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Fatty Arbuckle Affair: Celebrity Sex Scandal

St Francis Hotel in the 1920's
St Francis Hotel in the c1921, scene of Fatty Arbuckle affair

Location: St Francis Hotel

Long before anyone had ever heard of Fatty Arbuckle the St Francis Hotel opened in 1904 on Union Square, built as an investment vehicle for Charles Crocker’s grandchildren. Crocker was one of the ‘Big Four’ that had dominated San Francisco in the nineteenth century and, although he had died ten years before, his enormous mansion still stood looking down on the city from the top of nearby Nob Hill.

In 1906 the hotel was badly damaged by the Great Fire of that year, but it was quickly repaired and reopened in 1907.

During the 1910’s it became, arguably, the most fashionable hotel in San Francisco as Woodrow Wilson stayed there (beginning a long association with the Republican Party), while promoting the U.S.’s entry into the League of Nations, and many Hollywood stars, such as Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks took suites while visiting the city.

In 1915 there was even one of the new-fangled moving pictures filmed on the property – Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco – featuring two of the biggest stars of the day, Mabel Normand and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle himself.

Background to Fatty Arbuckle Scandal

In 1921 wanting a break from his hectic filming schedule Arbuckle would return to the hotel and his visit there would become the center of Hollywood’s very first major sex scandal. It was an event that would change the entertainment industry, and the public’s perception of it, forever.

Nowadays Arbuckle is chiefly known for the scandal, but prior to that he was almost on the level of Charles Chaplin in terms of the popularity of his comedies. Both he and Chaplin had made their names appearing in films produced by Mack Sennet’s Keystone Studios in 1914 – in fact the baggy pants worn by Chaplin’s Tramp character had previously belonged to Arbuckle (the difference in size between the 270-pound Arbuckle and Chaplin’s slight frame accounting for said bagginess).

In 1918 he signed a three-year contract with Paramount Studios for $3,000,000, an incredible sum of money in those days. News of the contract was widely reported and it’s almost impossible to overstate the effect this first wave of movie stars had, upending traditional social hierarchies and changing popular culture. Stardom on their level had just never existed before (and, I would say, since).

What Happened at the St Francis?

On September 5 Arbuckle and two friends checked into rooms 1219, 1220 and 1221. Room 1220 was designated as the ‘party room’ by the three and they invited several female acquaintances to join them for some Labor Day carousing.

At one point during the revelries one of the women, Virginia Rappe, a twenty-six-year-old movie actress, was discovered ill in room 1219 and the hotel doctor was called. He believed her to be merely suffering from intoxication and prescribed her morphine, moving her to another room.

She was hospitalized two days later though and died on September 9, by which time Arbuckle had returned to Los Angeles for a film premiere at Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre.

At this point one of the other guests, the fabulously named Bambina Maude Delmont, who had only recently met Rappe, claimed that she had shared on her deathbed that Arbuckle had sexually assaulted her.

From this moment the affair snowballed into what became known as the Fatty Arbuckle affair, as a whole series of people decided to use it for their own ends, piling in with outlandish theories and wild accusations, most having absolutely no basis in fact.

Prominent among this group was San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady, who saw a chance to raise his profile (he was planning a run for Governor of California). He arranged for a second autopsy – the first one not having given him the ammunition he needed – and this one, by Dr Shelby Strange, established that she had in fact died from a rupturing of the bladder that, he opined, might have been caused by the heavy Arbuckle lying on top of Rappe.

On September 10 Arbuckle turned himself in and was duly charged with manslaughter.

The Case Against Fatty Arbuckle

Unfortunately for Brady his chief witness, Delmont, hadn’t actually seen Arbuckle assault Rappe (no one had) and she had lengthy rap sheet, which included bigamy, extortion and blackmail (it later came out that she had tried to blackmail Arbuckle). Also her story kept changing.

On top of that the autopsy showed no evidence of rape and the medical staff that attended Rappe denied that she had ever mentioned it. Arbuckle testified that he’d known Rappe for five or six years. 

Finally Rappe had a well-known history of getting drunk at parties and then screaming and tearing her clothes off, which was almost certainly caused by acute peritonitis, that meant her clothing was causing her intense pain.

It should also be pointed out that in the middle of festivities (and just after the rape was alleged to have taken place) Arbuckle left the party in order to personally drive a female friend into town. Sound like the kind of thing you’d do after committing such a heinous crime against a woman? Doesn’t seem likely.

It was a weak case to start with, but Brady was determined to press on so the circus began, and it really set the template for the celebrity scandal ever since. Key to it is a sense of moral outrage. Prohibition of alcohol had begun the year before, but that hadn’t stopped the party guests imbibing copious amounts of bootlegged liquor. It also didn’t escape notice that the name Virginia Rappe closely resembled ‘virgin rape’.

Then another guest, Al Semnacher, dropped the bombshell that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with some ice! It later transpired that he’d rubbed it on her belly, to relieve the pain, but who cares? Soon the claim morphed into Arbuckle using a bottle.

