On this day in 1921

There is a certain amount of risk involved with being a celebrity. These days, it’s hard to sympathize with those (such as Paris Hilton) who purposefully put themselves in the crosshairs and then whine when the fickle mob decides to lob tomatoes at them. Today’s celebrity scandals seem fairly stupid compared to the sad case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

On September 5th, 1921, Fatty checked into rooms 1219,1220, and 1221 of the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square with the intent of throwing a helluva party. He certainly succeeded in this respect, but not in the way he would have liked. The party was raging until it came to a screeching halt on September 6th. A young acctress named Virginia Rappe (pronounced RAP-PAY) fell ill. She was examined by the St. Francis doctor, who decided she was just really drunk. Fatty bought room 1227 for her until the 7th, when she became seriously ill and was taken to the hospital. Newspapers owned by notorious San Francisco muckraker William Randolph Hearst took the story and ran with it when she died three days later. Arbuckle was back in Hollywood by this time and gave statements to the police via telephone.

“The whole thing was a frame-up, arranged by some of the corrupt local newspaper boys. Arbuckle was good copy, so they set him up for a fall.”
Dashiell Hammett (from “Seven Pages,” manuscript, Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Today, it’s generally accepted that Arbuckle was innocent of complicity in her death, but at the time there was much speculation that he had crushed her by raping her. Some versions of the scandalous story have him violating her with a Coke bottle. She died of a ruptured bladder — some speculate that it was caused by a botched abortion or complications due to gonorrhea. Even the court system exonerrated Fatty, but the Hays Office didn’t. His films were banned for years, and he didn’t get another credited part until 1933. He died later that same year of heart failure. His good friend Buster Keaton said that he “died of a broken heart.”

The main difference with celebrity scandals today is that usually the celebrity actually did something wrong. Fatty was just a party animal, and the moral climate of the country was a lot more rigid in 1921. Combined with Hearst’s desire to sell newspapers and a self-styled “madame” who got dollar signs in her eyes, it was the beginning of the end for Fatty’s career. The story broke on September 10th and has since become part of San Francisco legend. This story is quite notable in that two prominent San Francisco figures were involved in it. Dashiell Hammett worked on the case as a private eye for the St. Francis, and William Randolph Hearst can’t be ignored for his involvement.

Today I urge you all to rent a Fatty Arbuckle movie and reclaim the memory of a real Hollywood talent, rather than follow the scandals of the rather mediocre present day Hollywood ‘elite’.

You can read more about Fatty at http://www.callmefatty.com/

3 Comments so far

  1. Mark (unregistered) on September 10th, 2006 @ 10:20 pm

    >Some versions of the scandalous story have him violating her
    > with a Coke bottle.

    That couldn’t be true, since “Coke adds life.” Especially back then!


  2. Victoria E (unregistered) on September 11th, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

    A wonderful piece of history, as sad as it may be.


  3. anna (unregistered) on September 11th, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

    I love this story- so SF to me, thanks for posting Darren!



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