100 Years Ago Today: The Garden Room, September 5, 1921

The one time that Al Semnacher admitted to entering the bedroom shared by his charges, Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont, was on Labor Day morning. He asked the two women if they wanted breakfast.

Between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m., the party of three took the elevator down to the lobby. If they looked in on the bar, they may have noticed Maxfield Parrish’s painting The Pied Piper over the bar, in which the piper is depicted leading Hamelin’s children to “the place of no return.”

On their way, Semnacher might have stopped at the desk to check for mail and messages. As it became clear later, he had business contacts in town and he may have notified them of his arrival. Then he, Rappe, and Delmont stepped inside the Garden Court.

The Palace’s elegant lounge and dining room on the first floor is much the same as it was a century ago. Breakfast and lunch were served daily under a vast, gilded skylight of opaque glass, which added to the soft but generous light provided by enormous crystal chandeliers. Potted palms and flowering plants were tastefully placed to give the illusion that one dined outdoors.

Amid the sound of muted conversations, the deferential voices of the waiters, the delicate chimes of plates and flatware—these met and maybe some ceased as Semnacher and his companions followed a waiter to a table set for four.Palace Hotel Palm Court 1920_auto_x2_colored_toned

The Garden Room of the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, ca. 1920 (Library of Congress)

Rappe’s presence in the great hotel was hard to miss amid a sea of white tablecloths. She stood out in a light green ensemble in contrast to Maude Delmont’s nondescript black broadcloth dress. Numerous accounts of what Rappe wore on September 5 exist in reportage and court testimony. One of the earliest described each piece as it lay in tatters before a coroner’s jury. Nevertheless, the reporter’s description of both garments reimagines the woman who wore them in life.

Just three yards of heavy crepe of the brilliant but cool green that the Chinese call jade. A two-piece skirt gathered on a belt. A little sleeveless blouse that hung in straight lines over the skirt. The wide armholes corded and a soft collar finishing the modest cut neck. For sleeves the long white ones of an ordinary white silk shirt waist that could be bought in any shop for $5.

What a contrast to the jetted and braided and embroidered and fringed atrocities of the most expensive modiste!

The sort of frock that any girl could have—if she were as clever as Virginia Rappe.

That girl knew what was becoming to her—had a fine color sense—knew the value of accessories. Her plain white Panama hat—the hat that Mrs. Delmont says Arbuckle was “clowning” in when they broke into the room, has a narrow band of jade green ribbon around the crown.

Ivory and jade—that was the color motif—as the designers would say. Just one touch of the show girl—and that hidden away under the ivory and jade. Garters of three-inch black lace, ruffled on silk elastic with a tiny green ribbon flower at the fastening.[1]

The outfit included a cape as well.

No previous narrative written about Virginia Rappe’s breakfast in the Garden Room pauses over this question: What did she and her companions have planned for the few hours that remained of their time in San Francisco? The drive from Selma to the Palace Hotel would have taken no less than four hours and for what? A night in an expensive hotel and breakfast?

According to Al Semnacher, he intended to drive back to Los Angeles in the late afternoon. Since the drive couldn’t be done comfortably in one day, he, Rappe, and Delmont would spend the night in Del Monte, California on the south end of Monterey Bay.

So, back to the question: What did they plan to do with their afternoon, a few hours really given the late breakfast? If Virginia Rappe hadn’t received a note inviting her to Arbuckle’s suite at the St. Francis Hotel, was there an alternate plan? For one to drive hundreds of miles, eight hours in each direction, without an itinerary or intention strains credulity. Without one, San Francisco was nothing more than an expensive, glorified layover, like Selma, in a long drive through the middle of California and then down the coastline. Rappe had seen San Francisco before. She had spent several days there in July 1920, during the same week as the Democratic National Convention. Even Maude Delmont had been to San Francisco. Al Semnacher often had business there.

Lastly, what did Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe, and Maude Delmont discuss at their table in the Garden Room? That would have been the time to plan their day, the afternoon before them? If Semnacher picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and read from the front page, he could have amused the ladies with a story reporting that a “metaphysical astronomer,” with a certificate from the “Temple of Hashish,” told a Sunday crowd at Coney Island of a celestial event that would occur on Labor Day. Saturn would cross the paths of Jupiter and Mars and have such a deleterious effect on the moon’s tides that the East Coast would be submerged. Times Square could be covered by a foot of water.[2]

Fortunately, the West Coast was on the high ground and the top floor of the St. Francis Hotel a safe space.

[1] “Fate Sealed by the Dress She Made,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1921, 6.

[2] “New York to Be Submerged Today, Avers ‘Professor.’” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 September 1921. 1.

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