The voyage out

[There are few points during the Arbuckle case that could serve as a set piece. The backstories, sideshows, and the Labor Day party and everything that flowed from it undulated in the press, in the American conscience, and the San Francisco courts for months. Aside from the brief time when Arbuckle and Rappe were alone in Room 1219 where what transpired remains a mystery, there are few logical places in the story where, say, a filmmaker might find a poignant event that encapsulates the whole. If there was such an episode in the case, it might be one that centered on Arbuckle after he left the St. Francis and left Virginia Rappe, alone and dying in room 1227. That event was Arbuckle’s night voyage back to Los Angeles on September 6, 1921. The following text is taken from our manuscript with only minor emendations for clarity.]

Roscoe Arbuckle, when he took the stand at his first trial in November 1921, claimed that he had booked passage aboard the SS Harvard in advance. The assertion was likely made to dissuade anyone from thinking that he had left San Francisco with a less than clear conscience about his Labor Day party and Virginia Rappe. He kept to this story and only diverged once, toward the end of his third trial in April 1922, when he explained that he came to San Francisco two days before the party for pleasure according to an AP wire story. “I had a new car to try,” he said, even though he had had his 1919 purple Pierce-Arrow for over a year. “Later I was going to the golf tournament at Del Monte.”[1] The coincidence that Al Semnacher had wanted to take Virginia Rappe to Del Monte the day before seems to have gone unnoticed until now.

Arbuckle and his entourage were indeed expected aboard the Harvard and delaying his travel during Paramount Week, an important publicity event, would have risked disappointing and insulting those who could cause trouble, among them Paramount chief Adolph Zukor.

The SS Harvard (r) and the SS Yale (l), San Pedro Harbor (Calisphere)

The Harvard, along with its sister ship, the Yale, provided daily passenger service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and was scheduled to depart for Los Angeles at 4:00 p.m. For this particular voyage, Los Angeles restaurateur, Al Levy, owner of the famed Oyster Bar and Levy’s Cafe, was personally in charge of catering the trip—and Arbuckle, a regular at Levy’s, surely availed himself of what promised to be a sumptuous spread. There were also a number of important film people sailing to Los Angeles for Paramount Week, among them Sanford L. Walter, the San Francisco manager of the Paramount Film Exchange, and, perhaps, other familiar faces who happened to be in San Francisco for the holiday.

There was little chance that Arbuckle could leave town without being noticed. He had to be at pier 7 in time to have his Pierce-Arrow lifted by crane and lowered onto the rear deck of the Harvard, where it attracted attention throughout the voyage. A brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle poked fun at his person, calling him “considerable cargo.”[2]

“Elaborate arrangements,” it was reported, had been “made by Al Levy to provide a mirthful voyage, with “Fatty” as jester”—which suggests Arbuckle was expected along with his entourage. If the arrangements were as much business as travel, perhaps the comedian’s presence aboard the Harvard was the real purpose behind his brief stay in San Francisco, to position him for his on-board appearance.

This is the kind of information that Al Semnacher could have taken note of weeks beforehand and might have shared with Rappe. By this point though, Semnacher himself, was well on his way back to Los Angeles, driving his Stutz and without his two female passengers. Unlike Arbuckle or his companions, Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman, Semnacher took the time to visit Rappe in Room 1227 on Tuesday morning. He spoke to Maude Delmont—but made no mention of Dr. Rumwell—and departed unworried for the time being. Delmont asked him to tell Rappe’s people—meaning the Hardebecks—that their adopted niece wasn’t coming home any time soon.

Semnacher had also gone to her room to retrieve her damaged garments and cheap jewelry to bring home. His explanation for doing so would become one of the mysteries of the Arbuckle case. Semnacher, also didn’t leave any money for the two women or, at least, not enough worth mentioning.

Doris Deane and Roscoe Arbuckle and their marriage license, May 1925 (Calisphere)

The sailing time from San Francisco to Los Angeles was eighteen hours with no ports of call in between. A troopship during the war, the Harvard had been fully restored into a luxury liner with luxurious staterooms and a new army of stewards, stewardesses, pages, and bellboys to serve her passengers. The brilliantly lit Veranda-Café Ballroom featured an orchestra and all-night dancing. On the port side of the ship, passengers could watch the California coast slip by and, if Arbuckle cared to notice the beautiful scenery lit by the setting sun followed by the twinkling lights on shore, it surely helped him to leave what happened on Labor Day behind. Another thing that helped him to forget was meeting a young woman to whom Fred Fishback had arranged an introduction, another striking dark-haired actress, Doris Deane. Fishback had some advance knowledge that she would be aboard the Harvard in the company of her mother.[3]

If Fishback was informally acting as Arbuckle’s wingman, arranging for him to meet eligible and attractive women, he had come through—perhaps for the second time in twenty-four hours. Arbuckle had a chance to see Deane on boarding and was immediately smitten. He invited both her and her mother to his stateroom after the Harvard unberthed. Later Deane sat with Arbuckle at the captain’s table. When he wasn’t playing “Fatty” for the other guests, he spoke with her with the same enthusiasm that he did with Rappe the day before.

Barely twenty years old, Deane had made her debut as representing the city of Los Angeles at the Pershing Victory Ball in January 1920. She was a skilled dancer and had already appeared in a few films, including Mabel Normand’s forthcoming Head over Heels (1922). Hired by Universal, she starred in the new South Seas romance, The Shark Master (1921), which had opened the first week of September. But she had left Universal and was looking for new prospects. Arbuckle, who was always on the lookout for new leading ladies, could hardly resist the opportunity to woo Miss Deane over to comedy. That evening, according to her, he was charming. He purchased her a box of Melachrino cigarettes—which featured cork or straw tips so as not to stain one’s fingers—and they talked of music, theatre, and books.

Melachrino cigarettes (Etsy)

Uninhibited by the thought of his estranged wife Minta Durfee thousands of miles away in New York City, Arbuckle asked Deane out for Saturday performance of a new stage comedy, The Ruined Lady (for which the young Humphrey Bogart was road manager) at the Majestic Theater. But Arbuckle and Deane didn’t go on their date. Instead, he made an unscheduled appearance at the Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater, which was showing his film Gasoline Gus for Paramount Week. From that day on, Deane would have to wait before she could safely appear in Arbuckle’s company again.


[1] Associated Press, “Arbuckle, Denying Evil Intent, Lays His Troubles to an Act of Mercy,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, 6 April 1922, 18.

[2] “Arbuckle on Harvard,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 September 1921, 18.

[3] Deane herself is the source for her first encounter with Arbuckle. See Yallop.

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