100 Years Ago Today: The death of Virginia Rappe, September 9, 1921

An Italian journalist, who has written an article to mark the centenary of the Arbuckle case and the death of Virginia Rappe, reminded us of a Latin expression that certainly applies to both Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle. Both figures have suffered a kind of damnatio memoriae, but rather than their faces and names erased from monuments and other official records of their existences, they have been damned by misrepresentation. In Arbuckle’s case, Durfee’s honey-glazed rehabilitation of him doesn’t acknowledge that he was bridling under what had become a sham marriage—a sham that facilitated the kind of dissolute lifestyle and assignations that fell the great Silent Era comedian. There is much more to this story though for another time.

Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s first wife, was and still is behind the character assassination of Virginia Rappe. She was the source of the infamous story about Rappe being the naive promiscuous actress on the Keystone lot who spread some kind of sexually transmitted disease or Pediculosis pubis.

Supposedly, Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone, had his studios, stages, prop and dressing rooms, and so on, repainted and “fumigated.” Entire buildings were allegedly encapsulated by tarps to ensure that nothing verminous survived that had come from Rappe’s mons veneris.

An example of damnatio memoriae as it applies to Virginia Rappe in You Must Remember This (1975)

This story was spread with every interview that Durfee gave in her dotage—and in any memoir she had written for her. It was accepted in the 1960s onward because Durfee likely knew it would sell in the heyday of the Sexual Revolution. But one didn’t need the Internet then to discover that Rappe never worked for Keystone and although she eschewed marriage, she was remarkably monogamous in her relationships—perhaps to a fault.

Durfee’s story about the Keystone studio does have some basis though. It originates in the spring of 1913—three years prior to Rappe’s arrival in Los Angeles—when there was a crackdown on so-called “white slavery” rings in the city. Among those arrested was a then-fifteen-year-old Keystone actress named Evelyn Quick, better and later known as Jewel Carmen. To support her mother, and, perhaps, because Mack Sennett only paid his talent a few dollars a week, the enterprising minor earned extra income as a sex worker.

When her name began to appear in newspapers among the “ruined” girls, and since some of her clients were other Keystone employees, Sennett took most of his company to film on location in Tijuana, Mexico as the first indictments were handed down. Rappe’s future boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman, and Keystone’s star comedian “Fatty” Arbuckle were among the actors and crew members who crossed the border to wait out the fallout and bad press.

Evelyn Quick in the Los Angeles Times, 1913 (Newspapers.com)

Virginia Rappe, of course, never imagined that she would be branded as “that kind of girl.” She slipped in and out of a coma on September 9, 1921, in a private room in a private hospital. She told a nurse to “get Arbuckle” not because she wanted revenge but just to get her $65 hospital bill paid.

She had no family around her as she died. One friend, who later said she barely knew Rappe, Sidi Spreckels did come to see her but was met by that doomed, faraway stare that the dying have. Spreckels tried to find a minister in time to pray over Rappe. But he arrived too late in the afternoon.

Later that day, Arbuckle answered the doorbell at his W. Adams Street mansion. He had been getting ready for a date to the theater with a young actress whom he had met earlier in the week while aboard the SS Harvard, during the voyage back from his Labor Day holiday in San Francisco. Those plans, however, had to be changed as a reporter told Arbuckle about Rappe’s death earlier in the day and that he was being blamed for it.

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