Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

Tragic Virginia

In some accounts, Arbuckle was the host of the party in 1220 of the St. Francis hotel. In others, his roommate, the director Fred Fischbach, was.

One of those present was a young actress named Virginia Rappe. Born Virginia Rapp, she had added the "e" to her last name to Rappe because she thought it sounded "more elegant." The name, of course, has an unfortunate and ironic resemblance to the word "rape."

Rappe's background was sad. She had been born out of wedlock at a time when "illegitimate" was a dirty word. Her mother Mabel Rapp, lived in Chicago but moved to New York when pregnant to hide her "shame" from those closest to her. Mabel died when Virginia was only 11, when she went to Chicago to be raised by her grandmother.

Virginia Rappe
Virginia Rappe

She grew into a strikingly lovely young woman with thick dark hair. She also grew up much too fast. The yellow journalism accounts that dogged Arbuckle for the rest of his life tended to depict Virginia Rappe as a kind of latter-day Snow White so some modern authors, in their defenses of the comedian, have made her out to be a kind of Venus Flytrap. The truth is probably that her childhood was unstable and lonely and the lack of a father figure in her early years caused her to pursue numerous sexual relationships with men.. In those days when contraception was anything but reliable, she suffered the consequences.

It is believed that she had had five abortions by the age of 16. She had also suffered bouts of venereal disease. At the age of 17, she gave birth to an out-of-wedlock child. Wisely reasoning that she was not equipped to raise the child herself, she put it into foster care.

Rappe's good looks led to a modeling career in her teens. She soon became well known for her excellent fashion sense. She moved to San Francisco where she worked as an artist's model. There are reports that the slender, shapely young woman sometimes modeled in the nude. She met a dress designer named Robert Moscovitz. The couple began dating, got serious, and became engaged but Moscovitz was killed in a trolley-car accident before they could wed.

Crushed psychologically and financially, Rappe moved to Los Angeles where she moved in with her aunt, Leora Deltag.

In 1917, Virginian met and began dating director Henry "Pathé" Lehrman. She also started getting work in motion pictures. Her parts were small and sometimes uncredited. Perhaps her greatest triumph was being awarded the title "Best Dressed Girl in Pictures" in 1918 and having her photo appear on the cover of several sheet-music scores. The best known of these would be Let Me Call You Sweetheart.

But her career never really took off. There were rumors that, like many aspiring actresses, she dabbled in prostitution in order to pay her bills.

She was doing well enough, however, that newspapers and movie magazines interviewed her. In one of these interviews she discussed a meeting with Roscoe Arbuckle. She called him "disgusting and crude... vulgar and disrespectful of women." However, author Andy Edmonds believes that the young actress said this because her boyfriend Lehrman had a long-running feud with Arbuckle. Her negative comments do not accord with those of other women who knew the comedian as a dapper and polite gentleman.

Alcohol seemed to bring out a bizarre side of Virginia Rappe. Journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns said, "The day after Fatty had been indicted... the man who did my cleaning came to me and told me: 'I did Virginia Rappe's cleaning. I see where one side says she was a sweet young girl and Mr. Arbuckle dragged her into the bedroom. Well, once I went in her house to hang up some cleaning and the first thing I knew she'd torn off her dress and was running outdoors yelling, 'Save me, a man attacked me.' The neighbors told me whenever she got a few drinks she did that."

Mack Sennett, portrait (CORBIS)
Mack Sennett,
portrait (CORBIS)

Lehrman and Rappe apparently had a troubled relationship. They would break up, reconcile and then break up again. The two were also suspected of having venereal disease by studio executive Mack Sennett and ordered to leave a Keystone lot because of it. Of course, venereal diseases are not spread through casual contact but apparently Sennett was ignorant of this because he had the lot fumigated. Then again, some have said the couple had lice, which are far more easily spread and can be transmitted through shared towels and sheets.

At any rate, Rappe starred in Lehrman's 1920 film A Twilight Baby. Shortly after production wrapped, the couple broke up. Some people close to Rappe believe she was pregnant by Lehrman and seeking an abortion when she headed up to San Francisco on the fateful Labor Day weekend of 1921.

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