My 9/11, and Fatty Arbuckle’s
I’ll never remember the moment those planes hit the towers. I’ll always remember where I was, but I’ll never remember being there, because where I was was asleep. I was at sea and asleep, in the most literal ways possible (never mind the metaphorical), stationed aboard an aircraft carrier just off the coast of San Diego, getting my rest in after pulling the night-watch on radar. Somebody woke me up and told me the whole division had to muster in Ready Room 6. “Because of what happened,” he said. “What happened?” I asked. And that’s how I learned.
Our job was to track and identify contacts, both surface and air. I worked air at the time, so you can imagine the shiver I got when, less than a year later, I was back home from the Navy and saw a news story about how al Qaeda had actually planned to do an additional hit that day, on San Diego’s Naval fleet.
The exercises we’d been doing off the coast of San Diego were in preparation for a six-month cruise that would take us all the way into the Arabian Sea. By the time we got there, a few months after 9/11, the climate was so hostile we couldn’t even pull into many of the Middle Eastern ports we’d visited just two years earlier. So we stayed out to sea more continuously than ever, 97 straight days at one point, and monitored our radar picture more vigilantly than ever, too. It was pretty tense sometimes, but it was more tedious than anything, all that extra-close watching we had to do–the tedium a direct result of the tension.
My chief petty officer–the senior enlisted man in charge of our 70-person division of operators–was named Arbuckle, and that’s only appropriate, because the most famous man ever to carry the name Arbuckle had his life destroyed on September 11, a different one, ninety years ago rather than ten.
Some people will object to the comparison. They’ll say that comparing 9/11 to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal is obscene–that it trivializes Fatty. My response to that is two-fold: (1) That’s nonsense, no way is Fatty Arbuckle more important than 9/11; I shall hear no more of such talk; and (2) I’m not comparing.
Or I’m comparing but I’m not equating. The difference is only all the difference in the world. Not everybody made it away from September 11th, the day itself, as clean and lucky as I did, but most people certainly did. Most people didn’t get hit with anything–or even know somebody who got hit with anything–until afterwards, when all the collateral damage started. There’s no way to talk about that damage without getting political, which is something I’d like to avoid for now. Suffice to say, it’s not over yet. It probably never will be.
But as a country, both in the main and on the whole, we’re doing a whole lot better than Arbuckle after his own 9/11. (I’m talking about the silent-film star, not my old chief.) To a lot of readers, the story will be familiar. An orgy at a San Francisco hotel gone bad: Fatty and two male friends from Hollywood along with several women. One of the women was named Virginia Rappe–pronounced with an accent on the end, not in the way that would indicate a self-fulfilling surname. She got raped anyway, or that was the story. Fatty denied it. It became the worst publicity Coke bottles would receive for another 64 years–but, for Fatty, the publicity was much worse.
Then Virginia Rappe died, and that’s when it got really bad for Fatty. It had already been really bad for Virginia, of course, which explains the dying, but now, for Fatty, it was in some ways worse, because Fatty had to live through what came next: the trials, the social ostracization, the loss of work. Arbuckle had been one of the biggest stars known to Hollywood–he’d made a million a year back when a million was money. Now his friends started to fall back and drop away until there was just him, Fatty, villified and ridiculed and humiliated. (One admirable exception to this is Buster Keaton, who publicly spoke up for his old mentor.)
This Virginia Rappe–she’d known health problems in the past. She’d had a condition called chronic cystitis that would have made drinking a dangerous idea even if she hadn’t been drinking bathtub bootleg (this was Prohibition), and she had more back-alley abortions to her name than any 26-year-old should have. These are all probable contributors to her death. So is Fatty’s fatness, which did nothing to mitigate his humiliation when it was time to stand trial for manslaughter.
After two hung-jury mistrials and an acquittal, the jury that came through with the not-guilty verdict actually composed a very sincere and somber apology to Arbuckle for what he had been through. But that wasn’t going to give him his legal fees back, much less his name. Will Hays–he of the sanctimonious Hays Code, and director of what’s now the MPAA–banned Arbuckle from making films, and even banned the films that had made Arbuckle.
But even after Hays relented and lifted the ban, Arbuckle couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal a role. Plus his wife divorced him, and you can’t blame her for that. Arbuckle started hitting the bottle harder than ever. Buster Keaton was able to slip him a little work–piecemeal gigs writing, directing and acting as the 1920s progressed–but Arbuckle realized soon enough that he was going to have to work under a pseudonym if he was going to work in any real way at all (just like all the blacklisted Commies still a couple decades to come).
He married again, divorced again. Kept drinking, kept scrounging up work. He’d been thirty-four years old and large as possible in his profession, the moving pictures, which is to say he was as large as you can possibly get in American life. Now he was 46 years old and so grateful to finally have a contract from Jack Warner that he declared, “This is the best day of my life,” then went home, had a heart attack, and died.
Say what you will about Fatty, he didn’t let the fuckers off easy. He knew how far he’d fallen, but he also knew there’s only one true bottom, and he knew that by accelerating the rate at which you reach it, whether as a suicide-bomber or a more conventional suicide, you might think you’re ending your life on your own terms, but you’re really ending it on theirs.
The people who fought for their lives on those planes knew it, just as surely as Fatty Arbuckle did.
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