Minta Durfee takes the stand (or getting ahead of the court of public opinion)

We have been toying with incorporating certain contextualized documents in the book as interpolations or as parts of a conventional appendix. This piece, now in public domain, is inserted between the end of the first Arbuckle trial and the beginning of the second.


Intermezzo: The True Story About My Husband[*]

Mrs. Minta Durfee Arbuckle

In late December 1921, both Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle “penned” exculpatory pieces for Movie Weekly on December 24 and December 31, respectively. Both were couched as frank and open justifications of the Labor Day party and its aftermath for the moviegoing public—but still vetted by Arbuckle’s lawyers as well as his manager, Lou Anger, who answered to Joseph Schenck, Arbuckle’s producer and the deep pocket for his costly defense.

Arbuckle’s was a public recap of his testimony of November 28, when he took the stand at his first trial. He restated that he had been “morally acquitted” and that “organized propaganda” had made impossible for him to secure an impartial jury and a fair trial. But Movie Weekly was no less a propaganda organ to serve in Arbuckle’s defense in the weeks before the second trial began and before the jury was sequestered and their newspapers excised of any content related to the Arbuckle case. A similar propaganda campaign occurred in October, when news of Rappe’s adolescent past, promiscuity, and pregnancies appeared in the nation’s newspapers.

Minta Durfee, intriguingly, disowned any intentional defaming of Rappe’s character below in what was her confession for being Arbuckle’s estranged wife. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, she said that the humbling experience renewed her faith in God, that He works in mysterious ways and that the setback temporary. One of those mysteries was her marriage, that she had now been reunited with “Mr. Arbuckle” so as to stand by him against an unjust charge.

Durfee admitted that the couple lived separate lives for five years but in terms of something little more than a marital spat, “nerves,” rather than Arbuckle’s seeing her as sexually unfulfilling and a hindrance to the “movie star” lifestyle that his first contract with Paramount afforded.

Undoubtedly, even readers in 1921 and ’22, weren’t fooled, certainly not the jaded ones among the film colony. That Durfee implied that she saw her husband unclothed surely drew knowing smiles if not peals of laughter. She was practically saying her marriage was a sham from the beginning—or complicated or something else, something that did require her to pretend to be a saint—and a wife—to “service” her husband.

Nevertheless, to sound this naïve must have taken real nerve on her part. That Durfee was really disconcerted that some saw her presence in San Francisco as public relations, as no more than a theater engagement, an “added attraction” like her “Mrs Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle” comedies that had already come and gone before Arbuckle and Rappe films were pulled. But Durfee was self-aware enough to know how weird it looked for her to sit and practically spoon in court with a man who had kept her thousands of miles away in Manhattan, to say nothing about his five years of living an unmarried man’s life that ended with having to publicly admit that he was only in San Francisco to drive Mrs. Mae. (Notice that Durfee studiously avoids any mention of Mae Taube.)

Those who smiled and laughed, of course, also understood that Durfee was expected to do what she had to do and eat whatever peck of dirt was necessary to profess her love and faith in Arbuckle, to temporarily leave her doorman building on Riverside Drive, her chauffeur-driven motorcar, her golf clubs, and the like. She wasn’t just there for Arbuckle but for her own movies in which she was billed “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle. She was also in San Francisco and Los Angeles for powerful men already luring away Postmaster General Will Hays for a new office to oversee the motion picture industry.

The other thing she had to do for the industry rather than herself—although there is a hint of jealousy here—was the mischaracterize Virginia Rappe. Unlike the stand Durfee took in her dotage, that Rappe was a whore on the Keystone lot, she couldn’t make things up in Movie Weekly in 1921. Rappe was known in Hollywood and she had a coterie of friends who thought highly of her—even if she was the kind of woman, as opposed to the quiet, mousy, overdressed Minta Durfee, who made the party a party when things got boring.

But Durfee displays a certain magnanimity in exonerating Rappe from being part of “a conscious factor in any maneuver” against Arbuckle, suggesting that he had been entrapped in some kind of blackmail plot. But later in the piece, she only sees Rappe’s crisis as a purely accidental opportunity—a hypothesis that ended when Arbuckle’s first lead counsel, Frank Dominguez was threatened with a defamation suit and subsequently resigned from Arbuckle’s “million-dollar defense.”

Regarding the lawyer’s fees, Minta Durfee’s claim that Arbuckle would be paying them is the egregious falsehood, especially coming on the heels below of saying he was foolish with his money.

As surely as God is above me, and I believe in Him very sincerely, I know that Roscoe Arbuckle did not do the thing for which he has been made to face trial.


My reasons are as powerful as they are simple. He has told me what happened and what did not happen in that hotel room, and I believe him. And I know, after thirteen years of married life, that he is not that kind of a man. He simply could not do such a thing.

I first heard of his trouble when I walked into a hotel parlor and saw a newspaper with the name “Arbuckle” in great headlines. It was a terrible shock. My first thought was that he had been killed in some motion picture stunt. Then the fear came that perhaps there had been an automobile accident—perhaps he had killed someone with his car, but I knew that he is such a splendid driver that that could hardly have happened.

Then I learned what really was the matter, and my first thought was to get to him as quickly as I could. I knew that he could not be guilty, but I wanted to hear the from his own lips the true story of the affair, and I wanted to be with him in his trouble. It was for that reason and no other that I traveled three thousand miles to San Francisco, and it is because I believe implicitly and firmly that what he has told me is the absolute truth, confirming my own trust in him, that I have been with him ever since. The moment that I learned he was in trouble, I knew there was only one place in the world for me, and that was with my husband, for he is my husband, although differences of temperament—and nothing more, except perhaps a little stubborn pride on both sides—have kept us apart for five years. When this affair happened, the little things over which we had disagreed seemed utterly unimportant.

Perhaps I have old-fashioned beliefs about marriage, but it always seemed to me that a real wife must be as much sweetheart, friend, pal, and even mother, as wife. I’m not pretending to be a saint, and I like a good time as well as anybody, but being a wife has always appealed to me as a life’s work.

