Book Review: Room 1219
You know Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, that impossibly agile fat man who, at one time, was almost as popular as Sir Charles Chaplin. You also know the scandal that shattered his reputation and destroyed his film comedy career. Hell, you may even know about that famous bottle. But as Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt amply demonstrates – you know nothing.
The strange case of Fatty Arbuckle is an enigma. While the incident in question, the alleged rape in a San Francisco hotel room on Labor Day 1921 and the subsequent death of fringe starlet Virgina Rappe is one of the most discussed and written about Hollywood scandals ever, it’s also one of the most distorted, largely from all that sensationalist writing and discussing. In Room 1219, Merritt sets out to right many wrongs by tracking down real facts, not just innuendos, and by providing the context specific to the time and place. Rather than acting as a “journalist” as so many authors of books and pieces about the Arbuckle debacle have, Merritt functions as a journalist. He doesn’t concern himself with conclusions so much as presentation of information.
Of course, as Room 1219 points on repeatedly – there are exactly two people who know what happened in that room and they’re both dead. One might think that after not one, not two, but three criminal trials (the first two resulted in hung juries, the third in an acquittal for Arbuckle), there would be a wealth of facts in evidence. Not so. As Merritt demonstrates, the charges were thin to start with, the witness list was made up of a dubious cast of characters with perhaps self-serving motives, and the “evidence” relies too heavily on the rumor, gossip, and slander printed by the yellow press of the day.
Despite the objective approach taken in Room 1219, Merritt does a thorough job of righting some wrongs. He advocates a reassessment of Virginia Rappe, providing a more balanced portrait of her than the now almost hundred year old media smear campaign does (though she did apparently have a habit of getting drunk and taking off her clothes at parties). He also provides a fair portrait of Arbuckle and which parts of his version events may have been self-serving (though understandably so).
There have been many many books and articles written about this scandal and, on the whole, they’re entertaining. But if you’re looking to get past the shock factor of the tale and beyond the Confidential, Hollywood Babylon style expose, then Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood is the book you want to read.