Monday, January 11, 2010
I really knew nothing about Virginia Rappe before visiting Hollywood Forever over the weekend. My friend Judy told me her story and I had to do more research on this poor girl. It's a little long, but interesting, I promise.
Fatty Arbuckle was a vaudeville performer who signed a contract with Paramount in 1921. Arbuckle was celebrating with a 3-day party at The St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. On Monday, September 5, 1921, the party started early. Arbuckle greeted visitors in his pajamas and though this was during Prohibition, large quantities of liquor were being drunk. Around 3 o'clock, Arbuckle retired from the party in order to get dressed to go sight-seeing with a friend. What happened in the following ten minutes is disputed.
One of those present at the party was a young actress named Virginia Rappe. Rappe had a rough childhood and some early relationships with men. It is believed that she had had five abortions by the age of 16. She had also suffered bouts of venereal disease. At the age of 17, she gave birth to an out-of-wedlock child. Wisely reasoning that she was not equipped to raise the child herself, she put it into foster care.
She started getting work in motion pictures. Her parts were small and sometimes uncredited. Perhaps her greatest triumph was being awarded the title "Best Dressed Girl in Pictures" in 1918 and having her photo appear on the cover of several sheet-music scores. The best known of these would be Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
But her career never really took off. There were rumors that, like many aspiring actresses, she dabbled in prostitution in order to pay her bills.
Virginia Rappe attended Arbuckle's party. Arbuckle decided to leave the party at about 3 p.m. to drive a friend of his, Mae Taub, into town. Ironically, Taub was the daughter-in-law of Billy Sunday, a fiery evangelist who strongly supported Prohibition, but she did not seem to mind being in a place where illegal liquor was flowing freely. The comedian went to his adjoining bedroom to change clothes. Exactly what happened after that would become a matter of fierce dispute.
"Bambina" Maude Delmont, who frequently set-up famous people in order to blackmail them, claims that Arbuckle herded 26 year-old Virginia Rappe into his bedroom and said, "I've waited for this a long time." Delmont says that a few minutes later party-goers could hear screams from Rappe coming from the bedroom. Delmont claims she tried to open the door, even kick it in, but couldn't get it open. When Arbuckle opened the door, supposedly Rappe was found naked and bleeding behind him.
Arbuckle says that when he retired to his room to change clothes, he found Rappe vomiting in his bathroom. He then helped clean her up and led her to a nearby bed to rest. Thinking she was just overly intoxicated, he left her to rejoin the party. When he returned to the room just a few minutes later, he found Rappe on the floor. After putting her back on the bed, he left the room to get help.
When others then entered the room, they found Rappe tearing at her clothes (something that has been claimed she did often when she was drunk). Party guests tried a number of strange treatments, including covering Rappe with ice, but she still wasn't getting any better.
The hotel staff were contacted and Rappe was taken to another room to rest. With others looking after Rappe, Arbuckle left for the sight-seeing tour and then drove back to Los Angeles.
Rappe was not taken to the hospital on that day. And though she didn't improve, she wasn't taken to the hospital for three days because most people who visited her considered her condition to be caused by liquor.
On Thursday, Rappe was taken to the Wakefield Sanitorium, a maternity hospital known for giving abortions. Virginia Rappe died the following day from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder.
Arbuckle was soon arrested and charged with the murder of Virginia Rappe. The public reaction to Arbuckle was fierce. Perhaps even more than the specific charges of rape and murder, Arbuckle became a symbol of Hollywood's immorality. Movie houses across the country almost immediately stopped showing Arbuckle's movies. The public was angry and they were using Arbuckle as a target.
After three trials, the defense again became pro-active. Arbuckle testified, repeating his side of the story. The main prosecution witness, Zey Prevon, had escaped house arrest and left the country. For this trial, the jury deliberated for only a couple of minutes and came back with a verdict of not guilty. Additionally, the jury wrote an apology to Arbuckle:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was our only plain duty to give him this exoneration. There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.
He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty-one days to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
Poor Fatty was done in Hollywood. His career was never the same and Virginia's murder was never solved. Virginia is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.