100 Years Ago Today: A prosecutor channels Rappe as a vamp, September 24, 1921

For several days, a single piece of ice, perhaps as small as an ice cube, rivaled the iceberg that struck the SS Titanic. The ice in question became known during the second day of Al Semnacher’s Women’s Court testimony on the Saturday morning of September 24, 1921.

It was not unexpected that Semnacher was asked to recount an anecdote told by Roscoe Arbuckle on the morning after the Labor Day party. The anecdote first came up when Semnacher included it in a statement to the District Attorney in Los Angeles. He would have told of it earlier, but claimed he had forgotten about it until it returned to him in a dream.

We have already mentioned the ice in a previous entry. What isn’t often discussed is how Assistant District Attorney Isadore Golden began the second day of Semnacher’s testimony, leading up to the revelation that Arbuckle, in Semnacher’s first telling, admitted to inserting ice in Rappe’s vagina.

Golden began by asking if Rappe appeared to be “in healthy condition” when she left Los Angeles for Selma and San Francisco. Semnacher answered yes. Then Golden continued to ask questions that had already been asked before positing a curious image of Rappe as a vamp, a siren, tempting Arbuckle at the entrance of room 1219. The question may have been asked to probe Semnacher’s veracity, not unlike a control or comparison question for a polygraph examination.

Q: And as far as you know she continued to enjoy the best of health?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Until you saw her lying on the bed in a nude condition as you stated yesterday?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: At any time that you observed Miss Rappe in Mr. Arbuckle’s apartments, did you ever see her let her hair down and shake her head, with her hair hanging down?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you ever see her in Arbuckle’s apartments standing in the doorway connecting any of the rooms, letter her hair down and calling out to Mr. Arbuckle to observe her?
A: No, sir.
Q: Or say, “Look here, Rossy,” or “Roscoe.”
A: No sir.[1]

With Semnacher’s answer, Golden changed the subject and the sudden appearance of a consensual and wanton young woman vanished as quickly as she appeared.

Theda Bara in one of her poses (Library of Congress)

[1]People vs. Arbuckle, 147–148.

On this Day 100 Years Ago: Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, takes the stand during the third session of the preliminary investigation, September 23, 1921

Isadore Golden, one of Matthew Brady’s assistant district attorneys, put it this way: “We have made out a case [. . .] through witnesses who had to have the truth dynamited out of them, witnesses who would give anything to say, ‘I was not there.’”[1] One witness he had in mind was Al Semnacher, part motion picture publicity man, part talent agent, and part talent scout, who represented at various times ZaSu Pitts, Jacqueline Logan, Kenneth Harlan, and Virginia Rappe for less than two months. If going to Arbuckle’s party had been a business venture to get her into Arbuckle’s party, either all along or an opportunity of coincidence, he failed her miserably.

Al Semnacher (San Francisco Call)

Semnacher was a kind of subaltern Hollywood functionary, even factotum. His estranged wife was the late Olive Thomas’ personal secretary. His stock-in-trade was primarily developing—or exploiting—young aspiring people, especially young women, who wanted to break into the movies and needed their face and contact information in a casting directory with a flattering portrait taken at the Hartsook Studio. Semnacher, too, served the Hollywood nobility. For example, when one of Arbuckle’s lawyers produced a purse in the courtroom, inferring that it might belong to Virginia Rappe, the accessory, as it turned out, belonged to Mildred Harris (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin). Semnacher had taken it to a jeweler for her to be fixed.

The actress Miriam Cooper expressed one school of opinion about Semnacher’s role in the Arbuckle affair. She saw Semnacher as a liar covering up what he really knew.[2] Her husband, the actor and director Raoul Walsh, believed that Henry Lehrman had arranged with Semnacher to bring Rappe to San Francisco to see Arbuckle.

When Al Semnacher took the stand during the afternoon of September 23, 1921, his testimony came so reluctantly that the defense demanded that Assistant DA Golden treat Semnacher as a hostile witness. Some newspaper accounts described his performance as unimpressive. Others took issue with the appearance of the dapper, sporting man who was photographed wearing an ankh symbol tie pin on his four-in-hand, a pince-nez, and a Gatsby cap (picture above).

