A night at the opera with William Desmond Taylor and Virginia Rappe

Tomorrow, February 1, marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of the actor-director William Desmond Taylor. His unsolved murder, which happened at the time the second Arbuckle trial was concluding, is seen by film historians as the other major scandal that threatened the motion picture industry and required redemption via the creation of the Hays Office—this time drawing in Mabel Normand’s drug addiction and revelations of Taylor’s secret life that were publicly exposed during the subsequent investigation.

The Arbuckle case and Taylor’s murder were discrete events and shared no major or minor players. Though the proximity in time probably led the public to imagine they were related. During the afternoon of February 1, in San Francisco, another jury began deliberations over whether Roscoe Arbuckle had caused the death of Virginia Rappe, and several hours later, in Los Angeles, Taylor was shot in the stomach by a small caliber weapon.

Both the events of Arbuckle’s infamous Labor Day party of September 5, 1921, and the subsequent cold case of Taylor’s murder have inspired numerous books—and those about Taylor are much better. The first, A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of William Desmond Taylor (1990), is by Robert Giroux, a writer better known as the personal friend and publisher of such American poets as John  Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and novelists such as Donald Barthelme and William Golding.

Another serious book on the Taylor shelf is Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery (2004) by the biographer Charles Higham, which uses much new information, including revelations from the Taylorology.com site and, most importantly, the unpublished autobiography of set designer George Hopkins. We took a special interest in his text for an incident he reports from April 4, 1921. On that day, the Chicago Grand Opera Company opened the opera season at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium with a command performance of Verdi’s Otello. The opening, too, was also the social event of the spring, with South Olive Street lined with limousines and the cream of Los Angeles—and Hollywood—society out in force dressed top hats and tails, furs and glittering jewels entering the concert hall.

According to one of Higham’s primary sources, Hopkins’s unpublished autobiography titled “Caught in the Act,” Virginia Rappe was one of the guests in the private loge of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille (p. 80). The others are no less intriguing, among them Paramount Pictures (nee Famous Players-Lasky) producer Jesse Lasky and screenwriter Rupert Hughes. Each paired with their wives though Rappe, apparently, was accompanied by an actor named William Desmond—NOT to be confused with the director William Desmond Taylor, who would have been sitting just a few feet away. (WDT had shown up with his friend and professional associate Hopkins, who was a gay man.)

That Rappe would have been present in such company seems rather bizarre in light of the insulting stories about her character that welled-up following her death. But the evidence suggests that the “best dressed girl in Hollywood” was less an actress and more a young socialite.  Realize, too, that she was a “Chicago girl,” which may have counted for something among people we take as motion picture illuminati. Indeed Rappe’s association with this group suggests a much less rigid social order existed among the film colonists than one would find in east coast society.

Rappe was known to have been a good bridge player. So, it is also possible that she was a simply a guest of Mrs. DeMille. Nevertheless, if Rappe’s presence wasn’t a case of mistaken identity on Hopkin’s part, she may have wanted to get back into the movies with something better than the comedy shorts she had done sporadically for her former boyfriend, Henry Lehrman.

A few weeks later, Rappe was allegedly present at a “Blood Moon” party given by another director who might have helped her, Alan Dwan. In May, William Desmond, the actor and presumed opera companion of Rappe, formed his own production company. As for Rappe, she found a new manager in one Al Semnacher, the man who drove her to San Francisco and on to the St. Francis Hotel.

At this writing, we hope to confirm Hopkin’s mention of Rappe attending Otello with newspaper reporting of the celebrities present that evening, particularly the Los Angeles Examiner, a not so easy newspaper to research since extant copies have been cut up into clippings. What limits us, given what newspapers we can search, is that members of the film colony weren’t considered members of polite society. Motion picture executives, directors, actors, and actresses were still parvenu “extras“ in the Philharmonic Auditorium, which might explain, too, Rappe’s access.

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