Marc Hoover: Hollywood’s first major scandal and the ghost of Virginia Rappe

Marc Hoover

For many decades, actors and actresses have flocked to Hollywood become successful. For every star that makes it, thousands more don’t. In 1919, an attractive young woman named Virginia Rappe had arrived in Hollywood to make it in the film industry.

Although she appeared in a few films, she will forever be linked to a scandal involving Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, an actor who made it big in the silent films. Unfortunately, Rappe is more known more for the circumstances of her death and not her acting abilities.

She is now a permanent resident of the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. Allegedly, many visitors have reported hearing Rappe’s restless spirit weeping.

If you haven’t heard of Virginia Rappe or Fatty Arbuckle, it’s not surprising because both exited this life many years ago.

So who was Virginia Rappe? She was the first actress to be involved in Hollywood’s first major scandal; one that involved three trials, heartbreak and two reputations destroyed for the sake of selling newspapers.

Virginia Caroline Rappe was born on July 7, 1891 in New York City, NY. After Virginia’s mother died when she was 11, her grandparents would raise her. She eventually found modeling work at the age of 16 which led to her acting career.

She appeared in a film with legendary actor Rudolph Valentino and several other silent films. Rappe also starred in a film titled Twilight Baby. The movie didn’t do well but Rappe was working towards becoming a successful actress.

On September 5, 1921, Rappe attended a party thrown by Fatty Arbuckle who was celebrating his $3 million movie contract with Paramount. Arbuckle held his party at the St Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Although alcohol was outlawed because of prohibition, Arbuckle had plenty of liquor and threw a grand party. But then try to imagine the value of $3 million in 1921 in today’s money.

Apparently Rappe had consumed a large amount of alcohol and passed out. A showgirl named Bambina Maude Delmont testified in court that she and another showgirl named Alice Blake found Rappe nearly nude.

Delmont said she saw Arbuckle leave the room and then found Rappe wearing torn clothing. Rappe told Delmont she was dying. Rappe was taken to a hospital where she died of a ruptured bladder on September 10, 1921. She was 30 years-old. At the time she was engaged to a filmmaker named Henry Lehrman, who was buried next to his beloved Virginia after he died.

After Rappe’s death, an investigation followed. Based on witness testimony, authorities charged Arbuckle of raping and killing Rappe by suffocating her by laying on her as Arbuckle was a large man. The press immediately ran with the story that Arbuckle had murdered her.

Arbuckle endured three trials before finally being acquitted. However, Paramount terminated his contract which led to his banishment from Hollywood. His movies were removed from the big screen and no longer shown. The scandal ruined Arbuckle. Although innocent, Hollywood and the media didn’t care. Rappe’s death broke Arbuckle who was on his way to becoming a legendary star.

The press was relentless. They printed stories that didn’t show Rappe in a virtuous light. Rumors circulated that she had slept around with many men and. Another rumor circulated that her illness was because of a botched abortion which wasn’t true. One of the more horrific rumors about her was that she had gonorrhea. It’s believed William Randolph Hearst of Hearst Newspapers approved of trashing Arbuckle and Rappe’s names.

Hearst did this to throw the heat off his own scandal that had hit the press. He was having an affair with a starlet named Marion Davies.

Virginia Rappe departed from this life nearly 100 years ago. Is it possible she stayed behind to mourn the loss of a career she once lived for? Or is she still feeling the pain of all the hateful rumors printed about her?

We will never know, but we can learn from this sordid tale. We can understand how a lie can destroy a person’s life. And if we later find out the person was innocent, it hardly matters because a tarnished reputation is nearly impossible to repair.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at http://www.lifewithgrandpa.com. He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.