Edward J. Doherty—“America’s Highest Paid Reporter”—of the Chicago Tribune’s Hollywood bureau knew Semnacher to be Arbuckle’s friend and described him as “a short, squat, middle-aged man, with iron gray hair, gray eyes, and a weary gray countenance.”[3]

Ellis H. Martin of the International News Service described Semnacher it terms as “a wiry little man whose dark, sparkling eyes peeped cautiously from behind shell-rimmed glasses.”[4]

The Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, the pastor of San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, not only appeared in the Women’s Court as a reporter, wearing a clerical collar, but also as an editorialist. He, too, had something to say about Semnacher’s untrustworthy features.[5]

What a rotten way to spend a perfectly good afternoon. Sitting in a stuffy courtroom, listening to a lot of seemingly stupid questions, that seemed to lead nowhere, and were repeated over and over again in an effort to get a witness who apparently had made up his mind not to say anything that was worth anything to anybody to say what he had already said. [. . .] And the witness, Mr. Semnacher, who, I believe, was the manager for Miss Rappe, was a very clever and interesting little person, with dark, sparkling eyes, and many of the manners and actions of a monkey. At times, he was quite cute, with a funny little twinkle behind the glasses in his black eyes—and then he knew so much, and so intimately, about some things, and was ready to run on telling it, and against he knew so little, in fact, almost nothing of what the District Attorney wanted to know.

I wonder whether it is a good thing to shout at a witness. [. . .] In talking of torn garments, I couldn’t help thinking, as I saw the detectives coming into court, with two pitiful packages in their hands, of how a short while before what they contained had clothed beautiful womanhood, and were now but a wretched exhibit in a police court. And that ultimately there is but one garment that can cover our shame and failure, and that is the robe of His righteousness.[6]

The Rev. Guthrie, like other spectators, wanted to be interested, entertained perhaps, but for many of them, this was the first time they had sat through a direct examination and cross-examination. They had no idea that this was how district attorneys laid their groundwork, especially for a reluctant witness who realized that he was being led along a precipice in which he could perjure himself, bring financial ruin, and make him an untouchable in film colony—this on top of a humiliating divorce.


[1] Qtd. in Edward J. Doherty, “State Springs Coup on Fatty; Defense Wild,” Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1921, 3.

[2] Miriam Cooper and Bonnie Herndon, Dark Lady of the Silents (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 180.

[3] Edward J. Doherty, “Fatty Pales at Moving Picture of Fatal Party,” Chicago Tribune, 24 September 1921, 1.

[4] Ellis H. Martin, “Death of Actress Laid to Injuries,” Washington Times, 24 September 1921, 1.

[5] Anti-Semitism did loom over the Arbuckle trial, perhaps more than we know. In the case of Rev. Guthrie, Semnacher may have been seen as the stereotypical “Hollywood Jew,” a label already well-established especially in the revived Ku Klux Klan and among their WASP betters who entertained the “suburban prejudice.”

[6] Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, “Judge Lazarus Untangles Knows of Legal Verbiage, Impresses Cleric,” San Francisco Examiner, 24 September 1921, 1–2.

100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle calls Rappe a bum

For most of Saturday, September 10, Roscoe Arbuckle and his pals Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman once again drove north on Highway 4, which is now California 99 and Interstate 5, to San Francisco. Only this time in a much less joyful mood and with company. Arbuckle rode in his Pierce-Arrow which was driven by his chauffeur, and also carried his manager Lou Anger, and Frank Dominguez, his newly appointed attorney. Fishback followed in his car, accompanied by Sherman and Al Semnacher, the late Virginia Rappe’s manager/booking agent.

They had left Los Angeles at 3: 00 a.m., stopped for breakfast in Bakersfield, and reached Fresno at about 11:00 a.m., making good time.

