eventy years after his death, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle — the 300-pound comedian who once outweighed Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the box office — has found an unlikely resurrectionist in Jerry Stahl. Like Arbuckle, the author of Permanent Midnight is no stranger to the needle and the damage done. But it’s Fatty who had the dubious honor of sparking Hollywood’s first tabloid sex scandal in 1921, when an unfortunate strumpet named Virginia Rappe fell ill at a party in his hotel room and died as a result of an earlier, botched abortion. Falsely accused of fatally raping the poor girl with a Coke bottle, a booze-addled Fatty stood trial three times before being acquitted. I, Fatty is Stahl’s wisecracking, depravity-steeped and deviously funny reimagination of Fatty’s large, short life and the public crusade that ultimately brought him down. Here, Stahl vents to Nerve about George W. Bush, the King of Pop and Ron Howard’s rubber fetish. — Emily Mead
I’ve always been attracted to guys who’ve just blown every chance they had and lived out their worst, most destructive self-loathing tendencies. Fatty just seemed to be the king, the archetype for all professional self-ruiners. I found this detail about how Fatty got so strung out and lost so much weight that he had to wear fat padding in public. It was so pathetic, such a great example of the double life that shame-crazed people and addicts sometimes live. It got me interested in him. It’s such a demented tale.
Courtesy of Kenneth Anger’s rabidly entertaining misinformation-fest Hollywood Babylon, Arbuckle’s image in contemporary culture can pretty much be summed up in two words: Coke bottle. Unless you’re a silent movie freak and study the era — in which case you have your choice of fantastic, in-depth biographies of the man — chances are when you think "Fatty Arbuckle," you think "fat, degenerate sex killer." It was something to build on.
So it wasn’t the era as much as the person that attracted you?
Well, I love that era in America, too, when heroin was legal — the housewife’s friend, you know — and you could sell it over the counter, but aspirin was restricted. It was such a depraved time.
Wasn’t cocaine legal then, too?
Yeah, it had just been introduced as this stuff called Vin Mariani [coca wine]. And Coca-Cola was manufactured by a guy who was trying to get over his heroin addiction and decided a coke-laced product would really help.
That’s one way of kicking it.
Hey, it always worked for me. It was a very twisted era. Everybody was poor, like, ten minutes ago. One minute you’re a gardener, and the next you’re Rudolph Valentino. It was just this skeevy, instant gazillionaire situation and it really wasn’t elegant at all. It was kind of grubby, especially for the guys who had to operate under those viciously hot lights. People kind of stank, and their clothes were funky.
What made Fatty’s scandal so scandalous?
There was a very right-wing, Christian, moral crusade against Hollywood as the corrupter of American youth, sort of like today. But Fatty was the one guy they all thought was innocent, that even the real churchgoers felt was this safe, genderless guy. So it was such a betrayal when he was even accused [of rape and murder]. And there was this horrible mental image of the great sweating beast atop the virginal waif.
And with that heartbreaking baby face . . .
He looks like a fetus. So he got all that backlash, and that was it. How could he be funny again with that image in people’s brains? It would be like if Ronald McDonald went on a raping spree.
Did Arbuckle set the template for the modern celebrity sex scandal and press coverage thereof?
If he didn’t set the template, he at least set the bar pretty high. Template-wise, everything happening then was kind of happening for the first time. Arbuckle was the first million-a-year actor. The film business itself was brand new, and a patriotic Christian "reform movement" already blamed it for corrupting America’s youth. [Newspaper publisher] Randolph Hearst invented story after story about Fatty and the virgin waif he fatally violated and crushed. In reality, she was a prostitute prone to alcoholic fits who’d had an abortion the day before. These lurid descriptions kept the the heat turned high in the hearts of right-minded Christians determined to abort the soul-degenerating sin factory that was Hollywood in its fetal state. The subext, of course, was anti-Semitism, since the studios were owned by Jews. That’s why Adolf Zukor drafted Will Hays, a Christian drip from Indiana, and set up the Hays Commission, the all-powerful moral arbiter and script censor. Fatty begat Hays, who begat Rob and Laura Petrie in twin beds.
It could be argued, on the crudest level, that the public’s schizoid status as voyeur and vampire when it comes to movie stars — wanting simultaneously to observe their wild magnificence and ruin it — was marched out for its initial run when Fatty met Virginia.
Describe Hollywood’s sexual culture in the ’20s.
Hearst described Arbuckle’s fatal party as a "sex orgy." It’s no accident this term was employed: sex orgies were a hushed-up but popular pastime among well-heeled gentlemen of the era. Most of these, from what I could dig up, involved studio heads and execs and male movie stars cavorting with female prostitutes. Heroin was sold over the counter by Bayer, and cocaine (still in those aforementioned Coca-Cola bottles) were still legal, so throw that in the mix. Mabel Normand, the original bad girl movie star — and Fatty’s comedy partner — had a penchant for snorting cocaine, doing panty-free cartwheels in front of film crews, and, occasionally, peeing on Mack Sennett’s lap.
