It’s not hard to argue that the aftermath of the 1921 Labor Day scandal is still unfolding to this day. Those curious enough to investigate the case will learn that Virginia Rappe died under mysterious circumstances allegedly involving Roscoe Arbuckle, and that Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of manslaughter. But ugly rumors and hearsay about “a comedian who raped a girl” or “a disease-ridden actress who died at a wild party” still abound. And while most fans of classic films today are thankfully quick to let you know about Arbuckle’s acquittal, it’s Virginia’s reputation that seems to get battered the most consistently. She’s been called a “party girl” at best and a “whore” at worst, depicted as a good times gal whose devil-may-care lifestyle made her pay the ultimate price.
This caricature is what originally caught the eye of historian Joan Myers, the first to do substantial research into Virginia’s backstory: “I’d never been satisfied with the way Virginia Rappe had been depicted…All of our knowledge about her was unsubstantiated and looked suspiciously familiar–it’s pretty much the traditional rhetoric trotted out as a defense in any rape case.” Surprisingly, info about Virginia’s life and career was not very hard for her to find. And I can confirm that simple searches in newspaper archives can bring up a surprising variety of articles and photos about her.
So let’s do two things in this post: let’s clear out some of the cobwebs and get to know Virginia better as a human being, and then take a fresh look at the unfortunate events that lead to her death. Perhaps there’s other angles that haven’t been considered that can add something new to the discussion–that’s what I’m hoping!
It’s one of the most famous scandals in Hollywood history: the 1921 “Arbuckle scandal” revolving around actress Virginia Rappe, who became ill under mysterious circumstances at Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party in a San Francisco hotel and died a few days later. Arbuckle, one of the most beloved comedians in the world at the time, was accused of her murder, resulting in three sensational trials and mountains of hysterical press coverage. He was eventually acquitted, but the scandal has forever tinged both his name and the name of Rappe. Most people today have at least a faint idea of the scandal–usually the ugliest rumors, unfortunately. And it’s definitely fascinated generations of film history fans, who’ve debated every detail of the case ever since.
And I should know, because I’m one of those film history fans. Admittedly I don’t find the sordid details fun to read about, especially since Arbuckle’s one of my favorite comedians. And there’s something…inherently impractical about wanting a blow-by-blow timeline of the Labor Day party. Sure, we can piece together a pretty detailed picture from witness testimonies, but think back to the last party you’ve been to. Can you remember exactly what time you got there, who attended, when each person arrived and left? Can you remember exact conversations? What certain people were eating or how many drinks each person had? Heck, I have a hard time remembering exactly how my day went yesterday. And this is a party that happened an entire century ago. Need I add that we’ll never know precisely what happened in room 1219 (where Rappe first became ill)? The only two people in the world who truly knew were Arbuckle and Rappe, and we only have Arbuckle’s side of the story–no doubt heavily influenced by his attorneys.
Having said all that, it was still a very historically significant case, and worth looking into if only because the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe have been dragged through the soggiest, most putrid of mud. I also wanted to share a theory that’s been brewing in my mind that might help explain some of Arbuckle’s behavior.