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The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood
By Greg Merritt
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Greg Merritt
All rights reserved.
As would become a lifelong habit for most of us, we longed to witness both spectacular achievement and mortifying failure. Neither of these things, we were discreetly certain, would ever come to us; we would instead be granted the frictionless lives of the meek.
— Thomas Mcguane, "Ice"
The road followed, approximately, El Camino Real ("the Royal Road"), a trail blazed beside the Pacific by Spanish missionaries. It had been pounded for generations by boots, hooves, wagon wheels, and eventually automobile tires as explorers and enterprisers traveled between the preeminent West Coast metropolis of San Francisco and the lazy town of Los Angeles. California had started surfacing the future Route 101 in 1912. Nine years later, many stretches remained unpaved, and the narrow road took treacherous turns on hills — the risks to travelers compounded by the primitive machinery of the average driver's Ford Model T.
Roscoe Arbuckle did not own a Model T. His personal fleet included a silver Rolls-Royce, a Renault roadster, a Cadillac town car, a Hudson limousine, a Locomobile Sportif (priced at a then-staggering $9,500), and, everyone's favorite, a custom-built right-hand-drive Pierce-Arrow Model 66 A-4 touring car. At a time when Ford's ubiquitous creation sold for $370, Arbuckle's P.A. had set him back ninety-two times as much: $34,000. Although the oft-published assertion that the car included a backseat toilet is false, it was appointed with many luxuries, including a cabinet ideal for hiding illegal liquor. Painted iridescent purple-blue with a gray cloth convertible top and creamy all-white tires tricked out with silver rims and varnished wooden spokes, the colossal and flamboyantly ostentatious Pierce-Arrow was the Batmobile of the Jazz Age, and it drew crowds wherever it went. It was famous throughout Southern California as "Fatty's car."
This was the car Arbuckle drove on the future Route 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco on September 3, 1921, the Saturday before Labor Day. At thirty-four, he was by most criteria the world's number-two actor, bested by only Charlie Chaplin. Having appeared in over 150 films over the previous thirteen years and having starred in all but the first few — often with his adopted name, Fatty, in the title — he was immensely famous around the globe. As the director of at least seventy-eight films, he was celebrated for his cinematic artistry. And as the first screen actor signed to a contract worth $1 million annually ($13 million in today's dollars), the former vaudeville vagabond was by then wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.
Before the third day of September, Arbuckle had honored that contract by starring in nine feature-length films for Paramount Pictures, all of which were produced over the previous twenty-one months. The seventh, Crazy to Marry, had only just premiered. Variety enthused:
To attempt to describe in cold, unfeeling print the story of a "Fatty" Arbuckle comedy is a well-nigh futile task. And if, perchance, some descriptive writing genius succeeded, he would only be spoiling a bunch of fun for those unfortunate to read it. ... This is so funny that Tuesday at the Rialto the laughter was so loud as to give the impression the auditorium was being cannonaded. ... "Crazy to Marry" will make the whole world laugh.
The man who made the whole world laugh had wrapped production on Freight Prepaid three weeks prior and was planning his next feature. Meanwhile, the fourth annual "Paramount Week" was beginning that Labor Day weekend. During the seven-day celebration, Paramount Pictures pulled out all stops to publicize its wares, and many more theaters than usual booked its movies exclusively. Admission was typically free. On Labor Day, the studio's stars were to parade through Los Angeles, with the highlight being Arbuckle in his "twenty-five-thousand-dollar gasoline palace" (his $34,000 Pierce-Arrow). Later that same day, Arbuckle was to appear at a screening of his film Gasoline Gus at the lavish Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. But despite protestations from Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor, Arbuckle would make no such appearances. He wanted a vacation, and the long Labor Day weekend was the perfect opportunity for a jaunt to San Francisco.
Not joining him was his wife, Minta Durfee, herself a prolific actress. Married for thirteen years, they had been separated for the past four and a half. Also not joining him was his best friend, the famous comedic actor Buster Keaton, a companion on previous trips to San Francisco. Keaton had married actress Natalie Talmadge three months before, and they were planning to sail a yacht to Catalina Island for a relaxing weekend. They invited Arbuckle.
Arbuckle declined. He was seeking neither communion with the ocean nor the company of newlyweds. He wanted to party, and for that San Francisco was the ideal destination. It had been the West Coast metropolis since the Gold Rush seventy-two years prior, and it had fashioned itself the "Paris of the West," with world-class hotels, restaurants, and theaters. It learned early how to house, feed, and amuse not only princes but also paupers — the frontier fortune -seekers who overtook the big city on Saturdays in search of hard liquor and soft flesh.
By 1921, San Francisco's businesses still readily accommodated society's high and low visitors, but sentiments there had chilled toward Los Angeles since its recent population explosion; the 1920 census was the first in which the population of Los Angeles exceeded that of San Francisco (577,000 to 507,000). Northern California's elite looked down on the rubes to their south, mostly transplants from small towns in the heartland, and they also resented the nouveau riche celebrities of the moving pictures treating their city as the Las Vegas of the day.
