Virginia Rappe’s Dog

One of the last photographs taken of Virginia Rappe before she left for San Francisco in September 1921 was of herself and her dog “Jeff.” Like Roscoe Arbuckle’s “Luke,” Jeff was a Staffordshire terrier. The difference between the two was that Jeff had a brindle coat and no film credits to his name.

Jeff was part of large menagerie of animals acquired by Rappe’s boyfriend, the comedy director Henry Lehrman, when he was in charge of Fox Studio’s Sunshine Comedy Co.

There was “Joe,” the monkey, “Theodore, the cat,” “Billy,” the goat, “Bum,” the bulldog, “Rats,” the terrier, “Ludwig,” the dachshund, as well as three white mice and four canaries without names.[1] Lehrman also had flocks of ostriches, ducks, chickens, as well as a small herd of elephants and a pair of lions.

Jeff’s first performance may have been for a studio photograph with Virginia Rappe. He sits on a telephone stand to one side while Rappe poses in a summer suit and Panama hat.[2]

Jeff and Virginia Rappe, about 1917 (Library of Congress)

The puppy bonded with her over time, due in part to her stepping in to pet and comfort the animal when she thought his trainer was abusive.

Jeff was almost lost when it wandered away from shoot in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park in August 1918, forcing Lehrman to offer a reward for the bull terrier’s return.

Eventually, Jeff became Rappe’s charge after he began to wait by her car in the afternoons, before she left the Lehrman’s Culver City studio for home.As the dog repeated this performance, refusing to recognize any other master, Rappe was allowed to keep the dog as her own. But given Lehrman’s penchant for dangerous stunts, Jeff may have been easy to part with, having already lost an eye, which spoiled his appearance and ended his brief career.

Rappe and Jeff, 1921 (Calisphere)

[1] “Who Said Monkey Dinner?” Los Angeles Times, 29 July 1917, III:2.

[2] See “Lost Dog Star, Not Sirius, But Lehrman’s Jess [sic],” Los Angeles Herald, 10 August 1918, II:3; and “Aunt, Pet Mourn Death of Miss Rappe,” San Francisco Call, 16 September 1921, 2.

Document dump #8: The first comprehensive report, published twenty-four hours after Virginia Rappe’s death

[This early report, in the early afternoon of September 10, 1921, raised our eyebrows more than once. You will read here, just as the San Francisco Call readers did a century ago, how many of the essential details of what became the Arbuckle case were known. There is much here about the illegal autopsy performed on Rappe’s body, which suggests that had someone—a whistleblower—not called the S.F. Coroner’s office, Arbuckle’s downfall might never have happened. Other revelations here, of course, include the term “spontaneous” to describe Rappe’s bladder rupture. The source, Dr. Ophuls, the professor of pathology at Stanford’s medical school, didn’t use that term again. He also described the walls of Rappe’s bladder as thin. Later he used the term “small for a woman her size.” Notice too, that all those foxtrots and like dances imagined at the Labor Day party in various Arbuckle narratives are certainly moot.]


GRILL FOR ARBUCKLE; ACTRESS DEATH QUIZ; POLICE AWAIT COMEDIAN IN FATAL BOOZE PARTY

FRESNO, Sept 10. —Roscoe Arbuckle, film star, tore through Fresno today in a high-powered car, on his way to San Francisco for the inquiry into the death of Virginia Rappe, movie actress. He would not pause to give new details of his answer to charges involving him, but said he would reach San Francisco at 3 p. m.

A manifold official investigation was begun today into the death of Virginia Rappe, film beauty, following a drinking party in the suite of Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, film star, at the Hotel St. Francis.

The police, while spreading a watch for Arbuckle as he sped north from Los Angeles, detailed a squad of veteran detectives to the case, and the coroner’s office and District Attorney Matthew Brady both took steps for a complete investigation, while members of the grand jury also went into the case with a view to action by that body.

Clubwomen also entered the situation, many of them telephoning officials of the grand jury demanding an inquiry. The jury may take up the case at its regular meeting Monday night.

The investigation included not only the circumstances of the actress’ injury, illness and death, but those of an autopsy performed at the request of the physician in charge of her case, Dr. M. E. Rumwell.

Dr. Rumwell, instructed to appear at the coroner’s office to explain, telephoned that he would come this afternoon and said the autopsy was regular, the case having been one of natural causes.

Dr. William Ophuls went to the morgue and declared that the autopsy was regular, and he had taken it for granted the legal requirements had been met by his confrere.

A coroner’s jury met this afternoon to view the body, which was photographed.

These developments today came on the heels of the breaking of a dam which had held up all word of the scandal for several days. Acting Captain of Detectives Michael Griffin detailed Detectives Henry McGrath, Griffith Kennedy ard Thomas Regan to the case with orders to look into the autopsy matter as well as all other features.

District Attorney Matthew Brady said this afternoon: “It is reported death occurred under mysterious circumstances. If necessary my entire force will be detailed to aid the police in a full investigation and if it is found death was due to an attack or abuse by any person, we will prosecute. We will go after anyone who seems guilty just as strongly as we went after the Howard street gangsters.”

When he spoke, Brady had not been officially advised of the case.

Curtis Clifford, foreman of the grand jury, said today that the case had not been called to his notice, officially, but that he would investigate with a view to bringing the matter before the grand jury if the circumstances warrant it.

