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.

Intermezzo: Enter Minta

[The following is an extract from our work-in-progress—one in a series of short features or en·tr’actes that allow the authors and readers to take pause. Almost all Arbuckle case narratives share DNA from Minta Durfee’s sometimes cynical memories, which are largely responsible for how the story has long been framed.]

Minta Durfee made a career out of being Mrs. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It was a saleable commodity for her, and if you don’t believe me check her contracts filed at the [Academy’s] Herrick Library. She was lying relentlessly and grandiosely, of course . . .

Joan Myers [1]

Minta said she was asked often about having sex with a fat man. She said “I wasn’t going to answer a question like that. Besides I knew Roscoe wasn’t capable of anything beyond simple petting.”

Timothy Dean Lefler [2]

Toward the end of her long life—long for a Silent Era actor—Minta Durfee shared a memory of her former husband Roscoe Arbuckle and his frequent costar, the comedienne Mabel Normand. “They were such water dogs,” Durfee recalled, “they loved the water, they did everything under the sun in the water.”[3]

Durfee’s memory was a happy one, of the house Arbuckle rented on Venice Beach in 1915 and ’16. The weather was often warm, even at night, so they slept on a screened in porch and woke to breakfast served by a Japanese servant, hired with the modest but adequate income each made at Keystone Studios.

On Sundays in the summer, Normand was a frequent guest. She was an excellent swimmer as was Arbuckle, whom she nicknamed “Big Otto,” after a zoo elephant in nearby Lincoln Park. While Durfee watched from shore—she didn’t like to swim—Normand and Arbuckle swam from the front of the house south toward the Venice Pier. The pair’s long swims became a routine for a time and sometimes included a third member, a dolphin, that swam alongside Normand. As much a fearless person in real life as she was on camera, Normand would put her arm around the animal’s back and let it pull her along.

Durfee wasn’t always alone on the beach waiting, the odd woman out. Sometimes a crowd formed, from anonymous onlookers to friends who came to see Normand, Arbuckle, and the tame dolphin “perform,” before they emerged from the water dripping wet, toweling themselves off. Durfee’s embroidered memory captured this innocent moment in the lives of these two actors who died young. Another who died young, Virginia Rappe, was denied such innocent anecdotes but hardly the emobroidery.

“I knew her well,” Durfee said.

Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle, Catalina I., 1914 (Private collection)

Minta Durfee may have known what Virginia Rappe faced behind the closed door of room 1219. In a series of taped interviews for Robert Young Jr.’s “bio-bibliography” of Roscoe Arbuckle, Durfee described intimate details about what it was like sleeping with her husband far removed from the screened-in porch on Venice Beach.[4] In March 1917, not long after Arbuckle had been feted in Boston after signing his contract with Paramount Pictures and Famous Players-Lasky, he and Durfee returned to New York and the Cumberland Hotel at 54th and Broadway. During the early morning after their first night there, Arbuckle tried to have intercourse with Durfee. The way it is described suggests that such intimate relations may have been performed in the bathroom, perhaps in the shower, perhaps over the bathroom sink for support. Arbuckle, however, failed to maintain an erection. Frustrated, he wrapped a towel around his waist and began to tear the room apart. “His color was almost purple,” Minta recalled in 1958, “and he went through the dresser drawers and emptied them. Threw everything in the air—drawers which didn’t come out so easily he yanked out completely and threw them around the room.” Despite her best attempts to calm him down and reassure him, Durfee watched in terror. Arbuckle had been drinking. He was addicted to his painkillers—morphine and heroin—and he had been partying for days. He had been traveling for weeks. He had also changed toward her.

“To hell with you,” Durfee remembered her husband saying as he rampaged tearfully about their hotel room. “To hell with the apartment, to hell with my clothes, to hell with everybody in the world! I’m a star! I was told I’m a star and I shouldn’t be tied down! I shouldn’t have a wife because they always do this to you!”

When Durfee attempted to call the desk for the hotel doctor, Arbuckle screamed, “Don’t you dare touch that! I’ll do all the telephoning that’s going to be done in this little place.” With that Arbuckle yanked the telephone off the wall.

“Nothing I said had any effect. Every once in a while he would stand in the middle of the room like a little child and jump up and down with rage as sweat poured off him. ‘I won’t have it! I won’t have it!’ he yelled. ‘I’m a star! I’m not supposed to be married! I can’t be hampered by a wife!’ I never heard a man cry so hard in my life. It was terrible.”

Hotel Cumberland, Broadway and 54th Street, New York City (NYPL)

After her husband left Keystone for Paramount, Durfee’s film career suffered a hiatus. Although she enjoyed financial rewards of being married to one of the most popular movie stars in the world, she had to stand by and watch as her husband was transformed into a virtual bachelor and she was forgotten. She also had to give up her role as the maternal influence that Arbuckle depended on until his vast wealth convinced him he no longer needed it. She was jealous of the power his new manager, Lou Anger, had over him. That Arbuckle had parroted Anger’s views on stardom on that fateful morning in the Cumberland Hotel may have been the most grating thing of all to Durfee along with Arbuckle’s growing coterie of male friends, many of whom she saw, rather unselfconsciously, as parasites.

Durfee accepted what was essentially a quasi-salary to be Arbuckle’s faithful wife, should he need to reference her as such. This was also hush money, since her silence and cooperation in the arrangement were necessary. With this arrangement, Arbuckle was given existential elbowroom, a freedom to roam.

The perquisites for being invisible and the silent woman included a luxurious apartment on Riverside Drive with her mother and sister. Although a native of Southern California, Durfee acclimated to her life as a Manhattan socialite and returned to making movies in 1920. She still had Mabel Normand as a nearby friend. Normand had grown up on Staten Island started her career as an artist model and actress in Manhattan, and now divided her time between the West and East coasts.

It was through Normand that Durfee learned of Arbuckle’s troubles in San Francisco when Normand tried to reach Durfee by telephone and got Durfee’s sister Marie instead. The latter promptly wired Durfee, who was vacationing with their mother on Martha’s Vineyard. Durfee was on the green of an ocean-side golf course when she received the telegram and undoubtedly understood the likely impact on her own lifestyle and tenuous career.

When reporters located her, Durfee was back in the spotlight for the first time in years and played her role as Mrs. Arbuckle in a way far different from that of being in her husband’s shadow at Keystone. She relished the attention and assumed a kind of maternal authority over her long wayward husband, making it known that she and Arbuckle’s mother-in-law would depart for San Francisco without delay.

“I have not been reading the newspapers,” Durfee told a reporter while packing a suitcase in their apartment at W. 97th Street and Riverside Drive. But she certainly knew more than she let on. Sticking to the faithful wife script, Durfee continued. “Roscoe Arbuckle is just a big, lovable pleasure loving, over grown boy, whose success and prosperity have been a little too much for him, but he is not guilty of the hideous charge made against him in San Francisco.”

Durfee had nothing to say about Rappe, at least nothing that was or could be printed. She also didn’t let on that she had been in communication—not with Arbuckle himself—but with his lawyers, Milton Cohen and Frank Dominguez, and, perhaps, with Lou Anger and others about shoring up Arbuckle’s deteriorating public image. This wouldn’t be a passive role for her. Whether at her suggestion or another’s, Durfee pledged to gather information on Rappe’s earlier life during the layover in Chicago.

“I felt intuitively that my husband was not guilty of murder—anyone who knows him will tell you that,” Durfee continued, still in her apartment living room. “Why, already I’ve received many letters and telegrams from friends in the theatrical world, each expressing that he could not be guilty of the impossible charges.”

There was only one point where Durfee didn’t censor herself, recalling the low company Arbuckle kept, which was, apparently, a sore point with her. “My husband has hundreds—thousands of friends. Some of the messages I’ve received came from gangsters and ‘roughnecks,’ who worked with him in pictures, but most of them were well-known actors and actresses.” Of these, only Mabel Normand was mentioned by name.

When asked about her living so far from Arbuckle, Durfee attributed it to their having married young. “Five years ago,” Durfee said of their estrangement, “we agreed to disagree.”

Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle tête-à-tête in September 1921 (San Francisco Library)

Before dismissing the press, Minta Durfee also commended Arbuckle for the recent gift of a new town car and the generous monthly allowance he gave her, which freed her from having to find work. That’s not to suggest she was content not working. In 1920 and ’21, she appeared in five two-reelers for Rialto Productions with their now ironic titles—Wives’ Union; He, She and It; When You Are Dry; Whose Wife?; and That Quiet Night—shot in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. Prominently billed in trade magazines as the “Minta Durfee Series,” the comedies were advertised with “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle.” Meanwhile, gossip columnists, who rarely mentioned her being Mrs. Arbuckle over the previous three years, began refreshing the public’s memory of her status in early 1921. One of the more waggish made light of their living arrangement as “fashionable.”

On Wednesday evening, September 14, Durfee and her mother boarded the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited, at Grand Central Station. Mabel Normand was there to see them off and seconded Durfee’s assertion that Arbuckle was innocent. The next morning, Durfee stepped off the train in Gary, Indiana, where she and her mother were whisked away by “detectives” and driven into Chicago. These men were likely private investigators working for Albert Sabath, a Chicago attorney who had been engaged by Milton Cohen and who was a close friend of Rappe’s former boyfriend, Harry Barker. Durfee spent the next ten hours “interviewing acquaintances” and “calling on friends of Miss Rappe.” How Durfee found these friends is a mystery. But she likely had help from Sabath, who knew a lot about Rappe through Barker.

Durfee made good use of her Chicago layover. But it has received scant attention in Arbuckle case narratives even though it suggests that she took an active role “to clear Roscoe’s name,” actively defaming Rappe rather than just passively being there for Arbuckle as his suffering wife. She had reason to topple Rappe from the pedestal of victimhood. Not only was the monthly income that supported her, her mother, and her sister threatened, so was her career. That Arbuckle’s films were being pulled from theaters all over the country had to have shaken Durfee. His fall could certainly take her down. Some theaters were showing her new comedies and still billing her as “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle.” Durfee knew that the public’s imagination would draw a triangle between Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe, and herself.

Durfee spoke to reporters again in Chicago, just before she boarded the Union Pacific’s Overland Limited to San Francisco. “Our marriage wasn’t wrecked,” she said, using words that likely had been peppered at her by the press, “only warped. Eight years of togetherness is bound to put a blight on any union, no matter how ideal to begin with. We never really were angry with each other—we just each got on the other fellow’s nerves.”—yet another vague canned expression.

To some, Durfee’s explanation of her marriage rang hollow. “It took a booze party and a murder charge to get Mrs. Arbuckle, staged as ‘Minta Durfee,’ to realize that she ought to be near her husband,” wrote one small-town editorialist. “Mrs. Arbuckle has set an example which all boozily inclined movie people ought to follow. Let the old man drink and skylark as much as he likes till he gets in trouble, then go to his assistance when he is arrested. No press agent could possibly offer such a good chance for notoriety as this.”

Reno depot (Private collection)

Minta Durfee received a telegram when her train arrived late into Reno, a layover that had a certain poignancy given Nevada’s liberal divorce laws and the recent case of Mary Pickford. (Her botched divorce from the actor Owen Moore to marry Douglas Fairbanks almost resulted in “America’s Sweetheart” facing a charge of bigamy.) The telegram likely alerted her not to speak about the Arbuckle case and to get off the train one stop early, as she had on the Chicago leg of her journey. As the Overland crossed the state line between Nevada and California, Durfee and her mother locked themselves in their state room to avoid the reporters that boarded at Roseville, California, one stop before Sacramento.

The Durfee party was subsequently intercepted by Milton Cohen and Arbuckle’s San Francisco-based attorney, Charles Brennan, so as to prevent reporters from having any access to their client’s wife. Instead, they drove her and her mother into San Francisco in the backseat of Arbuckle’s Pierce-Arrow. This allowed Cohen and Brennan to discuss Durfee’s role in the narrative, groom her for the sake of public relations, and debrief her of what she had learned about Rappe while in Chicago.

Early Sunday morning, September 18, Durfee arrived in San Francisco. Before being reunited with her husband—whom she had not seen since the autumn of 1919, she issued a prepared statement. Once more she spoke of her husband’s innocence and asked that he get a “square deal” in court.

[1] Qtd. in Andre Soares, “Fatty Arbuckle Virginia Rappe Trial: Researcher Joan Myers Discusses Scandal,” Alt Film Guide, 2009, https://www.altfg.com/film/fatty-arbuckle-virginia-rappe/.

[2] Facebook message with author, 22 January 2021.

[3] This passage is based on Minta Durfee to Don Schneider and Stephen Normand, Excerpts of an Interview with Minta Durfee,” 21 July 1974, https://www.angelfire.com/mn/hp/minta1.html; Robert Young Jr., Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwich, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994); Betty Harper Fussell, Mabel: Hollywood’s First Don’t Care Girl (Ticknor & Fields, 1982), 135; “Mrs. Arbuckle Defends Actor,” San Francisco Chronicle, 14 September 1921, 1, 6; “Arbuckle’s Wife Gathers Evidence for Him in Chicago,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 September 1921, 1. “Good Press Agent Stunt,” Hanford (California) Sentinel, 17 September 1921, 2, and other corroborative sources.

[4] See Robert Young Jr., Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), 55.

Arbuckle Brief #1

Dorothy Wallace, the Spite Bride?

(Periodically, we will report about where we are in the manuscript or discuss research that deserves mention, especially when it forces a revision or judicious speculation in response to those made by previous writers on this subject.)

Our book is divided into four parts named for the major cities in Rappe’s life—Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—and an epilogue. Over the past week, while adding to the Los Angeles section, where the text moves from 1920 to Rappe’s final year, we briefly introduced a new name that is peripheral to her life but contributory to what lies in store or wait: Dorothy Wallace. Shortly before Arbuckle sailed for Europe in late November 1920, ostensively for a long-deserved vacation, an “eastern publication” allegedly published a rumor that Arbuckle intended to marry the young actress in New York. Supposedly, however, the marriage was called off due to a “quarrel.”

The rumor of an impending Arbuckle marriage came back to life upon his and Wallace’s return to Los Angeles just before the Christmas holiday. The woman in question was in her late twenties and her early life and career has some parallels to Virginia Rappe’s save that Wallace was from a wealthy San Francisco family. Wallace was said to be a globe trotter, having traveled with her parents all over the world. Once she met an Indian prince who fell violently in love with her. Her parents had to leave Istanbul to escape the “ardent attentions of Turkish royalty.” Like Rappe, Wallace was entrepreneurial, having owned a millinery shop in San Francisco. This she gave up to pursue a modeling career in New York City, including posing for a poster series by James Montgomery Flagg. The celebrated illustrator also picked her for a one-reel silent biopic, The Art Bug (1918), in which she played herself, a Greenwich Village art student.

In 1918, Wallace arrived in Los Angeles and began to appear in supporting roles alongside Gloria Swanson in The Secret Code (1918) and Olive Thomas in The Spite Bride (1919). Because of her performance alongside Dustin Farnum in A Man’s Fight (1919), she was publicized as the love interest in his next vehicle, The Harvest of Shame, playing a New York society girl. But the project was shelved and her debut as a leading lady went unrealized.

Dorothy Wallace as one of the “Girls You Should Know” of 1918 (Lantern)

Wallace, in 1919, allegedly owned a wardrobe variously valued at $10,000 and $500,000—which would rival that of established actresses—and was seemingly on the upswing of a promising career in motion pictures. Nevertheless, her name and the marriage rumor appear in no Arbuckle biography. The omission seems strange in that a biography is where falsehoods and factoids are dealt with along with establishing the the true person.

While there was no corresponding rumor to suggest Wallace set sail as well to Europe with Arbuckle in a shipboard reconciliation, which, like Pullman sleepers, was a common way of indulging in an assignation, the two surely met and socialized at the Sunset Inn overlooking the Santa Monica beach. Both were habitués as was Virginia Rappe, who won dance contests there.

The Sunset’s proximity to the studios on the west side of Hollywood as well as its distance made it a convenient gathering place for the film colony during the teens and twenties. Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and their entourages often came to dine, drink, dance, and flirt.

The Sunset Inn, early 1920s (Calisphere)

The Wallace–Arbuckle rumor persisted in two newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald throughout December 1920. There was news of an engagement, of a broken engagement, of a quarrel, and even a New Year’s Eve engagement party. When Arbuckle’s manager Lou Anger denied the engagement party, he didn’t deny the engagement.

Minta Durfee, a native of Long Beach, California, undoubtedly found the rumor troubling, especially since her family read those newspapers. It took another month for a minor syndicated movie column to remind the public that such a marriage between Wallace and Arbuckle was “impossible” since he was still married to Durfee. Despite such reminders, Arbuckle, for his part, behaved like a bachelor all the more, an eligible bachelor.

The marriage rumor persisted until April 1921, where it appeared again in Motion Picture Magazine. While it would be easy to pass on such biographical chaff, we see it as possible evidence, to which we can add more, that Arbuckle was casting about for a new, younger, and prettier Mrs. Arbuckle for much 1920 and into 1921. (This is true even if Arbuckle was the victim of a joke.) Until the death of Virginia Rappe in September 1921, Minta Durfee had to know that sooner rather than later her husband would want a divorce that wouldn’t be as remunerative as their separation. Instead, the advantage went to her. Rather than serve her with papers, so to speak, Arbuckle’s lawyers ensured that Minta Durfee would appear prominently at his side when his courtroom ordeal began.

The winner of what may have been a long and ongoing beauty contest wasn’t Virginia Rappe, of course, but rather a young ingenue whom Arbuckle met aboard the SS Harvard when he sailed from San Francisco the day after Labor Day, 1920.

It was another chance meeting in San Francisco, too, like that between him and Rappe the day before.

J. Barney Sherry, Lois Wilson, Dustin Farnum, and Dorothy Wallace in A Man’s Fight (1919) (IMDb.com)