Skip to main content

Writer Jerry Stahl on Fatty Arbuckle

His new book, I, Fatty tells the story of vaudeville and early film actor Fatty Arbuckle. In the early 1900s, he was more popular than Charlie Chaplin and became the first screen actor to make $1 million a year. But in 1921, Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of a young actress. Many have called the crime, Arbuckle's presumed guilt, the subsequent trial, and his eventual acquittal Hollywood's first celebrity scandal. Stahl is also the author of the best selling memoir Permanent Midnight, which was adapted into a film by the same name. He has also written for film and television. His other books include Perv — A Love Story and Plainclothes Naked.


Other segments from the episode on July 21, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 2004: Interview with Stephen Flynn; Interview with Jerry Stahl.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Stephen Flynn discusses his new book, "America the

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

`If September 11th, 2001, was a wake-up call, clearly America has fallen back
asleep,' writes my guest, Stephen Flynn, in his new book, "America the
Vulnerable." He warns that we appear to be unwilling to do what must be done
to make our society less of a target. Flynn was the lead author of a 2002
report on homeland security released by a bipartisan task force chaired by
former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. Flynn is currently a senior
fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He
worked in the White House military office during the Bush administration, and
worked with Richard Clarke on the National Security Council in the Clinton
White House. He also spent 20 years as a commissioned officer in the US Coast

Earlier this month, the director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, warned
Americans that al-Qaeda is planning an attack in an effort to disrupt the
elections. I asked Stephen Flynn if he thinks this kind of warning is helpful
to Americans.

Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Author, "America the Vulnerable"): One of my concerns is
that we've got ourselves into a rather paternalistic approach to dealing with
this new threat environment where the federal government basically says,
`We're going to continue to try to do our job of securing you by defeating
terrorism overseas and taking some measures here at home. We can't tell you
much about them, because we don't want the bad guys to know what we're up to.
And your job, citizens, is to essentially shop and travel, to trust us.' I
think this is an inherently flawed paradigm. We, the people, are the most
likely targets. Our day to day, most underpinnings of our society, are the
most likely targets, and we need to be brought into the conversation about
what the risks are, what the threat is and, most importantly, about how we
design solutions to deal with these problems, to manage the risks that these
threats pose.

GROSS: In the bipartisan task force report on homeland security, that you
were the lead author of in 2002, you concluded, `America remains dangerously
unprepared to prevent and respond to catastrophic terrorist attacks on US
soil.' Do you think homeland security has gotten any better since you wrote
that in 2002?

Mr. FLYNN: Not much. On a scale of one to 10, if I put it in that range,
where one is a bull's-eye, we're a bull's-eye, and 10 is we're secure, we were
certainly a one on 9/11. You know, today, we're maybe at a three. I assign
this a failing grade precisely because, while there has been some progress
making some efforts of addressing some of our most glaring vulnerabilities and
our very limited capacity as a government to deal with those threats, they've
really been on the margins. And that stands in marked contrast of the
investment we've been willing to make and the sacrifice even in life to deal
with terrorism as an overseas problem.

We've got a situation where the national security establishment essentially
focuses on water's-edge help. And that was an outgrowth of the fact that we
had almost two centuries of living in the most peaceful corner of the planet.
We had friendly neighbors to the north and to the south, big oceans to the
east and west, and there were no enemy boots on our ground in the 20th
century. And so we dealt with security as something that we handled overseas,
in bases on our soils of our allies or in actual combat with adversaries on
their soil. And that didn't change on 9/11. What we did is we essentially
said, `Oh, we need something new to deal with the fact that there's
vulnerabilities here at home. Let's create something different than national
security. We'll call it homeland security.' But all the eggs remain heavily
in the national security basket.

For instance, there are 361 commercial seaports in this country. And the CIA
has said that the most likely way in which a weapon of mass destruction would
come to the United States is by sea. And the United States has spent close to
$500 million on grants in three years to help those seaports get more secure,
which may sound a lot of money to many Americans. That's what we're spending
every three days in Iraq. Basically, we're spending, every three days in the
war on terror in Iraq, what we spent in three years on dealing with one of our
most serious vulnerabilities.

GROSS: Do you think that the war in Iraq is using up money that should have
been spent on homeland security? Is the war in Iraq--I don't know if you see
this as a zero-sum game or not. But has the war in Iraq taken money away from
homeland security, or do you see it as, like, helping the efforts, even though
it's money being spent in another country?

Mr. FLYNN: We're a very wealthy country, and we have a second-to-none
military, and we can afford both an offense and a defense. My focus has been
primarily on the defense side of it. And my concern--that there's been so
little effort made to make us less attractive as a target. See, you know,
when we're faced with a situation as we are now, where our enemies have to be
creative if they're going to challenge US power--and they're more likely to do
that by not confronting our military directly--then we have to begin to think
about, `OK, why do they think they can get such a big bang for their buck by
using the tactic of catastrophic terrorism?' They will get that as long as
the opportunity is rich to succeed, and there's cascading effects that come
from doing that; therefore, by making ourselves more resilient as a society,
taking the things that are most valuable to us and protecting it, we
get--actually build a tactical and strategic advantage.