GRAND JURY ACTION

The grand jury is due back tomorrow from a trip to Hetch Hetchy.

Harry Kelly, secretary of the grand jury, also declared the grand jury was ready to hear all pertinent evidence in .the case. He said he himself had received telephone messages from many clubwomen demanding grand jury inquiry.

Arbuckle left Los Angeles at 1 a.m. today by auto, accompanied by Frank Dominguez, Los Angeles attorney. He said he was coming to help in the inquiry.

The police established a watch for his machine, with orders to take him to the detective bureau immediately on his arrival.

Arbuckie came north issuing denials of responsibility for the girl’s death. The stomach of the actress was sent to Dr. Frank T. Green, city chemist, for analysis, following the report of the physicians who attended her that death was caused by peritonitis, due to a rupture of the bladder, which might have been caused by a fall or by a blow.

This action was taken by the coroner’s office after the autopsy had been performed by a private physician, Dr. Ophuls, called in especially for that purpose by the doctors who had been attending the woman.

The body was taken from the hospital to the undertaking: establishment of Halstead & Co., 1122 Sutter street, and later removed to the morgue. Dr. Ophuls and Dr. M. E. Rumwell, whose patient the woman had been and therefore in charge of the case, were directed to go to the morgue to give their explanation.

It was declared that Dr. Ophuls assumed the other doctors had fulfilled the legal requirements for an autopsy and that he considered his action a part of routine in a surgical case.

The death of the woman was learned by accident by the coroner’s office.

WOMAN PHONES TIP

Yesterday afternoon a woman phoned, saying she was speaking from the Wakefield Sanitarium, 1065 Sutter street, where the actress had died. She asked when the autopsy was to be performed.

Coroner T. B. W. Deland was at Santa Crux with the naval reserve, but Deputy Michael Brown, who had answered the phone, went to the hospital immediately after the woman, presumably an employee, had hung up without giving further details.

At the hospital Brown was refused the name of the dead woman and told to see Dr. Rumwell, whose patient the woman had been. He waited.

Presently Dr. Rumwell and Dr. Ophuls came down stairs. They had portions of the body—specimens.

Brown told them they had exceeded the law and had them telephone to the chief deputy coroner, Mrs. Jane C. Walsh. Dr. Rumwell said he had beep trying to get Dr. Leland by telephone.

Dr. Shelby Strange, acting autopsy surgeon, was sent to make a post mortem examination, and today the body was ordered taken from the undertaker’s, Halsted & Co., where it was removed from the hospital, and subjected to a new examination at the morgue.

Dr. Strange found bruises on the right and left legs of the body, one apparently from a pinch on the arm. and dark spots on the abdomen.

Dr. Ophuls said today, death was caused by peritonitis, due to a rupture of an abnormally thin bladder.

Dr. Rumwell was called to the St. Francis Tuesday. The actress remained at the hotel till Thursday, when she was taken to the hospital.

Dr. Rumwell was the physician in charge of the case and called in others in consultation—Doctors W. P. Read and Emmet Rixford.

His contention was, when asked for an explanation by the coroner’s office, that the case was one of natural causes and therefore his conduct was within the law’s requirement.

When the deputy coroner went to the hospital and met Dr. Rumwell immediately after the autopsy performed by Dr. Ophuls, Dr. Rumwell was told that he should have got in touch with the coroner’s representatives and that the law demanded that relatives or the coroner’s office issue a permit for an autopsy.

He said: “I did not attend the woman but was called in only for the autopsy. I found a spontaneous’ rupture of the urinary bladder. It was abnormally thin and may have been too full. There were no signs of violence. The case was simply a surgical one in which the diagnosis was doubtful.”

He denied a report that one of the woman’s ribs was broken.

Dr. Beardslee was the St. Francis house surgeon. He attended the woman while she was there before Dr. Rumwell was called in.

NINE AT PARTY

According to members of the party of nine that participated in the party at the hotel, which took place Monday, there was plenty of liquor in Arbuckle’s room. Virginia Rappe’s case was at first believed by her companions to be one of hysterics. She had taken two drinks, they said. The physicians who treated her found her suffering apparently from alcoholism.

As pieced together by the police, the story of the events leading up to the fatal illness is this:

Miss Rappe, Mrs. Maude Del Mont and Al Semnacher, manager for Miss Rappe, met at a Los Angeles candy shop and motored to San Francisco, going to the Palace Hotel. They spent Sunday night at the hotel.

Arbuckle telephoned the Palace and invited them to his rooms at the St. Francis on Monday. There was general drinking. Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe went into a room of his suite adjoining that in which the party was being held. The door was locked. According to one report, eventually there were sounds of a scuffle and an outcry.

ARBUCKLE IN PAJAMAS

Pounding on the door eventually brought out Arbuckle. He was clad then, as before, in pajamas and bathrobe. The girl lay on the bed in the room where she had gone with him. She was naked. According to women members of the party her clothing, even her stockings, was torn to shreds so that she could not be clothed at once. The girl was put to bed in another room. She was unconscious. A cold bath did not revive her. The hotel management was notified.

Arbuckle had come to San Francisco with Frederick Fishback and Lowell Sherman.

The management of the hotel knew nothing of the party in the actor’s suite except that he asked that a phonograph be sent up and this was complied with when it was determined the machine was not wanted for dancing.

