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Book Review - Room 1219 by Greg Merritt
Why I Chose to Read Room 1219
I’m fascinated by celebrity scandals. Not the scandals themselves so much, but rather the societal implications that rise along with them. Sometimes it seems like the slightest misdeed, a poorly chosen outfit, a rumored pregnancy brings about a constant re-hashing and speculation by both the media and the public-at-large. One whiff of an actual scandal, though, and the rumors—not to mention the opinionated, final dictates as to what really happened, despite having virtually no access to the vast majority of the information—fly like discarded wrapping paper on Christmas Day. Trial by jury be damned, the court of public opinion holds tremendous sway and it can destroy the lives of the guilty and innocent alike. Conjecture and gossip hold more “truth” than the reality of any given situation, especially when blood is in the water and the sharks are circling for the kill.
None of this is new, of course. Human behavior, such as it is, is rife for the application of Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” The slightest hint of weakness calls for the annihilation of prey by those who assume the collective role of predator.
Americans - and I would argue westernized countries, in general - are funny about our celebrities. We place them on pedestals for their talent and celebrate their all-to-human downfalls. Why this mindset is prevalent when it comes to celebrity is another discussion entirely, but it’s important to note. It was with this in mind that—after seeing countless examples in the media and online comment sections over the years—I began to wonder where this fascination/revulsion of celebrities began. For that, I discovered, I had to look to a time well before the computer was a glimmer of an idea in Alan Turing’s brain; a time long before the advent of television, never mind twenty-four hour news coverage; a time even before Hollywood was firmly established.
I knew virtually nothing of the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal when my search for where the fascination with the cult of celebrity began. All I’d ever heard was bits and pieces of his sordid fall from grace, having been implicated in the death of an actress in San Francisco and subsequently tried. I didn’t know the outcome of the trial (or that there’d been three!) but I’d sure heard the rumors: he’d raped the actress with a bottle; he’d done inexplicable things with an ice cube; he’d crushed the poor, young starlet with his immense weight; the actress was an easy woman who’d recently had an abortion.
This is where Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt came in.
Historic Vaudeville Footage
Prior to the invention of movies, vaudeville was all the rage and among the many performers who traveled throughout the United States and abroad providing entertainment was one Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Far from the typically-handsome screen idol, Arbuckle was portly and moon-faced, but he was, by all accounts, a genius at slapstick comedy. He transitioned from stage to silent film, and by ten years into the twentieth century he was a revered silent movie star with wealth to match. Due to his very public downfall in late 1921, he was eventually eclipsed in popularity by Buster Keaton, who Arbuckle mentored, as well as both Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope, both of whom Arbuckle discovered. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood provides an in-depth look at the first celebrity scandal.
No story happens in a vacuum, and this holds true for the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal. Author Greg Merritt seems to hold this to heart, and he adeptly sets the scene by including what may, at first glance, seem like extraneous information—the minor “characters”; the interconnected relationships between not only the stars and the public, but also between the stars and early Hollywood; and the social mores and expectations of the early part of the twentieth century.
Wisely, Merritt delves into the biographies of Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe prior to and during their lives among the Hollywood elite. Of particular interest is that both were self-made, coming from less than ideal beginnings. Rappe, especially, was well ahead of her time as a woman living in the early twentieth century, constantly reinventing herself along the way, including a stint as a fashion designer. By including this information, Merritt is easily able to separate fact from fiction and dispel the myths of who both were at the time of Rappe’s death. It also serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when people find themselves with money and notoriety they’re ill-equipped to effectively manage.
Viewing the scandal as a whole and within the confines of its societal context is important, and Merritt succeeds on this point. Alcohol use isn’t much of a story these days unless the user does something incredibly stupid while imbibing, but during prohibition—which began in 1920, the year prior to Rappe’s death—alcohol was illegal. Not only was Arbuckle throwing a swanky, Labor Day party at an upscale hotel, he and his guests were breaking the law and glamorizing a lifestyle of excess that threatened the perceived wholesome, American values at the time, and a woman died. Merritt makes it easy to understand how and why the media and the public reacted with the level of outrage they did. In today’s world outrage lasts only until the next scandal. In the 1920s the Arbuckle scandal tested laws and destroyed livelihoods—there wasn’t any hiding behind a pseudonym online and creating an Etsy shop to bring in income. Your good name was about all you had, and once that was destroyed you were pretty well done for.
Additional information is interspersed among the party and trial details and their aftermath. The first is the history of how Hollywood began and the shifts that occurred when silent short films became full-length, and then moved on to full-length “talkies,” thanks, in part, to the race to combine sound and film. This created the beginnings of the studio system and helped position Hollywood as the place to make movies. The second is an in-depth look at the societal reaction and the resulting censorship and blacklisting, which nearly destroyed Hollywood in its infancy, and boycotts based on public outrage; it seems Hollywood has been about the financial returns since its inception.
The one downside to incorporating all the collective information is the way it’s presented. Merritt jumps back and forth tying everything together and this makes the text feel jumbled and the story threads sometimes difficult to keep straight.
While Merritt does present his own interpretation of the evidence he was able to compile concerning the events of the ill-fated Labor Day party in September of 1921, he presents as full and unbiased a picture as can be expected. Not only has more than ninety years passed, but the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, like many scandals since, tend to elicit strong opinions as to his guilt or innocence, making creating a relatively impartial accounting of the information an amazing feat.
Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood is just as much as story about Hollywood and society as a whole as it is about Roscoe Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. As such, it will interest not only those who want to learn more about Arbuckle and Rappe, but also those who find interesting the juxtaposition of Hollywood and the society that celebrated its fledgling stars.
The Verdict Explained
- The breadth of information, including the bios of those involved and their lives leading up to Labor Day 1921
- The relatively unbiased way the information was presented
- Established the societal context and presented the information within those confines
- Tied in Hollywood, pre- and post-scandal, and examined the effects the scandal had on the fledgling film industry
- Addressed and cleared up many of the myths surrounding the scandal
- The information sometimes feels jumbled and unwieldy.
- Hard to keep track of storyline threads.