As the two cars were being serviced and refueled at the A.B.C. Garage, an employee heard one of Arbuckle’s companions speaking to Arbuckle. “Say, a motor cop had been following you for a long while.”[1]

“Well,” the comedian retorted, “he’s been following you too.” Then he strolled over to the Hotel Fresno to purchase cigars and the latest papers to see what was being reported about him and Rappe, who was very much on his mind now if she hadn’t been over the past five days.

A desk clerk, Joe Davis, recognized Arbuckle standing by the cigar stand in the hotel lobby. Davis approached the film star and asked, “Well, who was the girl?”

Although outwardly jolly and carefree—like “Fatty” in the movies—Arbuckle took the opportunity to vent about his troubles, as one does with a stranger who one imagines is offering a sympathetic ear. He revealed a little of the man behind the celebrity who, on screen, seemed no more than a fat but lovable simpleton.

After giving the question some thought, Arbuckle lied about Rappe and disparaged her in the same breath. “I don’t know who she was,” he said, “some bum, I guess. They brought her in and we ‘bought a drink,’ and the first thing I knew she was drunk, and we got a room for her and called the manager in order to get a doctor.”

 “We’re going up to find out about this now,” Arbuckle continued, adding that he and his party were due at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But they wouldn’t arrive at the Oakland Ferry for another five hours.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921 (Newspapers.com)

[1] The following is adapted and quoted from “I Don’t Know Who She Was—Some Bum, I Guess,” Arbuckle Says; Sacramento Bee, 10 September 1921, 1; and “Arbuckle to Be Held Pending Probe of Death,” Fresno Morning Republican, 11 September 1921, 1, 6.

Put some ice on it or how to forget about the Coke bottle myth

Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t penetrate Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The origin of what has become a fetish object is an idle speculation made by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon.

As headlines screamed, the rumors flew of a hideously unnatural rape: Arbuckle, enraged at his drunken impotence, had ravaged Virginia with a Coca-Cola bottle, or a champagne bottle, then had repeated the act with a jagged piece of ice . . . or, wasn’t it common knowledge that Arbuckle was exceptionally well-endowed? (28)

The family newspapers of the 1920s didn’t—and wouldn’t—print anything like this. Some did report the original story on which Anger embellishes and gets half wrong: the ice part is true.

On Saturday, September 24, Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, testified to an encounter with Arbuckle and his companions in room 1220 of the St. Francis Hotel on the morning after the comedian’s Labor Day 1921 party (i.e., September 6, 1921).

One of many entertaining images from Hollywood Babylon (28)

In the presence of director Fred Fishback and actor Lowell Sherman—who had shared the twelfth-floor suite—as well as Semnacher and the comedian’s chauffeur, Arbuckle shared an anecdote from the day before. After Rappe had been found on his bed in room 1219, suffering from excruciating pain in her lower abdomen and going in and out of consciousness, Arbuckle attempted to wake her up. He returned to room 1219 and pushed a piece or pieces of ice into her vagina. (A bowl of ice was on the bar-buffet table in room 1220.)

Semnacher might have been shocked by Arbuckle’s attempt to make light of what had happened and repressed the memory of it until re-experiencing it in a dream. The way this played out in his appearance at the preliminary investigation in the Women’s Court was given much fanfare. Women’s Court was a special venue of the Police Court of San Francisco that limited the number of men to ensure courtroom decorum for female plaintiffs, witnesses, and spectators. The judge, Sylvain Lazarus, was to decide whether Arbuckle be tried for manslaughter or murder in the Superior Court of San Francisco County.

The District Attorney’s office promised that Semnacher would reveal on the stand that Arbuckle himself had disclosed the manner in which he had injured Virginia Rappe. But this didn’t happen.

Semnacher, in the penultimate moment of his testimony, was pressed by Assistant District Attorney Ira Golden about what he remembered of Arbuckle’s anecdote, specifically, what word did he use in reference to Rappe’s genitalia.

Semnacher, aware of the many women around him, felt uncomfortable saying the word aloud. So, Golden gave Semnacher the option of whispering it to the court reporter.

Semnacher answered, “The word is snatch.”