ARBUCKLE’S STORY

Here is the story as told today by Arbuckle, with the corroboration of Fishback and Sherman:

“We arrived In San Francisco. Fishback, Sherman and I, last Saturday afternoon and went to the St. Francis Hotel, where we engaged an apartment. Tired from the long trip, we went to sleep immediately. Shortly before noon Monday a friend of Mr. Fishback. with us in the apartment, remarked that he had seen Miss Rappe at the Palace, and desired to meet her, as he wished her to model some gowns for him.”

HAD A FEW DRINKS

“I told him that I knew her and would make the introduction. She readily consented to come to the St. Francis. After meeting the man, we had a few drinks. Miss Rappe had one or two drinks. She went into the other room of the apartment and began tearing her clothes from her body and screaming.

“The other woman, Maude Del Mont, and a companion, rushed into the room. They put Miss Rappe into a tub of cold water. She cried out that gas had formed around her heart—that she couldn’t breathe.

“We engaged another room in the hotel for her and moved her there. Then a physician was called and, after he reported that she had quieted down, Mr. Sherman and I went down into the dining room and danced the rest of the evening.

“We already had engaged passage on the Harvard to return to Los Angeles Tuesday, and did so.

“We had not received any intimation that Miss Rappe’s illness was as serious as it turned out to be and were very much surprised to learn of her death.”

NEW DETAILS GIVEN

One of the women guests at the party gave new details today, saying:

In all there were eight or ten people there. Some came in and went out after a little while.

Virginia Rappe went to the bath room, which connected the room where all were with another.

Arbuckle followed and took her to the other room. He said something about having waited five years for her.

Then there were screams.

She said, “He’s killing me.” Someone kicked on the door and told him to let her out. He said “no.”

When the door was finally opened, she was hysterical and he was swearing at her.

Among those who were In Arbuckle’s suite during the party, according to other guests, were Lowell Sherman, an actor; Dollie Clark and a man named Glass. Arbuckle was ordered from the hotel, according to Assistant Manager H. J. Boyle. This the actor denies.

ORDERED FROM HOTEL

Boyle said:

“Mr. Arbuckle came to the hotel Monday and took a suite of two rooms. Monday afternoon he sent word that he wanted a phonograph, and after Assistant Manager Thomas Keating had learned that no dance records were desired—only popular songs—he sent the machine and some records.

“There was nothing to cause comment until late in the afternoon, when a woman’s voice from the room occupied by Mrs. Del Mont asked for assistance, saying:

“A woman is hysterical tip here and is tearing her clothes off. You had better do something about it.”

“I went to the room, but before I entered the room another door opened, and Arbuckle, clad in a bath robe, pajamas and bath slippers, came to the door of the adjoining room and said: “She is in here; come in.”

OTHERS IN ROOM

“I entered and lying on the bed was Miss Rappe, nearly nude and unconscious. Mrs. Del Mont, three or four women whose names I did not learn, a man who gave his name as L. Sherman and another who gave his name as Fred Fishback. both of Los Angeles, were in the room.

“Their story was that the young woman had had three drinks and had become hysterical. There were several bottles in evidence, and I took it for granted that there was nothing more serious than a drinking party. Mrs. Del Mont wanted another room for Miss Rappe and she was placed in bed.

PHYSICIAN CALLED

Later her condition became so serious that a physician was asked for and one of the hotel’s assistant physicians was sent in the absence of Dr. Arthur Beardslee, the house physician. Later he arrived and took charge of the case, which was deemed sufficiently serious to make it advisable to send the young woman to the hospital.

DETAILED FOR POLICE

A detailed version of the event was given to the police In the form of a sworn statement by Alice Blake, art actress, living at the Woodrow Hotel, 364 O’Farrell street.

She has been appearing in a revue at Tait’s.

Her statement, given to Detective Griffith Kennedy, says:

“On Monday, about 2 o’clock, Lowell Sherman, an actor friend, called me and invited me to a party in Roscoe Arbuckle’s apartments, rooms 1219, 1220 and 1221. at the Hotel St Francis. There were several people in the room when I entered. There were Sherman, a short, stout Jewish gentleman whose name I do not know; Mrs. Maude Del Mont Miss Zey Prevon. Miss Virginia Rappe and Arbuckle.

“When I entered Arbuckle and Miss Rappe were occupying a settee together. All were laughing and talking. All had been drinking. Miss Rappe was drinking gin and orange Juice. We all ordered something to eat and afterward just sat around and talked.”

Alice Blake, September 1921 (Associated Press)

MANY CALLERS

“Various people whom I did not know, men and women, came in from time to time. One of them was Al Semtoacher, who, I was told, was Miss Rappe’s manager. At this time we were in room 1220, which was used as a reception room. After we had finished eating. Miss Rappe got up and went into the bath room, which was connected with Arbuckle’s room, No. 1219.”

GIRL’S DEATH CRY

“About the same time I went into room 1221 with Miss Prevon. When I returned a few moments later neither Arbuckle nor Miss Rappe was present. I asked Sherman where Arbuckle and Miss Rappe were. He replied; “In there.” pointing to the door of room 1219. About a half hour later Mrs. Del Mont tried to get into the room, but the door was locked. She banged and banged on the door and Arbuckle came out. As he opened the door we heard Miss Rappe moaning and crying. ‘I am dying! I am dying!’ Arbuckle came out and sat down with us and said. ‘Go in and. get her dressed and take her back to the Palace. She makes too much noise.’

