Reading a photograph of Virginia Rappe

Accurately reconstructing the facts of Virginia Rappe’s life is crucial for our book in order to show how much it stands in contrast to the life posited by Roscoe Arbuckle’s lawyers. To do this, we had to pay attention to even the tiniest piece of evidence. Here is a case in point.

We are currently writing the jury selection narrative for the first Arbuckle trial that began on November 14, 1921. Thus far, we find the daily summaries in the Los Angeles Herald accurate and detailed and even nuanced. The photographs the paper published were primarily of the individuals present at the trial, including Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, and his lawyers. But on November 15, an image of Rappe was included in the middle of a page of reportage. The caption was revealing:

Virginia Rappe as she appeared in fashion show shortly before “party” which preceded her death.

Source: Los Angeles Herald (CDNC)

The caption may be a clue. The fashion show in question could be the fall fashion show associated with the Los Angeles Trade Exhibition of August 1921. The photograph might mean that Rappe revived her modeling career in the last year of her life.

But the caption is wrong.

On closer inspection of the original photograph, one can better see the enormous radiator of an automobile behind her and the fencing of a racetrack. These features, the dated outfit and millinery, suggest an earlier date. One can also see some of the California license plate in the lower left. This plate design first appeared in 1916—the year Rappe arrived in Los Angeles and appeared in the Memorial Day fashion show and “race” at Ascot Speedway, where she drove Henry Lehrman’s FIAT. By 1921, the California plate had been redesigned.

Virginia Rappe in a proto-Janye Mansfield pose, ca. 1916 (Calisphere)

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