The Early Scandals of Hollywood

What would Hollywood be without a scandal or two.....
Can a city be born bad? Almost from its founding Los Angeles had a bad reputation. That’s odd, isn’t it? It translates to being the City of Angels. Eastern newspapers promised immigrants that California offered sunshine, warm weather, easy living and fortunes to be made in California’s gold fields. So they flocked to the west coast to find poverty and death instead. A large number of them returned home.

By the middle part of the 1800s Los Angeles (dubbed the City of Angels by the original founders) was filled with murderers, thieves and prostitutes. Its streets were no more than dirt paths where animals roamed and garbage was dumped. Los Angeles first gained notoriety in 1871 when there was a massacre of Chinese immigrants. The massacre took place near the old city plaza on the Calle de los Negros. This was a narrow street consisting of saloons, gambling parlors and dance halls. It was said that 3 or 4 men were murdered in the alley every weekend.

The massacre which took place in 1871 started because a drunken Chinese immigrant began firing off a gun and accidentally hit a white man. As a result a huge crown of white men swarmed along the narrow street lynching, burning, stabbing and beating any Chinese man they could get a hold of. Eventually 19 men were killed and the Grand Jury indicted 156 men but only 6 went to jail. Then several days later the 6 were released due to lack of evidence and it would be the first time but not the last that charges of corruption would be leveled at local government.

Los Angeles was born at the beginning of the automobile age and so the automobile and Hollywood combined to create a unique combination. Hollywood however was the biggest reason for the rapid growth of the city. In a few short years stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and many other set Hollywood apart from the rest of the world and made it glamorous and bigger than life itself. Then came the Prohibition in 1920 and the demand for illegal liquor was great in Los Angeles. Out popped dozens of hood who were more than happy to bribe cops to get the kegs and bottles in the right hands. The most famous place for booze in L.A. was Culver City which was known as the "Heart of Screenland". This town played host to M.G.M., Hal Roach and a number of other studios. Washington Boulevard, its main street had dozens of speakeasies, gambling parlors and gin joints. Then along came a race track, a boxing arena and a dog racing track. Los Angeles also gained reputation as a spot for various religious cults and the city continued to grow and expand into the 1930s.

In 1935 came the murder of celebrity Thelma Todd, which today remains an unsolved case in Hollywood. It has also become a part of Hollywood’s supernatural history as well. The murder combined a number of intriguing elements which included gangsters, gambling and a fur clad corpse found slumped over the wheel of a luxury car. Then came tales of the supernatural and spirits who do not rest in peace. In 1938 a private investigator Harry Raymond was killed while looking into reports of police corruption. January 1947 there was the murder of Elizabeth Short. Her severed and bloodless body was discovered in a vacant lot in L.A. It would become one of the most famous murders in the city’s history dubbed the "Black Dahlia" by the local press. It was a tragic end for the girl, who had come to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. Today, the case remains unsolved. In June of 1947 a bullet to the head ended the life of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Hollywood’s most notorious gangster. His death came as he was visiting his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home. It was considered to be a mob hit. The same year also came the murder of Jeanne French. Her battered nude body was found in a vacant lot in the Mar Vista section of L.A. The case became known as the "Red Lipstick" murder when her torso was discovered inscribed with an obscene message and signed with the words "B.D. – Tex Andy". The search for the killer ended with no solution and remains unsolved.

Meanwhile Hollywood continued to thrive. Movies had already began to emerge in the 1910s. Money was rolling in and cocaine became the drug of choice. It is said that the manic silent film comedies actually came about thanks to the drug and became known as the Triangle-Keystone "cokey comedy". Then came the gossip mongers and there was plenty to gossip about in Hollywood. The 1920s became known as Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Olive Thomas was one of the beautiful Ziegfeld girls and had come to the attention of New York magazine like Vogue and Vanity Fair when she was only 16. She appeared in various fashion magazines and had posed nude for the famous calendar artist, Alberto Vargas. Later she decided to depart for Hollywood. Hollywood welcomed her with open arms and she was cast in light comedies. When in 1919, Myron Selznick began his own move company he signed Olive to a contract. In 1920 she was a great hit in "The Flapper" and that same year she married Jack Pickford who as another screen idol and the brother of the star Mary Pickford.

When their marriage seemed to be on the rocks the Pickford’s headed to Paris for a second honeymoon. The night of September 9, 1920 Olive and Jack went out for a night on the town in the famous bistros in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris. They returned to their room at the Hotel Ritz around 3 A.M. It was rumored that Thomas may have taken cocaine that night but it was never proven. An intoxicated and tired Thomas accidentally ingested a large dose of mercury bichloride liquid solution. It had been prescribed for her husband’s chronic syphilis. Being liquid it was supposed to be applied topically, not ingested. Here accounts vary Thomas may have thought the flask contained drinking water or sleeping pills because the label was in French. At that moment she screamed out "Oh, my God!" and Pickford ran to pick her up in his arms. However it was already too late she had ingested a lethal dose. Thomas was taken to the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly where she succumbed to the poison a few days later. Rumors began after her death, that she had either tried to commit suicide or that she had been murdered. A police investigation followed as well as an autopsy but Thomas’ death was ruled accidental.

Along came an overweight plumber in 1913 called Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He was discovered by Mack Sennett when he arrived to unclog a drain for the film producer. Mack Sennett noted Roscoe’s hefty frame and offered him a job. He was perfect for Sennett’s brand of film comedy which included mayhem, pratfalls and pies in the face. Soon he was making dozens of films and the audiences loved him. When he finally signed with Paramount Arbuckle had gone from a $3 a day job in 1913 to over $5,000 by 1917.

