She is remembered, chiefly, for being the impetus behind the demise of one of the most storied careers in the silent film era. Her films hardly received any notice, but her influence was sure. She is better known for her death than for her life. Virginia Rappe, it would seem, grabbed controversy by the tail, and never looked back.
Born Virginia Caroline Rapp in New York, in 1894, her mother, a part-time showgirl named Mabel, died when she was 11 years old, and the young girl spent some time living in Chicago with relatives. By the age of 16, she was working as an artist’s model, and was a commercial model for a number of Chicago department stores; this led her to try her hand at Hollywood stardom. By the mid-1910s, she found work at the famed Keystone lot, where she worked for directors Fred Fischback and Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. She still modeled while she sought film fame: she was featured as the cover girl on the sheet music for the popular ballad, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
Virginia found work – leading towards the stardom she so desperately wanted – with the First National film company, releasing such films as The Punch of the Irish, Wet and Warmer, Kick in High Life, Twilight Baby, and Game Lady. All these films are lost, thus it is difficult to assess her worth as a cinematic leading lady. In 1918, Virginia won a “Best Dressed Girl in Pictures” award. It is possible that the company (at the time, First National was among the elite of film producers) was grooming her for big things – however, Virginia’s final trip, to San Francisco, ended all her dreams, and began one man’s nightmare.
On Labor Day, 1921, famed film funny man Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle hosted a party at the Bay City’s St. Francis Hotel, to celebrate the signing of his new three-year, $3 million dollar contract with Paramount Pictures. One of the invited guests, among many, was Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle secured a suite of three rooms (1219, 1220, and 1221) on the 12th floor of the hotel, and at one point during the festivities, Arbuckle and Rappe retreated to one of the bedrooms. What happened in that room will probably never be fully explained.
Virginia Rappe died, on September 9, 1921, at San Francisco’s Wakefield Sanitorium, due to rupture of the bladder, and acute peritonitis; she was found, bleeding and in intense pain, in Arbuckle’s room, on September 5, and died four days later. Instantly, rumors began to spread, and fingers pointed toward the last person seen alive with Virginia: Roscoe Arbuckle.
What was certainly not reported in the better newspapers of the day, was Virginia’s reputation for licentious behavior. Between the ages of 14 and 16, she is reported to have had between three and five abortions, and reports point towards her giving birth to a baby girl in 1910. Sadly, she was reported to have given half the men at the Keystone studios either syphilis or crab lice: Mack Sennett, head of the studio, banned her from the premises and had the area fumigated. Sadly, these facts were not widely known at the time of her death: ironically, many of the questions surrounding the controversy could have been answered by them.
Arbuckle was one of the screen’s major stars when he was charged with the rape and resulting death of Virginia. The details were shocking, the rumors more so. When all was said and done, however, Arbuckle was acquitted in his third trial, on April 12, 1922. He was free, but his career was over, and he died in 1933 never having approached his former popularity.
The sad circumstances surrounding the difficult life, and the early death, of Virginia Rappe, hearken this generation back to a simpler time, complete with difficult realities. The impetus for fame – the bases for remembrance – sometimes cannot be explained, and then, as now, sensationalism and exploitation make for grand headlines. Virginia Rappe was human, had faults, and is generally not remembered fondly by history: however, consider this … at the time of her death, she was engaged to one of her old directors at Keystone, Henry Lehrman. Though he married after her death, he was said to be hopelessly in love with Virginia, and was buried beside her in Section 8 of Hollywood Forever Cemetery upon his death in 1946. Perhaps there is underlying goodness in everyone, even if the consensus refuses to acknowledge it.