The tactical one is that: the harder you make something to strike with, the
more of an effort the bad guys have to make, a terrorist would have to make,
to essentially try to compromise it. They'd have to--they'd need more money.
They'd need more expertise. They'd have to take more time in the planning of
the cycle that--they'd have to rehearse. All that gives you a leg up on
intelligence. They're giving off some smoke signal that would ideally help
you trip them up. But the other is they're doing this with the expectation
that they can get a big bang for their buck. And if, in fact, they target
things and they end up killing people and hurting a bit of property, but
there's no ripple effect across the society, then they haven't, in fact, had a
very successful tool of warfare.

And so there is--it's not a defeatist position I'm trying to maintain by
trying to deal with this core reality of our vulnerability. There is, in
fact, a military value to having a good defense.

GROSS: What are some of the places that you think we're most vulnerable?

Mr. FLYNN: One of the areas that I have focused on that is a great
vulnerability remains this container--these are the 8-foot by 8-foot by
40-foot boxes that fit on our trains and trucks and ships. They're basically
the assembly lines, and they are the back shelves of our retail and
manufacturing sector; that is, you know, Wal-Mart doesn't have a back room,
and most factories don't have much in the way of storeroom. It's in the
transportation system.

So the threat scenario is that there is a tremendous opportunity, given the
sheer numbers of these--it's somewhere between 16 and 18 million containers,
and that right away should set off some alarms. We don't know how many
containers there really are in the world right now, plus or minus a couple of
million, never mind what's in them. Each one could hold up to 32 tons of
material that is loaded virtually anywhere on the planet. Somebody puts a
50-cent seal on the door, and it's off to the races. Everybody in the
logistics transportation business--it's to get it out of their hands and into
somebody else's hands as quickly as possible. A container that originates in
Asia arrives in the United States may have 17 weigh points, stop points, where
it's handled by one set of players and handed off to somebody else. That's a
system that is ripe in terms of opportunity for somebody to put something bad
in, potentially a weapon of mass destruction.

But the real danger comes from when that explosion goes off--and I talk about
how this could happen in an al-Qaeda-style scenario here in the US, with three
or four of these going off simultaneously. It creates a sudden concern about
all containers. And so the reaction to the political pressure becomes, `Turn
it all off until we can sort this out.' If we shut down our ports for a
period of two to three weeks and closed our borders to sort this stuff
out--and, believe me, it would take a long time to try to do it from
scratch--we're talking about shutting our global trade system. And it's not
because the terrorists did that; we did that to ourselves because that was the
only tool in the tool bag to deal with the risks.

GROSS: Why don't you describe what a container is, because it's not just like
a little cardboard box. Describe what a typical shipping container is and
what it would take for an actual inspector, you know, to inspect the

Mr. FLYNN: A typical container would be the kind of thing that you would see
probably if you moved your house. I mean, it's the kind of thing that fits in
the back of an 18-wheeler. If you took all your household goods and you put
them inside a truck, that truck is the average size of most containers that
are out there. They come in the 20-foot size and the 40-foot size, and they
are 8 feet by 8 feet in terms of width and height. A ship coming into--the
bigger ships that come into our largest port, like Los Angeles and Long Beach,
can be carrying up to 3,000 of three 40-foot-by-8-foot-by-8-foot boxes. They
can hold up to 30 tons of material each on a single ship, off-loaded in a
period of about 12 to potentially 36 hours. That's what we're talking in
terms of volume moving through the system. They're the things you see on a
rail car. They're the things that you see on trucks. In fact, they're so all
around us, we hardly pay any attention to them.

GROSS: So, in other words, we're X-raying my baggage at the airport, but
we're not X-raying these huge containers?

Mr. FLYNN: Yeah, there is, in fact, new technologies out there that will
allow us to scan the contents of a container, but we don't have much of it.
And there was none in any seaport prior to 9/11 but one that was looking for,
actually, stolen cars leaving southern Florida. We were monitoring the border
in--with Mexico, to some extent--this was when we first deployed this
equipment--looking for illegal immigrants coming through and some drug
shipments. But there has been some buying of these--equipment, but we
basically use them for only--somewhere on the order of about 2 to 3 percent of
all the containers that arrive in the US may run through some of this scanning
equipment. And in some ports they still don't have working equipment, so
that's more a physical check. And to give you an idea about the time it
takes, the physical side, the rule of thumb in the business is about five
hours with three people. It's a--it can...

GROSS: For one container?