* * *
When nightlife was on the agenda, Arbuckle was almost always accompanied by an entourage. He was the headliner; they were his supporting cast. He called the shots, he attracted the greatest attention, and he picked up the tabs. Keaton and other usual members of that group were not accompanying Arbuckle as he journeyed north, but he wasn't about to go to San Francisco alone. The two men riding with him, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback, were not close friends of his, but they were the type who expanded his clique on late nights in Los Angeles. They knew that the best parties always seemed to follow Fatty.
The handsome Sherman, thirty-two years old, was a dramatic film actor. He played mostly dashing playboys, dastardly knaves, or a combination of the two, and he had only recently begun to distinguish himself, most prominently as a cad in Way Down East, the smash of 1920. A note in a newspaper column on that fateful Labor Day read, "Lowell Sherman is the name of a gentleman who is being styled as 'the screen's most polished villain.'"
Twenty-seven-year-old Fishback was born in Bucharest, Romania. Formerly a minor film actor and then Arbuckle's assistant director, by September 1921 he was under contract at Universal Pictures and a prolific director and writer of comedies.
The three men, each of whom was married, set out early on September 3, 1921. Filling stations, general stores, and roadside cafés were rare but welcome sights, and when the Pierce-Arrow parked it likely stirred up some commotion.
Those general stores were probably selling the latest issue of the celebrity magazine Photoplay. Inside was an article attributed to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, salaciously entitled "Love Confessions of a Fat Man," in which he stated, "I am convinced that the fat man as a lover is going to be the best seller on the market for the next few years. He is coming into his kingdom at last. He may never ring as high prices or display as fancy goods as these he-vamps and cavemen and Don Juans, but as a good, reliable, all the year around line of goods, he's going to have it on them all." Maybe the three Hollywood men laughed about the jibes at the likes of "Don Juan" Douglas Fairbanks and the new superstar, "he-vamp" Rudolph Valentino. Maybe this part struck them as ironic: "Nothing is so humiliating to an efficient woman these days as an unfaithful husband. Fat men tend to be faithful." Or this: "A man's ideal is most of the things most men want to come home to — slippers, drawn curtains, a bright fire, peace, praise, comfort, and a good, hot dinner." So said the fat man, long estranged from his wife, who was journeying to party in San Francisco. The article also included a peculiar musing from Arbuckle: "It is very hard to murder or be murdered by a fat man."
As the ride progressed, Arbuckle, an avid baseball fan, may have chatted about Babe Ruth, for if baseball came up, Ruth surely did. He was in the midst of the best year of his vaunted career. Alcohol may have been consumed during the lengthy trip. The basement of Arbuckle's Los Angeles mansion was stocked with the finest liquors, and twenty bottles were along for the ride. More could be purchased in San Francisco — despite the fact that Prohibition was the law of the land.
The Eighteenth Amendment had been in effect for nearly twenty months, so buying, transporting, or selling any drink with more than a tinge of alcohol could earn you a stiff fine or six months in a brick room. But for the wealthy, like Roscoe Arbuckle and the planets that revolved around him, the main effect was to impart drinking with a sheen of outlaw glamour. There were passwords and secret knocks, private shindigs and underworld connections. Drinking was a pursuit worthy of a 350-mile excursion, and though the charms of illegal imbibing were bringing more and more women into nightclubs, such an excursion was cause to leave the wives at home. After all, there were women in San Francisco.
* * *
Along with Tijuana, where alcohol was still legal, San Francisco was a common weekend destination for Roscoe Arbuckle. He had lived there in his teenage years, employed as a singing waiter at an exclusive café. In April 1915 he directed and, with frequent comedic foil Mabel Normand, costarred in a nine-minute film, Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco, Cal. It featured the rotund star clowning with San Francisco mayor (and California's future governor) James Rolph, and it presented "the Grand Dame of Union Square." Intertitle: "Hotel St. Francis, One of the Largest Hotels on the West Coast." An establishing shot presented Union Square with its ninety-seven-foot-tall Dewey Monument, and then the camera panned up and rightward to take in the great height and breadth of the hotel, as wide as a city block.
The St. Francis was not merely one of but the largest hotel on the West Coast — and, with the nearby Palace Hotel, one of the two most prestigious lodging destinations west of the Mississippi River. The 450-room St. Francis was modeled after the great hotels of Europe, and after two years of construction at a cost of $2.5 million, it was an immediate sensation when it opened in 1904. Construction of a third wing began soon thereafter to meet the demand for rooms. The fire following the 1906 earthquake decimated the hotel's interior, but the building suffered no structural damage, and the Grand Dame of Union Square reopened twenty months later. (In contrast, the older Palace Hotel had to be torn down and rebuilt.) In 1913 a fourth wing upped the room total to 629.