Unlike, say, Weimar Berlin, where a nihilistic "anything goes" attitude gave sex and debauchery a public airing, the America of the time was the carnal opposite. Those who indulged in the most behind-closed-doors flesh parties tended to be the most publicly opposed to immorality. But America has always been a nation of Jimmy Swaggarts.
What was your most amusing sexual discovery about that era?
You hear about Jackie Gleason stocking his party train with showgirls for the ride down to Miami. When Fatty rode cross country on the Paramount train, he traveled with his wife, with whom he rarely-to-never fornicated. Fatty was not exactly a sexual being. He was a cuddler. He was comfortable in drag and women of all ages loved to fuss over him. But, as Freud used to say, stranger than any particular sexual desire is the absence of any desire whatsoever. That said, the most intriguing sex fact of the era I stumbled upon was more or less Arbuckle adjacent. When the LAPD searched the home of William Desmond Taylor, the distinguished director found murdered not long after Arbuckle found himself staring down death row, they discovered a walk-in humidor for storing womens’ panties. Which would certainly make for an arresting MTV Cribs moment.
The ill-fated starlet: what intrigued you about her, and her demise?
Virginia Rappe — pronounced Rap-PAY, thanks to the accent — stands out as the goddess of actress-model-whatevers everywhere. Peripheral, minimally talented, and a former child prostitute, she was doomed before she ever met Arbuckle. Fatty had the bad luck to be there when her pin was pulled out. There was a lot of money to made in portraying him as a debauched behemoth, and her as an innocent flower. And the forces invested in making a dollar, as ever, overwhelmed those who saw it as their mission that justice be done. Ultimately, Virginia and Fatty were both victims — but not of each other.
Where’s the fun in being a rich and famous actor anymore?
I think people are so frustrated, and have such fucked up, lonely lives that there’s definitely this giant hole that has to be filled, they need all that validation. And Fatty, how’s he going to make a living? The same shit that got him laughed at in the second grade and made him drop out also made him a millionaire. It’s tough to be a freak.
It’s been tough on Michael Jackson, too.
There’s a certain seduction to being a geek, especially if you dress it up elegantly. He might not realize it, but now he’s definitely the geek – and I mean that in the traditional, bite-the-heads-off-chickens-outside-the-carnival sense, not the pocket-protector sense. The story – whether it’s Arbuckle’s or Jackson’s – it’s pretty much the same, but just a little more co-opted, a little more sanctioned today. There’s an entire industry built around following this kind of stuff.
Who are some candidates for the next big Hollywood scandal?
You mean, people who are very decent, like Ron Howard? Like maybe they have double lives and there’s some rubber wear involved? I don’t know. I do think everybody is leading some viciously toxic second life. If they’re not, that’s somehow even scarier. In that case, the world is really a terrifying place, and I don’t ever want to leave the house.
How do you think Fatty would have been dealt with by the contemporary media?
Self-destruction is a wing of show business today, so it’s almost more shocking when you have somebody that doesn’t do that kind of stuff. I never knew being a junkie would be a career move, but it worked out for me. Now, Fatty could be on Oprah. He could host his own show.
Is that all that’s changed?
No. Look at Bush. He’s saying that his values aren’t Hollywood’s values. That’s the same fucking thing Will Hays said when Zukor hired him to make the movies "decent" for young Christian Americans. It’s like nothing has changed. Bush is literally running on the “I’m not Hollywood” ticket, which is a kind of anti-Semitism, because Jews run Hollywood.
And don’t forget gays!
Oh, all the people who would end up in the camps, yeah.
What is your take on the current crop of celebrity sex scandals? Are you a student of the Jenna Lewis and Paris Hilton tapes?
Maybe it’s me, but I found any five minutes of a post-steroid Jerry Lewis helming the Muscular Dystrophy telethon every bit as riveting as Paris and her lovemate working their magic. It’s not that seeing good-looking, semi-famous people fuck is not hot — it’s just not scandalous. A family-friendly, famous-as-the-president funny man turning out to be a rapist and killer — that takes it to a whole other level. If it turned out Jerry Lewis was banging and snuffing teenaged MD sufferers in the telethon dressing rooms — that would be scandalous. I feel awful even thinking that. And I imagine that kind of awfulness is what people felt when Fatty Arbuckle was accused of his heinous crime.
By comparison, think of your reaction when you learned that Michael Jackson spooned with wine-drunk, nine-year-old boys. I’d put that in the "creepy and awful" category, but not exactly unexpected. Far from it. These days, no matter how egregious any celebrity behavior, the one thing it never really seems to be is surprising. n°
I, Fatty: a novel,