Mr. FLYNN: For one container. Imagine, I mean, moving your house, right?
You fill up a whole container. Go in there and empty it and check it out.
We're talking a lot of space and a lot of stuff, potentially. And it's a
physically demanding exercise. So that's where these technologies can be
applied. Well, one very interesting pilot I've been involved with, for
instance, is out in the Port of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the world's busiest
container terminal, container port. It moved about 19 million containers last
year through this one port. And out there they're beginning an experiment
where they're going to scan every container coming into one of the busiest
terminals in the world. It's one that goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The scan image can be done in about 10 to 15 seconds, and it's just put as the
trucks queue up or, you know, line up to get into the gate. The technology is
there. We can then deploy that kind of scanning technology in all the world's
major ports for about $500 million and we could clean up probably the rest of
them pretty quickly as well for another $300 million or so. If that, again,
sounds like a lot of money. We will spend $600 million buying four F-22
fighters this upcoming year. So we are certainly talking about different
scale of thinking when we talk about making these investments, but the...

GROSS: So what do you think is holding us back from making this investment
for scanning equipment for the ports? Is it a lack of money? Is it differing

Mr. FLYNN: Well, part of the issue is the scanning is only one piece of it.
I mean, one of the challenges that we have with--and this is a case I try to
make in the book--that any single point security solution always travels, we
call it path of diminishing returns; that is, it gets more and more expensive
for less and less security. And, inevitably, it always creates this balloon
effect or this push effect that basically bad guys know what you're doing, so
they move somewhere else.

The notion I've been trying to advance overall is this idea of layered
security that takes advantage of a law of probabilities which is that if I
have five 60 percent solutions layered together, I get a 99 percent
interception rate. This works as if I had a 60 percent chance to--in bobbing
at an apple, to bite it, and I get five shots at it, I will get it 99 percent
of the time.

And so we don't need to have perfect solutions for everything, but you need to
number them in a layered way. So in the case of this problem, I want some
process that you have what are called birth certificates, somewhere at the
origin point, you can feel comfortable about what was put in here was
legitimately authorized. That's a 60 percent solution potentially because
people could be corrupted. And then I want to, A, track the container and its
integrity by putting a device inside, a GPS and other kinds of things, that
would track it to its port. Then I want to scan it and then I want to track
the ship and then I want to spot-check it on the arrival port. Those would be
five layers. Any one of those layers potentially compromised, but altogether,
they basically create a pretty powerful deterrent in terms of system and give
you lots of chances, lots of bites at the apple to intercept things.

Now that has cost. The cost of putting the technology into the boxes, for
instance, plus the scanning and so forth, certificate, we're probably talking
about $50 per load per shipment. But today, we're spending about $3,000 to
ship, again, a shipment of up to 30 tons from Asia to the West Coast. The
transportation costs are really very cheap compared to the need for an
efficient and reliable system that allows us to put our assembly lines and put
our inventory into the transportation system. That's the higher good and
paying some prophylactic cost, some protective fees up front to deal with
that, it seems to me, the very smart way to go.

This is just one sector. There's a whole series of infrastructures of
networks that we have that have similar attributes but we need to be thinking
in those kinds of ways. So part of the problem is just people have not been
willing to step back and think out the problem in a systemic way. If all want
the sort of silver-bullet, one-shot approaches which don't work whether it's
technology or whatever, they're not willing to think a little more
imaginatively about how we make this thing hum.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Flynn, author of the new book, "America the
Vulnerable." We'll talk more about homeland security after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Flynn. He's the author of the new book "America
the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism,"
and he's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the lead
author of a 2002 bipartisan task force report called `America: Still
Unprepared, Still In Danger.'

How do you think the funding of homeland security should be divided between,
you know, the federal government, state governments and city governments? For
example, New York's Mayor Bloomberg said recently, `We're not getting our fair
share of homeland security money,' and he's furious because New York is such a
high-risk target and he feels that the federal government isn't doing enough
to help New York protect itself. So I'm wondering, like, what you think that
division of financial responsibility should be.

Mr. FLYNN: Well, first of all, I think many Americans would be surprised to
know that the official strategy of the US government on the form of the
president's homeland security strategy says pretty explicitly the job that
it's to do is national defense and border security and the job of homeland
security is primarily a job for the private sector and state and local
governments. That's a division of labor they've carved up without any real
debate with the rest of us here, but that's pretty much where it is.

Obviously, states and locals, particularly since 2001, don't have a lot of
resources to make the kinds of investments that need to be made in the short
term and they can't run large deficits like the federal government does. The
private sector's always worry about bottom line, and it's not just simply they
have their heads in the sand. If a company's CEO tried to do the right thing
in his own sector with his own property to prop things up and his neighbors to
the left and right don't, then the bad guy's going to go to the weak point,
but the whole sector's going to be affected. So we need common standards.
They have to be uniformly enforced. The debate is about how we arrive at them
and how we get there.

