Virginia Rappe is a name many would not know today, but in 1921 she was headline news: she had allegedly been killed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. But who was Virginia to the public before her death made headlines? The Day the Laughter Stopped by David Yallop dedicated a little under a page to a biography on Virginia:
Room 1219 pays Virginia the respect she deserves with an entire chapter dedicated to Virginia’s life, a debunking of the supposed venereal disease Yallop alleged, as well as Andy Edmonds’ claims in Frame Up that Virginia was trying to blackmail Arbuckle for abortion money. The abortion story comes from Josephine (Roth) Rafferty, who testified that Virginia had come to her for four abortions, and a birth, starting in 1908 and ending in 1910. I personally cannot find anything that either proves or disproves Rafferty’s claims, but it should be noted that Rafferty’s story changed midway through her testimony – Virginia went from having five pregnancies to four. What became of the child who was supposedly birthed is unclear.
Virginia Rappe was actually born Virginia Caroline Rapp on July 7th, 1891, to Mabel Rapp, who was 17 or 18, in Chicago. Her father is unknown. Mabel was a part time chorus girl and model (and theorized to have been a prostitute or escort) who made headlines at least three times in Chicago papers. Her first brush with the press took plan on December 23, 1892 when Mabel was locked in the Veteran’s Protective Association and Ebert’s restaurant building by a janitor after she refused to walk through a saloon.
The second time Mabel made the papers was after she had been shot by Eva Bennett for attempting to speak to Joseph Culbertson in 1893. The full story follows:
Finally, on March 8, 1898, Mabel was accused of whipping a dressmaker and owing her money along with an associate. Again, the story follows:
To say that Virginia’s life would have been a whirlwind during her early years is an understatement. By 1902, Mabel had passed away and Virginia moved back to Chicago to live with a woman she assumed was her grandmother, named Caroline Rapp, but Merritt insists Caroline was of no relation in Room 1219. It’s possible that Caroline, who was aided in the rearing of the child by a former friend of Mabel’s named Kate Hardebeck, had been an employer of Mabel or simply someone who had adopted Mabel in everything but name. Regardless, Virginia began to earn her keep by 1907, when she changed the spelling of her last name from “Rapp” to “Rappe” (pronounced Rap-pay) and embarked on a modeling career. In 1908, Virginia, like her mother before her, made the pages of the Chicago Tribune albeit for reasons more positive than attempted kidnapping, getting shot and passing bad checks.
Virginia would continue to model and penned a column in 1913, advising women to work outside of the jobs typically reserved for them, like becoming a stenographer. She also made news for the outfits she wore, with vivid descriptions such as the following, both from 1913:
In 1914, Virginia made headlines when she danced in her nightgown on a passenger ship:
In 1915, Virginia became more of a household name when she started designing her own clothes. Virginia had a special affinity for millinery:
Virginia also announced her engagement to an Argentinian diplomat, Alberto M. D’Alakine, on July 28th, 1915, but the engagement was over by September of that year.
From 1916-1919, Virginia’s relationship with the public began to decline a bit. She would still model, but her own designs weren’t featured like in the past. In 1917, she made a picture with Metro entitled Paradise Garden. It was announced in 1918 that she had signed with Henry Lehrman, whom she would eventually embark on a romantic relationship with and who would be buried next to Virginia when he died nearly twenty years after her.
Contrary to what Yallop alleges, Virginia hadn’t been out of work for nearly two years. Her first movie with Lehrman, Twilight Baby, had a gradual release between 1918 and 1920. Virginia took a tour of the US and Canada during this time starting in 1919. Whatever her reason for taking the trip is unclear, but she was praised as being a fine comedian in Twilight Baby. In December of 1920, Lehrman released The Punch of the Irish which once again received praise from critics for Virginia’s performance. A popular photo run after her passing was this one, a still from the film:
Whatever happened to Rappe over the course of Labor Day weekend in 1921 is a mystery, but her death shouldn’t be her legacy. She was a fashion innovator and gifted comedian who was sadly taken from us too soon.