In his new book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt takes an exhaustively detailed and utterly fascinating look at what he calls “the scandal that changed Hollywood”: the Labor Day 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe, and the trials (and ultimate ruin) of comic superstar Fatty Arbuckle for his part in that death. The scandal was a turning point for the young movie industry. “Previously, the ‘film colony’ lifestyle was presented in fan magazines and newspaper gossip columns as a carefree extended adolescence,” Merritt writes. But after the Rappe affair, the common wisdom changed: “Hollywood was filled with spoiled idlers, living beyond society’s norms, going from party to party, fueled by jazz music, alcohol, narcotics, and deviant sex.” And the Arbuckle scandal was just the beginning of this nascent culture war; after the jump, a few of the classic Hollywood scandals that would make TMZ blush.
The death of Virgina Rappe
The facts are these: on Labor Day weekend in 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rented a suite of rooms at a San Francisco hotel and had a bit of a party. Among those in attendance were Maude Delmont, a woman of ill Hollywood repute, and Virginia Rappe, a young and mostly unknown actress. Several days later, Rappe was dead of a ruptured bladder, and Delmont was telling anyone who’d listen that Rappe’s injury and death were the result of a barbaric rape by Arbuckle. The comic was charged with rape and manslaughter, and was tried and convicted by the newspapers (particularly those of William Randolph Hearst) before his real trial even began. Arbuckle’s lucrative career was over — his films were pulled from cinemas and his newly minted million-dollar Paramount contract was voided, even after a third trial (following two hung juries) resulted in not only an acquittal, but an apology from the jury.