So that is take some government role that takes some regulatory role, and it
also takes the engagement of citizens in private sector. And again, when we
compare it to close to half a trillion dollars the United States will spend
this year on traditional national security and about 5 to 7 cents on that
dollar for what it'll pay on total homeland security, it doesn't seem to me
that we have much in the way of balance between the war on terror over there
vs. the war on terror on the home front.

GROSS: There are mayors and governors who have been complaining that members
of the police force, of the fire department, of people who'd be fighting
wildfires are in the Reserves and they're in Iraq, and, therefore, there are
shortages of the number of people on the forces. And these are first
responders in many instances. So in that sense, we're becoming understaffed
in the war on terrorism on the home front.

Mr. FLYNN: That's clearly this case. Many of the people wind up in the
National Guard are people who are part-time policemen, part-time sheriffs,
part-time prison guards or firefighters and so forth. So when they're called
off to do the duty overseas, the cities and states are losing some of their
critical experts and resources to deal with the threat if it plays itself out
here at home.

Now that may have had a short-term necessity if we thought there was a clear
and present threat overseas to deal with, but to the extent that we're looking
at a very long-term engagement of the Guard and the Reserves as a part of
dealing with a long presence in Iraq, it only raises our vulnerability up
greater that we don't have this expertise and professionals. You just can't
create them overnight. These are people who live and they're part of our
communities here at home.

So the exposure is quite high and it's something that I very much worry about
and 9/11 happened here. And, you know, it's a bit of a disconnect. On the
one hand, we're told that the best defense is a good offense. We need to go
over there so we don't have to deal with the enemy over here. And then you
have the secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, stand up in front of the
American people in early July, and say, `They're here and they're likely to
strike in the next few months.' We have to confront the reality of 9/11.
We're an open, hugely vulnerable society.

GROSS: Now you used to be in the Coast Guard. You spent, I think, 20 years
in the Coast Guard and you explain in your book the Coast Guard is charged
with protecting 95,000 miles of shoreline and the force in the Coast Guard is
about the same size as the New York Police Department, and that sounds like a
pretty impossible task. What are some of the things you learned about the
difficulties of homeland security by being in the Coast Guard?

Mr. FLYNN: I had a 20-year career as an active duty officer in the Coast
Guard and also was a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, so I took this oath
to protect and defend our nation at age 17 and went off and did it and retired
just two years ago. One of the things I learned was a little sort of quirky
thing that our Defense Department didn't protect the nation or even its
borders. That was something that agency's liked the Coast Guard, but then
when you look at who these agencies are, like the Coast Guard, who are charged
with this, the Coast Guard is operating one of the oldest fleets in the world.
It's both aviation and its ships, but its ships go back--some of them
commissioned in the 1940s. The Coast Guard's been getting more money because
it's a critical part of the Homeland Security Department than it did before
9/11, but it's more money to replace these decades-old ships in the next 25
years. That's when I sort of get at this point of not dealing with this level
of urgency.

GROSS: Do you think homeland security has been used as a political football
in Congress? In other words, do you think politics are getting in the way of

Mr. FLYNN: There is no question that politics have gotten in the way of our
taking on homeland security and both sides are to blame. This is not a
Democratic issue. It's not a Republican issue. It's an American issue. It's
probably the most issue for upcoming election. And my fear is that it may not
even get much talked about. We'll talk about the war on terrorism as
something overseas and how it could be fought differently, but we won't talk
about--there's the core reality of 9/11--our own vulnerability and I hope that
the American people will press both these candidates into saying, `What are
you doing? What's your plan? What's your plan for dealing with this?'

GROSS: Well, Stephen Flynn, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FLYNN: I thank you very much for having the chance to do so.

GROSS: Stephen Flynn is the author of the new book "America the Vulnerable."
He's a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood's first celebrity scandal, and
the first morality campaign in Hollywood. We talk to writer Jerry Stahl about
his novel "I, Fatty." Stahl is also the author of "Permanent Midnight," a
memoir about being addicted to heroin while writing popular TV shows.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jerry Stahl discusses Fatty Arbuckle, whose life is
the basis for his new novel, "I, Fatty"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The story we're going to hear about a Hollywood scandal and a morality crusade
goes back to the silent film era. Fatty Arbuckle was one of silent films'
biggest stars, the fat funnyman of many Keystone Kop comedies and other
slapstick films. He was beloved and made a fortune. But his career was
ruined in 1921, when he was accused of raping and murdering a model named
Virginia Rappe. She died of an internal infection and a ruptured bladder that
he was accused of causing through the rape. At his third trial, he was
acquitted, but his name remained Hollywood poison, and his trial helped lead
the way to the obsession with Hollywood scandal and to the first crusades
against immorality in the movie industry.

My guest, Jerry Stahl, has written a new novel based on Arbuckle's life,
called "I, Fatty." Stahl is also the author of the popular memoir, "Permanent
Midnight," which is about the years that he led a double life as a heroin
addict and a writer of such TV shows as "Alf."