The St. Francis featured pneumatic tubes by which rooms could exchange messages with the front desk. Rooms also had their own telephones, a rare high-tech luxury for travelers then. Engines in the basement fed vacuum outlets in each room, replacing the hotel's air with fresh air every eight minutes. The hotel had its own orchestra, which played on the mezzanine; its own school for young guests; its own Turkish baths with heated saltwater pumped in from the bay. Its most distinctive feature was the ten-foot-tall Magneta grandfather clock from Vienna, which controlled all other clocks in the hotel. When the St. Francis became the place in San Francisco to be seen, the clock's location in the resplendent rococo lobby was a popular meeting place, celebrated in lore.
The Hotel St. Francis was also the place to eat. From 1904 to 1926, Victor Hirtzler was the head chef. His menu was noted for its encyclopedic variety: traditional French dishes, American favorites, and local foods like bay oysters, artichokes, and avocados. Breakfast options included 203 egg dishes, among them "eggs Moscow" (poached eggs stuffed with caviar). By publishing cookbooks, naming dishes like "celery Victor" after himself, and scoring publicity for greeting celebrity guests, Hirtzler became the most famous chef in America during his twenty-two years at the St. Francis. He was the Wolfgang Puck of the Progressive Era.
As the St. Francis was celebrated for its grandeur, unique luxuries, and cuisine, it attracted the rich, famous, and powerful. The list of those who stayed there before September 1921 includes Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson and such Hollywood celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore (who tumbled out of a bed during the 1906 earthquake), and Cecil B. DeMille. The hotel's brochure in the early 1920s listed three famous guests, likely chosen to represent the variety of mega-celebrities who slept and ate there: World War I commander General John Pershing; Billy Sunday, the most celebrated evangelical preacher of the era; and Roscoe Arbuckle.
* * *
In the late afternoon of Saturday, September 3, Arbuckle's "gasoline palace" pulled up beside the four granite pillars that marked the entryway to the Hotel St. Francis. Arbuckle's live-in secretary had reserved three adjoining rooms in the south wing of the hotel's uppermost floor, its twelfth:
1219, a rectangular room with one window facing south, a bathroom, and a closet
1220, a larger, squarish room with one window facing south and one facing east (toward Union Square and, a mile away, the bay), and a fireplace but no bathroom or closet
1221, another rectangular room, with two windows facing east and one facing north (toward the center wing), and a bathroom but no closet
Each room had a door connecting it to the hallway, and doors connected 1219 to 1220 and 1220 to 1221. Room 1220 was typically used as a second bedroom for either 1219 or 1221, thus the absence of a bathroom, but on this weekend it also lacked a bed. Instead, a single bed for Fishback was added to 1219, while Arbuckle slept in the room's double bed. Sherman slept in a double bed in 1221. Room 1220 was their lounge, with furnishings including a couch and a love seat.
That Saturday evening, a deliveryman carried four bottles of gin and Scotch from nearby Gobey's Grill into the St. Francis and up to the three rooms on the southeast corner of the top floor. If the hotel staff noticed, nothing was said, for alcohol was a common commodity there. One unpublicized feature of the hotel was a fully stocked speakeasy in the basement.
On Sunday, after an afternoon of sightseeing in Arbuckle's Pierce-Arrow and visiting with Bay Area friends, Arbuckle and his two movie industry companions dined and danced at the Tait-Zinkand Cafe, located just one block from their hotel. Along with the restaurant in the Hotel St. Francis, Tait's was one of the two most prestigious dining destinations in the city. The café also had a cabaret show, and alcohol was served to discreet customers. The three patrons from Los Angeles stayed late.
Lowell Sherman invited one of Tait's chorus girls, Alice Blake, to come to the top floor of the St. Francis for drinks the next day. Twenty-six-year-old Blake was the daughter of a prominent Oaklaand flour -mill magnate. At age seventeen in 1912, she made the news for her elopement and, at her father's behest, the marriage's prompt annulment. She had high aspirations for a dancing and acting career and, in accepting Sherman's invitation, probably envisioned the hotel social affair as a Hollywood networking opportunity. She had a dancing rehearsal the next afternoon but agreed to stop by the hotel suite beforehand.
That same Sunday evening, three other visitors from Los Angeles checked in to the nearby Palace Hotel: small-time film publicist Alfred Semnacher, his friend Maude Delmont, and film actress Virginia Rappe. The German-born Semnacher was forty-three years old and had been estranged from his wife for nearly a year; he had filed for divorce because of her "undue attentions" to another man, and the hearing was scheduled for a Los Angeles courtroom on September 15. Semnacher had known Delmont for years and ran into her a few days earlier leaving the Pig'n Whistle restaurant in Hollywood. She was either thirty-eight or thirty-nine. She admired his car, and he suggested a trip. Semnacher also invited his friend Rappe to ride along and stay a week in San Francisco. Rappe, who turned thirty that summer, had been spending too much time alone. A vacation in her former home of San Francisco sounded invigorating. Maybe she could catch up with old friends; maybe she could foster new friendships. Semnacher introduced her and Delmont just before the trio headed north.
Excerpted from Room 1219 by Greg Merritt. Copyright © 2013 Greg Merritt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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