100 Years Ago Today: Mildred Harris (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin) prays for Virginia Rappe, September 18, 1921

On Sunday morning, September 18, a line began to stretch from the entrance of Strother & Dayton, Argyle Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. The Los Angeles Times estimated that 3,000 people filed past Rappe’s open casket. The San Francisco Examiner rounded the number to 8,000 people!

The most accurate estimate was kept by mortuary employees. Writing home to his parents in Iowa, Leonard Collenbaugh, a young undertaker who prepared Rappe’s body, described how he and his coworkers, on seeing all the people outside, posted a man at the entrance of the chapel to keep a head count. Another was posted at the exit to keep the nearly 4,000 mourners moving in an orderly fashion.[1]

At some point, however, Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, the man who had chauffeured her to San Francisco for her fatal Labor Day holiday, thought that not enough Hollywood people were there, especially people who knew Rappe. One exception was the the actress Mildred Harris, the estranged first wife of Charlie Chaplin.

At Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, the guests noticed that he and Rappe were virtually tete-a-tete most of time, talking and laughing. Perhaps during their conversation, the Chaplins’ divorce made for some of their bright conversation. Harris demanded $100,000 in alimony from Chaplin, who had just left for Europe after escaping being served papers by jumping onto a moving train with the nimbleness he showed on screen.

Arbuckle’s friend and onetime protege Charlie Chaplin had married Harris when she was still sixteen and their public parting of ways made for amusing stories in the newspapers in early September, that is, until the news about Rappe’s death dwarfed any interest in the Little Tramp’s personal life.

Mildred Harris (Calisphere)

When Mildred Harris arrived at the funeral home, the crowd was held back so that she could approach Rappe’s body. Harris observed the corsage bouquet of roses, lilies, and orchids placed in Rappe’s hands. Harris had sent the arrangement, Still addressed as “Mrs. Chaplin,” the young actress was allowed to kneel and pray by the coffin in private. After five minutes, she rose and said that she wanted Rappe’s body dressed in something other than a shroud for the burial the next day. She went home and brought back an evening gown, designed by Rappe for Harris to wear, of white georgette, over crepe de chine, with white lace and green silk ribbon. “It is the last gift I can make to one I loved,” Harris said to reporters.

Virginia Rappe, September 18, 1921 (Calisphere)

[1] “Iowan at Rappe Funeral,” Webster City (Iowa) Freeman, 24 October 1921, 3.

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