“In the meantime Mrs. Del Mont had entered the room where Miss Rappe was. Miss Prevon and I entered and found Miss Rappe lying on the bed. She was entirely unclothed. She was moaning and crying. She seemed to be in great pain and I tried at once to help her. I first thought she was suffering from gas pains so I gave her a cup of hot water with bicarbonate of soda, but she vomited at once.

“Someone suggested a cold bath, so we filled the tub, and one of the men and I carried her and put her into it for a moment. It had no effect so We took her out.”

CLOTHES TORN TO SHREDS

“We tried to dress her but found her clothes torn to shreds. Her shirtwaist, underclothes and even her stockings were ripped and torn so that one could hardly recognize what garments they were. We could not dress her because her clothes were torn so.

“After that a clerk was summoned. Then we carried her to room 1227, which we had engaged, and the house physician, I believe, was called. There was plenty of liquor there, but I was told that Miss Rappe had only had two drinks. I had only one drink myself. “From the time I entered the suite arid all during the party Arbuckle was clothed in pajamas, a bathrobe and bedroom slippers.”

Virginia Rappe had been in the movies for several years, was well known in film circles and had played important parts in some productions, but is said not to have been working lately.

100 Years Ago Today: The bladder with a fuse on top, October 22, 1921

Before meeting with Minta Durfee as she was en route to join her husband in San Francisco, Chicago attorney Albert Sabath had been digging into Virginia Rappe’s earlier life in his city. In doing so, and without ever appearing in a San Francisco courtroom, the former amateur playwright may have done as much as Arbuckle’s lawyers in situ in crafting a counter-narrative that would take the focus off of the movie star. With such musicals as Campus Capers and Hoo-sier Girl to his credit, Sabath had a knack for telling a story and dramatizing the life of Virginia Rappe probably came easily. But the line between real life and poetic license was tailored to the needs of his client.

In effect, Sabath was tasked with reworking Rappe’s adolescence with cooperative defense witnesses who were willing to neatly frame “their” stories as predictive evidence for Rappe’s later behavior, bladder problems, and early death. Sabath merely had to ask the right questions to limit the testimonies to information that would suggest Rappe’s death had been a predestined event and Roscoe Arbuckle was nothing more than a witness with really bad timing. Sabath had the added advantage of knowing firsthand about Rappe, from the time when her Hoosier “fella” was Harry Barker, a friend of his.

Sabath’s investigations on Arbuckle’s behalf went on long enough to dig deep, to find useful and reliable people with stories to tell, elicit, and massage as necessary. Perhaps John Bates was one of Sabath’s candidates. Bates being the man who presented himself as a concerned party inquiring about Rappe’s estate on behalf of her purported orphaned “little girl”. But Bates, could have been an outlier, a freelancer.

After the rumor of the abandoned “daughter” ran its course during the second week of October, the next story that “leaked” was about chronic cystitis that Rappe allegedly suffered in girlhood. On Saturday, October 22, a syndicated article from the International News Service appeared, quoting a nurse named Virginia Warren. “Sensational information,” the piece began, “bearing on the early life of Virginia Rappe,

beautiful movie actress, who died following a party staged by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, has been made in a disposition by Miss Virginia Warren, Chicago nurse, it was revealed today. Miss Warren and Mrs. Josephine Ross [sic], both made depositions to counsel for Arbuckle which are to play an important part in his coming trial. Miss Warren declared she was a nurse in attendance upon Miss Rappe in 1908. At that time, Miss Rappe, only 14, was in a delicate condition and was in the care of Mrs. Ross, in the latter’s apartment near 24th street and Wabash avenue, Chicago, according to Miss Warren.

“I first saw Virginia Rappe in 1908,” Miss Warren said. “I was called as a private nurse to attend her. She was in the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Fogarty [sic], now Mrs. Josephine Ross.

“Miss Rappe was then only 14. She was in a delicate condition. She had been taken to Mrs. Ross’ apartment by her sweet, old grandmother.

“She was also suffering at that time from a bad attack of bladder trouble. On one occasion while she lay on her bed, she suddenly screamed., half rose and clutched at my waist. Her fingers tore into my skin and made deep scratches.

“Then Virginia suddenly grabbed her night gown at the shoulder and almost tore it off her body.

Miss Warren said Miss Rappe told her at that time that her bladder trouble made her violent at times. She said she remained in Mrs. Ross’ home for five days.

Miss Warren said she decided to help Arbuckle because, as she explained, “As a nurse, I know that a girl who has had bladder trouble at 14, and in after years drank to some extent, and possibly neglected herself at times, could easily puncture her bladder. The least strain or twist would do it.”

Mrs. Ross also made a deposition in which she corroborated that of Miss Warren.[1]

Miss Warren, the only African American to testify at one of the Arbuckle trials, covered every facet of the defense’s strategy to divert attention away from Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death.[2] However Warren was talkative and her testimony defied credulity by too closely matching the details of Rappe’s preexisting illnesses to the condition in which she was found in room 1219. It was obvious she had been coached.

Nevertheless, her testimony likely had little effect, few major market newspapers carried the story, and her account varied little from the stories that followed which all sounded suspiciously familiar.