When we like anyone, we Durfees, we like them for a long long time. My faith in Roscoe Arbuckle is too great to be shaken by any attacks upon him, even if they were supported by real proof.

It hurt me when the rumor spread that I had come to him because I was looking for notoriety or because I had been paid to do it, as was intimated in some places. I am his wife, and my place was with him. I believe that even if we had been divorced I would have come, just the same. I could not have seen the man I know to be the victim of unjust accusations, face his trouble and not have me with him.

As for the party itself, knowing Roscoe Arbuckle as I do, I can very easily understand his share in it. Mr. Arbuckle is just a big, easy-going, good-natured boy. I can understand just how he found himself the host that afternoon, without ever intending to invite anybody there. As a matter of fact, he did not invite any of the guests. The party was not his suggestion. Other people got the crowd together, and simply used his rooms.

Mr. Arbuckle has told me that so far as the liquor that was there is concerned, he actually does not know where it came from or how it got there.

Perhaps the best proof of that is that with all the bills he has had to pay, he has never paid one cent for the liquor that was served—and in these days, no one gets liquor without paying for it.

I can picture him that afternoon as the involuntary host at a party not of his invitation or suggestions; perhaps enjoying it, for although he scarcely ever starts a party himself, he likes company and enjoys being with people. Certainly no one can blame him, if the party became noisy and too lively. As a matter of fact, he has told me that he did complain of the actions of certain members of the party and told them that they were going too far. Perhaps that very thing aroused a spirit of revenge that was responsible for the charges made against him.

As for Virginia Rappe, the minute I saw her name in connection with the case it made me more sure than ever that my husband was being made the victim of circumstances. I do not want to say anything against her; in fact, both Mr. Arbuckle and myself urged from the very beginning that nothing be brought into the case that would tend to besmirch her character if it could possibly be kept out. We were not responsible for published statements attacking her. That was done by other persons, evidently fearing that we would try such measures and wishing to forestall us. They were very much mistaken. Nothing has been farther from our thoughts.

I knew Virginia Rappe as long as Mr. Arbuckle did. Henry Lehrmann [sic], her manager, was also my director at one time. I knew the girl, not only from personal acquaintance but from acquaintance with many of her friends. I do not believe that Virginia Rappe was a conscious factor in any maneuver directed against Mr. Arbuckle. If there were a deliberate plot against him, I do not think that she knew anything about it. She was in Los Angeles, financially hard up, out of work and unable to get help from her friends. She came to San Francisco, I believe, merely on a pleasure trip. She went to that party, not because Mr. Arbuckle invited her, but because she was asked to meet Ira Fortlouis, a gown designer and salesman, who had seen her and thought she would make a good model. That we know from the words of Fred Fishback, who told us that Mr. Fortlouis had seen Miss Rappe, had admired her possibilities as a model, and finding that she was in San Francisco, asked to meet her.

If Miss Rappe had not died, I believe that nothing would ever have been heard of the affair, because there would have been nothing to talk about. There are hundreds and hundreds of just such impromptu parties all the time. People drink and dance and have a good time, and no one is the worse for it. I believe that the whole trouble started when someone who thought that Mr. Arbuckle would be an “easy mark” and perhaps was further moved by anger against him for some reason, seized on Miss Rappe’s death as the reason for wild statements and unfounded charges. It is difficult to discuss that point without making direct accusations, and that I prefer not to do, but it seems perfectly evident to me that this motive was back of the whole thing.

Ever since he was a boy—and he practically grew up with our family— Mr. Arbuckle has been careless with money. He never considered expense. Money simply meant the means of getting what he wanted, of enjoying himself, of helping other people. Incidentally, helping other people is the way a great deal of his money has gone. He has been most generous with me, even since our separation. He has supported relatives. He has always been ready to help anyone who needed it. He has half a dozen pensioners about whom nobody but his own people know. Even during his trial, when he knew that the tremendous expenses he was under and the loss of the salary he had always had were making him actually a poor man, I have known him to give $5 bills to beggars who stopped him on the street.

And speaking of expenses, I want to say that Mr. Arbuckle and no one else has been paying the costs of his trial and all the rest of it. It has been said that the motion picture interests were behind him. They were not. Every cent has come out of his own pocket or out of mine. As a matter of fact, so far from receiving support from the picture interests, Mr. Arbuckle has been out of a job since the day after he was arrested—out of work for the first time since he began his motion picture work. He did not know it until after I came to him. I learned it just before I left New York; learned that as soon as the news reached the East, he fter him for what they could get, to put it bluntly.

I know of many cases: men who have persuaded him to give them money, girls with whom he was friendly who have actually made him a joke because it was so easy to get money away from him. Everyone thought of him as an easy- going fellow, ready to accept people at their own valuation, and not at all difficult to manage. I can see just how a clever and unprincipled man or woman who was looking for an easy victim would select him.

Moreover, Mr. Arbuckle has been not only financially successful but prominent in his work. There is something about success and prominence, particularly in the theatrical world, that makes men and women targets for the malice of others. As soon as an actor becomes known in his profession, it seems to inspire lies and slander and scandal about him, started by those strange people who believe that the theatre and good morals cannot go together, and helped along by people who should know better, but who seem to take a delight in repeating unproved gossip, and the more scandalous gossip, the better.

I was not surprised, then, when the moment the news of his trouble became known, the newspapers were filled with the most malicious attacks on him. It hurt me terribly, of course, as it hurt him, but it is one of the penalties of being well-known; there is always someone waiting for the chance to do just that thing.

Mr. Arbuckle and I want just two things: first, of course, that he be cleared of these charges, and then that the public we love so much will take him back into favor, not because of any material interests, but because it will mean that the public recognizes that he is the innocent victim of a malicious attack rather than the terrible creature he has been painted. He wants, particularly, to have the women and children of the theatre- going public know his innocence and receive him again as they have always received him. He always has the children in mind when he makes a picture; he never does a scene that could offend or that would be harmful for a child to see. In all the many pictures he has made, he has never appeared in a scene that has been censored.