Golden’s intent wasn’t to present the ice as a weapon but rather to prove that Arbuckle hadn’t been a gentleman at the party and had treated Rappe abominably. This ploy was quickly apprehended by Arbuckle’s chief counsel, Frank Dominguez. As a seasoned criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, he knew that Golden had only made Arbuckle look like a cad and with the hope that such an outrage would sway Judge Lazarus, especially if he wanted to appease the women in his courtroom.

The next day, Sunday, September 25, after a press conference for Arbuckle’s wife, Minta Durfee, Dominguez intimated to a few lucky reporters that he intended to turn the tables on Ira Golden and his boss, District Attorney Matthew Brady. One of them was Edward J. Doherty of the Chicago Tribune. With his “Foxy Grandpa” wink, Dominguez promised that when he cross-examined Semnacher, he would bring another “startling revelation.”

Dominguez promised that the ice would be seen for what it was, the right thing to do for Rappe and much to Arbuckle’s credit. Dominguez intended to present Arbuckle not as “a coarse buffoon, boasting about a horrible thing he had done to a woman, but as a gentleman remarking casually what he had done to bring this woman out of her hysteria.” Dominguez, too, based on sound medical opinion, that what Arbuckle did with the ice, slipping it inside Rappe’s vagina,

had been not only sanctioned but practiced by physicians of all times since the days of Ancient Greece. [. . .] that Arbuckle did not mean his remark to be met with laughter. It was as if he had tried an old remedy, a bit unconventional, perhaps, a bit bizarre, maybe a tad too vulgar to speak about, if you will, but a good remedy, none the less, to cure a headache, or a backache, or a pain in the ear.”[1]

In all likelihood, the wily Dominguez had made it up—but not quite off the top of his head. As ice-making became widespread in the nineteenth century, doctors used pieces of ice to staunch the bleeding and pain of uterine hemorrhages.

Semnacher, perhaps knowing that he had embarrassed Arbuckle, took back what he said about the ice. He testified that he had used the wrong word to describe what the comedian did. He had put the ice on Rappe’s vagina, not in.

Note: Semnacher was one of the few witnesses asked to describe in detail the beverages served at the Labor Day Party. Neither he nor anyone else mentioned that Coca-Cola or champagne had been served. Indeed, the only carbonated beverages he noticed were bottles of orange soda and White Rock Soda, with the topless Psyche on the label admiring her reflection in a pool, an eerie foreshadowing of how Virginia Rappe would be found after tearing off her shirtwaist.

Source: White Rock Beverages

[1] M. D. Tracy, “Arbuckle Tortured Rappe,” Buffalo Times, 25 September 1921, 21.

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.

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.

100 Years Ago Today: Rappe leaves for Selma, September 3, 1921

On a Saturday morning in September, Virginia Rappe’s new manager—indeed, her first despite being in motion pictures since 1916—arrived in his late model Stutz Model H touring car to pick her up for a weekend trip. She likely placed great hope in him—and in the journey on which they would embark, for Semnacher was one of those people in Hollywood known as an “operator,” who could make small things happen that led to bigger things. He knew a lot of people. He knew Fred Fishback and Roscoe Arbuckle. Whether he knew they too were traveling north to San Francisco, a day ahead of him, will never be known. But it was certainly his business to know as he was always hustling work for his clients and Arbuckle and his entourage were in a position to help.

Al Semnacher was hardly a novice at his work. He had helped aspiring actors and actresses get their starts, first arranging for photography shoots for casting directories, a kind of Sears & Roebuck catalog of talent and faced, with such Hollywood photographers as Fred Hartsook, and then finding work for them as extras or in minor roles.

In 1919, Semnacher opened his first agency with Harry Lichtig as “personal representatives of players and other” in “a general casting business.”[1] The pair represented Lillian Walker, Kenneth Harlan, Pat O’Malley, and Zazu Pitts. Wid’s Daily, the daily newssheet for the motion picture industry,called Semnacher a “hustler Harry” and warned other booking agents to keep an eye on him if they wanted “their laurels.”[2]

Semnacher worked for a time at the John Lancaster booking agency and, in the spring of 1921, went out on his own. Despite his marital problems over the past months—his wife, Lucille, the former personal secretary of the actress Olive Thomas, had left him in a troubled marriage that saw three separations—Semnacher represented a small stable of actors such as the British comedian Fred Goodwins, to which he added Virginia Rappe and her friend Helen Hansen.