As Henry Lehrman, who’d been Rappe’s boyfriend and Arbuckle’s director, said:

That’s what comes of taking vulgarians from the gutter and giving them enormous salaries and making idols of them.

Sound familiar?

Fanning the flames were Randolph Hearst’s empire of newspapers, which eagerly reported every scandalous tidbit they could find, or make-up, about the case. On September 13 alone his San Francisco Examiner ran no less than seventeen stories on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Later he claimed that it “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania”. Bearing in mind that the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat was one of the events that brought the U.S. into World War One, that’s really saying something.

Most of Arbuckle’s movie industry friends ran for cover, only Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton (who had been discovered by Arbuckle and was a frequent co-star) came out in his defense. 

And this is one of the biggest legacies of the whole affair. Within days of Arbuckle’s arrest his films had disappeared from theaters, then Paramount stopped paying its biggest star and the following day Universal inserted a ‘morality clause’ into all its artists contracts. Almost immediately the other studios followed suit.

In December they created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America organization, headed by the upright, Presbyterian, Will Hays, to forestall government intervention and put a more wholesome face on the industry (much of the criticism of it had focused on the fact that many studio heads were Jewish and immigrant).

The first thing Hays did was ban Arbuckle’s movies. We can see the same debate play out today with ‘Big Tech’ and the social media companies trying to convince the government that they really can self-regulate effectively, and that therefore Congress doesn’t need to pass legislation to do it.

Trials of Fatty Arbuckle

After all that, what happened at the trial? Well, there were three (naturally, it had to be a trilogy).

At the first one the jury came back 10:2 in favor of acquittal, in December of the same year. It was one of the first major trials in which women served on the jury and Helen Hubbard, one of the two hold-outs, claimed that she had been berated by the male jurors. “There is no place for a woman on the jury” she said, and most of the press agreed.

The courthouse during Fatty Arbuckle trial
The courthouse during Fatty Arbuckle’s trial

Nevertheless, Arbuckle was eager to clear his name and a second trial was scheduled. This time the prosecution’s case was revealed to be so weak that Arbuckle’s lawyers disdained even making a closing argument – a fatal mistake. The verdict came back and it was the reverse of the first, 10:2 in favor of conviction.

And so the affair continued into a third trial. This time Arbuckle’s lawyers really took the gloves off, going after Rappe’s character (which Arbuckle had forbidden them from doing in the first two trials) and revealing that Delmont was also known as ‘Madame Black’, a procurer of beautiful young women for rich men (who she would then threaten to accuse of rape to extort large sums of money from them). It also became clear that Brady had been intimidating witnesses.

Finally, on April 13, 1922, after just six minutes of deliberation the jury returned with a verdict, Arbuckle was not guilty. Furthermore, the foreman read a statement, the first part of which stated: 

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.

Aftermath of the Affair

Was that case closed then, and the end of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal? Not so fast. Although Arbuckle’s movies were unbanned by the Hays Office, he was still a pariah and guilty in the eyes of much of the public.

Even to this day many of the most salacious fallacies from the trial have become accepted as fact (such as the infamous bottle). In 2020 this article on PBS still felt compelled to hedge its bets and declare that “it sure sounds as if some type of sexual violence or unwanted sexual advance may have occurred. Since both participants are now dead, we will never know for certain”. Really? Isn’t that the point of having a trial?

For a while Arbuckle was desolate and turned to drink to dull the pain, becoming an alcoholic. As time passed he began to work as a director, under the pseudonym ‘William Goodrich’ (his father’s name), working on several Buster Keaton films (such as Young Sherlock), but friends described him as a broken man.

There was though a happy end of sorts for him. ‘The talkies’ brought new opportunities in the early 1930’s and he made several comedy shorts with Warner Brothers. He still yearned to act and, after the movies were successful, on June 29, 1933, he signed a new contract with Warner’s for a feature film remake of Brewster’s Millions.

He was staying in New York and that same night he went out to celebrate his first wedding anniversary (with his third wife). He told a group of friends: “this is the best day of my life!”

Later that evening he died of a heart attack in his hotel bed. He was just forty-six years old.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle funeral, 1933
Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s funeral, 1933

The changes to the movie industry, only just becoming known as “Hollywood” at that time, were seismic. The industry’s self-censorship increased throughout the 1920’s and in 1934 Hays formed the Production Code Administration, which produced a lengthy list of “don’ts and be careful’s”. For example banning any suggestion of pre-marital sex, all use of profanities and the slightest depiction of homosexuality.

I’ll leave the final word to Gloria Swanson, a massive silent movie star who nearly died from a botched abortion she had due to the morality clause in the contract she’d signed with Paramount (she was in the process of divorcing her second husband at the time, who was not the father).

The newspapers had proved in less than a week that the public got a much greater thrill out of watching stars fall than out of watching them shine.

St Francis Hotel today
St Francis Hotel today

Our Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime tour starts in front of the St Francis Hotel every Saturday night at 6 pm. We can even go into the hotel for a quick drink at the famous Clock Bar – where Arbuckle himself was known to hang out while staying at the establishment.

If you have any feedback on Fatty Arbuckle Affair: Celebrity Sex Scandal please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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