A great deal was said when the trial began about there being women on the jury. Some people expressed surprise that our attorneys did not try to get a jury entirely of men. They thought, I suppose, that women would be unwelcome because of the traditional stand of a woman in judging a case involving such charges as are brought in this case.

Absolutely the contrary was true. We did not try to keep women off the jury. We all hoped that women would be drawn, and Mr. Arbuckle and I were delighted when the final selection left five good sensible women in the jury box. Both of us have great faith in a woman’s intuition, and we were perfectly confident that the women would give us a fair deal.

And speaking of women, I do want the women of the country to know that in spite of all the insinuations and ugly stories that have been circulated since this thing began, Roscoe Arbuckle is the most modest of men. Certainly I should know. I have been his wife for thirteen years. For eight of those years we were hardly out of each other’s sight, and in all those eight years I never remember a single action or a single word that, by the farthest stretch of the imagination, could be called even immodest, to say nothing of vulgar or lewd. He is minutely careful about his dress. Even in our own home, he is as particular with the members of his own family as he is with strangers. It is an actual fact that in all the years I have been his wife, I have never seen him when he was not clothed.

A great deal has been made of the fact that on the afternoon of this party, Mr. Arbuckle was wearing pajamas and a dressing gown. On the face of it, without any explanation, it sounds odd—that a man should receive guests, including women and some women who were strangers to him, in such a costume. As a matter of fact, the explanation clears up everything. Not long before the trip to San Francisco, Mr. Arbuckle was accidentally burned with muriatic acid. It was a serious burn and very painful, and he had to wear a thick cotton dressing. He always had his clothing made rather tightly fitting in order to keep him from looking any fatter than he is, and tight clothing over the burn was anything but comfortable. Whenever he could, he wore loose clothing, and that was why he was dressed in pajamas on the day of the party. Remember, he did not suggest the party; it simply moved in on him, as they say, and the whole thing happened so unexpectedly that he let his costume go. And I wish the people who have criticised his attire could see the pajamas and the dressing gown. The pajamas were of the thickest silk he could buy, as heavy as the heaviest linen. The dressing gown was of thick brocade, lined with heavy silk, and it was long enough to reach to his ankles and double-brested. Actually, although his costume was informal, he was much more thoroughly covered than any man on the tennis court or the beach. In line with his modesty regarding dress, I want people to understand Mr. Arbuckle’s personal modesty, particularly with women. As a matter of fact, he prefers to be with men. He likes nothing better than to get a crowd of men together and sing and laugh and enjoy themselves like a crowd of college boys. All his life, Mr. Arbuckle has been embarrassed by his size. He has believed that women could not like a fat man, and for that reason he has hesitated even more than might be natural about developing friendships among women. He is not the type of man who caresses a woman. If he likes a girl, he will tease her or make her presents or generally be nice to her, but he will never think of putting his hands on her. In fact, he carries it so far that it is almost an obsession.

Knowing that trait of character, I cannot imagine him doing what it has been said he did. I have known all about his affairs, and I know that he never forced his acquaintance on a woman. If she were friendly, and he liked her, he could be good friends, but he has always been so conscious of that traditional “nobody loves a fat man” idea, that it has influenced him in his friendships.

For eight years I was constantly with Mr. Arbuckle, and in all that time I never heard him use vile language or tell disgusting stories or do anything of that sort. He likes a good time, but he likes a clean good time. He likes machinery, and loves to tinker with the cars. He is fond of dogs, and likes nothing better than to take a day off and wash our three dogs. He and the big St. Bernard have wonderful times. Mr. Arbuckle gets into his bathing suit, and puts a tub in the garage, and he and the dog are perfectly happy there for half a day.

In the eight years that followed our marriage, I came to know my husband in every particular. Few married couples are together as much as we were in those years. We met at Long Beach, where he was principal comedian in a musical comedy company and I was in the chorus. We were married in 1908, and for the next eight years we were hardly out of one another’s sight. Not very long after our marriage, we went to Los Angeles, where motion pictures were just beginning to become a great industry. We found work at the same studio, doing comedy pictures.

Every morning we rode to the studio together. All day long we worked in the same studio and the same picture. In a year and [a] half I played with Mr. Arbuckle in forty-seven pictures.[†]

If either of us went anywhere in the evening, the other always went along. I was brought up in the belief—they call it old-fashioned now—that a wife’s place was to suit herself to her husband’s wishes, and to go where he wanted to go. In fact, I so thoroughly fitted myself into Mr. Arbuckle’s life, that I almost lost my own interests. He does not care for reading, and I am very fond of it. I love books, and I love to find my own problems solved in them. However, he did not care particularly for reading, so I let my books go. It was the same with other things. His interests became mine, absolutely. Perhaps we made a mistake by being so much together. It is the safest thing for married couples to take an occasional vacation from each other.

I know that now, but you couldn’t make me believe it then. We had our careers. Roscoe was on the way to becoming a star, and I was doing well with my work. We were both busy, and busy people are often nervous and irritable. Two busy people in a family frequently clash, not because of any dislike, but simply because they get on each other’s nerves, and neither one, because of the continual strain of work, has the time to acquire sufficient calmness to meet the other’s needs.

Roscoe has no great faults; that I know. But he is human and like other men, he has his minor difficulties. He has always been inclined to be stubborn in spite of his easy-going nature. It sounds like an impossibility, but every wife will know that it can be true.

Well, if he can be stubborn, so can I. Probably our separation was as much my fault as it was his. We began to clash a little, probably over some very unimportant thing. He wouldn’t admit that he was wrong, and neither would I. He is like a boy; he wants to be coaxed; and as for myself, I cannot force myself on anyone, least of all a man, if I have the slightest feeling that I may not be welcome.

So, we simply got on one another’s nerves, and it never got properly straightened out, until this thing happened, and all our little disagreements were swept out of sight.