Sheet music for the musical Campus Capers (1910) by Albert Sabath (Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries)

[1] Compiled from International Wire Service, “Say Miss Rappe Was Always Delicate,” Buffalo Enquirer, 22 October 1921, 1; “Virginia Rappe Was Mother At the Age of Fourteen Declares Chicago Nurse,” Topeka State Journal, 22 October 1921, 1; “Miss Rappe’s Early Life Is Now Revealed,” Evening News (Wilkles-Barre), 22 October 1921, 1; and “To Reveal Past of Miss Rappe, Victim of Arbuckle Party,” Coshocton Tribune, 22 October 1921, 1.

[2] Virginia Warren indicated herself as “Mu,” for mulatto on the 1910 census and, in 1920, as white while living with a boarder named “John Williams” who indicated his race as “Mexican,” which, like “Cuban,” was a way for light-skinned African Americans to pass as white.

Leo Guild’s The Fatty Arbuckle Case

Four years before he coauthored Ecstasy and Me (1966), the autobiography of Hedy Lamarr, Leo Guild published The Fatty Arbuckle Case (1962), the first book in English to tell the “true” story of the death of Virginia Rappe and the three Arbuckle trials.[1] Guild’s previous credits included Bachelor’s Joke Book (1953), The Loves of Liberace (1956), Where There’s Life There’s Bob Hope: The Hilarious Life Story of America’s Favorite Funny Man (1957). He would go on to write a series of nonfiction books that can only be called “blaxploitation,” such as Some Like It Dark: The Intimate Autobiography of a Negro Call Girl (1966), Street of Hos (1976), Josephine Baker (1976), and Black Streets of Oakland (1984), and the Black Bait (1993).

Guild’s Arbuckle book is worth reading because he (cf. Clifford Irving’s attempt to write a biography of Howard Hughes) faced an enormous problem in that he had limited time, sources (no Internet, real library research with stacks, microfilm machines, etc.), and witnesses long dead or very old, even in the early 1960s.

Guild wasn’t unaware of the steep learning curve he faced in writing about events four decades ago. From his foreword:

The writing of a book such as this is a monumental research job. It entails conversation with people who were on the scene; a search for their friends, relatives, acquaintances; study of the court records, the newspaper stories of the trial, magazines which contain much pertinent material about the case. People only remotely involved with the subject or the circumstances must be questioned. One interview always leads to another and another until the list of prospects becomes so long it seems impossible to write or to see all of them. But all must be reached.

But likely very few were “reached.” In the list of names of people he thanks is not one recognizable name from the reportage of 1921–’22.

Thus, much of the book is a mix of facts, factoids, and even material that appeared to be made-up. Much, too, was accepted as gospel and repeated in other books and articles over the years. Nevertheless, as a denizen of Hollywood, Guild may have gotten some things right.

But the problems with Guild’s book are legion and while The Fatty Arbuckle Story is a work of entertaining pulp nonfiction that has a certain cultural value for being so wrong, there is very little that is reliable.

The first pages are larded with untruths. Arbuckle didn’t live alone in his West Adams Avenue mansion. He had a live-in secretary, Katherine Fitzgerald, who had to leave when Minta Durfee returned to perform her role as Arbuckle’s estranged but devoted wife. Virginia Rappe’s love interests from her youth, the sculptor “John Sanple” (sic) and “Robert Moscovitz,” “the heir to a considerable dress manufacturing dynasty,” never existed. Further on in the book, three chapters are devoted to the Arbuckle trials. There District Attorney Matthew Brady conducts his own spirited examination of witnesses in the three Arbuckle trials. In reality, his deputies did all the courtroom performances because Brady likely had a lowkey courtroom demeanor when compared to Arbuckle’s lawyers, Frank Dominguez and Gavin McNab, who were both orators and politicos.

We will likely reference Guild’s book in our introduction, which features a “review of literature” that our book (and this blog) will put in perspective as being useful, misleading, entertaining but all in some way the inspiration for our revisionary treatment.

Leo Guild’s career might have been very different had his fifty-cent paperback been turned into a motion picture to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Arbuckle’s death.

In the May 1963 issue of Variety, reported that the producer Richard Bernstein had bought the rights to The Fatty Arbuckle Case and had budgeted $500,000 to begin production in September 1962. Bernstein was also negotiating with the actors Victor Buono and, incredibly, George C. Scott to play the male leads.

Undoubtedly, Buono—who played the piano teacher in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and perhaps more familiarly as King Tut in the Batman TV series (1966)—was intended to play the title role with Scott as Gavin McNab. [1]

In the same Variety column, another Arbuckle biopic was allegedly in the works based on a forthcoming Broadway play by the screenwriter Harry Essex. The latter work, unlike Guild’s, had the cooperation of Minta Durfee. Ultimately, however, Essex’s play, titled Fatty (an “execrable production,” according to the Los Angeles Times) wouldn’t be performed until 1985 and only for a very limited run at LA’s Tiffany Theatre.

Front cover of the The Fatty Arbuckle Case (1962)

[1] Guild’s book appeared after the publication of the French edition of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylone (1959).

