The Modern Sappho on the Arbuckle Jury

[This entry is from our research, to trace how various individuals found their way into the Arbuckle case and how they faired afterward. Some end in tragedy. Some in ellipses, like Maude Delmont. But Irene Wilde stands out and only a little of this will get into the work-in-progress.]

Irene Wilde (1884–1964), one of five women on the jury of the third Arbuckle trial jury (March–April 1922), wasn’t a typical talesman. She was a poet and writer, albeit described a “newspaperwoman” by the San Francisco Call. But this was an exaggeration not of her choosing, for Wilde had won the Call‘s runner-up prizes the most recent “Jingle of the Month” (December 1921) and the best “Molly O Poem” (January 1922). The latter contest was for the best paean to Mabel Normand and her latest role. Normand, of course, had been Arbuckle’s costar at Keystone Studio—and Mrs. Wilde must have felt deserving of first prize for using the very Irish word “mavoureen” in in her verse.

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

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

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

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

Source: San Francisco Examiner, 17 March 1922

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

During the rest of April 1922, however, many Americans didn’t agree with the jury—enough to scare off Will H. Hays and Adolph Zukor from lifting the ban on “Fatty” Arbuckle pictures or letting him work again. Arbuckle soon put his beloved Pierce-Arrow “palace” car up for sale to pay his legal costs. The wife who “stood by her husband” during the trial, Minta Durfee, left him to return to her single life across the country in New York City. And Irene Wilde? She was perhaps best situated and equipped to write a book, perhaps both serious, ironical, amusing, and tell-all about the third Arbuckle trial. She could have told us why the comedian’s version of events trumped everything that the prosecution did to contradict him. She might have even raked some muck in the process. But such books that followed sordid trials and scandals in due course weren’t being written yet. Instead, Wilde relocated to Los Angeles in 1923, took various jobs, and eventually found permanent employment as high school librarian.

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

Source: Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1936

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

But from the vantage point and Parnassus of Roosevelt Evening High School, Wilde neglected a better story, one she didn’t find that interesting, apparently.


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

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

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