Even during the years that we were separated, we were friends. We corresponded frequently; Mr. Arbuckle often called me up over the long distance telephone when I was in New York and he was in Los Angeles; and whenever he was in New York, he came to see me. That doesn’t sound much like being enemies, does it?

All during the trial, I have sat in the courtroom and prayed over and over a little prayer that Mr. Arbuckle would be cleared and that the real truth would become known. I dislike to make direct charges concerning anyone, but I can simply say that the circumstantial evidence that was brought out against Mr. Arbuckle sounded to me very weak indeed, and as for direct accusations, I do not believe them. It seems perfectly clear to me that every circumstance developed in the case can be explained as effectively in Mr. Arbuckle’s favor as against him, and as for anything further, it must be remembered that Mrs. Delmont, who first made the charges and who was really the only one to accuse Mr. Arbuckle directly, was not put on the stand by the prosecution. Surely they would have insisted upon her testimony, unless they did not believe her story after all, or unless they feared that we could discredit her.

I know that Roscoe Arbuckle is innocent, and that he will be acquitted, but I hope that the case will go so that he is clearly acquitted on the facts and not simply by legal technicalities. As much as he wants his freedom from these charges, and as much as I want it, it will mean little if he is still under a cloud. He has been deeply hurt in many ways during this affair. He has seen fair-weather friends fall away from him, and he has learned the value of his true friends.

Roscoe Arbuckle looks on every man, woman and child who has ever enjoyed him in the films as his friend, and those friends he wants to keep.

Minta Durfee, Roscoe Arbuckle, and her sister Marie Durfee arriving for second trial,
San Francisco, January 1922 (Calisphere)

[*] pp. 000–000: Minta Durfee, “The True Story about My Husband,” Movie Weekly, December 24, 1921; Roscoe Arbuckle, “Roscoe Arbuckle Tells His Own Story,” 31 December 1921, https://www.silentera.com/taylorology/issues/Taylor28.txt.

[†] This number is likely honest since Durfee frequently performed in Keystone comedies as an uncredited extra.

The contents of the casting director’s wallet, October 1921

The mysterious death of Al Stein in the early hours of October 9, 1921, raised eyebrows a century ago in the weeks leading up to the first Roscoe Arbuckle trial. The following passage is another from our work-in-progress that highlights several “sideshows.” This one, we feel, deserves a sidelong look, so to speak, for the way it calls attention to two Labor Day partygoers: Fred Fishback and Ira Fortlouis.

Their conduct in the Arbuckle case deserves more scrutiny. Hence the detail below that might make the final edit in this or another form.


The day before the Paramount and Famous Players–Lasky brass met to discuss their Arbuckle problem, Universal Pictures and Hollywood’s film colony suffered another casualty attributed to alcohol and a dissolute lifestyle. The dead body of Fred Fishback’s personal assistant, Albert F. Stein, was found in Los Angeles during the early hours of Sunday, October 9, one month after the death of Virginia Rappe. Propped up by two pillows on the floor of his bedroom, his face had turned blue from having choked to death. The only mark on his body was a two-inch scratch on his face. Newspapers described the scene at the Golden Apartments on 1130 West 7th Street as a “liquor orgy,” which began when Stein returned home with three men just before midnight on Saturday, October 8.

Stein, the son of a Jewish bookkeeper and his Mexican American wife, was twenty-seven when he died. During his short life, he had married, fathered a son, and once played professional baseball in the California leagues for a minor league team owned by the Santa Fe Railroad. Although he was good enough to be a prospect for the St. Louis Nationals and the Chicago Cubs, Stein decided against the life of a minor leaguer and instead sought work in motion pictures.

Stein’s real talent wasn’t in front of the camera but behind it. He quickly rose in the ranks at Sunshine Comedies, where he came under the wing of Henry Lehrman and undoubtedly was in almost daily contact with Virginia Rappe between 1919 and 1920 at the Culver City plant—where Stein, too, experienced the frisson of having Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton working in the neighboring studio.

When Lehrman started his own company in 1920, Stein was promoted to casting director. When his mentor went bankrupt at the end of that year, Stein was quickly picked up by Fred Fishback for Century Film Corporation, where Stein continued to work as an assistant and casting director. Naturally ambitious, Stein served Fishback well and was expected to take charge of one of Century’s units in November.

In a series of articles in September, the New York Daily News tried to make sense of what happened to Arbuckle and Rappe at the St. Francis Hotel by investigating the culture and mores of the film colony. Men in Al Stein’s position were known to take advantage of the opportunities that culture created. “There is a lascivious maxim concerning the gateway to success in the pictures,” that screen tests were a stock joke. “Strict vigilance does not always prevent refractions,” opined the Daily News given the anecdotal evidence. “[N]ot long ago a casting director was discharged after rumors of questionable affairs with women seeking parts in pictures.”

Although Stein wasn’t the man in question, he was no exception and the rigors and pleasures of his motion picture work took a toll on his marriage, more so than the away games of his brief baseball career. When he died, Stein was already divorced and cohabitating with two “studio girls,” a term used for aspiring young actresses who had yet to make a screen debut or still worked as extras and showgirls. The threesome began shortly after he moved into his apartment in September. A blonde, whom he registered as his sister, Mildred Bellwin was followed by her friend, a redhead, Jean Monroe. Both were members of the Pantages Broadway Follies. They were his first responders on the October 9.

According to their statements to the police, they kept to their rooms and did not see Stein and his friends. Their story, told in an “airy” manner, suggested that the gathering was a stag party. When it ended around midnight, however, both young women joined Stein in his bedroom and just “talked” for about an hour. Then the women retired to their shared bedroom and left Stein alone in his.

Another hour passed and Monroe was awakened by a “terrible gaspy, creepy noise of some kind,” as she described it, “a ghastly thing to hear at 2:30.” She woke her roommate. When they found Stein, he was lying half out of bed with his head on the floor and his feet still under his bedclothes. They splashed his face with cold water. But his breathing became more labored, he began to turn blue.

Monroe and Bellwin then called Stein’s older brother Carl, who soon arrived and summoned a doctor—and the police. But it was too late. His brother had already passed.