A few days earlier, on August 31, Semnacher had encountered Bambina Maude Delmont in front of the Pig ‘n Whistle in downtown Los Angeles.[3] He greeted her with familiarity, as a friend or professional colleague.

“What are you doing?” he asked, according to Delmont.

In the course of telling him, she mentioned that she wanted to go to Fresno, actually, a ranch in the nearby town of Selma, for the weekend. She needed to hitch a ride with someone going north, friendly people who might make for a “pleasure trip.” Semnacher offered his time and car—just like that. “Why, I think I can drive you Saturday,” he said, meaning September 3.

It’s unlikely that Semnacher, a busy man with young actresses in need of work, intended to spend his weekend in Selma or Fresno. This enigma confronts anyone attempting to write about the Arbuckle case because it’s the story that both Semnacher and Delmont recounted later as their original intention. The only really good book thus far, Room 1219, presents Semnacher’s journey as a pleasure trip for himself and his passengers. But this speculation seems almost too careful. Then there is Semnacher’s past relationship with Delmont. She spoke familiarly of Semnacher’s young son, Gordon, suggesting or kidding that the boy come along. How far back did she and Semnacher go?

The “pleasure trip” theory doesn’t take into account that Virginia Rappe was eager to find work and didn’t really have the time to relax in a small town—the “boondocks” to film colony people. She needed to replace the income she had lost as the former live-in mistress and occasional actress for the director Henry Lehrman.

When Semnacher arrived to pick her up, Rappe had packed a suitcase with much more than would be needed for a daytrip to Selma. Rappe’s adoptive “aunt” Kate Hardebeck saw the stuffed suitcase but accepted that “Tootie”—Rappe’s pet name—would be back in a day or two. A lunch basket was also packed for the drive, a little over 200 miles, which could be done in five hours or less.

The only thing left to do was pick up Maude Delmont, at her aunt’s apartment building on Orange Street. Though the two women hadn’t yet met, Delmont’s joining them surely came as a relief to Rappe. It solved the awkward problem of a married man traveling alone with an unmarried woman—for Helen Hansen had, at the last minute, bailed on Semnacher. Delmont as a traveling companion also made Rappe feel more comfortable in a personal way. Since childhood, older, knowing women like Delmont had served as her guardians, chaperones, and mentors in lieu of a mother.

A 1920 Stutz touring car similar to the one that Al Semnacher drove (Library of Congress)

[1] “New Coast Agency,” Wid’s Daily, 9 July 1919, [3].

[2] Harry Burns, “Chit, Chat, and Chatter,” Camera!, 29 June 1919, 7.

[3] The following account is largely based on B. M. Delmont, “Mrs. Delmont Gives Detailed Account of Rappe Tragedy,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1921, 4; Semnacher’s testimony in the transcript of People vs. Arbuckle; and other corroborative sources.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” leaves L.A. for S.F., September 2, 1921

Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions set out from Los Angeles on Friday, September 2, the day before Al Semnacher left with his party of Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Arbuckle, his chauffeur, and, perhaps, the director Fred Fishback took turns driving. The actor Lowell Sherman enjoyed the view from the backseat.

Greg Merritt, in Room 1219, was the first to posit this route, which began on Highway 2 North, the future U.S. Route 101, built atop the old Spanish royal road known as the Camino Real. But this route is conjectural. Arbuckle could have taken the more picturesque coastal route or the quicker inland route to the east that Semnacher took (present-day I-5). The Camino Real, however, would have allowed him to spend the night in Paso Robles, the approximate halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as he had done in June when he drove his custom purple Pierce-Arrow for display in the new San Francisco showroom of its builder, Don Lee.

