100 Years Ago Today: “A Lovely Time,” September 4, 1921

Al Semnacher’s inland route north took the recently completed California Highway 4, the precursor of U.S. Route 99 and present-day Interstate 5. By the late summer of 1921, the road was concrete-paved and designed for the top speeds of trucks and automobiles.

Highway 4 burrowed through the Newhall Tunnel and then up into the mountains past old Fort Tejon and then on to the oil fields and farmland of Kern County before riding along the majestic Castaic-Tejon Ridge and then twisting down to the first major town, Bakersfield. The rest of the way to Fresno traversed the so-called “Garden of the Sun” of California’s prime, irrigated farmland, the San Joaquin Valley, where, to either side of the road, were miles and miles of croplands, producing raisins, grapes, peaches, figs, nuts, olives, oranges, and other crops. The distance between Selma and Los Angeles is a little over 200 miles or almost halfway to San Francisco via Route 5 out of Stockton. The traffic would have been light in the morning, with occasional trucks and horse-drawn wagons, which Semnacher could easily pass in his Stutz motorcar, which shared the same engine with the two-seater Bearcat. Even though the first rains of the dry California summer had recently fallen, the weekend weather was expected to be fair with temperatures in the upper 70s.

Maude Delmont had a friend in Selma, Mrs. Anna L. Portnell, a divorcée, who was well-known in Fresno County society as a prominent member of the Woman’s Relief Corps and a celebrated bridge player. She later testified at the second Arbuckle trial in January 1922 under the name “Annie Portwell.” As a witness for the defense, she acknowledged that Delmont, Rappe, and Semnacher visited her ranch outside of town and that she took them sight-seeing in her car. During the excursion, Rappe allegedly begged, “Please stop the car if you do not want me to die.” Then Rappe left the car doubled up and drank “a quantity of dark colored liquid from a gin bottle. She said it was an herb tea.”[1]

Mrs. Portnell kept the bottle and produced it for the court. That she had kept such a souvenir of Rappe’s visit for nearly five months aroused no incredulity, at least none that was reported in the press. The purpose of having Mrs. Portnell testify was to further pile on that Rappe, despite being made sick by alcohol, drank it nevertheless. For that reason, as Arbuckle’s lawyers insisted, her getting sick at his Labor Day party was nothing unusual for this woman. Gavin McNab and his colleagues, however, must have had to choose between Rappe’s alcoholism or another of their theories, that she suffered from cystitis. Herbal teas were often prescribed to treat the disease before antibiotics. Alcoholism, of course, was more compelling. (Maude Delmont admitted to bringing a bottle of whiskey with her. She also testified that Rappe and Semnacher didn’t partake.)

Semnacher and Delmont never described what they and Rappe did in Selma, even though it was their only destination and the original plan was to return to Los Angeles. Perhaps they played bridge, since Mrs. Portnell made four and Rappe was herself a skilled player. That changed on Sunday morning, September 4, when Semnacher and his two passengers departed Selma for the long drive to San Francisco. He testified that the new itinerary was Rappe’s idea.

Before leaving Selma, Rappe dropped a postcard in a mailbox informing her “Aunt” Kate Hardebeck that she was having a “lovely time” and that she wasn’t coming home yet.

On Sunday evening, Semnacher and his party checked into the Palace Hotel. He took two adjacent rooms with a connecting door. Rappe and Delmont were to sleep in one room and Semnacher in the other. In the morning they would dress and have breakfast.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle and his party were already ensconced in a corner suite of the St. Francis, rooms 1219–1221, the same suite he occupied in June, with a view of the city that gave him pause. “I’d like to spend the rest of my life just looking out at Geary and Powell streets,” he said then to a reporter. “I’d have to give up a lot of palm trees and flower gardens to do it—but it would be well worth while.”[2]

Neither Roscoe Arbuckle, an inveterate violator of speed limits, nor Al Semnacher got ticketed on their way to San Francisco (Private Collection)

[1] “Selma Woman Testifies at Actor’s Trial: Mrs. Anne Portwell Tells of a Visit of Party During Trip,” Fresno Morning Republican, 26 January 1922, 1.

[2] “Parade Honors Fete Beauties Today,” San Francisco Examiner, 18 June 1921, 13.

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