Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Interview with Greg Merritt, Author of Room 1219

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Merritt, the author of one of the best books I've read this year: Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood. If you are interested in the topic and haven't read this book already, I implore you to seek out a copy! (Here are some places where you can buy the book: Barnes and NobleIndieBound, Powell's) It's a fascinating, well-written and well-organized book about one of the most important scandals in Hollywood history. You can read my review of the book here. Now on to the interview!

Raquel: What made you decide to write a book about the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal?

Greg Merritt. Photo by Kevin Horton
Greg Merritt: I thought of it as the ultimate Hollywood scandal, but I assumed it had already been covered thoroughly. I started to look into another tragedy that plays a small role in Room 1219, the murder of pioneering director Frances Boggs. That led me to Arbuckle’s story, and I learned how inadequate the previous books were and how frustrated silent film fans were with them. I began doing my own research. Soon I was hooked. The more things I found, the more I knew I had to tell this story.

Raquel: Your book is incredibly well-organized and you go into lots of great detail. How did you decide to organize the book the way you did and how did you keep track of all the information you accumulated?

Greg Merritt: Thanks. At its heart, this is a mystery story. And in order to reach a conclusion about what occurred in room 1219, the reader needs to know not just the facts of the case but also what sort of people Arbuckle and Rappe were. So, much of the book alternates between his and her biographies and the story of the developing case. This allows the reader to gain a greater appreciation for how much Arbuckle and Rappe lost – her life and his reputation and career. The “standard” structure would insert the crime story into Arbuckle’s biography. If so, you wouldn’t get to the case until around the book’s halfway point and then you’d be inundated with it for the next ten chapters. I think my approach makes for a more illuminating and interesting book. Once I had the structure plotted. I’d research a chapter, write its first draft, and then move on to researching and writing the next chapter. So my journey was very similar to the reader’s. Still, I was always finding things that fit in either earlier or later and thus constantly revising earlier chapters and saving things for later chapters. This created a bit more work, but I was engaged with the text throughout the process, as opposed to spending three years researching before even beginning the first chapter.

Raquel:  What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you did the research for this book?

Greg Merritt:  The wealth of information on Virgina Rappe, which I’ll expand upon below.

Raquel: Arbuckle was indirectly linked to a scandal prior to Rappe’s death. Can you tell us a little bit about the Mishawum Manor scandal that you talked about briefly in your book?

Greg Merritt:  There were a lot of stories about Hollywood “orgies” around this time, and most of them were shocking headlines and little else. This one was deserving of its title. In 1917, at the end of a tour celebrating Arbuckle’s signing with Paramount, there was a sort of after-party in a bordello near Boston. Arbuckle wasn’t there. But some Paramount executives were, including Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor, and so were some underage prostitutes. Relatives of the prostitutes came forward shortly thereafter, threatening to bring a civil suit against the film executives. The potential complainants were bought off for a whopping $100,000 in Paramount hush money. Okay, that’s that, right? No. Four years later the story erupted in the national press, uncovered as part of a political scandal. It became known as the “chicken and champagne orgy,” and there were screaming headlines that associated Arbuckle with it even though he was in a Boston hotel room with his wife when it occurred. The story hit the news on July 11, 1921, less than two months before the Labor Day party. So, it primed the tarnished Paramount executives to quickly sever ties with Arbuckle after his arrest. It also fed the press fascination with Hollywood “orgies” and the public outrage with “immoral Hollywood.” All in all, it was bad news (and very bad luck) for Arbuckle.

Raquel: In your book, you devote a chapter to the life of Virginia Rappe. Was it difficult to find information about her and what was the most interesting thing about her you discovered?

Greg Merritt:  Surprisingly, no. Previous writers have offered barely anything about her life other than the worst rumors about her, and yet there was a wealth of information in newspaper databases waiting to be discovered. She was adept at promoting her modeling, fashion design, and acting careers. She was profiled in the Chicago Tribune in 1908 when she was a seventeen-year-old model, and she continued to give interviews or pen her own articles (for example, offering advice to young women) throughout the remainder of her life. One of the most interesting things about her is how innovative her fashions were. For examples, she had a tuxedo coat to win “equal clothes rights with men” and a dovish peace hat to promote pacifism during World War I. In some ways, just as Arbuckle was the archetype male movie star with his partying entourage and ostentatious spending, Rappe was the prototypical Jazz Age woman: an unmarried, outspoken entrepreneur. Both images would later be twisted to sinister meanings.

Raquel: Arbuckle was married three times and was estranged from his first wife Minta Durfee during the scandal. What can we learn about Arbuckle from his marriages?

Greg Merritt:  First, he was attracted to younger brunette actresses. That was true of all three of his wives and the girlfriends we know about. It was also true of Virginia Rappe. Each of his marriages was unique. Arbuckle’s mother died when he was twelve, and Durfee was a matronly influence in his life. When he married for a second time, in 1925, he was struggling with his career and self-image. As a result, that was his most volatile marriage. In 1932, one month after his third marriage began, his film acting career was resuscitated. He was at peace with himself and content being a husband and step-father. Unfortunately, that period was short-lived before his death in 1933.

Raquel: Arbuckle had a close friendship and working relationship with Buster Keaton. Was this a really important relationship in his life and if so, why?

Greg Merritt:  Very much so. They were kindred spirts. Their film characters contrasted, but the actors shared similar senses of humor (much more than simple slapstick). Arbuckle’s best movies were made with Keaton as his co-star on-screen and chief collaborator off-screen. They also both fondly remembered the years of 1917-20 when they hit up the hottest spots in New York City and Southern California as their best. For both, it was an extended adolescence.

Raquel: How did the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal affect Hollywood?

Greg Merritt:  There were four principal ways. First, the studios began instituting morality clauses in the contracts of their talent. Second, whereas before the public could be satisfied with studio-approved puff pieces in fan magazines, suddenly people wanted to know what movie stars were really like. Third, it ended Arbuckle’s silent film acting career in September 1921. The genre of feature-length comedies was just beginning to take shape then. So, we never got to see what great comedies Arbuckle could have made if he was acting the following years, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Finally, as I cover in detail, it led to a wave of censorship which the movie industry countered with self-censorship, leading eventually to the Production Code.

Raquel: I really loved the Labor Day Revisited chapter in your book in which you layout different scenarios of what could have happened. Could you tell us more about how you put all of those scenarios together and how you came to your own conclusion about what happened that day?

Greg Merritt:  I had no preconceptions about this case, and I came to that chapter only after writing the twenty-two that preceded it. Then I started eliminating some of the possible explanations for what happened. Many things, which either the defense or prosecution had focused on extensively, were easy to dismiss. They just weren’t relevant to the central question: How did Rappe’s bladder rupture while she was in room 1219, either for the brief period she was alone or the longer time afterwards when she was there with only Arbuckle? I was left with just a few possibilities of what could have happened to cause her injury, and from there I focused on what most likely occurred. Some long-overlooked coroner’s inquest testimony was particularly illuminating.

Raquel:  What was your favorite part of the process of researching/writing Room 1219?

Greg Merritt:  It was fun to research and writer Chapter 21, “Legends,” which explores all of the salacious things that have been attached to this case over the decades. It was illuminating to see why the myths grew about Arbuckle and Rappe and what supposedly occurred in room 1219.
Thank you Greg Merritt for taking the time to answer my questions and thank to you Meaghan Miller from IPG for arranging the interview!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview and a very interesting sounding book. Just when you think you know everything, you find out there is a whole lot more to the story. Thanks for highlighting this book!


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