Arbuckle Brief #1

Dorothy Wallace, the Spite Bride?

(Periodically, we will report about where we are in the manuscript or discuss research that deserves mention, especially when it forces a revision or judicious speculation in response to those made by previous writers on this subject.)

Our book is divided into four parts named for the major cities in Rappe’s life—Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—and an epilogue. Over the past week, while adding to the Los Angeles section, where the text moves from 1920 to Rappe’s final year, we briefly introduced a new name that is peripheral to her life but contributory to what lies in store or wait: Dorothy Wallace. Shortly before Arbuckle sailed for Europe in late November 1920, ostensively for a long-deserved vacation, an “eastern publication” allegedly published a rumor that Arbuckle intended to marry the young actress in New York. Supposedly, however, the marriage was called off due to a “quarrel.”

The rumor of an impending Arbuckle marriage came back to life upon his and Wallace’s return to Los Angeles just before the Christmas holiday. The woman in question was in her late twenties and her early life and career has some parallels to Virginia Rappe’s save that Wallace was from a wealthy San Francisco family. Wallace was said to be a globe trotter, having traveled with her parents all over the world. Once she met an Indian prince who fell violently in love with her. Her parents had to leave Istanbul to escape the “ardent attentions of Turkish royalty.” Like Rappe, Wallace was entrepreneurial, having owned a millinery shop in San Francisco. This she gave up to pursue a modeling career in New York City, including posing for a poster series by James Montgomery Flagg. The celebrated illustrator also picked her for a one-reel silent biopic, The Art Bug (1918), in which she played herself, a Greenwich Village art student.

In 1918, Wallace arrived in Los Angeles and began to appear in supporting roles alongside Gloria Swanson in The Secret Code (1918) and Olive Thomas in The Spite Bride (1919). Because of her performance alongside Dustin Farnum in A Man’s Fight (1919), she was publicized as the love interest in his next vehicle, The Harvest of Shame, playing a New York society girl. But the project was shelved and her debut as a leading lady went unrealized.


Dorothy Wallace as one of the “Girls You Should Know” of 1918 (Lantern)

Wallace, in 1919, allegedly owned a wardrobe variously valued at $10,000 and $500,000—which would rival that of established actresses—and was seemingly on the upswing of a promising career in motion pictures. Nevertheless, her name and the marriage rumor appear in no Arbuckle biography. The omission seems strange in that a biography is where falsehoods and factoids are dealt with along with establishing the the true person.

While there was no corresponding rumor to suggest Wallace set sail as well to Europe with Arbuckle in a shipboard reconciliation, which, like Pullman sleepers, was a common way of indulging in an assignation, the two surely met and socialized at the Sunset Inn overlooking the Santa Monica beach. Both were habitués as was Virginia Rappe, who won dance contests there.

The Sunset’s proximity to the studios on the west side of Hollywood as well as its distance made it a convenient gathering place for the film colony during the teens and twenties. Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and their entourages often came to dine, drink, dance, and flirt.

The Sunset Inn, early 1920s (Calisphere)

The Wallace–Arbuckle rumor persisted in two newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald throughout December 1920. There was news of an engagement, of a broken engagement, of a quarrel, and even a New Year’s Eve engagement party. When Arbuckle’s manager Lou Anger denied the engagement party, he didn’t deny the engagement.

Minta Durfee, a native of Long Beach, California, undoubtedly found the rumor troubling, especially since her family read those newspapers. It took another month for a minor syndicated movie column to remind the public that such a marriage between Wallace and Arbuckle was “impossible” since he was still married to Durfee. Despite such reminders, Arbuckle, for his part, behaved like a bachelor all the more, an eligible bachelor.

The marriage rumor persisted until April 1921, where it appeared again in Motion Picture Magazine. While it would be easy to pass on such biographical chaff, we see it as possible evidence, to which we can add more, that Arbuckle was casting about for a new, younger, and prettier Mrs. Arbuckle for much 1920 and into 1921. (This is true even if Arbuckle was the victim of a joke.) Until the death of Virginia Rappe in September 1921, Minta Durfee had to know that sooner rather than later her husband would want a divorce that wouldn’t be as remunerative as their separation. Instead, the advantage went to her. Rather than serve her with papers, so to speak, Arbuckle’s lawyers ensured that Minta Durfee would appear prominently at his side when his courtroom ordeal began.

The winner of what may have been a long and ongoing beauty contest wasn’t Virginia Rappe, of course, but rather a young ingenue whom Arbuckle met aboard the SS Harvard when he sailed from San Francisco the day after Labor Day, 1920.

It was another chance meeting in San Francisco, too, like that between him and Rappe the day before.


J. Barney Sherry, Lois Wilson, Dustin Farnum, and Dorothy Wallace in A Man’s Fight (1919) (IMDb.com)

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