Such a layover was quite different from the humble Selma ranch where Semnacher’s entourage stayed. Paso Robles boasted a beautiful hotel and curative hot springs. Arbuckle and Sherman could also sample some of the booze they’d packed for the trip. (Fred Fishback didn’t drink. He was, however, a kind of “cheerleader” to paraphrase Malcolm Lowry’s Consul in Under the Volcano.)

Roscoe Arbuckle using a grease gun on his Pierce-Arrow, ca. late 1920 (Newspapers.com)

Document Dump #5: Al Semnacher’s deposition of September 12, 1921

Alfred Semnacher was called Virginia Rappe’s manager during the Arbuckle case, but it was a hat he wore reluctantly. His testimony, too, came reluctantly. Imagine the frustrated press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. If a motion picture had been made of the Arbuckle case in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the Code was giving way and introspective Hollywood films had become a genre, Burt Lancaster would have looked the part of Virginia Rappe’s so-called manager, the “gray man” as one newspaper reporter called him.

Alfred Louis Semnacher was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1878 to musical parents. His German father, William Magnus Semnacher, had been living and working in New York City since 1865, where he had been a piano teacher for young women from well-to-do families. In the late 1860s, he founded his own school, the National Institute of Music, which was typically his residence. In the 1870s, he married Alfred’s mother, Louise Walter, who was much younger and likely one of the elder Semnacher’s students.

William Semnacher was a great believer in phrenology, a pseudoscience that advanced the premise that a person’s mental traits, aptitudes, personality, and future could be predicted by the careful measurements of bumps and depressions occurring on their subject’s heads and correlating them with regions of the human brain. Those findings would be compared to various charts—and specially numbered busts of human heads (that are still in production though mostly used as nostalgic pieces by interior decorators these days)—to assess “propensities,” such as causality, cautiousness, combativeness, concentrativeness, secretiveness, and so on. “Sentiments” such as self-esteem and truthfulness, and various intellectual and reflecting “faculties,” were also mapped.

The elder Semnacher had his head read by prominent American phrenologist, Orson Fowler in 1866 and placed so much faith in phrenology that he required that his students receive phrenological readings, among them the concert pianist and ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin.

The younger Semnacher married one of his father’s students, a southern belle named Lucille Nowland and they eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1909. There Semnacher served as secretary to the utopian socialist Alfred Dolge, who pioneered social security and profit sharing for the workers at his factory in Dolgeville, NY. By 1919, Semnacher worked for the John Lancaster talent and publicity agency before going out on his own in 1921.

Semnacher was also separated from his wife that year. It wasn’t the first time the couple had separated, having already been divorced and reconciled. But in 1920 he had to endure living alongside her lover as a permanent house guest, a man who eventually usurped Semnacher in the husband’s role. To add to the humiliation, this unhappy arrangement was witnessed by Semnacher’s three sons.

A month before his second and final divorce proceeding, he drove Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont from Los Angeles to San Francisco—and ultimately to the entrance of the St. Francis Hotel on September 5, 1921 – the focal point of our work-in-progress. Rappe had accepted an invitation from Roscoe Arbuckle to attend an informal Labor Day party there .

In the following deposition, it’s clear that the district attorneys had asked Semnacher to help them establish a timeframe (interpolated in bold below) for what happened to Rappe. Fortunately for them, he was mindful of the time as a businessman and, perhaps, as an impatient man as well.

Al Semnacher, ca. 1919 (Calisphere)

Al Semnacher, 2001 Pinehurst Road, Los Angeles, manager for motion-picture stars, who attended the party given by Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in his apartments at the Hotel St. Francis last Monday afternoon, yesterday, in a deposition before Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren, disclosed what he knew of the alleged assault by Arbuckle upon Miss Virginia Rappe. He deposed:

About 11:30 a.m. on the 5th day of September, 1921, Miss Rappe received a telephone message from someone [i.e., Fred Fishback] at the St. Francis Hotel, the person who telephoned saying that Roscoe Arbuckle was going to have a party there and inviting her to come up; that Miss Rappe then said for me to drive her and Mrs. Delmont up there and that I could wait outside and that maybe they would only stay in there a few minutes, if the party did not suit them [my italics]; that I drove them up there to the St. Francis hotel [after 12 noon]; then parked my car and visited with friends until about 2 p.m. when I returned to the hotel and ‘phoned up; that when I did phone up Mr. Fishbeck [sic] told me to come up and join the party.