Let's start with a reading from the beginning of "I, Fatty." The novel is
written as if it were Arbuckle's memoir.

Mr. JERRY STAHL (Author, "I, Fatty"): (Reading) Even if I never touched
Virginia Rappe or any other female, people had their reasons for believing,
for wanting to believe I'd done something worth hating me for. I hated the
name Fatty, and I made a career out of being that name. Buster Keaton said
that to get people to love me, I became what I loathed the most. Buster was
the one pal who stood by me through it all.

So before we really get going here, I just have to say this. Something
strange happens when you lose everything. Something strange happened to me.
All those years of being lucky, being successful, first comic actor to direct
his own movies, first to make a million a year. I never felt comfortable. I
had to pay a bootlegger to feel even half good, and after that, a croaker for
narcotics. Once all my money and all my luck was used up, I could relax. I
wanted to die, but at least the feeling was familiar. Does this make sense?
Before the court lynched me, I was as big a success as Daddy was a failure,
and I needed the hooch more than he did, sometimes more. After the St.
Francis fiasco, I didn't need the drink. I mean, I did, but not the same way.
Thanks to Virginia, I had an excuse to feel the way I had always felt but
could never explain when things were aces. But there I go, rushing the gag.

GROSS: That's Jerry Stahl reading from his new book, "I, Fatty." It's a novel
based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle.

Jerry, reading this novel made me feel like I was reading a history of early
Hollywood, and there were actually a lot of parallels to what Hollywood is
like today. But I'm wondering what made you think about Fatty Arbuckle as a

Mr. STAHL: I kind of stumbled across him by accident. I was really
interested in the notion of American history and of America as a kind of
pharmocracy, you know, doing a history of America via narcotics.

GROSS: Oh, pharm with a P-H. OK.

Mr. STAHL: You're way ahead of me. Yeah, and see, back then, Bayer made
heroin and sold it over the counter as the housewife's friend, as it was
known, to keep the kiddies from coughing at night, whereas their newfangled
crazy product aspirin was considered a little dicey. And then I stumbled
across the fact that Fatty Arbuckle at one point in his life got so strung out
on heroin that he had to wear a fat suit in public, and the notion of this guy
leading the double junkie life of this fat suit and sweating in the horrific
Los Angeles heat, and then going home, taking it off and `fixing' was so
riveting, and so just somehow sad, it made me fall in love with the guy, so I
decided to just write about Hollywood and that particular time in America via

GROSS: You mean he was so wasted from the heroin that he lost so much weight
he had to put on a fat suit?

Mr. STAHL: That's right. Adolph Zucker had it made for him because he had
to go on tour to promote films. But he could barely walk. He had lost a ton
of weight because he had a carbuncle that an intern botched while trying to
lance it, and as was the habit--no pun intended--of the day, he gave him
heroin, and Fatty got strung out, and the studio said, `OK, you have to kick
it,' and they built a kick bin in his own home. And when it was all over, he
was so thin, he had to wear a fat suit.

GROSS: What is Fatty Arbuckle's place in movie history as an actor and as a

Mr. STAHL: His place is kind of twofold. One, he was the first guy to make
a million a year, but on terms of artistic achievement, he invented the pie
fight, and he was the first comic actor who got to direct his own movies. So,
in fact, he was the first actor who had the kind of creative control to do
what he wanted to do on screen.

GROSS: When Fatty Arbuckle started in movies, movies were--I mean, movies
were not particularly respectable, the way you describe it. In your book you
write, and this is in Fatty Arbuckle's voice, `Working in flickers'--as they
were still being called--`was out of the question. Everyone knew that the
only people who'd lower themselves to step in front of a camera were stage
actors who couldn't get work or couldn't stay sober enough to keep it if they
got it.' And then later on he says, `Movies--only people so poor they couldn't
afford a vaudeville ticket go to the nickelodeon.' Why were movies so looked
down on then?

Mr. STAHL: Because they didn't really exist yet, and it's a really
interesting thing, because in Hollywood at the time, apartment houses would
literally have signs out front that said, `No dogs, no colored, no actors,'
because the kind of people who became actors were essentially the sort of, you
know, bartenders, wrestlers, dope fiends, all kind of peripheral riffraff who
couldn't make it into what was considered what was legitimate stage work. So
it was really embarrassing for Fatty. In fact, he was engaged--I'm going to
call him Roscoe, because he preferred to be called Roscoe--but he was engaged
to be married, and he didn't want his wife's parents, his future wife's
parents, to know that he was an actor. Better he was a hobo or pickpocket or
something vaguely more respectable.

GROSS: When he did start making movies, what kind of roles did he get? He
was famous for being fat. How did that affect who he played on screen?

