Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato - Hollywood Homicide

Lights, Camera, Murder

It's no secret that the glamorous veneer of Hollywood is paper-thin and that beneath the glitzy surface exists a world of greed, violence and decadence. Like a movie set, the Hollywood facade has no depth and cannot stand too close scrutiny. There is no other place where the difference between style and substance is so great. Hollywood is a dream factory, and dreams are not reality.

One can't blame this all on the people who make the movies. No matter how well built the image is of the hero, behind the mask is someone with all the faults and foibles of an average person. But through the lens of celebrity, everything is larger than life: the successes, the excesses and the failures.

Movies created a new kind of idol. In movies, unlike theater, actors could be on hundreds of screens across the country and became "stars." The idea of hitting it big in Hollywood was a powerful draw, and young innocents from all over flocked to the West Coast. Starstruck young hopefuls fell prey to established actors, agents, directors and producers who promised a big break in exchange for their souls or bodies. Tragedy was often the result and the situation was ripe for scandal.

Hollywood needed a huge publicity machine and the studios created stars whose public personae were as false as the roles they played on the silver screen. Innocent young virgins were actually fast-living sex kittens with a taste for drugs and alcohol. Lovable stars were known for their sexual conquests and more than one hero who made the ladies swoon secretly found young men more to his liking.

When scandal broke, it was hard for the Hollywood public relations machine to keep the stories off the front pages. The very newspapers they courted when things were going well were eager to show Hollywood's dark underside. The public ate up gossip about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It was all the more exciting when one of those stars crashed and burned in full view of their admiring public.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (CORBIS)
Roscoe 'Fatty'
Arbuckle (CORBIS)
One of the first stars to see his career ruined by scandal was comedian Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle in 1921. After Charlie Chaplin, Fatty was Americas most popular comedian and in September 1921 had just signed a three-year $3 million contract. The former Keystone Cop had just completed three pictures and was in San Francisco for a little R&R.

Hollywood insiders knew that meant booze and broads the more expensive the liquor and the more innocent the girls, the better Arbuckle liked them. Chaplins favorite director, Henry Lehrman, would later tell the tabloids that Arbuckle often bragged to me that he had ripped the dress off an uncooperative girl and ravaged her. In the end, I told him if he didnt keep away from the female dressing-rooms, Id have him thrown out of Hollywood on his fleshy ear.

Virginia Rappe, victim
Virginia Rappe,
Arbuckle gave a big party in his suite in the St. Francis Hotel and a pretty young starlet named Virginia Rappe came to it. The party was quite a wild one and Arbuckle found Rappe unconscious on the floor of one of the bathrooms. Assuming that she had drunk too much, he put her on a bed and left to change his clothes. When he went back to check on her, she had rolled off the bed and was writhing and moaning.

A doctor was called and for nearly a week, Virginia hovered between life and death. Eventually she died, saying over and over: He hurt me. Roscoe hurt me. After an autopsy revealed Virginias bladder had been ruptured, Fatty Arbuckle was charged with murder. The press speculated that her injuries meant Fatty had violated the woman in a most unnatural way, implying that he had used some sort of implement.

It took more than a year and three trials to find Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle not guilty of murdering Virginia Rappe. The not guilty verdict wasnt enough to save Fattys career. For the first time the public had a peek behind the Hollywood curtain and didnt like what it saw. Arbuckle died a bitter and lonely man almost 12 years to the day after Virginia Rappe.

William Desmond Taylor (CORBIS)
William Desmond
Taylor (CORBIS)
Six months after Virginia's death, director William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his Hollywood bungalow and, in the aftermath, the public learned that Taylor was probably bisexual and had been trying to help starlet Mabel Normand kick a drug habit. Taylor was murdered; the homicide was never solved. Normand's career and that of another starlet-lover of Taylors, Mary Miles Minter, were ruined.

In the years that followed Hollywood and crime mixed it up a few times, but nothing truly noteworthy occurred. There was the Black Dahlia murder case and Charlie Chaplin and Erroll Flynn's statutory rape charges, but these cases weren't front-page news east of Los Angeles.

But before long, the public again had something to talk about. The next Hollywood crime to make the headlines involved one of Hollywood's top starlets, her grown-up-too-fast daughter, a gigolo and a gangster mixed in for good measure. A sex and murder mystery, the slaying of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner's daughter had all the trappings of a Hollywood melodrama, but this time it was for real.


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