100 Years Ago Today: The propaganda war against Rappe begins, October 16, 1921

[The following is a draft passage about the first wave of “defamation” and “propaganda”—the actual terms used by San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady—that began on the same day that his counterpart on Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense team, Gavin McNab, assumed his lead role. A series of news stories began to appear during the second half of October 1921 that made for a “recut” of Virginia Rappe’s past. Rather than being a fashion model before coming to Hollywood, she was recast as a girl of the streets who got pregnant at a very young age. Such propaganda would sway prospective jurors and further pull Rappe from the pedestal on which she had been placed as a victim. If she were depicted as “damaged goods” before Arbuckle met her, like the heroine in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and countless others in “ruined women” fiction, her fate would make for a more familiar “fallen woman” trope — one that might take the spotlight off of the comedian in the eyes of any morally righteous observers. McNab and his new client could ill afford “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”]

The first salvo in the effort to damage Rappe’s reputation had taken place three days earlier on October 16 in the Sunday editions of many U.S. newspapers. Each published the same Universal Service syndicated story, that Virginia Rappe had given up an infant daughter born in 1912 and was the long-hidden shame of her life. The source of this story was a “traveling salesman” named John Bates. He had recently sent letters to district attorneys and other officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco requesting information about Rappe’s estate with the intention of “entering claim on behalf” of a child “supported since infancy by the earnings of her mother,” the late actress. He claimed to have knowledge of the child’s existence and that he was “a close friend of Virginia Rappe and her mother Mabel Rappe.”[1] His acquaintance with both may have been the only thing true, however.

Bates, according to the reportage datelined October 15, had once been the proprietor of a South Side Chicago advertising distributing agency, which made it seem as though he would have known Rappe and her mother since the 1890s and that he might have worked with Rappe as a model. His entries in the 1910 census bear this out to some degree, in which he listed himself as a “circulator”—but this was hardly the kind of trade in which Rappe’s image might have been used. A circulator printed or distributed handbills, fliers, leaflets, and like ephemeral advertisements. The census, too, indicated that he was an older man, born in Iowa in 1856 (which made him sixty-five in 1921).[2] A newspaper item also revealed that he was who he said he was. Bates had once been the former financial secretary of the South Side Business Men’s Society, elected to the position in January 1914.[3]

One of the Society’s officers vouched for Bates’s word. “If Bates said Virginia Rappe’s daughter is in Chicago, it is true, and he knows where she can be found.”

According to Bates himself:

Most of Virginia Rappe’s friends on the South Side knew about her daughter. She would be about 8 or 9 years old now. She was born just a short time before Virginia went West to go into the movies. The last I heard of the girl she was living with her foster parents on the northwest side. I don’t know just where Virginia Rappe’s daughter is at present, but I am confident that I can locate her in a short time if necessary and prove her identify beyond all doubt. I know that Virginia paid for the child’s care up to a few years ago and I assume that she continued to pay until the time of her death. If the estate is of any value, I intend to see that her daughter receives the benefit of it.

Bates, at least in Chicago, seemed to be a moral person and, perhaps, willing to undertake such altruism given the causes he undertook in the past. In 1916, for example, while residing at 22nd Street and Wabash Avenue, he complained to the police about the houses of prostitution “where blacks and whites get hilarious with each other” and operated openly.[4] However John Bates had a colorful past of his own that, to his benefit, went unreported at the time.

He was the same John Bates, the petty thief from Iowa, who had been charged as a co-conspirator in a 1895 murder-for-hire killing of a Chicago stockbroker.[5] Although the charges were dismissed, Bates served consecutive sentences in the state penitentiaries of Illinois and Iowa due to other outstanding warrants. In 1900, he returned to Chicago and turned his life around under his older brother Miles’ supervision. Miles Bates is listed as an “Advertising Agent” in the 1900 census and John eventually followed him into the same trade.

In 1902, due to the perseverance of the victim’s widow, John Bates was rearrested in connection to the 1895 murder. But he was released once more, for much of the evidence and testimony had mysteriously been destroyed—presumably at the behest of the person or persons who had hired Bates and his fellow conspirators. Despite such an onus, Bates managed to escape his criminal past.

Though Bates claimed to personally know Rappe’s child he did little to act on her behalf other than to attempt to discover if an estate of any means existed. Before Bates was finished he introduced another wrinkle to his story. He claimed the child wasn’t illegitimate. His story features a husband “about whom even her most intimate Chicago friends know little,” a father who “disappeared before the child’s birth [. . .]

Who he was and when they were married remains a mystery. Virginia was then following in the footsteps of her beautiful mother and making her living by posing. She was unable to work and care for the baby at the same time and it was placed in the hands of friends. There was gossip, rumors, but Virginia resumed her rounds of the studios, her face still wreathed in the smile that never faded. Soon afterward she left for California.

The “author” of the story—the scare quotes meaning that this person may not have been Bates or the reporter and editor, simply one of the many hands now writing in Rappe’s life—ensured that the reader didn’t miss the irony of the “tragic culmination of the two-day ‘party’ in Arbuckle’s San Francisco apartment” and the costume in which to see her now. This

was not the first tragedy in the life of the “the girl who smiled.” For nearly ten years she hid beneath her twisted smile and beneath the cap and bells of her movie comedienne the bitter secret of the tragedy of her Chicago days, the blasted romance of her youth, that drove her from Chicago to seek fame—and to forget.

Such purple prose was intended to change the public perception of readers, many of whom had spent the morning in a church pew. The article, when it appeared in its entirety, put Virginia Rappe in a darker and less virtuous light.