Mr. STAHL: He always tended to play the innocent. He was one of those guys
who somehow every other movie he was either in a diaper or in drag, and he had
that kind of gender-free baby-faced kind of look that made him very endearing
to people. You know how Rush Limbaugh used to say, `I'm the kind of man who
you could trust to baby-sit your daughter'? He had sort of that quality, the
Limbaugh-like, sexless quality, before Rush, of course, got busted for drugs.

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Stahl, author of the new novel, "I, Fatty." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Stahl, the author of the new novel, "I, Fatty,"
based on the life of the silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, whose career was
ruined by a scandal.

Let's talk a little bit about the scandal that made Fatty Arbuckle even more
famous than he already was, and I think a lot of people who don't know his
movies at all know him as somebody who was involved in a scandal, even if they
can't tell you what the scandal was. So he was involved in this big Hollywood
party. What was he alleged to have done that night?

Mr. STAHL: Actually, it was a Hollywood party, but it was a Hollywood party
in San Francisco, which is where a lot of the actors of the time would go
because remember, this was during Prohibition, and they thought that the
liquor was better up in San Francisco and easier to get a hold of, so he's in
room 1221 of the swanky St. Francis Hotel, and to just give you the Cliff
notes version, there was an actress named Virginia Rappe who stumbled into his
rooms during the party, and he already knew she had a reputation as being a
rather nasty drunk and had, in fact, given half the Keystone Kops gonorrhea
and the other half lice. But what happened is, she started taking her clothes
off, going into a fit, screaming, so not knowing what else to do, he put her
down in the adjacent room where he was staying and came back later to take a
bath. And she was screaming and in fever and just in a horrific state.

So not knowing what else to do, he decided that--he took Buster Keaton's
advice, who'd once told him that when a woman is going crazy, what she really
needs is something cold placed on her female area. So Fatty--you have to
picture--is standing there, in a towel, leaning over this woman, pressing a
cold champagne bottle to her private area, as I like to call it, and it looked
real bad. And a woman named Maude Delmont, who was a known blackmailer, came
in, caught him in the act, and the next thing you know, Hearst is making a
huge story out of it, the DA who wants to run for governor is using it as an
excuse to get rid of these moral pariahs from Hollywood polluting San
Francisco, and the right-wing Christian fundamentalists, who, of course,
basically hated Jews for corrupting America's youth by running Hollywood, were
using it as an excuse to shut down the entire industry. And he was innocent,
and he couldn't have sex. He was impotent pretty much his whole life.

GROSS: So was he accused of raping her or of raping her with the champagne

Mr. STAHL: Both. He was accused of raping her and penetrating her with a
foreign object, and then a lot of quotes were attributed to him by Hearst,
who, in another kind of interesting sideline, basically invented the tabloids
behind Fatty Arbuckle's scandal.

GROSS: And you mentioned he was impotent, and I have to say here that you
earlier in the book say that his girth left him with a `weakened nuptial
muscle,' which I thought was a very clever way of describing his impotency.
How did you come up with the `nuptial muscle'?

Mr. STAHL: I really love the lingo and argot of the time, and I just steeped
myself in all kind of odd medical manuals, and there were weird slang
dictionaries of the era, and all kind of different books and text. And after
a while, sort of by process of osmosis, you start thinking in these kind of
terms, and that was the sort of an age where the wisecrack and the scientific
description, sort of like those, you know, bad health movies that you had to
watch in, you know, hygiene class in high school? I think it had its origin
at that period. So that kind of language just began to permeate the way I

GROSS: Well, so, here's Fatty Arbuckle being accused of rape, and at the same
time he's actually impotent, and you have him saying, in your book, `The
truth is, and I know this must sound loathsome, I preferred the penalty for
committing sin to the shame of admitting that I couldn't commit it. There, I
said it.' That's a kind of interesting predicament.

Mr. STAHL: It was a very bizarre dilemma the guy faced, because Hearst kept
writing about his, quote/unquote, "manly equipment," whereas his only defense
would have been for his wife to get up in court and say, `Well, you know, his
manly equipment is not particularly manly.' But Fatty was so mortified by
that, that he literally was opting to go to the chair rather than admit that
he couldn't do what he was, you know, in effect, accused of doing.

GROSS: And what was the information that was finally revealed that acquitted
him in the third trial? There were two hung juries, and then a third
jury--the foreman of the third jury said, `Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe
Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done.'

Mr. STAHL: They actually apologized to him. What was ultimately revealed was
that the woman he was accused of raping, who, of course, the Hearst papers had
portrayed as a virginal young victim and a chaste young lady--at one point
they even decided she was descended from European royalty--had, in fact, been
a prostitute since the age of 14 and had a series of abortions, and had had a
botched abortion the day before.

GROSS: So how did the information finally become admissible in court?

