100 Years Ago Yesterday and Today: S.F.’s “Bird Girl” rescues Rappe’s body from neglect

[An intractable WordPress coding error had required us to repost this entry from 9/15.]

When Henry Lehrman put Virginia Rappe on a pedestal, remembering her as “clean, decent, high-spirited,” he could ill afford to step off his moral high ground in Manhattan and return to the West Coast. It would take him three days to reach San Francisco, longer than it would take to bury Rappe, and then another three days to return. Even at a whirlwind pace, Lehrman would need nearly two weeks for the trip as well as the funds on hand. He could afford neither. His contractual obligation to finish an Owen Moore comedy in New York gave him cover to avoid making the expected public appearance to mourn his erstwhile lover.

Still, Lehrman could “direct” Rappe’s final appearance via long-distance telephone calls and Western Union telegrams. He could take advantage of the sympathy extended to him by Sidi Spreckels, Maude Delmont, and people in Hollywood who had worked with Rappe and admired her, including his protégé, Norman Taurog, who offered to interrupt the directing a motion picture to handle the funeral arrangements in Los Angeles.

While Rappe’s body laid in a morgue and in the cold storage of a mortuary, Arbuckle made headlines, some ink was spared for Rappe’s memory and her status as a victim, a woman who died young, in the prime of her life. The newspapers reported that her body was still unclaimed as the new week unfolded despite her having “friends numbered by the scores” and being “one of the prettiest members of the Los Angeles film colony”—whose beauty the embalmers and cosmeticians of Halsted & Co. had restored as best they could because such matters couldn’t wait for instructions or payment.[1]

Fortunately for Lehrman, the spectacle of Rappe’s seemingly unwanted and orphaned corpse was avoided when someone unexpected stepped forward to represent him and give his “loved one” her due, the writer and aviatrix Lillian Gatlin, the first woman to fly across the United States and the “bird girl” of San Francisco.

Gatlin may have associated with Rappe in Los Angeles, where Gatlin once worked as a scenario writer. They met earlier, however, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. That same year, Gatlin lost her lover and flight instructor, Lincoln Beachey, when he crashed into San Francisco Bay before thousands of horrified onlookers. On the first anniversary of his death, Gatlin flew over the spot where Beachey died and dropped a bouquet of roses. She made her rose drops an annual event and these became the centerpiece of San Francisco’s Aerial Days, which Gatlin expanded to honor American airmen killed during the First World War. 

Lillian Gatlin (Calisphere)

Gatlin may have regarded Rappe as an honorary bird girl herself for being the first Vin-Fiz girl. But Gatlin’s motivations for caring about Rappe’s body were really in keeping with her favorite charity, the Silent Big Sisters, which assisted young unmarried mothers and their babies. Although Rappe wasn’t a mother, there was something no less pathetic about her situation in death.

When Gatlin learned that no flowers had been displayed around Rappe’s body, she had two long-stemmed roses placed like guards at either side of Rappe’s bier. With that and a large bouquet from a person who wished to remain anonymous, a public viewing of Rappe’s body could take place and soon women and girls filed past the open casket. The visitation, however, quickly came to an end as the long lines and crowds outside Halsted’s forced the mortuary to close its doors.

[1] “Tragedy Victim Is Sent Home,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1921, 2.

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