According to the police, wine and whiskey bottles littered his room and the kitchen. A bottle of “moonshine” was also found—and a pronounced scratch on one of Stein’s heavy cheeks. Asked to explain the scratch, Stein’s roommates said it was self-inflicted two days earlier. He had picked up a nail file in their presence and said, “It’s funny how people hurt themselves with things like this.” Then he proceeded to draw the blade across his cheek. But that wasn’t the only thing that was strange about the scene in Stein’s bedroom.

When police searched his billfold, they found a list of names and telephone numbers that, according to the Los Angeles Times, “indicated that he had a wide field of women acquaintances.” Also found was a telegram addressed to Ira Fortlouis at the Century Film Corporation from District Attorney Matthew Brady dated September 19 that read: “Please report to district attorney’s office, San Francisco, immediately.” On the back in pencil, was a note, presumably the text of wired response to Brady’s request. But it wasn’t from Fortlouis: “Will be at your office tomorrow noon—Fred Fishback. Leaving for San Francisco today.”

Stein’s billfold contained one more mystery. There was a check for $25, made out to Fishback by the director Frank Beal and endorsed by Fishback. On the surface, it seemed as though Fishback delegated some personal business to Stein and used Brady’s telegram like a scrap of paper.

Bellwin and Monroe were subsequently jailed on suspicion of having poisoned Stein—and Fred Fishback again found himself associated with a scandal involving alcohol, showgirls, and death—at least until a better explanation was found for the Brady telegram in Stein’s wallet.

Two Los Angeles police detectives spoke to Fishback. They had a theory that Stein had been summoned to San Francisco as a potential witness for the prosecution. They believed that he could have been murdered since none of his drinking companions had suffered the same ill effects. But what the detectives learned from Fishback provided no further clues and was likely little different from what the director told the Los Angeles Times. “I have known Al Stein for several months,” Fishback said,

and in all my dealings with him he had been sober and industrious. I did not know that he was a drinking man. I was greatly shocked to hear of his death and immediately offered to do what I could. Who the two girls are I do not know. The only time I saw them was last Friday, when I stopped for a moment at Al’s apartment on business. I asked him then if both the girls were living there in the same apartment and he explained that he merely occupied the front room while they occupied the rest.

When no poison was found in Stein’s stomach, the coroner determined that he had died of acute alcoholism. There was no foul play. Stein’s brother Carl, for his part, knew nothing of an alleged drinking problem. He said his brother Al was subject to heart attacks and suffered choking fits.

In the end, Stein’s roommates were only charged with “vagrancy” and released. Fishback made the funeral arrangements and the case quickly faded before Matthew Brady arrived to conduct his “open house” in Los Angeles. There was no curiosity on his part. His deputy, Milton U’Ren, only said that Stein didn’t “figure in any important connection in the case against Roscoe Arbuckle”—nor could he address why Stein had in his possession a telegram intended for Ira Fortlouis.

 

Al Stein (Newspaper Enterprise Agency, private collection)

Reverse.

Jesse Norgaard, the old soldier at Lehrman Studios

On March 18, 1922, the selection of two alternate jurors was interrupted when a member of the Women’s’ Vigilant Committee was seen whispering something to Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren while he sat at the counsel table. Defense lawyers immediately objected since they saw the Vigilant Committee as an “enemy” of their client, Roscoe Arbuckle. They began to call her a “stool pigeon” and, despite U’Ren’s protests, she was removed by the bailiff and ejected from the courtroom.

What did they mean by “stool pigeon”? It’s likely they feared that their private conversations were being listened in on, that the women milling around them on the street, in restaurants, hotel lobbies, and in the corridors of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice were, in effect, spying for the prosecution.

This sideshow and the arrest and release of an important prosecution witness, Jesse Norgaard, provided some human interest to newspaper readers before testimony began in what would be the last Arbuckle trial. The following is adapted from our notes about him.

Showgirls entertaining the residents at the Old Soldiers Home, Sawtelle, c. 1920 (Calisphere)

Jesse K. Norgaard had appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the first Arbuckle trial as it came to a close in late November. Two years before, he had worked as a watchman at the Henry Lehrman Studio in Culver City in 1919.[1] When asked to take the stand, he was a 62-year-old resident of the Old Soldiers Home at Sawtelle, California.

Norgaard testified that in 1919 Arbuckle had attempted to get from him the key to Virginia Rappe’s room “while he was working in the studios of Harry [sic] Lehrman.”[2] He said Arbuckle offered him a “roll” of money, which he believed was at least $50, to get the key. Norgaard said he refused. “The defense fought hard to keep out this testimony,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, “but after a long wrangle, Arbuckle himself whispered to his attorneys to withdraw the objection. The witness will be [recalled and] redirectly examined by U’Ren when the court convenes this morning [November 23].”

Arbuckle allegedly smiled and laughed when the elderly Norgaard made this claim in court. He had stopped taking the prosecution witnesses seriously. Zey Prevost and Alice Blake on that same day had recanted their original testimony that they heard Rappe accuse Arbuckle of having hurt her. Maude Delmont had been charged with bigamy in the meantime and would not be testifying. Arbuckle’s attorneys were taking no chances, Rappe’s victim image was to be overshadowed by their narrative about a woman with physical–mental illness triggered by small amounts of alcohol.

When Arbuckle famously—or infamously—took the stand in his own defense in the first trial on November 28, he denied that he offered Norgaard money and, for the next two months nothing more was heard of it. That said, however, District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants established that there was a personal relationship between Arbuckle, Henry Lehrman, and Virginia Rappe—that at one time they all shared the same working space. Norgaard’s version would corroborate the timeframe mentioned in Maude Delmont’s claim that Arbuckle had been fixated on Rappe since 1916. Although Brady had dropped Delmont as a witnesses, he apparently believed there was something to the claim. Thus, he continued to bring Norgaard to San Francisco to repeat his story and be subjected to both cross examination and character assassination by Arbuckle’s lawyers.

