In his new book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt takes an exhaustively detailed and utterly fascinating look at what he calls “the scandal that changed Hollywood”: the Labor Day 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe, and the trials (and ultimate ruin) of comic superstar Fatty Arbuckle for his part in that death. The scandal was a turning point for the young movie industry. “Previously, the ‘film colony’ lifestyle was presented in fan magazines and newspaper gossip columns as a carefree extended adolescence,” Merritt writes. But after the Rappe affair, the common wisdom changed: “Hollywood was filled with spoiled idlers, living beyond society’s norms, going from party to party, fueled by jazz music, alcohol, narcotics, and deviant sex.” And the Arbuckle scandal was just the beginning of this nascent culture war; after the jump, a few of the classic Hollywood scandals that would make TMZ blush.
The death of Virgina Rappe
The facts are these: on Labor Day weekend in 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rented a suite of rooms at a San Francisco hotel and had a bit of a party. Among those in attendance were Maude Delmont, a woman of ill Hollywood repute, and Virginia Rappe, a young and mostly unknown actress. Several days later, Rappe was dead of a ruptured bladder, and Delmont was telling anyone who’d listen that Rappe’s injury and death were the result of a barbaric rape by Arbuckle. The comic was charged with rape and manslaughter, and was tried and convicted by the newspapers (particularly those of William Randolph Hearst) before his real trial even began. Arbuckle’s lucrative career was over — his films were pulled from cinemas and his newly minted million-dollar Paramount contract was voided, even after a third trial (following two hung juries) resulted in not only an acquittal, but an apology from the jury.
The death of Thomas Ince
The only silent-era scandal to give the Arbuckle/Rappe affair a run for his money is the notorious, still unexplained death of Thomas Ince: actor, filmmaker, early studio mogul, and possible victim of William Randolph Hearst’s wrath. Ince was on Hearst’s yacht on November 16, 1925, along with (among others) the newspaper tycoon, Hearst’s mistress (and actress) Marion Davies, Charles Chaplin, and columnist Louella Parsons. But before the weekend was out, Ince had been quietly taken from the boat to his estate in Benedict Canyon, where he subsequently died. The official cause of death was a heart attack, perhaps brought on by bootleg liquor. But the Hollywood rumor mill had it that Ince had been shot by the jealous Hearst, who had either caught Ince with Davies or mistaken him for Chaplin (with whom Hearst was convinced she was cheating). Newspaper accounts varied, an incomplete official investigation was closed, Ince’s body was cremated, and Parsons was given a lifetime contract for the Hearst papers — to keep her quiet, the stories went. Peter Bogdanovich dramatized the most credible of the rumors in his wonderful 2001 film The Cat’s Meow.
The murder of William Desmond Taylor
Taylor was a prolific actor and director, but he’s mostly remembered among cinephiles for his mysterious 1922 death. He was found in his bungalow, and a doctor on the scene pronounced Taylor dead from stomach hemorrhage. And then somebody rolled him over and discovered the gunshot wound. Because he was carrying cash and wearing valuable jewelry, robbery was ruled out; various suspects were questioned and considered, including spurned lovers, embezzlers, and stage mothers. Though no one was ever charged with the crime, the most fascinating theory was that Taylor’s murder was arranged by the cocaine dealer of former Keystone star Mabel Normand (who’d co-starred with Arbuckle and Chaplin, among others). Taylor loved Normand dearly and had offered, after her recent relapse, to help federal authorities catch her suppliers. She was the last person known to have seen him alive, but was ultimately cleared in the case. (Fun fact: combine her last name and his middle name, and you get Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond.)
The shooting of Courtland S. Dines
The Taylor murder wasn’t Normand’s last brush with death. On New Year’s Day, 1924, she and friend Edna Purviance (one of Chaplin’s favorite leading ladies) were enjoying afternoon cocktails with oilman Courtland S. Dines. For reasons unclear, when Normand’s chauffeur Horace Greer (aka Joe Kelley) came to pick her up that evening, he became convinced that she was in distress or that the women were being held against their will, and shot Dines three times — with Normand’s pistol. Dines survived the incident, but Normand’s career didn’t; she retired from films and died in 1930, only 37 years old.
The death of Wallace Reid
Handsome, charismatic, and brave, Reid was an early film star who became known for daredevil thrillers like The Roaring Road and Too Much Speed. He often performed his own stunts, and an on-set accident during production of the 1919 film The Valley of the Giant caused him to take up prescription morphine. It was initially a stopgap so he could keep working, but it quickly became a crippling addiction. This was well before a stint in rehab was par for the celebrity course; studio heads kept his secret quiet until it was too late. A stay in a sanitarium, intended to cure the addiction, ended up only making him sicker — first with pneumonia, then with the heart attack that killed him.