Arbuckle’s first mishap came in March of 1916 at Mishawn Manor in Boston. The incident happened at Brownie Kennedy’s Roadhouse where lavish entertainment was taking place in Arbuckle’s honor. The entertainment included twelve "party girls" who were being paid just over $1,000 for their part in the evening’s fun. Unfortunately for Arbuckle the party came to an end much too soon. Someone saw the girls and Arbuckle stripping on a table in the backe room of the roadhouse and called the cops. Other notables at the Roadhouse that evening were Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky and Joseph Schenck. They paid $100,000 in hush money to the Boston’s District Attorney and Mayor James Curley to keep the incident quiet.

Virginia Rapp arrived in Hollywood around 1919. A lovely brunette model who had caught the eye of Mack Sennett and was offered a job. Virginia started working in minor parts and apparently was sleeping around. This fact became so well-known that rumor had it that Virginia had passed along a rather sensitive infestation to many of Sennett’s crew that the studio was closed down and fumigated. Then Virginia got a part in the film "Fantasy" and later met Fatty Arbuckle and appeared with him in "Joey Loses a Sweetheart". Afterwards she was noticed by William Fox, and he took her under contract. There was talk of her starring in a new Fox feature called "Twilight Baby".

Fatty had fallen for Virginia and soon after meeting her, insisted that his friend Bambina Maude Delmont bring Virginia along to a party to celebrate Fatty’s new $3 million contract with Paramount. He had decided to hold the party in San Francisco so he could drive up the coast in his new custom-made Pierce Arrow. On Labor Day weekend two cars of revelers headed up the highway including Fatty and his friends Lowell Sherman and Freddy Fishback in the Pierce Arrow. The other vehicle included Bambina Maude Delmont, Virginia Rappe and other starlets. Arriving late on Saturday night in San Francisco they checked into the luxurious Hotel St. Francis. Fatty took three adjoining suited on the 12th floor.

After their arrival Fatty called in to his bootleg connection and the party got going. It lasted all weekend. On Labor Day afternoon – Monday, September 5, 1921 the party was still going strong. The crowd had grown to about 50 people. Virginia and the other girls were drinking gin-laced Orange Blossoms, some of the guests had shed their tops to do the "shimmy", other guests were vanishing into back bedrooms for private love sessions and the empty booze bottles were piling up.

Around 3 in the afternoon Fatty, who was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe grabbed Virginia and took the intoxicated actress into the bedroom of Suite 1221. Later Bambina Maude Delmont would testify that the festivities came to a stop when screams were heard from the bedroom. She also stated that weird moans were coming from behind the door. A short time late, Fatty came out with ripped pajamas and told the girls to "go in and get her dressed…she makes too much noise". When Virginia continued to scream, he yelled for her to shut up, or "I’ll throw you out the window".

Bambina and another showgirl, Alice Blake, found Virginia nearly nude, lying on the unmade bed. She was moaning and told them that she was dying. When Bambina tried to dress her she said that all of her clothing was so torn "that one could hardly recognize what garments they were." At the Pine Street Hospital Virginia slipped into a coma and died on September 10. The San Francisco Deputy Coroner, Michael Brown managed to put a stop to a cover-up and discovered that Virginia’s bladder had been ruptured, causing her to die of peritonitis. A police investigation was begun.

Fatty Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rapp. The authorities blamed her death on "external pressure" from Arbuckle’s weight being pressed down on her during sex. Arbuckle began to feel the heat. There was a lot of speculation about Virginia’s tragic death. People began protesting against Arbuckle movies and finally his films were pulled from general release. Fatty was held without bail in the San Francisco jail while his lawyers were trying to have the charges reduced from murder to manslaughter. The trail began in November of 1921 with Arbuckle taking the stand to deny any wrong-doing. He didn’t express any remorse or sorrow for Virginia’s death. His lawyers attempted to make Virginia sound like a "loose" woman, who slept around with everybody everywhere. Finally the jury favored acquitting Fatty 10-2 after 43 hours of deliberating and the judge declared a mistrial.

At the second trail, the jury was hung at 10-2 for conviction. Fatty was out on bail and was forced to sell his Los Angeles home and his fleet of luxury cars to par his lawyer’s fees. He was acquitted in his third trail, which ended on April 22, 1922. This was due to confusing testimony by 40 drunken witnesses and no physical evidence. Fatty was free but not forgiven. Paramount canceled his $3 million contract, his unreleased films were scrapped and his career was over. Arbuckle was banned from acting in Hollywood productions. Only a few friends like Buster Keaton stayed by his side. In later years Arbuckle adopted the name William Goodrich and was able to gain employment as a gag man and as a comedy director.

In 1932 Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner Brothers to star under his own name in a series of two-reel comedies to be filmed at Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn. The films were very successful in the U.S. but banned in the U.K. due to the now 10 year old scandal. Arbuckle finished filming the last of the two-reelers on June 28, 1933 and the next day he was signed by Warner Brothers to make a feature length film. However later that night he suffered an heart attack and died in his sleep. Fatty was 46 years old. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

And Virginia? For the answer to that, one must venture to Hollywood Memorial Park where the spirit of Virginia Rappe weeps and cries out near her simple grave. Anguishing over a promising life and career cut so short.
Published: 11/28/2009
Bouquets and Brickbats