Mr. STAHL: What happened was that once he was accused, it didn't matter if
he was innocent or not, because it's sort of like if a clown commits a crime,
you realize you're never going to look at him the same. So once he was
accused, and it was clear Paramount couldn't use him anymore, Adolph Zucker
arranged for the DA to suppress all the information about his main accuser,
Maude Delmont, who was herself a woman with about 21 allegations of blackmail
against her. None of this came out in the first two trials. It finally came
out in the last trial, so it was less about the fact of a botched abortion,
because Fatty's lawyers were under the impression that had they put that out
in court, it would have looked like they were slandering the good name of the
dead woman, even though she never had a good name. So what came out instead
was the fact that Maude Delmont, his main accuser, who the defense was never
allowed to bring to court and the prosecution never brought into court, it
came out that she, in fact, was completely morally bankrupt herself, and the
case just went to pieces, and the deliberation of the jury took six minutes.

GROSS: So from your knowledge of Hollywood history, would you say that this
is the point in time when groups trying to uphold their vision of morality
started accusing Hollywood of being morally bankrupt and morally corrupt?

Mr. STAHL: Right, and it's a double-edged thing. It was that Hollywood was
morally bankrupt and corrupting America's youth but also with the subtler
level of anti-Semitism, because the fact was that Hollywood was run by Jews.
These people didn't like Jews, and the way to attack them and put them out of
business was to accuse Hollywood itself of somehow having a conspiracy to
corrupt good Christian children. What made Fatty's case so ironic is that
even as this was welling up, Fatty's movies were the ones, one of the few that
were considered, like, OK and family-friendly by the morality squads. So the
level of betrayal when this happy-go-lucky, threat-free clown turned out to
have been a complete degenerate perv, made it even more troubling for these

GROSS: And did they know about his addiction to heroin?

Mr. STAHL: Of course not. No. No, that was...

GROSS: Because heroin was legal at the time and a doctor prescribed it, so I
was wondering what...

Mr. STAHL: It was legal, but it was also a big Hollywood secret. In fact,
the first matinee idol of the day, a guy named Wallace Reid, was the guy who
always played the upstanding, good guy, male lead, gorgeous, handsome, brave,
in fact, died of heroin withdrawal and was an addict the entire time. And
Paramount itself had been supplying him heroin to keep him going. Cecil B.
DeMille had to give him a lecture on how he had to keep from doing drugs, when
in fact, the studios would slip him morphine to keep the movies going.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerry Stahl. He's the author
of "Permanent Midnight," and his new book is called, "I, Fatty," and it's a
novelized version of the story of Fatty Arbuckle, who was a silent film star,
nicknamed `Fatty' because he was obese. And he was the first Hollywood actor
to become a millionaire, and his career was ruined by a scandal.

Did you go back and read the articles of the time? Because, like, there's a
few things that you quote, and I'm not sure if they're real or not. There's a
passage in which he's comparing the articles about him with the reality of his
life. He says, `I had to do a lot of interviews, but they weren't really
interviews; they were performances. They had me saying a lot of things I
didn't know I'd said until I picked up a movie magazine, like "Let me handle
the Huns," boasts jokester Arbuckle. "I'll find the Kaiser and sit on his
head." Or they'd say, "Whatever success I've had, I credit to my mother's love
and my father's guidance." That's from an article called, Fatty Talks to
Young People(ph).' And of course, the real Fatty Arbuckle had a horrible
family life, and he hated his parents. Did you actually find the articles
that had these quotes?

Mr. STAHL: Yeah. There's a ton of articles like that, and the really
grotesque thing about it is, is Fatty's father, who used to beat him
mercilessly, routinely hated him on sight, blamed him for destroying his
mother's womanhood and ultimately killing her, Fatty had always to describe
him in articles as a, quote, "gentleman farmer." And it just was the beginning
of that kind of double life that went all the way--you know, continued to Rock
Hudson, where the real acting job on the part of the actors was trying to play
the part of the real-life person that the studios were trying to pretend they

GROSS: Let me say that when you say his father accused Fatty Arbuckle of
destroying his mother's womanhood, you mean during the childbirth process,
that Fatty was so large...

Mr. STAHL: He was this--right.

GROSS: ...that he kind of tore up his mother during the delivery. That was

Mr. STAHL: He was a 16-pound baby, and Mom was never the same, needless to
say, and his father just hated the kid and beat him mercilessly when he was
even around to beat him. And then, of course, in magazine interviews, Fatty
got to talk about what a wonderful guy his dad was.

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Stahl, author of the new novel, "I, Fatty." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Stahl, the author of the new novel, "I, Fatty,"
based on the life of the silent film star Fatty Arbuckle whose career was
ruined by a scandal. Stahl is also the author of the memoir "Permanent
Midnight." It's about how he used to lead a double life as a heroin addict
and a writer on such TV shows as "Alf" and "Moonlighting."

