“ . . . if the party is a bloomer”

Few Arbuckle case accounts discuss Virginia Rappe’s personality. Presumably she wrote letters and postcards to her guardians and friends. But despite becoming a household name in 1921, no one has shared such writings that might reveal something about her character. What little of Rappe there is on screen—all comedies—has been used to disparage her acting abilities. That she never appeared in a dramatic role suggested to some that Rappe was not a serious person. Even as a vamp, she was termed a “junior vamp,” that is, a femme fatale who isn’t all that fatal.

Virginia Rappe in a scene from Over the Rhine (1918), recut as The Isle of Love (1922) (Archive.org)

In writing about Virginia Rappe, we do look for Rappe, frame by frame in some cases, to find the real person. We also look at minute details that would otherwise seem irrelevant.

Much can be learned about a person by her choice of words and the context.

Around noon, on September 5, 1921, Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, drove Rappe and Virginia Rappe to the entrance of the St. Francis Hotel. While only Rappe had been invited to Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, the invitation would eventually be extended to her two companions, Semnacher and Delmont. But there is little doubt that Rappe had the privileged status of being the one invited.

During his court appearances, Semnacher testified that he left Rappe and Delmont off in front of the hotel and didn’t wait to see them enter the building. Semnacher, however, included some details, probably given during his grand jury appearance, that suggest Rappe’s interest in attending the party was tenuous, halfhearted. She had an exit strategy in mind that amounted to a graceful excuse to Arbuckle, which, unfortunately, she didn’t exercise.

Rappe asked Semnacher to wait outside. If “the party didn’t suit them”—meaning her and Delmont—she would leave.[1] “I’ll go up there,” she said, according to Semnacher, “and if the party is a bloomer I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”[2]

This quote is consistent with her utterances in the Atlanta Constitution in September and October 1913, when she was modeling the “tango dress.” She and her fellow models thought Atlanta was charming but too southern, gentlemanly, too inhibited, strait-laced. This, of course, calls attention to what she had expected to find. A town with more fun? That was a little more risqué like her native Chicago?

Although a close reading of an archaic slang word like “bloomer” risks overshooting the mark. She could have said “a bust,” a “waste of time”—whether for business or pleasure or both. For an actress who had worked hard to get her figure back after months of dieting and exercise, to spend several hours after a late breakfast watching Arbuckle and his friends eat and drink early in the afternoon might have seemed to be worth little more than a quick hello. To only give him twenty minutes suggests a preconceived notion of the host and of the kind of gatherings he hosted. As it turned out, Arbuckle held her rapt attention.

There is, however, another meaning that Rappe could have intended. A “bloomer” in the early twentieth century also meant a fraud, a prank, or a joke played on someone, as in “to pull a bloomer.” Here, Rappe might have wanted Semnacher ready to leave if Arbuckle’s party didn’t seem to be on the level.

[1] Al Semnacher, “Member of Arbuckle Party in Hotel Makes Full Statement: Al Semnacher, Manager for Film Stars, Gives the District Attorney Deposition,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1921, 4.

[2] Earnest J. Hopkins (Universal Service), “Film Star Who Makes Many Millions Laugh Gets First Taste of Life Behind Bars,” Shreveport Times, 12 September 1921, 2.

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