As it turned out, this story had no bearing on the case and if Bates sent his letters, they were ignored as were the letters from Rappe’s adherents and defenders. Despite the attestation of Bates’s veracity, no reporters followed up on his story and his name disappeared from the case. No one else came forward to corroborate his story. No one betrayed the identity of the nine-year-old girl.

Infant Welfare, Chicago, before 1920 (Library of Congress)

[1] The following passage is based on the many different versions of the Universal News Service dispatch datelined October 15, Chicago, e.g., “Says Miss Rappe Left a Daughter,” Boston Globe, 16 October 1921, 6; “Virginia Rappe Has Child in Chicago?” Okmulgee Daily Times, 18 October 1921, 6; and “Daughter Is Left by Virginia Rappe,” Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1921, 7. A syndicated Chicago Daily News version datelined September 17 appeared subsequently but added no new information.

[2] Census data for John Bates are from 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 31, District 0969, line 58; and 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 2, District 0183, line 3.

[3] “South Side Business Men Elect,” Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1914, 9.

[4] “Queens of Society, Gayest of Gay, In Levee Cafe,” The Day Book (Chicago), 2 December 1916, 2.

[5] “Bates Confessed to Hunter Crime,” Inter Ocean, 6 April 1902, 1, 3.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” Arbuckle pleads “not guilty”, October 13, 1921

On the day the United States outlawed the home brewing of beer and the New York Giants won the 1921 World Series over the New York Yankees, the Arbuckle case saw another milestone.

In the company of his lawyers, Milton Cohen and Charles Brennan, Roscoe Arbuckle entered San Francisco’s Hall of Justice and appeared before Superior Court Judge Harold Louderback.[1] There he was formally arraigned for manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe. When asked how he intended to plea, Arbuckle, in a loud voice, shouted “My plea is not guilty.”

Despite insisting on a trial date of October 31, District Attorney Matthew Brady allowed the defense time to prepare for trial and a new date of November 7 was set—despite that date falling in the same week as Election Day and Armistice Day.

Still from a Keystone travelogue featuring Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand touring the Panama–Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, April 1915. A good portion of the footage is devoted to the Australian convict transport Success. This rather morbid and ironic exhibit, given what was to come, provided the couple with many opportunities for sight gags they performed with the ship’s flogging rack, shackles, irons, and the like. Here an officer introduces Arbuckle and Normand to an Iron Maiden. Arbuckle later gives the Iron Maiden a kiss. (Library of Congress)

[1] Gavin McNab had not yet been announced as Arbuckle’s new chief counsel.

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)

Francis X. Bushman and Virginia Rappe

[Early this morning, TCM host Jacqueline Stewart featured a documentary about the silent film actor Francis X. Bushman, narrated by one of his grandsons. The following provisional passage is from our draft and covers an episode in Bushman’s life that we didn’t expect to see covered in the documentary, that is, the interruption in Bushman’s film career following his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to Beverly Bayne. This was an era when studios treated disclosure of a divorce to be as toxic to a star’s career as drug addiction or homosexuality.

It was In the third week of September 1921, Bushman and Bayne appeared for an engagement at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater and were in the city during the first weeks of the Arbuckle case. The couple had already weighed in on their feelings about Roscoe Arbuckle in the press and Bushman shared his rather impersonal personal connection to Rappe.]

After Game Lady was completed , [Henry] Lehrman couldn’t afford to publicize it so its release was held up for months. With little to no money coming in, he ceased all production for the foreseeable future. In December, he had defaulted on a loan of $25,000 and was forced to move out of his Franklin Avenue house of five years. Although Lehrman had gambled and lost by going out on his own, he wasn’t the only one suffering financially. The ongoing postwar recession had reached Hollywood.

Matinee idol Francis X. Bushman described the situation after an airplane ride over Hollywood in which he could see fifteen studios seemingly at a standstill. He blamed “the needless extravagance” of studios and a recession, the “financial tightness [that] has hit the movie industry harder perhaps that any other, to such an extent that stars who formerly commanded $1,500 weekly now are glad of employment at $300 a week.”[1]

Bushman made these remarks while en route to New York City from Los Angeles. He had not made a film in two years due to his divorce and remarriage to the actress Beverly Bayne. The divorce was bad enough, but Bayne was pregnant at the time of her marriage and that brought their morals further into question. Studios shunned them and limited Bushman—who was once proclaimed “the king of the movies” during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915—and Bayne to performing in bedroom farces and the like on the vaudeville circuit.

In October 1920, the couple were engaged in a theatrical production in Los Angeles and hoping to resume their film careers. They rented a Mission-style bungalow at 2217 Canyon Drive from actor William Worthington—not only to accommodate themselves and their baby boy, but Bushman’s five children from his first marriage ranging in age from seventeen to nine. The living arrangements prompted a number of amusing articles about life with the Bushmans, made awkward by so many in such a small house and doubly so by the first Mrs. Bushman, who insisted on being close to her children by staying in an expensive hotel suite nearby on her former husband’s tab.

In November, Bushman’s nine-year-old son Bruce—Bushman’s namesake until his ex-wife had the boy’s name changed out of spite—suffered multiple fractures to his leg and hip. He was bedridden in Los Angeles and cared for by his new stepmother and father until a week before Christmas. His siblings had already left with the mother for their home in Baltimore.

