Minta Durfee and The Last of the Terrible Men

By Joan Myers

On September 9, 1921, a woman named Virginia Rappe died in a San Francisco hospital, four days after attending a party held in the hotel room of the popular silent screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Thirty-four hours later, the night of September 10, Arbuckle was arrested for her murder. The murder charge was later reduced to manslaughter; Arbuckle was tried three times and ultimately acquitted of the charge, but the affair destroyed his career.

Reporters began following the story the night of Virginia Rappe’s death when the San Francisco police were called into the case. By the time Arbuckle had been advised of Rappe’s death, spoken to the San Francisco police, and contacted his attorney, several hours had passed and reporters had already interviewed many of the principals–including Arbuckle himself. In an era when crime beat reporters whiled away their time playing cards with precinct detectives, this was not atypical. Reporters and police were usually advised of cases simultaneously, but reporters, needing only a pen to cover a story, could deploy more nimbly and often arrived first at crime scenes. Reporters were sometimes such an integral part of the story they were covering that they became participants in the events rather than mere observers.

Crime beat reporters also nurtured relationships with defense attorneys and other officials, with an eye to scooping rivals with inside stories of investigations and trial strategy or exclusive interviews with defendants and witnesses. The cozy relationship between scribe and source did not mean that reporters were completely in thrall to their contacts, and the contacts had their own reasons for cultivating selected members of the press. Bluntly stated, the reporters wanted the story and the contact wanted the spin. Since the two parties had differing objectives, the dance was sometimes an uneasy one. Occasionally neither party achieved the result they wanted.

By the time Arbuckle’s lead attorney, Frank Dominguez of the prestigious law firm Dominguez, Dehm, and Cohen, arrived on the scene, (at around midnight the night of Rappe’s death) Arbuckle had already been summoned back to San Francisco and press speculation on the burgeoning scandal had spiraled out of control. The speed with which events unfolded meant there was not much Dominguez could do to control the press. He responded by immediately denying reporters access to his client, limiting the chances that prosecutors could later use Arbuckle’s words to impeach his testimony.

There was, however, one subject of public speculation that could be controlled, and that involved the state of Arbuckle’s marriage. At the time of his arrest, Arbuckle and his actress wife, Minta Durfee, had been estranged for five years. Durfee’s career had waned during that five-year period; she was not well known and was not prominent in the immediate reportage, although she did garner a few whiffs of attention. While some reports suggested that Arbuckle was a bachelor, others intimated that he had discarded Durfee as excess baggage in his climb up the career ladder. Those reporters who noticed her at all noticed that the two were living on opposite coasts–a departure from traditional living arrangements that did not go unremarked.

Three days after Arbuckle’s arrest, on September 13, Durfee and her mother departed New York en route for San Francisco. They completed the transcontinental journey in a tidy five days. On September 18 they were intercepted in Sacramento by two of Arbuckle’s attorneys, Charles Brennan and Milton Cohen, and the party drove from there to the Bay Area, arriving at the Oakland Ferry dock the early morning of September 19. Although they were greeted by eager reporters, neither Durfee nor her mother was allowed to answer questions. The attorneys issued a prepared statement, and the two women were then whisked from public view and sequestered in an unknown location.

Getting down to business, the two posed for photos with the accused and appeared at Arbuckle’s side during his preliminary hearing (beginning September 22), but interviews continued to be refused and reporters were kept away from the Durfees until September 25. That morning, attorney Charles Brennan arranged a press conference to be held later that day at the Palace Hotel. The event was designed to introduce Durfee to the press and counter suspicions that her decision to travel to San Francisco had not been entirely of her own making.

The few reporters invited to this press conference were hand-picked and vetted by Brennan, a former San Francisco newspaperman. I have located four reports of this event, all of which ran in the next day’s papers. Two of the lucky journalists present were from San Francisco: Helen Roberts of the San Francisco Examiner, and an unnamed reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. The third report, in the San Francisco Bulletin, appears to have been derived from newswires. The fourth reporter, James H. Richardson, seems to have been the only invitee from Los Angeles.(1)

Richardson, later dubbed “The Last of the Terrible Men,”(2) went on to a storied career as a newspaperman and eventually as City Editor of Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner. Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter Jim Murray described Richardson as “a one-eyed, iron-lunged, prototypical Hearst city editor, a tyrant of the city room.” Other colleagues often described Richardson in terms considerably less adulatory and decidedly unsuitable for a family-friendly blog. Two Los Angeles news photographers, brothers Coy and Delmar Watson, knew Richardson and held strong–and diametrically opposed–views. Delmar loathed the man; his initial response upon hearing Richardson’s name was “that son of a bitch!” Coy liked Richardson, although he acknowledged that he could be unpredictable. “It was always on the level with me,” he said, “but I never knew what was on the level with Jimmy!”(3) When asked about Richardson’s abilities as a reporter, however, both Coy and Delmar responded identically: “He was a great reporter.”