That when I went upstairs to room 1220; that there were about four tables filled with food; that Arbuckle was sitting at the end of the table in a big chair; that Miss Rappe was sitting on a couch about one foot from him. Miss Rappe was fully dressed. Mrs. Delmont was standing in a doorway between rooms 1220 and 1221. Other persons in the room were Ira Fortlouis, Fred Fishbeck, Miss Alice Blake and a girl named “Zey” [i.e., Zey Pryvon, whose real name is Sadie Reiss] and one or two other girls [i.e., May Taube], also Lowell Sherman. All the men, with the exception of Sherman and Arbuckle, had on their street clothes. All the women, with the exception of Mrs. Delmont, had on their street clothes. I stayed there about a half an hour and then with Miss Blake left for a rehearsal [after 2:30 p.m.].

I then returned to the St. Francis hotel [i.e., he leaves Alice Blake at Taits and returns after 3:15 p.m.]. I then stayed there about a half hour; immediately thereafter I drove to No. 846 Bush street with Ira Fortlouis [my italics] to locate friends [after 3:45 p.m.]. I returned again to the St. Francis hotel [i.e., after 4:30 p.m., which would allow for Rappe’s crisis in room 1219 to take place at or just after 4:00 p.m. The same people were in the room together with two other ladies, one of whom was Miss Jeanne Clark, but the name of the other lady I do not know [i.e., May Taube]. At this particular time [about 4:45 p.m.], though, Miss Rappe was not in the room. About ten or fifteen minutes later two of the girls went to the bathroom of No. 1219, and said the girl, “Miss Rappe,” was very sick [before 5:00 p.m.].

That this statement was made after the girls had returned from the bathroom; that as soon as the girls made that remark we all went in there where Miss Rappe was, and saw her lying on the bed in the room and heard her moaning; that Roscoe Arbuckle was in the room I was in when the girls went into the room where Miss Rappe was lying on the bed; that I did not hear Roscoe Arbuckle say to the girls, “Go in and attend to her”; that when the girls came out and said that Miss Rappe was so ill we all went in the room that Miss Rappe was in; that there was a great deal of confusion there; that it seemed that everybody there seemed to want to wait on her at the same time; that there must have been about a dozen people there.

That then Mrs. Delmont took charge of Miss Rappe and had several of the girls there help her lift Miss Rappe into the bathtub in an endeavor to revive her; that Roscoe Arbuckle was in the room where I was and all the other people were. When the girls returned to the room that Miss Rappe was in and announced that she was sick, Roscoe Arbuckle said, “Get a doctor”; that Roscoe Arbuckle was in the room with all of us where Miss Rappe was lying on the bed and did not do anything for Miss Rappe; that all the men left the room in which Miss Rappe was, leaving the women.

When Mrs. Delmont put Miss Rappe into the bath tub Miss Rappe was unconscious; that then when they took her from the tub they wrapped up her clothes and put her into another bed. When they put her into the bed she began vomiting.

When she began vomiting Roscoe Arbuckle said that another room had better be secured for Miss Rappe. I do not know who phoned for this room. Mr. Boyle, who is connected with the St. Francis hotel, came up and said she could be taken to room 1227. I do not know who it was that carried her out. I went into room 1227 about twenty-five minutes later to see how Miss Rappe was getting along. I then found Mrs. Delmont with her. There was no nurse with her at this time. About two hours later I went to this room again and saw a doctor there. I saw this doctor give Miss Rappe a hypodermic injection of something. I do know the name of this doctor.

