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A READING LIFE

The always-open school for scandal

Ah, scandal. Fascinating fodder for the tabloids and the gossip columns, something to chew on by the water cooler. Wrongdoers are punished, and all is right with the world. But is it? What if someone's wrongly charged? Sometimes a love for the lurid, or a need to pin the blame on whoever is handy, can have a terrible human cost, one that's poignantly chronicled in two astonishing new books.

The novel ''I, Fatty" (Bloomsbury, $23.95) is written by no stranger to scandal himself, Jerry Stahl, who wrote ''Permanent Midnight" about his own drug addiction. Here, he turns his attention to the silent-film era and the horrifyingly moving story of Roscoe ''Fatty" Arbuckle, a beloved screen funnyman who lost his career when he was framed for the alleged rape and murder in 1921 of starlet Virginia Rappe.

Stahl creates an ingenious structure: Fatty is unreeling his life into a tape recorder in exchange for the shots of heroin he craves. And what a tale it is! Stahl's a fabulous writer, tunneling deep into Fatty's mind, creating a richly sympathetic voice that veers from wisecracks to woe, all brilliantly illuminating the humanity behind the clown mask, and revealing a man starving for love. We see Fatty growing up, abused by the father he's desperate to please. There are snappy you-are-there profiles of the Keystone Cops and of Fatty's comrades Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Arbuckle shows us how he became a star of family entertainment, beloved by fans, and adored by women, whom he can't quite adore back because of one secret -- he's impotent.

Hollywood in its heyday meant wild parties, throwaway wealth, and everyone doing what they damn well pleased, which of course meant the morality police made an entrance. Suddenly girls in risqu bathing suits were crowded into paddy wagons and Prohibition was corking all the champagne. Hollywood was Sin City, and clearly someone had to pay.

And who better than Fatty? He was a movie star, rich, powerful, and larger than life. A party was in full swing at his hotel, and Rappe, a known ''blackout drinker" who was given to screaming and tearing off her clothes when drunk, crashed it. Fatty found her vomiting in his bathroom and set her on his bed, hovering over her to clean her up, rouse her, and get her out of there. Opportunity -- or rather Maude Delmont, ''a bad bag of applesauce" known for blackmail and extortion -- knocked, screamed, and accused impotent Fatty of rape. Four days later, Rappe was dead of a ruptured bladder, and Fatty was put on trial for her murder.

The Hearst press sensationalized the trial to sell papers, and the public went into a feeding frenzy. Fatty's party was suddenly an out-of-control orgy, and Rappe was a virginal innocent whose death was caused not by her gonorrhea or the ministrations of a shady abortion hospital she visited, but by Fatty's monstrous weight.

After three trials, Fatty was exonerated. The judge made an apology, saying not one shred of evidence tied Fatty to the crime, but in the end it didn't matter, because he still lost everything that mattered to him: friends, fans, and career. Forced to struggle for work under a pseudonym, William B. Goodrich, he found ''the burn of those words had not let up a single degree."

Hollywood again goes on trial in Kate Lardner's achingly memorable ''Shut Up He Explained: The Memoir of a Blacklisted Kid" (Ballantine, $23.95). Ring Lardner Jr., the Oscar-winning co-writer of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy vehicle ''Woman of the Year," was Kate's beloved stepfather. Life was charmed until 1947, when America's infamous House Un-American Activities Committee targeted Hollywood for its witch hunt. Ring refused to testify about whether he or his peers (soon known as The Hollywood Ten) were Communists. ''I could answer . . . but if I did I would hate myself in the morning," Ring responded and was sentenced to a year in prison, leaving Kate, her two brothers, and her actress mother, Frances -- who was herself blacklisted -- to try to fend for themselves. Although Ring was no threat to America, no one would hire him, even for the few black-market jobs that existed. By the time he was released, the Red Scare had intensified under Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the family fled to Mexico, then Connecticut, and then back to Manhattan.

What was it like to grow up under such a blacklist? For Kate, it meant always feeling like an outsider, always being aware that for no good reason, it was ''us against them," and ''them" could crush the family as easily as you'd swat an insect. It meant never being able to safely talk about her father or express public pride for work he was doing clandestinely. And it all took a heavy toll. Ring drank, Frances distanced herself, and Kate sought refuge in drugs and sex, going down into a private hell before she could pull herself back up again.

Wrenchingly funny, the memoir is full of letters and diary entries and cameos by Zero Mostel and Dalton Trumbo. If at times the book feels distanced, it's because much of this is a little girl's memory of 1940s Hollywood, and it can get hazy. And despite Ring's letters, we aren't inside his head enough, the way we are Fatty's, so the story sometimes feels one step removed from the real drama. Still, it's a poignant portrait of a dark time, commemorating a man Kate felt to be a hero because he did what was right at enormous cost.

Behind both these scandals is another scandal -- that people were so fearful or resentful that they needed scapegoats. But did the demonization of innocent people make anyone's life better? Was Hollywood a more wholesome place because Fatty Arbuckle wasn't a part of it? And were we freer from Communism because a brilliant writer was locked away and denied work? The answers to these questions are, I think, the real shame, and the real scandal.

Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is ''Girls in Trouble."

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