Anyone who writes objectively about the manslaughter trials of Roscoe Arbuckle will notice that the image of Virginia Rappe, his alleged victim, fades from the press coverage of the three trials between November 1921 and April 1922. Immediately following her death on September 9, 1921 though there was a surfeit of Rappe photographs published. Many of these were purchased and licensed by Underwood & Underwood, a pioneer of modern press photography. Newspaper publishers and editors soon discontinued using images of Rappe in their coverage of the Arbuckle case and she was reduced to a name and sometimes just a label such as “beautiful young motion picture actress”.
Perhaps the disappearance of Rappe’s image was due to column space. Despite the improvements in photo reproduction, text-driven journalism had yet to cede column space to photojournalism. Perhaps, too, newspapers were in keeping with the ban on Rappe’s on-screen image.
During the second week of September 1921, like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, motion picture executives placed a ban on any motion pictures in which Rappe appeared. In her case it wasn’t due to the public censure brought on by American clubwomen and clergymen. The mores of the time were applied differently to Rappe, for it was considered disrespectful but also distasteful to publish the image of a young woman who had died in such questionable circumstances. Details of her life and death revealed a world that was foreign to most and might influence impressionable young women or stir the more prurient desires of young men. And there was a precedent for this: Rappe’s contemporary, Olive Thomas, had died in Paris almost a year to the day before in 1920 and under suspicious circumstances—a botched suicide attempt, an overdose—due to the dangers posed by the fast lifestyle of Hollywood.
One suite of Underwood & Underwood photographs is particularly notable. It came from a fashion shoot taken in either Chicago or San Francisco in mid-1915. But none of these were published despite the quality and allure of Rappe’s poses. That is to say, we haven’t been able to locate any of these images in newspaper archives, which suggests that her mode of dress might have been considered too morbidly ironic to include in a story of a scandal where pajamas were a prominent image.
On the fated September 5, 1921, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle wore his pajamas well into the day. He wore them when he followed Virginia into his bedroom and they became drenched in his sweat around the time of Rappe’s mortal injury. Her escort to the party, Maude Delmont, had donned the actor Lowell Sherman’s yellow silk pajamas because her street clothes made it too hot to dance in the twelfth floor suite. For his part, Sherman remained dishabille in his BVDs.
One image from the pajama shoot was published in another time and context: when Rappe was rumored to be engaged to an Argentine diplomat attached to his country’s pavilion during the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Indeed, it is likely that the outfit she’s wearing was also modeled at the exposition (The wire service image was distributed with the caption, save for where the editor could insert the name of his respective newspaper to make it seem as though Rappe was an in-house fashion designer. She was independent.)
Rappe in a 1915 newspaper (Newspapers.com)
The setting for these photographs appears to be a mansion or luxury hotel. The pajamas are ahead of their time, for such a one-piece, high-waisted garment is more typical of post-WW1 sleepwear illustrated in pattern magazines and department store advertisements. The sheer fabric could be voile, silk, or gorgette. The outfit also includes a sleeveless jacket and Chinese “frog” or “knot” buttons. The billowy, Pierrot-like trousers or “pantaloons,” were considered both daring and feminist for the time but still have such feminine features as the lower legs finished with gathered bloomer cuffs.
These pajamas were also intended for loungewear given the matching silk ballet slippers. And there’s no chance the flamboyant nightcap would survive a night in bed. It is really a headpiece with wide organza crown, almost like a halo, trimmed with a ribbon, and in keeping with Rappe’s eccentric millinery designs, such as the “spider hat” and “peace hat,” that appeared in U.S. newspapers during the spring and summer of 1915.
Rappe in natural lighting (Private collection)
Unfortunately, Rappe’s designs didn’t catch on in 1915 and this motivated her to pivot her career. In spring 1916, she relocated to Southern California where she succeeded in being cast in small roles such as a juvenile vamp or slapstick love interest in the films of her reputed boyfriend, comedy director Henry Lehrman.
Rappe in prize fighter pose (Private collection)
Rappe’s type was that of a film colony “society girl” and the “best-dressed girl in Hollywood.” These titles had more to do with the company she kept, especially her intimate friends among the more committed motion picture actresses. Rappe sometimes sketched clothes for them that were executed on the sewing machine of her adopted “Aunt Kate” Hardebeck. One of these friends, Mildred Harris—the first Mrs. Charlie Chaplin—regifted a gown so that Rappe could be buried in one of her own designs.