That on my second visit to the room to see how she was, she was moaning and did not want anyone to even touch the bed upon which she was laying and was saying, “I am going to die. I am going to die.” She also said she had pains and that her chest hurt her. I remained in the room altogether during these visits about fifteen or thirty minutes. I did hear her mention Roscoe Arbuckle’s name, and she said, “Roscoe hurt me”; that after she was given this opiate, or whatever it was, she slept for a few hours; and when she awoke she recognized me. I told her she was in no condition to go to Los Angeles then, but that she might be well enough to leave for Los Angeles the next morning; and if she was we would leave at 9:30 o’clock. Virginia Rappe said that would be all right.

The last time I saw Virginia Rappe was about 1 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, September 6, 1921. I left San Francisco for Los Angeles at about 1:30 or 2 o’clock p.m., Tuesday, September 6, 1921. It was after she was given this opiate and slept for about two or three hours that I had the talk with her about our returning to Los Angeles. Fishbeck was to return with Miss Rappe, Mrs. Delmont and myself [our italics].

“ . . . if the party is a bloomer”

Few Arbuckle case accounts discuss Virginia Rappe’s personality. Presumably she wrote letters and postcards to her guardians and friends. But despite becoming a household name in 1921, no one has shared such writings that might reveal something about her character. What little of Rappe there is on screen—all comedies—has been used to disparage her acting abilities. That she never appeared in a dramatic role suggested to some that Rappe was not a serious person. Even as a vamp, she was termed a “junior vamp,” that is, a femme fatale who isn’t all that fatal.

Virginia Rappe in a scene from Over the Rhine (1918), recut as The Isle of Love (1922) (Archive.org)

In writing about Virginia Rappe, we do look for Rappe, frame by frame in some cases, to find the real person. We also look at minute details that would otherwise seem irrelevant.

Much can be learned about a person by her choice of words and the context.

Around noon, on September 5, 1921, Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, drove Rappe and Virginia Rappe to the entrance of the St. Francis Hotel. While only Rappe had been invited to Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, the invitation would eventually be extended to her two companions, Semnacher and Delmont. But there is little doubt that Rappe had the privileged status of being the one invited.

During his court appearances, Semnacher testified that he left Rappe and Delmont off in front of the hotel and didn’t wait to see them enter the building. Semnacher, however, included some details, probably given during his grand jury appearance, that suggest Rappe’s interest in attending the party was tenuous, halfhearted. She had an exit strategy in mind that amounted to a graceful excuse to Arbuckle, which, unfortunately, she didn’t exercise.

Rappe asked Semnacher to wait outside. If “the party didn’t suit them”—meaning her and Delmont—she would leave.[1] “I’ll go up there,” she said, according to Semnacher, “and if the party is a bloomer I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”[2]

This quote is consistent with her utterances in the Atlanta Constitution in September and October 1913, when she was modeling the “tango dress.” She and her fellow models thought Atlanta was charming but too southern, gentlemanly, too inhibited, strait-laced. This, of course, calls attention to what she had expected to find. A town with more fun? That was a little more risqué like her native Chicago?

Although a close reading of an archaic slang word like “bloomer” risks overshooting the mark. She could have said “a bust,” a “waste of time”—whether for business or pleasure or both. For an actress who had worked hard to get her figure back after months of dieting and exercise, to spend several hours after a late breakfast watching Arbuckle and his friends eat and drink early in the afternoon might have seemed to be worth little more than a quick hello. To only give him twenty minutes suggests a preconceived notion of the host and of the kind of gatherings he hosted. As it turned out, Arbuckle held her rapt attention.

There is, however, another meaning that Rappe could have intended. A “bloomer” in the early twentieth century also meant a fraud, a prank, or a joke played on someone, as in “to pull a bloomer.” Here, Rappe might have wanted Semnacher ready to leave if Arbuckle’s party didn’t seem to be on the level.


[1] Al Semnacher, “Member of Arbuckle Party in Hotel Makes Full Statement: Al Semnacher, Manager for Film Stars, Gives the District Attorney Deposition,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1921, 4.

[2] Earnest J. Hopkins (Universal Service), “Film Star Who Makes Many Millions Laugh Gets First Taste of Life Behind Bars,” Shreveport Times, 12 September 1921, 2.