The Woman at the Center of the Arbuckle Scandal

Rappe5

Every year that passes gets kinder to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The sad story of his railroading gets wider known, and more importantly more and more of his work is available for the public to once again see and enjoy — including much material that was created by him using pseudonyms, meaning he’s getting well deserved credit for work from his last decade or so that had been kept secret while he was alive.

Time has NOT been as kind to Virginia Rappe (1891-1921), whose birthday it is today. Painted in saintly tones of martyrdom during Arbuckle’s murder trial, much of a different nature eventually came to light, and now she is remembered with a good deal of vilification — somewhat unfair, given the fact that, being dead and all, she had nothing to do with Arbuckle’s persecution. Though a saint she wasn’t.

One of the interesting detours in my Chain of Fools research was learning more about her. The facts of her life were undeniably sordid. But I think I can avoid charges of “blaming the victim” in describing these unsavory details due to the fact that for all anyone knows she WASN’T a victim, neither of rape nor murder. The child of an unwed mother, Rappe was orphaned at age 11, became a nude model by 14, and had had two abortions by 16. At age 27 she had a child out of wedlock and put it into foster care.

I had always assumed that she was the silent cinema equivalent of a “groupie”, or at best a bit player in motion pictures, but it turns out she had a decent career as a film actress. In 1917 she was third billed in her first movie role in the feature Paradise Garden. Her second feature The Adventuress cast her opposite Julian Eltinge and Rudolph Valentino. 

Starting in 1919 she became the paramour of comedy director/ producer Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, like Arbuckle a Keystone alumnus, and one of those who found it expedient to turn against Arbuckle at his trial (unlike true friends like Buster Keaton). Most of Rappe’s cinematic work was in comedy shorts for Lehrman, and Jack White, supporting the likes of Lloyd Hamilton, Billie Ritchie, and Heinie Conklin. A party thrown by Arbuckle would have been the most natural place in the world for an aspiring comic actress to turn up.

She died on September 9, 1921, four days after Arbuckle’s party, of a ruptured bladder and the resulting peritonitis. No one actually knows why and they never did.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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