Either Norgaard believed in his own story or Brady had something on the old soldier to keep him in line.  Norgaard’s credibility seems no greater than some of the defense’s Chicago witnesses, but given how much vitriol was brought to bear on him by defense counsel Gavin McNab, the content of his testimony must have posed an existential threat as it depicted Arbuckle as someone more adult (and sexual) than the man-child with whom the public was familiar.

Who was Jesse Jenson Norgaard? The first news reports claimed he was a Civil War veteran. He wasn’t that old but he had been a career soldier since the 1880s and his early life is fairly well documented given his extant military records. According to the 1880 census, he was born in 1859 in Toftland, that part of Denmark lost to Germany during the Second Schleswig Wars. Like other young men, Norgaard likely saw emigration as better alternative to being drafted into the Prussian Army so came to the United States as a teenager in 1878. He worked as a servant on a Nebraska farm. In 1884, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Meade in the Dakota Territory toward the end of the Indian Wars. Five years later, in 1889, while working as a farmer in Montana, he became a U.S. citizen. When he was recorded by the 1900 census, he was a private stationed in Kalispell, Montana, having volunteered in the U.S. Army’s 37th Infantry [Regiment] during the Philippine-American War, the civil war that followed the Spanish-American War of 1898.

When Norgaard mustered out in 1901, he was in his early forties. For a time, he performed menial jobs while in and out of various soldiers homes as a patient, including two years, from 1906 to 1908 in Leavenworth, Kansas. He married a woman named Amelia, but there are four conflicting dates for when this marriage took place between 1905 and 1913

Norgaard primarily supported himself on his Army pension of $12 a month. This was likely due to his age and injuries. In 1914, he was admitted as a resident to the Soldiers Home in Orting, Washington, suffering from lameness in his right leg. He was discharged a year later, but, as before, he could only perform light work, such as operating an elevator.

Despite having spent much of his life in Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Washington state, he relocated to California, where he lived in San Diego during the war years. It was during this time, in 1918, that he was arrested for selling liquor to the recruits at Camp Kearney. He was sentenced to six months on a “work farm” but walked away and took a train to Los Angeles. This was the only arrest record he had and it would play a role in the third Arbuckle trial,

In Los Angeles, Norgaard found the kind of work he could handle as a watchman for the Henry Lehrman Studios. His appearance in all three of the Arbuckle trials, outside of his years as a soldier, was almost certainly the most eventful period in his life. Since the state would have only paid for his travel expenses and room and board, there was little to induce Norgaard to come forward but he did so willingly and worked with the District Attorney, Matthew Brady, to secure Arbuckle’s conviction.

Like other prosecution witnesses, Norgaard saw his reputation sullied by Arbuckle’s defense lawyers. At the second trial in January 1922, when he testified his earlier military career was foregrounded by the prosecution and he was allegedly wearing a “congressional medal of honor,” which may have been a reporter’s hyperbole. (There is no record of such a medal awarded to Norgaard and if he had “stolen valor,” Arbuckle’s defense would have likely uncovered this and destroyed his credibility.)

On January 20, the former watchman–janitor testified again that Arbuckle offered him “handful of greenbacks” for the key to Rappe’s dressing room. “I saw two $20 greenbacks and a $10,” he said. “I don’t know how much there was.”[3] The following week, on January 26, A. L. Barnes, an auditor and secretary for the former Henry Lehrman Studios, was called by the defense to refute Norgaard’s accusation. Barnes took the stand and said that he had the only duplicate key to the Yale lock to Rappe’s door and that it was always kept in his office. However, the keys were openly displayed on a rack, “accessible to anyone.”[4] This testimony allegedly refuted Norgaard’s assertion that he had the only key. But it hardly refuted his contention that he had been offered money to produce it. Nevertheless, the technicality, added to the many others, prevented the jury from unanimously declaring Arbuckle guilty or not.

Norgaard testified again at the third trial. By mid-March, the defense had more time to find ways to detract from his testimony. They succeeded this time with what some newspapers called a “mystery arrest.”

J. Norgaard, witness in the Roscoe Arbuckle case, who claims he was railroaded to jail here to prevent his testifying, was today paroled and will leave tonight for San Francisco to appear for prosecution there.

The parole board here took immediate action when they learned that District Attorney Matthew Brady of San Francisco had urged the parole of Norgaard.

Norgaard is the former janitor at the Culver City studios who testified at a former Arbuckle trial that “Fatty” tried to bribe him to give him the keys to Virginia Rappe’s dressing room.

In 1918, Norgaard was convicted here of selling liquor to solders, in violation of a city ordinance. He was sentenced to six months on the city farm, as was customary in such cases. After serving five days of that time he walked over to Linda Vista and took a train for Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago a man appeared at the local police station and asked to see the 1918 police court records, stating that he wished to look up the case of Norgaard. A few days later Norgaard was arrested at the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle. He was brought here and on Saturday re-sentenced to six months in jail.

Police Chief Patrick knew nothing of the case until he found the man in jail late Saturday, he declares. This is the first case the police say, where one of the many city farm prisoners who walked away during the war times was ever returned to serve out their “time” in jail.[5]

Norgaard testified at the third trial on March 28, 1922. He repeated his charge that Arbuckle tried to bribe him for the key and added that Arbuckle had said he intended to play a joke on Rappe if he got inside her room. As to being sentenced to jail, Norgaard claimed also that it had been Arbuckle’s attorneys who induced him to return to San Diego to serve out a sentence at the county farm that had been imposed on him in 1918 for selling liquor to the soldiers at Camp Kearney. But Arbuckle’s defense team was hardly finished with defaming Norgaard. Gavin McNab “sought further to prove that the witness [Norgaard] had been driven from Catalina Island for conduct involving an eight-year-old girl.”[6] This prompted Milton U’Ren to accuse McNab of using “shyster” tactics, which, in turn, led to a reprimand from Judge Louderbeck.

On March 30, a witness was called to speak to Norgaard’s character in an attempt to offset the charge of pederasty and to shore up his credibility. But it was inconclusive and most of the day’s session was consumed by a discussion of the meaning of the word “integrity.”

