he never stopped suffering, having lost his career and his fortune.

What undid Arbuckle, if, as Greg Merritt ably demonstrates, he was innocent of directly killing Rappe, who most likely died as a result of a ruptured bladder weakened by previous illness and alcohol? A couple of forces worked against him, neither of which his fame and money were sufficient to combat. First, there was a righteous uprising of parties who believed Hollywood was a pit of sin, and that it was corrupting the morals of American life. The second was a rabid media delighted to rip Arbuckle apart to sell newspapers, the major medium of the period.

As you read Merritt’s account that includes a pile of newspaper headlines and stories, you’ll get a distinct sense you’ve heard all this before. And you have, for the Arbuckle case is something like the granddaddy of not only today’s celebrity media but also of how the vast unedited media that includes the Internet cover stories. Given free rein, as Merritt illustrates, people will say and believe anything they want, facts be damned.

In addition to the incident and the trials, Merritt provides plenty of biographical information about Arbuckle, his wives, and the stars of the day, and the kind of behavior that rankled some people. Well footnoted, with an extensive bibliography, and useful index. w/c

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