Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Virginia Rappe
1895 - 1921

Hollywood Forever

As a young actress, Virginia Rappe appeared in small roles in four forgettable silent films. As the victim in the sensational murder trial of comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Rappe achieved Hollywood immortality.

Rappe's career began as a model. When producer Mack Sennett saw her picture on the sheet music for "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," he offered her a job with his Keystone Film Company, and she appeared in small roles in several films. Rappe also attracted the attention of former Keystone comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who invited her to a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in 1921 to celebrate the signing of his new three-year, $3 million contract with Paramount Pictures. The festivities lasted for several days in a suite of three rooms on the 12th floor of the hotel. At one point during the festivities, Arbuckle grabbed Rappe, escorted her into a bedroom, and closed the door.

What happened behind that door will probably never be known for sure. But when the door opened again, Rappe was writhing on the bed, crying out in pain. Within a few days, she would be dead -- the coroner determined that her death was caused by a ruptured bladder, which led to peritonitis -- and Arbuckle would be charged with her murder. After three trials, Arbuckle would be found not guilty of all charges, with the jury even going so far as to apologize to him, but his career as a performer would be over.

The sensationalistic press made the most of the trial. There were reports that Arbuckle, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, caused the injury to Rappe when he was on top of her during a forced sexual encounter. Other stories claimed he had raped her with a foreign object, perhaps a champagne bottle. Most of these stories included the most lurid, graphic detail possible.

Arbuckle first went on trial in November 1921. The prosecution claimed that, when Arbuckle brought Rappe into the bedroom, he said, "I've been waiting for this for a long time," and witnesses reported hearing Rappe's screams from behind the locked door. Arbuckle's version of the story was that, shortly after they entered the bedroom, Rappe became ill and vomited several times. He led her to the bed, then returned to the party. When he went back to check on her, he discovered her moaning in pain and barely coherent.

The sensational trial was front-page news for weeks. In the press, Rappe was presented as an innocent, na´ve starlet, and Arbuckle was assumed to be guilty. The press didn't mention that Rappe's bladder may have been damaged in a recent abortion, or that in the weeks prior to the party she had exhibited symptoms of a bladder infection, and the contractions of her abdominal muscles while she vomited might have caused her diseased bladder to rupture. In the press, and to the public, Arbuckle had become a symbol of Hollywood's immorality. Across the country, theaters stopped showing his films.

After the first trial, however, when Arbuckle took the witness stand in his own defense, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, though they voted 10 to 2 for acquittal. At the second trial, Arbuckle did not take the stand, and the jury might have seen this as his admission of guilt. Again, they could not reach a decision, but this time they voted 10 to 2 for conviction. At the third trial, which began in March 1922, Arbuckle again took the witness stand. At the end of the trial, the jury deliberated only a few minutes before finding Arbuckle not guilty of all charges. In fact, the jury wrote a note of apology to Arbuckle: "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was our only plain duty to give him this exoneration. There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. ... The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of 14 men and women who have sat listening for 31 days to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

Unfortunately, the public and the Hollywood establishment thought otherwise. Paramount cancelled Arbuckle's contract and, in April 1922, less than a week after Arbuckle was cleared of all charges, the newly formed Hays Office banned Arbuckle from making any films. Though the ban was lifted a few months later, Arbuckle's career never recovered from the incident. For years, Arbuckle could not find a job in Hollywood. He eventually began working as a director of comedy shorts, using the name William B. Goodrich, based on Buster Keaton's suggestion that he use the name Will B. Good. Arbuckle died in 1933.

Before her death, Rappe appeared in small roles in four films -- "Paradise Garden" (1917), "The Foolish Virgin" (1917), "A Twilight Baby" (1920) and "An Adventuress" (1922), which starred Rudolph Valentino, and was released after her death. During Arbuckle's trials, theaters across the country began to show these films, in an attempt to take advantage of the sensational circumstances surrounding her death. Eventually, a national association of theater owners voted to ban the showing of her films in an effort to stop the exploitation.

Rappe's grave is one of two locations at Hollywood Forever said to be haunted. (The other is the area around actor Clifton Webb's crypt in the Abbey of the Psalms mausoleum.) Some visitors to Hollywood Forever have reported what sounds like a woman sobbing or crying out in pain near Rappe's grave.

Rappe was born Virginia Rapp in 1895 (some sources say 1896) in New York City, NY. She died on Sept. 9, 1921, in San Francisco, CA.

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