Justice of the Peace Joseph H. Stanford of Avalon, Catalina Island, was testifying when the discussion arose. He had previously testified in regard to the character of Jesse Norgaard, another witness. He was recalled and said he could testify as to Norgaard’s morals, but not as to his integrity. The defense contended morals included integrity, while the prosecution maintained they did not. A dozen legitimate authorities and a dictionary were involved in an effort to decide the point, but without success.[7]

The dissection of Norgaard’s character and challenge to his integrity had the effect of diluting the prosecution’s contention that Arbuckle had an obsession with Rappe. Once more, a key witness’s troubled past gave Arbuckle a “pass” in that the accuser appeared to be of weaker character than Arbuckle, who, at most, might have come across as a naughty practical joker, a trickster.

After the third Arbuckle trial, Norgaard moved back to Washington and resided at the soldiers homes in Kitsap and Orting, where he died in 1938.

[1] In some reports, Norgaard is referred to as a janitor and as “Oscar” Norgaard.

[2] Oscar H. Fernbach, “Zey Prevost, Alice Blake in Witness Chair,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1921, 4.

[3] “Surprise Witness Explodes Bomb in Arbuckle Defense,” New York Daily News, 21 January 1922, 3.

[4] Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Arbuckle Case Defense May Close Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 January 1922, 4.

[5] “State Finds Aarbuckle Witness Serving Unexpired Term in Jail,” Long Beach Press, 20 March 1922, 1.

[6] Oscar H. Fernbach, “U’Ren Flayed by Court for M’Nab Attack,” San Francisco Examiner, 28 March 1922, 9.

[7] A.P. Night Wire, “Fresh Problem in Fatty Case,” Los Angeles Times, 31 March 1922, 7.

100 Years Ago Today: Henry Lehrman’s 1,000 tiger lilies for Virginia Rappe (and a fur for his Follies girl), September 17, 1921

On Saturday morning, September 17, 1921, Arbuckle woke once more inside cell no. 12 of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, having been denied bail the day before. A murder charge still hung over his head as he sat on the edge of his cot. It would be determined over the coming days at a preliminary investigation in a special Police Court session the known as the “Women’s Court,” which limited the intimidating number and often rude behavior of male spectators.

Meanwhile, on that same morning, in Los Angeles’ Central Station, a reporter witnessed the lid removed from the crate in which Rappe’s silver coffin had been shipped. But what he saw first was the striking orange blanket of a thousand tiger lilies.

The casket of Virginia Rappe and the tiger lily blanket (American Florist)

The flowers had been ordered by Rappe’s putative fiancé, Henry Lehrman, from San Francisco’s master florist, Albert O. Stein at the cost of $150 (over $2,200 adjusted for inflation).[1] The choice of such flowers had been deliberate—and, perhaps, at the suggestion of Mr. Stein whose work in floral arrangements for funerals, public events, table decorations, altar pieces, chuppahs for Jewish weddings, and the like made him the go-to for making the best impression.

As Lehrman said to the press more than once already, Virginia Rappe had fought off Arbuckle “like a tiger.”

Two weeks later, in early October, Lehrman still neglected to pay the $150 invoice. But his checkbook was open for a mink coat, which he gave to his new girlfriend, a Ziegfeld Follies girl and aspiring actress, Jocelyn Leigh, who, like Rappe, was another Chicago native.

The check for $75 bounced, as Miss Leigh learned when she returned to the furrier to buy some accessories on credit.

Albert O. Stein was still trying to collect his fee on the day Arbuckle was acquitted in April 1922.

Jocelyn Leigh (Tattler, May 1922)

[1] See “Arbuckle Fate Up to Jury, Belief,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 April 1922, 3.

100 Years Ago Yesterday and Today: S.F.’s “Bird Girl” rescues Rappe’s body from neglect

[An intractable WordPress coding error had required us to repost this entry from 9/15.]

When Henry Lehrman put Virginia Rappe on a pedestal, remembering her as “clean, decent, high-spirited,” he could ill afford to step off his moral high ground in Manhattan and return to the West Coast. It would take him three days to reach San Francisco, longer than it would take to bury Rappe, and then another three days to return. Even at a whirlwind pace, Lehrman would need nearly two weeks for the trip as well as the funds on hand. He could afford neither. His contractual obligation to finish an Owen Moore comedy in New York gave him cover to avoid making the expected public appearance to mourn his erstwhile lover.

Still, Lehrman could “direct” Rappe’s final appearance via long-distance telephone calls and Western Union telegrams. He could take advantage of the sympathy extended to him by Sidi Spreckels, Maude Delmont, and people in Hollywood who had worked with Rappe and admired her, including his protégé, Norman Taurog, who offered to interrupt the directing a motion picture to handle the funeral arrangements in Los Angeles.

While Rappe’s body laid in a morgue and in the cold storage of a mortuary, Arbuckle made headlines, some ink was spared for Rappe’s memory and her status as a victim, a woman who died young, in the prime of her life. The newspapers reported that her body was still unclaimed as the new week unfolded despite her having “friends numbered by the scores” and being “one of the prettiest members of the Los Angeles film colony”—whose beauty the embalmers and cosmeticians of Halsted & Co. had restored as best they could because such matters couldn’t wait for instructions or payment.[1]

Fortunately for Lehrman, the spectacle of Rappe’s seemingly unwanted and orphaned corpse was avoided when someone unexpected stepped forward to represent him and give his “loved one” her due, the writer and aviatrix Lillian Gatlin, the first woman to fly across the United States and the “bird girl” of San Francisco.

Gatlin may have associated with Rappe in Los Angeles, where Gatlin once worked as a scenario writer. They met earlier, however, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. That same year, Gatlin lost her lover and flight instructor, Lincoln Beachey, when he crashed into San Francisco Bay before thousands of horrified onlookers. On the first anniversary of his death, Gatlin flew over the spot where Beachey died and dropped a bouquet of roses. She made her rose drops an annual event and these became the centerpiece of San Francisco’s Aerial Days, which Gatlin expanded to honor American airmen killed during the First World War. 

