The modern Sappho on the Arbuckle jury

[This entry is from our research, to trace how various individuals found their way into the Arbuckle case and how they fared afterward. Some end in tragedy. Some in ellipses, like Maude Delmont. But Irene Wilde was exceptional.]

Irene Wilde (1884–1964) was one of five women on the jury of the third Arbuckle trial jury (March–April 1922). She was a poet and writer, albeit described a “newspaperwoman” by the San Francisco Call. But this was an exaggeration not of her choosing, for Wilde had won the Call‘s a runner-up prize for “Jingle of the Month” (December 1921) and was awarded for best “Molly O Poem” the following month (January 1922). The latter contest asked for paeans to Molly O, the title character in a recent film starring Mabel Normand. Normand, of course, had been Arbuckle’s costar at Keystone Studio—and the clever Mrs. Wilde brought a touch of erudition to her verse with the use of the very Irish “mavoureen” [darling].

Another exaggeration, one, that wasn’t disclosed during the trial, was that she claimed her husband, Richard Wilde, was a relative of Oscar Wilde, albeit born in California and humbly employed as a timekeeper by the Pullman Car Company.[1] But Irene had her own accomplishments. Raised on a farm in North Carolina, she attended the Baptist College for Women (i.e., Meredith College) in Raleigh and the University of Chicago. During her student years, she took joy in seeing her name in print and published many of her first poems in newspapers as Maude Irene Haire. Eventually, she made her way west, teaching high school English in Goldfield, Nevada, before arriving in Berkeley in 1918, where she married her husband, her first and his third.

Unlike the businessmen and housewives who may have felt their lives had been interrupted by their jury assignments, Wilde probably saw her month off from walking the floor as a sales clerk in an art supply store as a boon to her writing. Not only did she write poems but authored a droll insider account for the Call about the vicissitudes of being a juror.[2] This she had ready for publication the day after the jury acquitted Arbuckle for the death of Virginia Rappe on April 12.

“We felt that there was absolutely no case against Arbuckle,” Wilde said to reporters. “It was nothing but conjecture and surmise. The facts were all on the other side.”[3]

Wilde, too, signed the jury’s unprecedented statement in which they wished Arbuckle success and urged the American public to see him “entirely innocent and free from all blame.”

Source: San Francisco Examiner, 17 March 1922

The twelve men and women left it implicit that they saw Virginia Rappe as culpable for, as one of Arbuckle’s lawyers put it, for being “the pitcher that went to the well too often”—and having lived a dissolute life with a diseased bladder that happened to burst after the comedian unwittingly followed Rappe into his bedroom.

However the national coverage of the scandal and the fact that a woman died were enough to convince Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor that the public would never again see Arbuckle films as family fare—so he discreetly directed Will Hays to keep the ban on Arbuckle pictures in place. The actor soon put his beloved Pierce-Arrow “palace” car up for sale to pay his legal costs. The wife who “stood by her husband” during the trial, Minta Durfee, left him to return to her single life across the country in New York City. And Irene Wilde? She was perhaps best situated and equipped to write a tell-all book about the third Arbuckle trial. She could have indicated why the comedian’s version of events trumped everything that the prosecution did to contradict him. But books that dished about sordid trials and scandals were not yet in vogue. Instead, Wilde kept her trial stories to herself and relocated to Los Angeles in 1923, and eventually found permanent employment as a high school librarian.

She published two books of verse, won twenty-six poetry contests, and had one poem in Poetry: The Magazine of Verse. She was called a “modern Sappho” by the Los Angeles Times and nominated to be the poet laureate of California by the League of American Penwomen and her many supporters in Southern California. (The women of the Chaparral Poetry Society named one of their chapters for her.)

Source: Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1936

Wilde also published a novel in her lifetime, The Red Turban (Liveright, 1943). According to its jacket copy, the story revealed “an enlightening and stimulating contrast between the ideals of and poetry of the East, and the speed of the flashing, brilliant life of the moving picture colony in California.”

[1] “Rites for Poet Irene Wilde Set,” Los Angeles Times, 3 September 1964, III:3.

[2] See Irene Wilde, “Trials of a Trial Jury,” San Francisco Call, 13 April 1922, 2.

[3] “Arbuckle Jurors Explain Action—Unanimous from Start, They Assert,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 April 1922, 2.

One thought on “The modern Sappho on the Arbuckle jury

  1. Thank you!! It’s amazing how hard it is to find information on this era with this subject matter! So many lost stories of that dirty,perverted,
    tinsel town casting couch


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