In 1921, Richardson worked the city beat for the Los Angeles Evening Herald. He was known for assiduous courting of contacts, tenacious and flamboyant reporting, heavy drinking, and irascible temper; he also had a reputation for fair play, especially when lives and reputations were at stake.(4) It is unlikely that Richardson knew attorney Charles Brennan, but he had a better contact on Arbuckle’s legal team–Frank Dominguez. Richardson lists Dominguez as a friend in both his 1954 autobiography, For the Life of Me, and his 1922 serialized novel, Spring Street. In that novel Richardson’s protagonist, a dewy-eyed cub reporter, visits his silent-star sweetheart at her ancestral home, a decaying but picturesque rancho located immediately outside Los Angeles. The cub reporter and silent-star sweetheart were Richardson’s creations; the rancho was not.(5) Reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns also recalled attending barbecues at the Dominguez Rancho with her father, legendary Los Angeles criminal attorney Earl Rogers. Rogers had been associated with Dominguez, Dehm, and Cohen until 1919, when years of epic drinking finally ended his colorful career (the firm was originally Rogers and Dominguez, later Rogers, Dominguez, Dehm, and Cohen). When Rogers died in January 1922, Frank Dominguez and Milton Cohen served as his pallbearers.

At first glance, the articles written about the press conference by Richardson, Roberts, and the Chronicle reporter seem favorable. Closer examination, however, suggests that the event was not completely successful for either the attorneys or the reporters. All three stories contain subjective, occasionally barbed commentary. The Chronicle report is the most straightforward of the three, but even it is not completely flattering. After his introductory paragraphs, the reporter writes:

To hear this self-possessed cordial little woman explain it, the oddity of a wife, separated from her husband for five years, during which time they met but seldom, hastening at the first intimation of trouble to his assistance, without encouragement from him, becomes an entirely reasonable and logical act.

Setting aside the writer’s gentle skepticism of Durfee’s wifely reason and logic, the remainder of the report is positive. But Helen Roberts, later one of Durfee’s staunchest admirers, reminds her readers that Durfee is an actress, with years of training behind her for such eventualities. Roberts then carefully describes the event’s logistics, illustrating the staged nature of the affair.

 

Frank Dominguez dropped the fatherly attitude toward the visitors and became the alert lawyer. “Is everyone here, representatives of the press whom you invited,” he inquired of Charlie Brennan, glancing at his watch. It was 5 o’clock.

Brennan replied in the affirmative.

“Proceed, gentlemen,” Dominguez said. He slipped into a corner of the room facing Mrs. Arbuckle and her mother.


Roberts finally gives up reporting altogether in favor of transcribing questions and answers. She clo

ses her article with questions answered solely by attorney objections, making it plain that even had Durfee been privy to the relevant information, the attorneys would not have allowed her to discuss it.

Q. What is your opinion of the evidence of the prosecution so far presented, either at the coroner’s jury or at the preliminary examination?

A. Objected to by attorneys.

Q. If you believe it to be weak, what has your husband told you that permits your faith in him to counterbalance the sworn testimony of the witnesses?

A. Objected to by attorneys, who announced that questions bearing on the case would not be allowed.

Richardson begins his report by ignoring Durfee altogether, stating that he prefers talking to Flora Durfee, who appears less rehearsed.

Somehow what she said seemed more genuine than the censored answers of her daughter, although Mrs. Arbuckle’s sincerity was manifest.

He pointedly refers to Durfee several times throughout the article as “The Forgotten Wife,” and gleefully reports an unnamed reporter’s ironic response to one of Durfee’s more cloying statements.