Lillian Gatlin (Calisphere)

Gatlin may have regarded Rappe as an honorary bird girl herself for being the first Vin-Fiz girl. But Gatlin’s motivations for caring about Rappe’s body were really in keeping with her favorite charity, the Silent Big Sisters, which assisted young unmarried mothers and their babies. Although Rappe wasn’t a mother, there was something no less pathetic about her situation in death.

When Gatlin learned that no flowers had been displayed around Rappe’s body, she had two long-stemmed roses placed like guards at either side of Rappe’s bier. With that and a large bouquet from a person who wished to remain anonymous, a public viewing of Rappe’s body could take place and soon women and girls filed past the open casket. The visitation, however, quickly came to an end as the long lines and crowds outside Halsted’s forced the mortuary to close its doors.


[1] “Tragedy Victim Is Sent Home,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1921, 2.

100 Years Ago Today: The death of Virginia Rappe, September 9, 1921

An Italian journalist, who has written an article to mark the centenary of the Arbuckle case and the death of Virginia Rappe, reminded us of a Latin expression that certainly applies to both Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle. Both figures have suffered a kind of damnatio memoriae, but rather than their faces and names erased from monuments and other official records of their existences, they have been damned by misrepresentation. In Arbuckle’s case, Durfee’s honey-glazed rehabilitation of him doesn’t acknowledge that he was bridling under what had become a sham marriage—a sham that facilitated the kind of dissolute lifestyle and assignations that fell the great Silent Era comedian. There is much more to this story though for another time.

Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s first wife, was and still is behind the character assassination of Virginia Rappe. She was the source of the infamous story about Rappe being the naive promiscuous actress on the Keystone lot who spread some kind of sexually transmitted disease or Pediculosis pubis.

Supposedly, Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone, had his studios, stages, prop and dressing rooms, and so on, repainted and “fumigated.” Entire buildings were allegedly encapsulated by tarps to ensure that nothing verminous survived that had come from Rappe’s mons veneris.

An example of damnatio memoriae as it applies to Virginia Rappe in You Must Remember This (1975)

This story was spread with every interview that Durfee gave in her dotage—and in any memoir she had written for her. It was accepted in the 1960s onward because Durfee likely knew it would sell in the heyday of the Sexual Revolution. But one didn’t need the Internet then to discover that Rappe never worked for Keystone and although she eschewed marriage, she was remarkably monogamous in her relationships—perhaps to a fault.

Durfee’s story about the Keystone studio does have some basis though. It originates in the spring of 1913—three years prior to Rappe’s arrival in Los Angeles—when there was a crackdown on so-called “white slavery” rings in the city. Among those arrested was a then-fifteen-year-old Keystone actress named Evelyn Quick, better and later known as Jewel Carmen. To support her mother, and, perhaps, because Mack Sennett only paid his talent a few dollars a week, the enterprising minor earned extra income as a sex worker.

When her name began to appear in newspapers among the “ruined” girls, and since some of her clients were other Keystone employees, Sennett took most of his company to film on location in Tijuana, Mexico as the first indictments were handed down. Rappe’s future boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman, and Keystone’s star comedian “Fatty” Arbuckle were among the actors and crew members who crossed the border to wait out the fallout and bad press.

Evelyn Quick in the Los Angeles Times, 1913 (Newspapers.com)

Virginia Rappe, of course, never imagined that she would be branded as “that kind of girl.” She slipped in and out of a coma on September 9, 1921, in a private room in a private hospital. She told a nurse to “get Arbuckle” not because she wanted revenge but just to get her $65 hospital bill paid.

She had no family around her as she died. One friend, who later said she barely knew Rappe, Sidi Spreckels did come to see her but was met by that doomed, faraway stare that the dying have. Spreckels tried to find a minister in time to pray over Rappe. But he arrived too late in the afternoon.

Later that day, Arbuckle answered the doorbell at his W. Adams Street mansion. He had been getting ready for a date to the theater with a young actress whom he had met earlier in the week while aboard the SS Harvard, during the voyage back from his Labor Day holiday in San Francisco. Those plans, however, had to be changed as a reporter told Arbuckle about Rappe’s death earlier in the day and that he was being blamed for it.

The Game Lady: Lobby card images

One of the last films in which Virginia Rappe appears and which was in theaters in the summer of 1921, was A Game Lady (1921), directed by Henry Lehrman for First National Pictures. Like other photographs, these publicity photos from that film tell a story.

There is no extant copy of A Game Lady, but Rappe likely appeared in as many scenes as needed to show that she was the hunters’ quarry rather than game birds. There is no synopsis, but the two-reel comedy likely was formulaic, like other Henry Lehrman films, in which the sheer momentum of the action—scenes of the hunters’ misadventures as they seek the hand of Rappe’s “game lady” — was the point rather than story or character development. These photographs are from a series of lobby cards that were included in a Los Angeles Record article in the days after her death. Rappe doesn’t appear to be a comic performer in these photos but rather an object of desire.

A Game Lady lobby card image, Jimmy Savo (l), Virginia Rappe (c), and Billy Engle (r) (IMDb.com)

The actor on the left is Rappe’s uncredited costar, the comic Jimmy Savo in hunting attire. Savo was making the transition from vaudeville to motion pictures at the time. The actor on her left (in the middle in the second photo) is Billy Engle, an old Lehrman standby.

A Game Lady is one of the films that shows Rappe after she had regained her figure following a regimen of diet and exercise that was supervised by her masseuse at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. She is dressed in a “riding habit” like the one she wore when she accompanied her manager Al Semnacher and his friend Maude Delmont on the drive to San Francisco and Arbuckle’s ill-fated Labor Day 1921 party.

A Game Lady was still showing in theaters as late as the third and fourth week of September. But like Roscoe Arbuckle’s films, it too was pulled from screens for cultivating the morbid curiosity of American moviegoers.

A Game Lady lobby card, 1921 (Private collection)