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Girth of a Nation

Illustration by Rick Sealock

Jerry Stahl’s new book, I, Fatty, is a fictionalized memoir of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the silent-film comic whose vertiginous success ended in 1921 during a Labor Day party in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. As readers of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon well know, a day of illegal drinking and lascivious shenanigans cartwheeled into chaos, with one young woman, Virginia Rappe (doesn’t rhyme with gape), collapsing naked in Arbuckle’s room. A few days later Rappe was dead as vaudeville — as was Arbuckle’s career.

Stahl’s book is not a forensic timeline of facts stuccoed over with some imagined dialogue. Instead, the author of the heroin memoir Permanent Midnight moves inside the comedian’s head and tries to envision a first-person account of early Hollywood. What Stahl sees is a morally cratered landscape populated by grifters, dope fiends and depraved alkies — starting with Arbuckle’s dad and, inching up the evolutionary ladder of father figures, includes Mack Sennett and Paramount studio boss Adolph Zukor.

I spoke to Stahl about I, Fatty at a coffeehouse that neither of us frequents, in a part of town we’ve both moved out of. He and actress Ann Magnuson had recently visited Virginia Rappe’s Hollywood grave, only to find it decorated with flowers and “a plastic Jesus wrapped in barbed wire.” The more I asked about his interest in the Arbuckle scandal, the more Stahl spoke affectionately of “Fatty,” as though the big man would be joining our table any moment.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: Why Fatty Arbuckle?

JERRY STAHL: I love stories of ruin, and this seemed like a world-class festival of public shame and humiliation. Having done a little research myself. On some level the book is about Hollywood, but on another I’m just trying to get in touch with my inner Fatty.

 

You mean the shock of recognition?

I’m so over writing about myself — so, of course, I try to find this alien subject and end up relating to him more than anything I’ve written about myself. Here’s a guy whose behavior basically does not change, but everything he was loved for on Monday is utterly reviled by the public on Tuesday. The idea of him being chased by cute little bathing beauties one day renders him the next, like, Porky Pig on crack. That’s what I really loved about him.

 

How did you go about mapping out Arbuckle’s Hollywood?

I wanted to make the story less about the mechanics of show business and more about the core weirdness that went into the inception of the whole strange phenomenon that is Hollywood. Chaplin was a great movie, but it was this sepia-toned [fantasy] in which nobody smelled. In real life everybody stank, people were blotto. Nobody in Hollywood ended up on a winning streak.

 

Did Hollywood represent a change in the magnitude of celebrity as we had known it from the theater and vaudeville?

In the beginning, studios didn’t even want the actors to have names so that they could be interchangeable and be thrown away. Then they got hip to the fact that if they led these outrageous lives, they would get coverage in the papers, and so they encouraged their actors to live in excess.

 

I was pleasantly surprised to read that Arbuckle enjoyed a kind of second act after the scandal — he did work again, under a pseudonym.

But that was almost sadder in a way. Here was a guy who chooses initially as his comeback name “Will B. Goode.” He had sort of a comeback when William Randolph Hearst hired him to direct Marion Davies — after Hearst had ruined him in his newspapers.

 

Arbuckle was the first blacklisted actor — were you trying to consciously foreshadow the political blacklists?

I don’t do anything consciously — I’d be flattering us all if I claimed that. I tended to look at the emotional underpinnings of a guy who was so shattered by his father, so eviscerated emotionally, that by the time he had achieved everything and then lost it, he could feel comfortable with himself. When he had it all, it creeped him out that he was successful. Finally, when he was exposed, however unjustly, as being the complete satanic monster bastard that his father always called him, he could relax!

 

Would a Fatty Arbuckle scandal be allowed to occur a generation later, when Hollywood had created a damage-control industry to protect the Errol Flynns and Robert Mitchums?

Fatty died for their sins. He gave rise to the very tabloid industry that led to [the studios’] damage-control industry.

 

Are there any parallels to today?

There was the drug thing — Bayer could sell heroin but aspirin was dicey. And the Christian right was coming down hard on Hollywood. At the end of the day, not much has changed. Substitute [Republican Senator] Rick Santorum for Billy Sunday.

 

What are the lures and dangers of chronicling historical figures?

In L.A., you sense that these people sweated, fucked up and got drunk and fell down the stairs in the very place you’ve done those same things. If you’re stuck in this town the way we are for whatever reasons, you feel closer to them than you do to your own relatives. I had the luxury of fabrication, but somehow the writing takes over, and you end up occupying a world that occupies this one.

 

Such as?

A house I lived in on Benton Way was a block away from the house Fatty lived in on Coronado Street with his first wife and her parents. My first encounter with fame when I came to Hollywood was when my ex-wife was working at a producer’s house that used to be John Candy’s home. When I sat on the toilet seat, I thought, John Candy sat here.

 

What did you learn from your research?

Hollywood was a place for prostitutes who couldn’t find work. So much has changed. [Here Stahl takes a final sip of his tea.]

We haven’t become more tolerant, it’s just that prurience has become more legitimized. Public self-destruction has become a wing of show business, and Arbuckle was its involuntary founder.

 

I, FATTY | By JERRY STAHL | Bloomsbury | 256 pages | $24 hardcover

Jerry Stahl will read from I, Fatty at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Thurs., July 22, at 7 p.m; Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., on Sat., July 24, at 7:30 p.m; and Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third St., Santa Monica, on Tues., July 27, at 7:30 p.m.


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