Francis Bushman could not afford to renege on his bookings in various cities on the East Coast so he left Bruce in the care of a private nurse and he was routinely informed of his son’s progress. From the nurse, he learned that the actress Virginia Rappe was managing his bungalow and others on Canyon Drive. Apparently, Rappe interceded when a neighbor cursed Bushman for having so many children in the small bungalow and for the seeming desertion of his son, who was still in a leg cast up to his hip. Bushman never met Rappe, but recalled her kindness three days after her death while he and Bayne were performing in Portland, Oregon. He told a reporter that “Miss Rappe was in charge of the house, and I was in New York. My nurse, who was caring for young Bruce, said that Miss Rappe was a sweet, very beautiful young woman and had a big, clean heart. I am willing to believe her.”[2] Both Bushman and his wife excoriated the film colony for its “wild parties” and how real actors, like themselves, didn’t consider Arbuckle one. “He is just a fat boy,” said Bushman, and almost anything a fat boy does is funny. That is the way he is looked upon.”

Francis X. Bushman as Messala in Ben Hur (1925)

[1] “Postpone Attempt to Break into Movies, Says Bushman; Movie Idol Visits El Paso,” El Paso Herald, 20 December 1920, 1.

[2] “Los Angeles Scored by Beverly Bayne,” Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1921, I:2; and merged with “Beverly Bayne Denounces Hollywood’s Wild Orgies,” Buffalo Times, 19 September 1921, 9.

Document Dump #7: Ernestine Black on Maude Delmont

[Ernestine Wollenberg Black (1881–1970) was the daughter of the San Francisco merchant Louis Wollenberg and his wife Fanny, both German Jewish immigrants, and the widow of another San Francisco journalist, Orlow “Orin” Black.

Black was also a suffragist, feminist, and a conspicuous member of Noël Sullivan’s progressive circle in San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century. She is conspicuously absent from the Arbuckle canon. The reason, perhaps, is that she is the only journalist to sympathize with Maude Delmont and wrote one of the first profiles about her early in the Arbuckle case.

No stranger to covering unpopular people and issues, Black is most often cited today for her interview with the actress–director Lois Weber, who championed birth control in her controversial film Where Are My Children? (1916).]

MRS. DELMONT IN COURT AT TRIAL OF “FATTY”

By Ernestine Black

A tall, slender, distinguished looking woman slipped into Judge Harold Louderback’s court this morning and from an inconspicuous seat in the rear of the room listened to the case of The People vs. Roscoe Arbuckle. The woman was none other than Mrs. Bambino Maud Delmont, who signed the complaint charging Arbuckle with murdering Virginia Rappe.

Whether Mrs. Delmont would be called as a witness has been the outstanding interrogation that has punctuated every article written on the case, has harassed the district attorney’s office, and has been asked wherever people gather to discuss the fate of the one-time film comedian.

The answer to that important question lay folded in the brown hand bag of the woman, who softly glided into court room this morning and, observed by few, sat down to get her first impression of the scene in which she is cast to play the role of complaining witness against the man who was once her host at an ill-fated party.

SHE WATCHES M’NAB[1]

In that bag was folded the subpoena which the prosecution had just served upon Bambino Maud Delmont. That subpoena settles the question of her appearance in the legal drama upon which the curtain has just gone up.

Gavin McNab, chief of counsel for Arbuckle, held Mrs. Delmont’s closest attention.

His cross-examination of prospective jurors; his brilliant tactics; his clever thrusts at the opposing counsel and at the vigilant committee were not lost upon Mrs. Delmont. When she goes on the witness stand, she, too, will be the target for all the heavy guns, arrows and dum-dum bullets that Gavin McNab has in his arsenal.

Small wonder that she listened with intent and appreciative interest.

And in a lull in the proceedings she whispered, “he is a wonder—isn’t he? This is not the first time that I’ve seen him. When I read in the papers that Gavin McNab had agreed to act as counsel for Arbuckle because he believed Arbuckle was innocent, I went to his office to see Mr. McNab.[2]

“He did not know that I was coming.

TALK WITH DEFENSE

“‘Mr. McNab.’ I said, ‘If you know that Arbuckle is innocent, I would like to have you tell me on what you base such a conclusion.’

“Mr. McNab answered: ‘Mrs. Delmont you surely must appreciate the fact that you and I cannot discuss this case!’”

The prosecution continued its interrogation of the juror and there was no opportunity for further conversation with Mrs. Delmont. But there was ample opportunity for her to study the judge, the counsel on both sides and the prospective jurors. Three women sat in the jury box when Mrs. Delmont entered. Three women were there when she left, as quietly and unobserved as she came.

3 WOMEN IN BOX

But they were not the same three. One woman juror was excused during the time that Mrs. Delmont sat in the court room. In the process of eliminating that juror was revealed much of the tactics that Bambino Maud Delmont may expect from the counsel on both sides.

Imperturbable, undisturbed, her one time shattered nerves evidently under, perfect control, Mrs. Delmont glided out just as Louise E. Winterburn. the first unmarried woman called into the jury box. took her seat.

Source: San Francisco Call, 17 November 1921, 2.

Gavin McNab and future client Charlie Chaplin (Private collection)

[1] Common S.F. newspaper abbreviation for Gavin McNab.

[2] Delmont probably means during the second week of October 1921. Another journalist who saw her in the courtroom, Colin Spangler of the Los Angeles Evening Express, inferred that she meant a more recent encounter during the first week of the trial.