Did Virginia Rappe sit for Harrison Fisher?

Routinely, we search newspaper archives for anything related to Virginia Rappe’s past, a past Roscoe Arbuckle’s lawyers made out to be sordid. They turned up individuals who described knowing her in Chicago when she was younger. These witnesses asserted that the adolescent Rappe had undergone abortions, given birth to illegitimate babies, and contracted the diseases that usually came with a promiscuous lifestyle. These witnesses were intended to counter the character witnesses found by the prosecuting attorneys. Despite Arbuckle’s earlier request to his counsel that Rappe’s past not be used in his defense, it is not known whether he objected as this strategy was played out.

On the flip side, a woman the prosecutors could have called to the witness stand but didn’t was Helen Jackson Banghart, a fifty-one-year-old nurse from Portland, Oregon, who was president of that city’s Mayflower Club and “active in Catholic circle,” according to the Oregon Daily Journal. Mrs. Banghart also knew Virginia Rappe when both were in Chicago in earlier days and her memories were of an altogether different tone:

The family spelled their name Rapp in those days and Virginia was known to every one as “Tootie.” She was left an orphan when 5 or 6 years of age and came to live with her grandmother, who resided in a rooming house opposite the boarding house where I lived. The grandmother was subject to mental lapses, so Tootie was a sort of general charge. Miss Catherine Nelson, who lived in the same house that I did, and a personal friend of mine, befriended the child on many occasions.

I remember that she took her downtown one fall and outfitted her from her skin out and from head to foot. The child almost burst with pride over her new red coat and her red hat with black ribbon streamers. Catherine would often hand me 50 cents or a dollar and say, “If Tootie comes over, ask her if she is hungry, and if she is, get her something to eat,” which I always did.

Tootie was an unusually pretty child, agreeable, appreciative of all that was done for her and withal a very ladylike little miss. Her eyes were a deep hazel; at night they were almost brown. When you looked at her you looked again and then you kept on looking.

At the age of 15 years she posed for Harrison Fisher and his picture of her showed her with her little fox terrier. This picture was later reproduced on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. I moved from that neighborhood about that time and so lost track of her, but have always read with interest concerning her theatrical work.

I must confess that the tears came to my eyes when I read of her tragic end. Her early life was so hard. She scarcely knew a mother and then to think that she should meet death in such a terrible way. It seems that she had more than her share of the seamy side of life.[1]

Rappe’s unusual pet name was corroborated by a pillow of small roses, labeled “Tootie”, that was among the flower arrangements at her funeral.

Typically, for girls in the 1890s, “Tootie” was short for Gertrude. If looked at as a word describing a person’s appearance and conduct, as Nurse Jackson did, toot as slang has among its various meanings “to stand out,” “to be noticed.” (Ironically, another slang meaning that gained more currency in the 1890s and endured meant “to go on a drinking spree.”)

But was Virginia Rappe a model for Harrison Fisher? The one Saturday Evening Post cover, for August 28, 1909, that meets Mrs. Banghart’s criteria is shown below. But capitalist realism artists such as Fisher rarely individualized their models. They share the phenotypes of an idealized everywoman, for they were meant as commodities and not people to be recognized on the street.

You be judge. But this lady is blonde and has blue eyes. She lacks that juvenile vamp quality that Rappe had.

Virginia Rappe and friend, 1909? (Flickr)
Rappe and friend baring their teeth, 1907 (Chicago Tribune)

[1] “Miss Rappe’s Early Life Hard, Says Portland Woman,” Oregon Daily Journal, 14 September 1921, 2.

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