Showing posts with label Fatty Arbuckle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fatty Arbuckle. Show all posts

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!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Room 1219
The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood
by Greg Merritt
Hardcover - 440 pages
ISBN 9781613747926
Chicago Review Press
September 2013

Barnes and Noble


"He is forever the life of the party, forever a defendant, forever a villain or a victim or both, forever remembered – when he is remembered – for his tremendous and devastating fall from grace.” – pg 342, Greg Merritt
It was Labor Day 1921. A lively party was happening in Room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California. Movie stars Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Lowell Sherman were there, dressed in their pajamas and sipping on cocktails, along with their cohort Fred Fishback. They booked the two adjacent rooms and invited some ladies to join them in some Prohibition-era naughtiness. Young up-and-coming actress Virginia Rappe was one of those ladies. Everyone was having fun when things took a turn for the worse. At one point, Arbuckle and Rappe had sneaked off to be alone. Rappe suddenly began to write in pain. She was in agony, tearing at her clothes and the fellow party goers had no clue how to help her. She was moved to room 1227 where nurses and doctors treated her and eventually she was moved to a local sanitarium. Rappe died on September 9th, 1921 of a ruptured bladder and all fingers pointed to the larger-than-life movie star Fatty Arbuckle as the person to blame for Rappe's untimely death.

Virginia Rappe

The death of Virginia Rappe and the trials against Fatty Arbuckle that followed was a series of events that forever changed film history. A movie star acting badly was one thing but being linked to someone's death was a whole other story. It was a result of the very public Arbuckle case and some other Hollywood scandals that the Hays Code was inevitably written and eventually enforced. Movies and their stars were now seen as a potential bad influence on movie goers and Hollywood had to reign that in quickly if it wanted to prosper. Arbuckle was never convicted of a crime against Rappe but was forever marred by the scandal. His acting career and his flamboyant Hollywood life was essentially over. He went on to direct films and found himself behind the same camera that he had once found so much success in front of.

Greg Merritt's Room 1219 is probably the best book I've read all year. It's incredibly well-organized, insightful, thoughtful, unbiased, thorough, clear and well-written. I was very interested in the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal but was worried that I would be overwhelmed with boring information about the three trials. My experience was quite the opposite. I was enthralled and found myself not wanting to let the book go.

The key to the book's success is Merritt's organization of the chapters. Each chapter alternates from the details of the scandal to biographical chapters on Arbuckle and one on Virginia Rappe. Flipping back and forth gives you a respite from being overwhelmed with too much detail. And this book has a lot of information to take in so the structure really helps. You go from the minute details of the scandal, the case and the three (yes three!) trials to the humanity of the lives and careers of Arbuckle and Rappe.

Even though there is only one chapter devoted to Virginia Rappe I don't feel like she was neglected at all in this book. There isn't much information on her but Merritt does very well with the sometimes conflicting data he acquired. He pieces together her life in a way that we really get a sense of who she was. He also devotes a chapter to Will H. Hays, the man who developed and enforced the Hays Code which restricted what could be shown in films. The Arbuckle-Rappe scandal is one of the major reasons why the Hays Code was put into effect so it's crucial for readers to understand what implications that scandal had for film history. You also learn quite a lot about Arbuckle as a man and as an actor. Arbuckle was married, yet privately separated from his first wife Minta Durfee, and very popular and well-known at the time of the scandal. It really couldn't have come at a worst time in his career. There is a lot of humanizing of Arbuckle. We learn about his three marriages, his troubled relationship with his father, his penchant for buying expensive automobiles and his friendship and working relationship with Buster Keaton. However, Arbuckle is painted not as a martyr but as a man with all his strengths and weakness on display.

Arbuckle and Keaton - Source

My favorite chapter in the book is entitled Labor Day Revisited. In this chapter, Merritt carefully lays out each and every scenario of what happened that evening on Labor Day 1921. Did Arbuckle really kill Rappe or was he a victim of circumstances? Merritt gives us the scenarios presented by the Defense and the Prosecution and examines the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. And with all the information he has collected, Merritt gives us his own conclusion of what happened. What I love about this books is how unbiased it is. Merritt is working off of his research and lets the information speak for itself. It's in stark contrast to all the articles published in many news outlets during the scandal that wanted to paint a story that tantalized and entertained.

Whenever I write a book review I try to present a books strengths and weaknesses. I really couldn't find any fault with Room 1219. If you are not interested in the time period, the context or the people involved then this book might not be for you. However, if you do have an interest in the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal, film history or 1920s history in general, then you need to run out and buy this book immediately! My only very small complaint is that I wanted to learn more about the Mishawum Manor scandal that Arbuckle was indirectly linked to prior to Rappe's death. Merritt dedicates only a few pages to this. My reason for wanting to know more is that this scandal happened in my very own neighborhood! And I had no clue! Thanks to Merritt I have a new research project on my hands.

Greg Merritt is also the author of Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film Making, Film Production: The Complete Uncensored Guide to Filmmaking and Off the Lot: A History of American Independent Film.

Thank you to Meaghan from Independent Publishers Group for sending me a copy of the book for review!

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