The death of Olive Thomas
The story of Olive Thomas seemed the quintessential tale of Hollywood success: a beautiful model turned Ziegfeld Follies girl turned silent film actress who fell into the arms of Jack Pickford, younger brother of “America’s sweetheart” Mary. But her 1920 death was anything but a storybook ending. The couple was on a second honeymoon in Paris, enjoying the Parisian nightlife, when Thomas made a fatal mistake late one night. She accidentally ingested what she thought was drinking water; it was mercury bichloride liquid solution, a topical medication prescribed to her husband to treat syphilis sores. She was rushed to a Parisian hospital, where she died five days later. The death was ruled an accident, though some whispered that it was a suicide (brought on by revelations of Pickford’s infidelity), while others accused Pickford of giving the solution to her on purpose.
The death of Thelma Todd
Brassy, funny, and achingly pretty, Thelma “Hot Toddy” Todd was a terrific comedienne and excellent foil to several comic legends, including the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. She was only 30 years old when she died in 1935 from carbon monoxide poisoning. But it was an unlikely suicide, and not just because her career and personal life were on the upswing: there were signs of foul play, from Todd’s bloody lip to her clean shoes (in contrast to the mud outside of the car). Some said she’d been targeted by gangster “Lucky” Luciano, who wanted to involve her new and successful café in his illegal gambling operations. Others pointed the finger at her possessive lover, director Roland West, whom the whisperers said either locked her in the garage to keep her from going out to a party, or killed her on his yacht and staged the suicide. West seldom worked again after Todd’s death, and was rumored to have confessed to her murder on his deathbed, though the investigation was never reopened.
The child brides of Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin was the most recognizable and beloved of all silent film stars. But he also had a troublesome predilection for very young women. His first wife, Mildred Harris, was only 17 years old (and Chaplin was 29) when they were married in 1918; the marriage was prompted by a pregnancy scare. They divorced in 1920; four years later, Chaplin quietly married 16-year-old Lita Grey in Mexico, again due to a pregnancy, and when their son was born six months later, Grey and Charles Jr. were sent into hiding, the subsequent birth announcement fudging his date of birth. His third wife, Paulette Goddard, was 21 when they began dating, but his fourth and final wife, Oona O’Neill, was 18 (to his 54) when they wed — in the midst of a paternity trial and shortly after Chaplin had been acquitted for violating the Mann Act.
The social life of Clara Bow
Gorgeous, charismatic, and electrifying onscreen, Clara Bow was one of the cinema’s first sex symbols. Her biggest hit, It, was named after the indefinable sex appeal that she brought to her roles, a quality that was later personified by stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor — and like them, Hollywood did its best to chew up Bow and spit her out. Trouble first came in the form Daisy Devoe, Bow’s secretary and confidante, who tried to blackmail the star by threatening to spill her secrets. Bow called her bluff and pressed charges, but the subsequent trial gave Devoe the opportunity to claim Bow was a drunken woman of loose morals. The tabloid publication Coast Reporter picked up that ball and ran with it, publishing a series of scandalous articles in which they claimed Bow drank, did drugs, and slept with men, women, and even (gulp) dogs. There were accusations of threesomes, public sex, exhibitionism, venereal disease, incest, and even an orgy with the USC football team. The rag’s publisher was ultimately thrown in jail (he offered to stop printing the stories in exchange for a cash payout), but the image remained (buoyed in later years by Kenneth Anger’s notorious — and mostly inaccurate — Hollywood Babylon books), and Bow ultimately retired from the silver screen.
The suicide of Peg Entwistle
Surprisingly little-known fact: the famed “HOLLYWOOD” sign that pops up in all of your La-La-Land establishing shots originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” to advertise a 1923 real estate development located above the Hollywood hills. It was only intended to be displayed for a year and a half, but it was so widely liked that it stayed up — and there it stood on September 16, 1932, when a struggling actress named Peg Entwistle climbed up the “H” and never climbed down. A Broadway success who’d come out west to make her fortune in the movies, Entwistle’s big break, Thirteen Women, was a flop, and subsequent offers were not forthcoming. Before she leaped from the famed sign to her death, she left behind a suicide note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Legend has it that she was to be offered a major role on the very next day, but that kind of touch is often apocryphal in stories like this — one last, sad twist in the story of a fallen star.