GROSS: You know, in some ways, it seems to me that your novel is not only
about Fatty Arbuckle, it's a kind of contrast between Fatty Arbuckle's life as
somebody who grew up with a father who hated him, who ended up accidentally
becoming a heroin addict because it was prescribed to him by his doctor,
somebody who was unfairly accused of raping a woman to death, had his career
ruined, someone who was so fat, he couldn't even enjoy the conjugal pleasures
of marriage. And yet, he is a person who is, you know, ridiculed and
condemned by the morality groups of the time, and morality groups who were,
you know, all too happy to believe that he really was the murderer of a woman.
And I think in some ways, this book is about the difference between your view
of the human condition and the view expressed by certain groups who see
themselves as upholders of morality.

Mr. STAHL: That's really nicely put. It's the classic case of people who
find themselves having the power to judge others accusing somebody, not just
unjustly but for the wrong thing, because they are, for whatever reason,
threatened. So here are people threatened by Fatty Arbuckle, a guy who can't
even have sex, and I don't think it's that different from people wanting to
ban gay marriage. It's as if somehow gay people got married, all the straight
men around would start marrying other men, you know? And it's just that crazy
thing that happens when people become the arbiters of morality and are in a
position to more or less destroy other people's lives by their own power.

GROSS: Your view of the human condition seems to include things like people
have appetites that aren't necessarily good for them. People have appetites
that they can't necessarily fulfill. People are often born into conditions
that are bleak and will taint the rest of their lives, that life can be very
emotionally and spiritually difficult.

Mr. STAHL: That is true, but what it boils down to for me, essentially, is
that all our secrets are the same, no matter where we come from. Pain's pain,
and it hurts, and the difference is that people in a position to somehow not
experience what others go through feel entitled to judge how they react to
those experiences. And what made this such a beautiful story for me was the
fact that, you know, I fell in love with Fatty, not just because he was a
victim, but because he was sort of emblematic of the classic wrong place,
wrong time kind of guy who ends up, you know, being basically shunned by
people who no doubt saw him as Satan's spawn and conveniently created an
enemy that wasn't even there. And it just never changes, and the similarities
to today are so obvious as to not even bear mentioning.

GROSS: In the opening of your book, you are writing in your own voice.

Mr. STAHL: Mm-hmm, in the introduction.

GROSS: Yeah, in the introduction, and you describe basically overdosing and
falling unconscious on a street that happened to be the street that Fatty
Arbuckle used to live on. Did that actually happen?

Mr. STAHL: Yeah. This was a bizarre coincidence. Back in the early '80s,
right at the dawn, pre-dawn of the crack era, there was a lot of drug sales
going on on Adams, where Mr. Arbuckle used to live, and at one point, I was
sort of picked up by the police and told to, you know, as they used to say,
lie lips-down on the ground. And years later, I realized where that was was,
in fact, Fatty Arbuckle's front lawn. It's kismet.

GROSS: We talked several years ago, after your memoir, "Permanent Midnight,"
was published, about what it was like for you to have been a heroin addict,
and then, you know, get off it, and also what it was like to be writing for
television when you were secretly a junkie and, you know, shooting up in the
bathroom. So it's been years since you were addicted. Is it still hard?

Mr. STAHL: Let's just say I am certainly in touch with my own inner Fatty
since that experience, and it's tricky. One thing, what you believe is that,
`Oh, I need all that stuff to make me, you know, write really dark and edgy,
and if I get off all the drugs I'll become a, you know, Johnny Bland Guy.' But
one thing Hubert Selby, the late Hubert Selby, who kind of saved my life and
really helped me with my writing, explained to me, was, `You don't get it.
Once you give up the drugs and the alcohol and all that behavior, you don't
become more boring. You realize how dark you really are, and there's no
buffer, and that's when it really gets terrifying.' And that has proved to be
true, and at this point, you know, I'm that guy who goes and picks up my
daughter after school and drives her home and does homework. So you know,
it's like on the one hand you're Iggy Pop. On the other hand, you sort of
become Fred MacMurray, so at the end of the day, you're like Iggy MacMurray,
you know?

GROSS: So was it scary to meet your demons without the sedative of heroin to
intervene between the two of you?

Mr. STAHL: Sure. But what you realize is that we're all in love with our
pain. You know, we're so romanticized about the suffering this and the
suffering that, and you know, I get it. I mean, all my heroes were dope
fiends, you know, Keith Richards and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and Lenny
Bruce, but you know, when I was getting clean, Keith wasn't there with a warm
towel, so you realize kind of the hollowness of that particular cliche. So I
have changed cliches, and now I'm that guy on the other side, and it is much
more surreal than drugs ever were, much more interesting and much less

GROSS: Well, Jerry Stahl, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. STAHL: My pleasure.

GROSS: Jerry Stahl's new novel about Fatty Arbuckle is called "I, Fatty."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording featuring pianist James Williams. He died
yesterday of liver cancer at the age of 53. He played with Art Blakey and the
Jazz Messengers for four years beginning in 1977. Here is with the Messengers
in '78.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue