100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle calls Rappe a bum

For most of Saturday, September 10, Roscoe Arbuckle and his pals Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman once again drove north on Highway 4, which is now California 99 and Interstate 5, to San Francisco. Only this time in a much less joyful mood and with company. Arbuckle rode in his Pierce-Arrow which was driven by his chauffeur, and also carried his manager Lou Anger, and Frank Dominguez, his newly appointed attorney. Fishback followed in his car, accompanied by Sherman and Al Semnacher, the late Virginia Rappe’s manager/booking agent.

They had left Los Angeles at 3: 00 a.m., stopped for breakfast in Bakersfield, and reached Fresno at about 11:00 a.m., making good time.

As the two cars were being serviced and refueled at the A.B.C. Garage, an employee heard one of Arbuckle’s companions speaking to Arbuckle. “Say, a motor cop had been following you for a long while.”[1]

“Well,” the comedian retorted, “he’s been following you too.” Then he strolled over to the Hotel Fresno to purchase cigars and the latest papers to see what was being reported about him and Rappe, who was very much on his mind now if she hadn’t been over the past five days.

A desk clerk, Joe Davis, recognized Arbuckle standing by the cigar stand in the hotel lobby. Davis approached the film star and asked, “Well, who was the girl?”

Although outwardly jolly and carefree—like “Fatty” in the movies—Arbuckle took the opportunity to vent about his troubles, as one does with a stranger who one imagines is offering a sympathetic ear. He revealed a little of the man behind the celebrity who, on screen, seemed no more than a fat but lovable simpleton.

After giving the question some thought, Arbuckle lied about Rappe and disparaged her in the same breath. “I don’t know who she was,” he said, “some bum, I guess. They brought her in and we ‘bought a drink,’ and the first thing I knew she was drunk, and we got a room for her and called the manager in order to get a doctor.”

 “We’re going up to find out about this now,” Arbuckle continued, adding that he and his party were due at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But they wouldn’t arrive at the Oakland Ferry for another five hours.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921 (Newspapers.com)

[1] The following is adapted and quoted from “I Don’t Know Who She Was—Some Bum, I Guess,” Arbuckle Says; Sacramento Bee, 10 September 1921, 1; and “Arbuckle to Be Held Pending Probe of Death,” Fresno Morning Republican, 11 September 1921, 1, 6.

Bit Player #7: Albert Martin, Arbuckle’s cellmate (if he had only written a book)

Soon after he was arraigned in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle didn’t return to the room that he had taken at the Palace Hotel, where the rest of his entourage were staying. Instead, he spent that first night in cell number 12 of the San Francisco County Jail.

During the night before and into the early morning, the comedian suffered the indignity of being under arrest. Nevertheless, Arbuckle had no trouble falling asleep after his long day, which included a long drive from Los Angeles that began around three that morning.

When the comedian woke, he surely noticed what the Morris DeHaven Tracy (M. D. in his bylines), West Coast correspondent for the United Press, described as “cabalistic marks” on the cell walls made by previous occupants. One composition in yellow chalk featured a figure labeled “Gloom” shaking hands with “Joy.” Under another drawing, which was left to readers’ imaginations, the artist had written “Little Mary and her lamb.”[1]

Arbuckle summoned the warden and complained about the darkness of his new accommodations—and the loneliness. He asked for a cellmate and was given the privilege of selecting one from among eighty inmates. Arbuckle chose Albert Martin, a handsome young man with dark hair and brown eyes and the photogenic looks of an actor. Martin also looked clean, tailored, normal, like someone else who shouldn’t be in jail.[2]

The Los Angeles Record published one of the few photographs taken of Albert Martin in cell 12 (Newspapers.com)

Martin was a traveling salesman. He had recently been arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” under Section 268 of the Penal Code. Whether Arbuckle knew or found out later, he probably deduced that Martin was a pedophile. But that likely made little difference to the comedian. Arbuckle knew gay actors, extras, and crew in the movie business and he was tolerant and even protective toward them. He may have been protecting Martin, who was surely grateful for being moved from the general population who knew the real nature of his crime—he had allegedly raped a boy.

Soon Martin found himself the recipient of Arbuckle’s good will, eating catered meals, getting shaved by a visiting barber, and listening to the comedian’s jokes, high talk, and troubles. Martin, in kind, attended to Arbuckle as his jailhouse valet. In October, Albert’s case went to trial and he was convicted of sodomy. In November, he was sentenced to serve an “indeterminant term” in San Quentin Prison.[3] He was still there, in the prison’s asylum, as late as 1926.

Imagine the book Martin could have written about his two weeks with “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Albert Martin, San Quentin mugshot, November 1921 (Ancestry.com)

[1] United Press, “Prosecutor to Ask Murder Indictment in Arbuckle Case,” St. Louis Star, 12 September 1921, 1.

[2] Erroneously identified as “Fred Martin” in some newspapers.

[3] “Fatty’s Cellmate Is Sent to Prison,” San Francisco Examiner, 8 November 1921, 10.

100 Years Ago Today: Dismissing Dr. Beardslee, September 6, 1921

Perhaps the worst decision made by Roscoe Arbuckle and whoever had his ear was to let Maude Delmont stay with Virginia Rappe in room 1227 of the St. Francis Hotel.

Although she didn’t pretend to be a real nurse, she assumed the authority of one. (Delmont’s  younger sister, with whom she lived from time to time, was indeed a registered nurse.)

When the second hotel physician, Dr. Arthur Beardslee, came to see Rappe, he realized that this wasn’t the usual patient with a stomach ache from overindulging on rich food from the hotel kitchen or alcoholic beverages—as Delmont said. What he saw was a young woman he believed needed to be taken to a hospital for immediate surgery. But Dr. Beardslee erred on the side of hospitality, being a hotel doctor, and gave Rappe morphine injections to keep her quiet.

Meanwhile, Delmont had been going back and forth between room 1227 and the reception room of Arbuckle’s suite, room 1220.

The people in that room decided against sending Rappe to the nearby St. Francis Hospital, where Dr. Beardslee was a resident. That risked “notoriety.”

Dr. Arthur Beardslee (FamilySearch.com)

Delmont never disputed this decision. She returned to room 1227 and was satisfied with the effects of the morphine. She also convinced Dr. Beardslee that the only thing wrong with Rappe was gas. She suggested having an enema bag and Dr. Beardslee ordered one.

When he was gone, Delmont gave Rappe the enema, apparently with expertise and little mess. But undoubtedly the experience for Rappe was no less excruciating than her ruptured bladder.

Only Dr. Beardslee suspected the true nature of the injury. On his last visit, in the wee hours of Tuesday, September 6, he catheterized Rappe and extracted a little urine and clotted blood. The results alarmed him but he suppressed any expression of urgency given, perhaps, the inconvenient hour.

Still deferential to Delmont, Dr. Beardslee could only advise that his patient—whose name he incredibly failed to learn—be taken by ambulance to the hospital. Delmont, exercising a kind of medical power-of-attorney before there was ever such a thing, elected not to do so. Rappe would be treated in her hotel room.

Later that Tuesday morning, Dr. Beardslee was informed by Maude Delmont that her personal friend, a famous San Francisco surgeon who had performed an operation on her in the past, Dr. Melville Rumwell, would take over the case.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” leaves L.A. for S.F., September 2, 1921

Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions set out from Los Angeles on Friday, September 2, the day before Al Semnacher left with his party of Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Arbuckle, his chauffeur, and, perhaps, the director Fred Fishback took turns driving. The actor Lowell Sherman enjoyed the view from the backseat.

Greg Merritt, in Room 1219, was the first to posit this route, which began on Highway 2 North, the future U.S. Route 101, built atop the old Spanish royal road known as the Camino Real. But this route is conjectural. Arbuckle could have taken the more picturesque coastal route or the quicker inland route to the east that Semnacher took (present-day I-5). The Camino Real, however, would have allowed him to spend the night in Paso Robles, the approximate halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as he had done in June when he drove his custom purple Pierce-Arrow for display in the new San Francisco showroom of its builder, Don Lee.

Such a layover was quite different from the humble Selma ranch where Semnacher’s entourage stayed. Paso Robles boasted a beautiful hotel and curative hot springs. Arbuckle and Sherman could also sample some of the booze they’d packed for the trip. (Fred Fishback didn’t drink. He was, however, a kind of “cheerleader” to paraphrase Malcolm Lowry’s Consul in Under the Volcano.)

Roscoe Arbuckle using a grease gun on his Pierce-Arrow, ca. late 1920 (Newspapers.com)

Two photographs of Maude Delmont

A photo insert in a nonfiction book provides a visual reference for readers. They have a face in mind—or faces as the subject evolves throughout the text. But very often one image will serve as the emblem for that person.

Maude Delmont, Rappe’s companion at “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, is a case in point. We are fairly certain that she sat for newspaper photographers twice, before and after her testimony at the San Francisco Coroner’s inquest on Wednesday, September 14, 1921. No other photographs of Delmont were used to identify her, as far as we know (save for an ersatz photograph used in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon that is really of Arbuckle’s estranged wife Minta Durfee).

Maude Delmont with Policewoman Katherine Eisenhart (Calisphere)

In the above photo we see Delmont, presumably in the office of District Attorney Matthew Brady or the Detective Bureau.. She is in a black outfit, worn in mourning for Rappe, as described by reporters. There are also details that suggest this image, with the water glass and the police matron, was taken before her testimony. This testimony would be the only time she faced Arbuckle in a courtroom setting. While on the stand Delmont asked for warm water and a coffee cupful was procured, thus delaying the proceedings. The image below, from the Daily News, credited Underwood, has a coffee cup near Delmont’s left hand. Apparently, she brought the cup back with her to this office setting afterward.

Maude Delmont, originally published in the Daily News, September 1921 (Newspapers.com)

Each image can be read differently. The first image features a gesture with the left hand that seems staged, theatric, connoting a “troubled heart” and the like. (That Delmont worked as an extra in motion pictures still needs to be confirmed.)

The second image shows a more relaxed woman, who looks as though she were falling asleep. If one knows that she had been given an injection to help her remain calm through her morning testimony before a coroner and his all-male jury, this photograph may have caught Delmont at the moment the drug was wearing off.

What occurred immediately following the taking of this photo is revealing and worth telling. In the Detective Bureau, Delmont confronted Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, and hit him in the face with her purse (visible on the table in the first image). She berated him for not bringing Rappe’s adopted aunt to San Francisco to accompany her “niece’s” body back to Los Angeles. She further embarrassed him by shouting that he wasn’t a man if he didn’t pay her $250 hotel bill ($1,600 adjusted for inflation), which may have included Rappe’s final expenses at the same hotel.

As she weakened in her hospital bed, Rappe repeatedly expressed her wish that Arbuckle take responsibility for paying her expenses. It seemed to be the only thing she held against him. The wish never reached Arbuckle. If it did, even having an inkling or intuition that she wanted money, Arbuckle likely discharged himself from any debt, doing what any good lawyer or manager would advise. To admit any responsibility invited “notoriety.”

Both Rappe and Delmont were of limited means at the time and were financially unprepared for the events that unfolded. Neither woman ever received money from Semnacher or Arbuckle.

[Needless to say, we are looking for additional photographs, especially original or reproductions suitable for our work-in-progress. We would enjoy hearing from anyone with leads to relevant materials and images.]

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.

Bit Player #4: Nurse Jean Jameson

Nurses are a factor throughout the case of People vs. Arbuckle.  Some testify for the prosecution, some for the defense.  All claimed to have known Virginia Rappe at different times in her life. But only two definitely spoke to her and they only testified before a grand jury and a coroner’s inquest. They also spoke to the press within 72 hours of Rappe’s death. Jean Jameson, the day nurse at the Wakefield Hospital, spent the most time with Rappe and had the most credibility. The night nurse, Vera Cumberland, who also claimed to be a granddaughter of the late Queen Victoria, had less. However neither took the stand at Roscoe Arbuckle’s three trials. Both nurses knew each other and cooperated in caring for Rappe, though Cumberland asked to be relieved from her shift on what turned out to be Rappe’s final night. She likely feared that the doctor’s decision to leave the hospital to attend a party was negligent and blame might fall on her should Rappe take a turn for the worse. .

Source: Los Angeles Record, 14 September 1921 (Newspapers.com)

Jean Jameson, in her pince-nez, with her flinty, no-nonsense expression, made several poignant statements during the first week following Rappe’s death on September 9, 1921. “I am used to seeing people die,” she said. “That is my business. I see them die all the time.” Jameson was present when Rappe accused Arbuckle of causing her injury and insisting he should pay for her hospital stay. Jameson, too, had been one of Rappe’s duty nurses when she died.

She didn’t want me out of her sight for a moment. From the time I took the case to the instant of her death she was continually calling me to listen to what she had to say. And all her talk was about “Roscoe,” as she

called him, and the injury he had done to her. The things I have told the police in my statement were said by the girl at the times when she was apparently in full control of her mind. At other times she rambled. She was in great pain throughout. When her condition was at its worst, she made statements more extreme than the things she said when she was quieter. I shall tell those latter statements only at the trial, if there is one, and under the qualification that they were made in delirium. But the things I have told so far were said when her mind, as far as I could judge, was clear. She wanted to get in touch with Arbuckle so that he would pay the expenses of her illness The girl was far more worried over the money side of her plight than over other aspects. She said:

“It wouldn’t be right for me to have to pay for all this, when it’s Roscoe’s fault.”

When she said, “Get Roscoe,” I understood her to mean: “Get him and make him pay the bills.” The thing that worried her most, apart from the money, was the wrong done to her fiancé, Henry Lehrman, Los Angeles motion picture director.

“I don’t want publicity about this, because I don’t want Henry to know of it,” she said repeatedly. “If he knows of it, he will throw me down.”

The thought that hurt her most of all, perhaps, was that Lehrman and Arbuckle had been fast friends for years, but that Arbuckle had treated her wrongly despite his friendship for her fiancé.

“It wasn’t right for him to act this way toward me, when Henry was so fond of him and trusted him so,” the girl said.

She repeated this in various ways. “What kind of way was that for him to treat a girl that was engaged to his best friend?” she said.

As to the exact way in which she got her fatal injury, the girl’s mind was a blank. I think she had been too intoxicated to remember it. At any rate she never described clearly what happened in her room. But she did say:

“He crushed me and broke something inside me.”[1]

A few days after Jameson repeated what she had told the authorities, she testified at a juried coroner’s inquest intended to ascertain whether Rappe’s death, from a medical standpoint, was a criminal matter.  “She never thought she was going to die,” Jameson said as she repeated, expanded, and clarified much of what she had already stated. “She had been on a party with Fatty Arbuckle and the others that she named,” the nurse recalled. “She said they were all drunk.”

Jameson, too, gave her professional opinion of her patient after her initial conversations. “Miss Rappe was still somewhat hysterical and my diagnosis was that she was hysterical after a drunken party.” Rappe, the nurse observed, was “in a good deal of pain, particularly in the region of her abdomen.” Speaking freely and answering questions, Rappe told Jameson

that she had had three drinks and the three drinks made her helpless. At one time she would say she could not remember whether Arbuckle had dragged her or pulled her into the bedroom, and at other times, she said definitely that he had done so. She frequently asked me, “What could be broken inside of me?” She asked me several times whether I would examine her to see whether Arbuckle had assaulted her. She made many statements about “getting Arbuckle.” So far as I could learn she had money in New York City, which she said Henry Lehrman gave to her. She said, however, that if it were to be a long case [hospital stay], she must get the money from Arbuckle or Lehrman would turn her down. She had very little money with her at the St. Francis. I asked her for some money to buy her a night gown as she did not have a stitch of clothing after I got her in bed. She did not seem much concerned and told me that lots of times she did not sleep in a night gown.

Though Rappe appeared to speak candidly with Jameson, the nurse said Rappe had been reluctant to talk “about a certain phase of her condition.” We can suppose this meant she didn’t want to be on record for accusing Arbuckle of anything specific. “Miss Rappe,” Jameson continued,

was very anxious that the party and what took place there be kept from Lehrman for fear, as she expressed it, that he would throw her down. “Will you be my witness if I sue Arbuckle for the money it is going to take?” she said to me at one time. “I am going to make Arbuckle pay for this as it is all his fault.”[2]

Ironically, following Jameson’s testimony, one of Arbuckle’s lawyers was heard to say “Our case is won.” Despite how damning the nurse made it sound for Arbuckle, Jameson had let on that Rappe had a preexisting condition for six weeks, an illness that could be attributed to the comedy director Henry Lehrman, Rappe’s mostly-vacant boyfriend, who made a show of savaging and threatening Arbuckle in the press for having killed his beloved “Virginia.” Incidentally Lehrman, living across the country in New York, had already moved on to a new girlfriend, a Ziegfeld Follies dancer.

An even greater and sadder irony to consider is that Rappe feared Lehrman learning about her and Arbuckle together, consensual or otherwise—possibly more than death itself.

[1] “Girl Rational When She Named Actor, Says Nurse,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 September 1921, 1, 3.

[2] Associated Press, “Arbuckle Indicted: Manslaughter Grand Jury Says,” Des Moines Register, 14 September 1921, 1, 2.

The voyage out

[There are few points during the Arbuckle case that could serve as a set piece. The backstories, sideshows, and the Labor Day party and everything that flowed from it undulated in the press, in the American conscience, and the San Francisco courts for months. Aside from the brief time when Arbuckle and Rappe were alone in Room 1219 where what transpired remains a mystery, there are few logical places in the story where, say, a filmmaker might find a poignant event that encapsulates the whole. If there was such an episode in the case, it might be one that centered on Arbuckle after he left the St. Francis and left Virginia Rappe, alone and dying in room 1227. That event was Arbuckle’s night voyage back to Los Angeles on September 6, 1921. The following text is taken from our manuscript with only minor emendations for clarity.]

Roscoe Arbuckle, when he took the stand at his first trial in November 1921, claimed that he had booked passage aboard the SS Harvard in advance. The assertion was likely made to dissuade anyone from thinking that he had left San Francisco with a less than clear conscience about his Labor Day party and Virginia Rappe. He kept to this story and only diverged once, toward the end of his third trial in April 1922, when he explained that he came to San Francisco two days before the party for pleasure according to an AP wire story. “I had a new car to try,” he said, even though he had had his 1919 purple Pierce-Arrow for over a year. “Later I was going to the golf tournament at Del Monte.”[1] The coincidence that Al Semnacher had wanted to take Virginia Rappe to Del Monte the day before seems to have gone unnoticed until now.

Arbuckle and his entourage were indeed expected aboard the Harvard and delaying his travel during Paramount Week, an important publicity event, would have risked disappointing and insulting those who could cause trouble, among them Paramount chief Adolph Zukor.

The SS Harvard (r) and the SS Yale (l), San Pedro Harbor (Calisphere)

The Harvard, along with its sister ship, the Yale, provided daily passenger service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and was scheduled to depart for Los Angeles at 4:00 p.m. For this particular voyage, Los Angeles restaurateur, Al Levy, owner of the famed Oyster Bar and Levy’s Cafe, was personally in charge of catering the trip—and Arbuckle, a regular at Levy’s, surely availed himself of what promised to be a sumptuous spread. There were also a number of important film people sailing to Los Angeles for Paramount Week, among them Sanford L. Walter, the San Francisco manager of the Paramount Film Exchange, and, perhaps, other familiar faces who happened to be in San Francisco for the holiday.

There was little chance that Arbuckle could leave town without being noticed. He had to be at pier 7 in time to have his Pierce-Arrow lifted by crane and lowered onto the rear deck of the Harvard, where it attracted attention throughout the voyage. A brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle poked fun at his person, calling him “considerable cargo.”[2]

“Elaborate arrangements,” it was reported, had been “made by Al Levy to provide a mirthful voyage, with “Fatty” as jester”—which suggests Arbuckle was expected along with his entourage. If the arrangements were as much business as travel, perhaps the comedian’s presence aboard the Harvard was the real purpose behind his brief stay in San Francisco, to position him for his on-board appearance.

This is the kind of information that Al Semnacher could have taken note of weeks beforehand and might have shared with Rappe. By this point though, Semnacher himself, was well on his way back to Los Angeles, driving his Stutz and without his two female passengers. Unlike Arbuckle or his companions, Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman, Semnacher took the time to visit Rappe in Room 1227 on Tuesday morning. He spoke to Maude Delmont—but made no mention of Dr. Rumwell—and departed unworried for the time being. Delmont asked him to tell Rappe’s people—meaning the Hardebecks—that their adopted niece wasn’t coming home any time soon.

Semnacher had also gone to her room to retrieve her damaged garments and cheap jewelry to bring home. His explanation for doing so would become one of the mysteries of the Arbuckle case. Semnacher, also didn’t leave any money for the two women or, at least, not enough worth mentioning.

Doris Deane and Roscoe Arbuckle and their marriage license, May 1925 (Calisphere)

The sailing time from San Francisco to Los Angeles was eighteen hours with no ports of call in between. A troopship during the war, the Harvard had been fully restored into a luxury liner with luxurious staterooms and a new army of stewards, stewardesses, pages, and bellboys to serve her passengers. The brilliantly lit Veranda-Café Ballroom featured an orchestra and all-night dancing. On the port side of the ship, passengers could watch the California coast slip by and, if Arbuckle cared to notice the beautiful scenery lit by the setting sun followed by the twinkling lights on shore, it surely helped him to leave what happened on Labor Day behind. Another thing that helped him to forget was meeting a young woman to whom Fred Fishback had arranged an introduction, another striking dark-haired actress, Doris Deane. Fishback had some advance knowledge that she would be aboard the Harvard in the company of her mother.[3]

If Fishback was informally acting as Arbuckle’s wingman, arranging for him to meet eligible and attractive women, he had come through—perhaps for the second time in twenty-four hours. Arbuckle had a chance to see Deane on boarding and was immediately smitten. He invited both her and her mother to his stateroom after the Harvard unberthed. Later Deane sat with Arbuckle at the captain’s table. When he wasn’t playing “Fatty” for the other guests, he spoke with her with the same enthusiasm that he did with Rappe the day before.

Barely twenty years old, Deane had made her debut as representing the city of Los Angeles at the Pershing Victory Ball in January 1920. She was a skilled dancer and had already appeared in a few films, including Mabel Normand’s forthcoming Head over Heels (1922). Hired by Universal, she starred in the new South Seas romance, The Shark Master (1921), which had opened the first week of September. But she had left Universal and was looking for new prospects. Arbuckle, who was always on the lookout for new leading ladies, could hardly resist the opportunity to woo Miss Deane over to comedy. That evening, according to her, he was charming. He purchased her a box of Melachrino cigarettes—which featured cork or straw tips so as not to stain one’s fingers—and they talked of music, theatre, and books.

Melachrino cigarettes (Etsy)

Uninhibited by the thought of his estranged wife Minta Durfee thousands of miles away in New York City, Arbuckle asked Deane out for Saturday performance of a new stage comedy, The Ruined Lady (for which the young Humphrey Bogart was road manager) at the Majestic Theater. But Arbuckle and Deane didn’t go on their date. Instead, he made an unscheduled appearance at the Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater, which was showing his film Gasoline Gus for Paramount Week. From that day on, Deane would have to wait before she could safely appear in Arbuckle’s company again.

[1] Associated Press, “Arbuckle, Denying Evil Intent, Lays His Troubles to an Act of Mercy,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, 6 April 1922, 18.

[2] “Arbuckle on Harvard,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 September 1921, 18.

[3] Deane herself is the source for her first encounter with Arbuckle. See Yallop.

“ . . . if the party is a bloomer”

Few Arbuckle case accounts discuss Virginia Rappe’s personality. Presumably she wrote letters and postcards to her guardians and friends. But despite becoming a household name in 1921, no one has shared such writings that might reveal something about her character. What little of Rappe there is on screen—all comedies—has been used to disparage her acting abilities. That she never appeared in a dramatic role suggested to some that Rappe was not a serious person. Even as a vamp, she was termed a “junior vamp,” that is, a femme fatale who isn’t all that fatal.

Virginia Rappe in a scene from Over the Rhine (1918), recut as The Isle of Love (1922) (Archive.org)

In writing about Virginia Rappe, we do look for Rappe, frame by frame in some cases, to find the real person. We also look at minute details that would otherwise seem irrelevant.

Much can be learned about a person by her choice of words and the context.

Around noon, on September 5, 1921, Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, drove Rappe and Virginia Rappe to the entrance of the St. Francis Hotel. While only Rappe had been invited to Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, the invitation would eventually be extended to her two companions, Semnacher and Delmont. But there is little doubt that Rappe had the privileged status of being the one invited.

During his court appearances, Semnacher testified that he left Rappe and Delmont off in front of the hotel and didn’t wait to see them enter the building. Semnacher, however, included some details, probably given during his grand jury appearance, that suggest Rappe’s interest in attending the party was tenuous, halfhearted. She had an exit strategy in mind that amounted to a graceful excuse to Arbuckle, which, unfortunately, she didn’t exercise.

Rappe asked Semnacher to wait outside. If “the party didn’t suit them”—meaning her and Delmont—she would leave.[1] “I’ll go up there,” she said, according to Semnacher, “and if the party is a bloomer I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”[2]

This quote is consistent with her utterances in the Atlanta Constitution in September and October 1913, when she was modeling the “tango dress.” She and her fellow models thought Atlanta was charming but too southern, gentlemanly, too inhibited, strait-laced. This, of course, calls attention to what she had expected to find. A town with more fun? That was a little more risqué like her native Chicago?

Although a close reading of an archaic slang word like “bloomer” risks overshooting the mark. She could have said “a bust,” a “waste of time”—whether for business or pleasure or both. For an actress who had worked hard to get her figure back after months of dieting and exercise, to spend several hours after a late breakfast watching Arbuckle and his friends eat and drink early in the afternoon might have seemed to be worth little more than a quick hello. To only give him twenty minutes suggests a preconceived notion of the host and of the kind of gatherings he hosted. As it turned out, Arbuckle held her rapt attention.

There is, however, another meaning that Rappe could have intended. A “bloomer” in the early twentieth century also meant a fraud, a prank, or a joke played on someone, as in “to pull a bloomer.” Here, Rappe might have wanted Semnacher ready to leave if Arbuckle’s party didn’t seem to be on the level.

[1] Al Semnacher, “Member of Arbuckle Party in Hotel Makes Full Statement: Al Semnacher, Manager for Film Stars, Gives the District Attorney Deposition,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1921, 4.

[2] Earnest J. Hopkins (Universal Service), “Film Star Who Makes Many Millions Laugh Gets First Taste of Life Behind Bars,” Shreveport Times, 12 September 1921, 2.