“I can’t tell you what will happen when it’s all over. Things like that are”–she hesitated for words–“are in the hands of God–don’t you think?–and I can tell you what I hope. I hope we can go back to Los Angeles again, back to Los Angeles and…”

“And perhaps a rose covered bungalow,” someone interrupted to ask.

Later in the article Richardson directly quotes Durfee, but not without adding his own dry dollop of commentary:

“Oh, I know Roscoe’s innocent,” she said, her emotion lifting her voice dramatically. “I know, because I know him for what he is–a big, good-natured, happy boy.”

“Big, good-natured, happy boy”–the same words used by Mrs. Durfee.

Richardson closes his article on bizarre note, indicating that attorney Brennan might better have stuck with Durfee’s soft soap than attempting his own hard sell:

Charlie Brennan, the San Francisco attorney associated with Dominguez and Cohen, bent over to whisper in my ear:

“What a woman! “What a woman!”

The interview was at an end. “The Forgotten Wife” had told her story and told it well.

Naturally, Arbuckle’s attorneys were as concerned with protecting their client’s battered reputation as they were with providing him a defense, and they were carefully controlling the information released to the public. But the reporters invited to the conference also had a mission: to get a story. All the reporters liked what they saw of Durfee and felt that she performed well, but they were under no illusions that her performance was anything other than a performance. They saw fluff, and fluff is what they reported.

If Arbuckle’s attorneys had hopes for a more substantial role for Durfee in the case, the warnings implicit in the press conference coverage and the reporters’ repeated off-limits questions during the conference must have dashed them. Even had the attorneys been inclined to breach client confidentiality by discussing the case with Durfee, they must have recognized that she would not have long withstood determined, unsupervised interrogation by a reporter of Richardson’s caliber, then or later. Durfee’s further interactions with reporters were limited to brief, innocuous remarks, generally revolving around her attire–and even those minor interactions were closely monitored by the attorneys. An entertaining personality, she became popular with the press and Arbuckle’s most effective (if unsubpoenaed) character witness, but throughout the remainder of the scandal she was never again turned loose in front of reporters.

When Frank Dominguez was replaced as Arbuckle’s lead counsel in early October 1921, James H. Richardson also departed the case. In his autobiography he dismissed his time on the Arbuckle case with a noncommittal clause: “the “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal in which he was accused of causing the death of a beautiful girl in as foul a way as could be imagined…” Whether that dismissal indicated his lack of opinion about the case or merely disinterest due to his truncated involvement is unknown. He returned to Los Angeles and continued ferreting out crime and civic corruption, serving as a model for every hard-bitten, chain-smoking, alcoholic newspaperman who ever graced a pre-code or noir film. In 1937 he became City Editor for Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner and spent the next twenty years terrorizing his underlings into either departing the newspaper game altogether or becoming prize-winning reporters. He retired in 1957 after forty-five years as a newspaperman and died in 1962. At his retirement, Time Magazine mournfully proclaimed that “some of the blood drained permanently from one of the last great arteries of blood-and-guts journalism.”

1. Roberts, Helen, “Wife Defends Arbuckle, Separation is Explained,” San Francisco Examiner, September 26, 1921; “Little Woman Says Roscoe is Generous to a Fault and that His Few Faults are Minor,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 26, 1921; “Arbuckle is Innocent, Says His Wife; Separation is Explained,” San Francisco Bulletin, September 26, 1921; James H. Richardson, “Mrs. Durfee Declares Her ‘Son’ is a Good Boy,” Los Angeles Evening Herald, September 26, 1921.

2. The soubriquet was bestowed by Harlan Ware, who wrote the screenplay for the 1951 James Cagney film Come, Fill the Cup, based on Richardson’s life and career.

3. This is not a family-friendly blog. Delmar Watson, personal communication, October 8, 2007. Coy Watson Jr., personal communication, October 8, 2007.

4. Wagner, Rob Leicester, Red Ink, White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962, Upland, CA: Dragonfly Press, 2000.

5. Dominguez’s exact relationship to Don Manuel Dominguez, the scion of one of California’s great (and fabulously wealthy) land grant families, is unclear but he was probably a nephew or great-nephew. Any genealogist who wishes to search for the name “Dominguez” in Los Angeles has my sympathies. James H. Richardson, For the Life of Me, New York: G.B. Putnam’s Sons, 1954; James H. Richardson, Spring Street, Los Angeles: Times-Mirror Press, 1922

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