A new legend about Virginia Rappe: Anna Mariania

At this writing, we are revising the part of the manuscript dealing with Arbuckle’s first trial venue, the Police Court preliminary investigation that would determine whether to charge him with murder or manslaughter before referring the case to the Superior Court of San Francisco.

There is an extant court transcript for us to reference. And this phase of the Arbuckle case was well documented by the press, especially the reporting filed by Evelyn Wells of the San Francisco Call and John H. Richardson of the Los Angeles Evening Herald. Both newspapers were part of the Hearst chain and their coverage hardly evinces the yellow journalism asserted by most other Arbuckle case narratives. Nevertheless, one can find some strange items like the piece about Virginia Rappe’s mysterious past. An edited version first appeared in the Los Angeles Evening Herald on September 26, 1921. But a much longer version, reprinted here, was published in the Pomona Bulletin the following day.

In all likelihood the feature was “propaganda” provided by Arbuckle’s defense lawyers, or a “friendly” third party, to associate Rappe with the Chicago underworld and the demimonde of the notorious Levee district. The target audience was the press, especially the wire services, and ultimately the jury pool in San Francisco, the prosecutors, and the judge.

The following reportage, without byline or dateline, covering Rappe’s early years and introduction to show business, is a marvel of creativity, more like the work of screenwriter than a lawyer if one can imagine the prose as intertitles in a silent film. (During the third Arbuckle trial, a witness was found to posit Rappe as a nightclub entertainer early in her career. See Inexpert witness shopping (Chicago style).) And if this piece wasn’t propaganda, the story of Anna Mariania–Virginia Rappe shows the frustration that many journalists had in trying to piece together Rappe’s background, so much so that they resorted to making things up. Resorting to fiction, too, is hardly restricted to 1921. One can find creative license throughout “authoritative” biographies of Arbuckle and other actors of the silent era, histories, scholarly monographs, and the like.

Virginia Rappe Was Child of Steel Puddler

From obscure poverty as the daughter of an immigrant steel worker to a place in the sun of screen popularity with attendant luxury, this was the career of beautiful Virginia Rappe, according to investigators into the past of the girl for whose death Roscoe Arbuckle, film comedian, is now imprisoned.

Though known by thousands, she was a girl alone. Seemingly she did everything possible to remain alone, to cut herself off from a past with its share of storm and cloud in the hope of future happiness. But a tragic death intervened.

Contrary to recent reports of the girl’s parentage, Virginia Rappe was born Anna Mariania, say those who claim to know. The secret of her dark, flashing beauty lay in an Italian–Jewish parentage. Her father, according to information obtained by investigation, was a steel puddler at Braddock, Pa..[1]

But the life of a steel worker’s daughter amid the grime and soot of the mills was not to the taste of Anna. Eager to see the world, to taste of a life more alluring than that to which she was accustomed, the girl joined a repertoire troupe, which passed through her home town, and went on the road.

The leader of the show was named Rappe, and it was from him that the future film favorite took the name by which she was afterward known, Virginia Rappe.

After some months with traveling show, it is said Virginia went to Chicago. Here she became a cabaret dancer, and was a popular entertainer at the famous establishment of “Big Jim” Colosimo, king of the Chicago tenderloin, who was mysteriously murdered a year ago.[2]

Her strange, dark beauty, exploited in a “hooch” dance, became one of the attractions of the resort, and drew the attention of many admirers.[3]

But the lure of the movies took possession of the girl who had already gone far on the road from the humble home at Braddock. The bright lights of Chicago’s night life held her, but not so closely. She longed for something else. Ambition whispered, “You can star in pictures. Others do. Why not you?”

And she listened.

Among those who came to Colosimo’s was a certain motion picture director. He was attracted to the girl, who told him of her desire to come to California, to enter motion pictures. He encouraged her. With her beauty and talent, he said, she could make a success. He would help her.

Virginia came. Six years ago it was she left Chicago. In time the film director starred her in comedies and she became well known as a screen beauty.

There were tales of many admirers. There was Tony, who was only a waiter at one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants, but whose hot Italian blood flamed with love for the voluptuous beauty of Miss Rappe.

His room was a photograph gallery of the picture girl. He had three portraits of her on the ceiling that he “might see her the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night,” so he said.

And she returned his love. After dinner with other admirers when her waiter sweetheart would serve her every wish, she would leave the first man of the evening to go home with her more humble love.

There were rumors that one who had done much for her had deserted her. But who could tell? She was the same vivacious beauty, in love with a “good time.” And it was while out “for a good time” that Death stalked in where only Joy had come before.

Source: The Bulletin (Pomona, California), 27 September 1921, 8.

[1] Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh, was the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill.

[2] Vincenzo “Big Jim” Colosimo, called the “underworld czar” of Chicago, who made his fortune on prostitution, was shot to death on May 11, 1920, possibly by Al Capone or an out-of-town hitman as he advanced in his “career.”

[3] Hooch, i.e., any sexually provocative dance better known as the “hoochie-coochie.”

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