Bit Player #3: Ira Fortlouis, the gown salesman

Ira Gustav Fortlouis saw Virginia Rappe for the first time in the Palace Hotel on Labor Day morning, September 5, 1921. According to the accepted story, he later mentioned this sighting in the presence of Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions, film director Fred Fishback and actor Lowell Sherman. Thereupon, a telephone call was placed to Rappe and she was invited to Arbuckle’s suite. Her afternoon in San Francisco, for which she had made no other known plans, was set

Fortlouis’s sighting of her has long been regarded as a “meaningful coincidence,” to use Carl Jung’s phrase. The first of a sequence of coincidences that suggest a pattern but may have been nothing more than chance. The first is that Fortlouis happened to cross paths with Rappe at the Palace Hotel; the second is that he happened to know the director Fred Fishback personally and knew he was in town; the third is that he got to know Rappe’s manager Al Semnacher well enough to accompany him on some business on Bush Street during the course of the party; and finally that on the day Rappe died, he, until that week unknown to Maude Delmont, was beckoned by her for an evening tête-à-tête.

This last coincidence is the most curious. Fortlouis would seem an unlikely choice to be comforting Delmont. But though they had only recently become acquainted, Delmont had been with Fortlouis at the party at the time of the incident (perhaps, locked in the bathroom of room 1221 when Rappe wanted to use it and was denied entry by Delmont—one of those details an editor would have censored at the time). So rather than a conversation with a friend, the late night meeting might have been an effort by either Delmont or Fortlouis to discuss what they remembered of the event in case they were subpoenaedThis sounds speculative until one learns that Fortlouis later made a statement to District Attorney Brady claiming Delmont couldn’t have heard Rappe screaming because he was with her in Room 1221 at the time and heard nothing. It was a statement that would jeopardize Delmont’s credibility and the foundations of the charges.

Save for an appearance before a grand jury and a coroner’s inquest, Fortlouis never took the stand—no doubt a relief to him as this wasn’t the first sex scandal in which he was associated. (In a January 1914 trial in Portland, Oregon, Fortlouis had to admit to having intimate relations with a married woman in shared staterooms aboard steamships plying up and down the Pacific Northwest coast.) Instead, he was left alone to watch the Arbuckle trials as a spectator, Zelig-like, the silent witness who innocently set the tragic event in motion. He was even interviewed at one point and said that his motivation for getting Rappe to Arbuckle’s suite was that he could see she needed work, that she was down on her luck.]

Guest Tells Police Party Was ‘Noisy’

Ira G. Fortlouis, Traveling Salesman, “Heard No Screaming” and “Knew of No Injuries”

Here is the statement of Ira G. Fortlouis, traveling salesman, as made to Detective Sergeant John Dolan and Detective Thomas F. Reagan at the Hall of Justice yesterday [September 10, 1921]:

I got in town Sunday, September 4, 1921. Somebody told me that Fischbach was in town. I called him up at the St. Francis and left word for him to call me. He did not call me up and I called him up Monday at 8:30 a.m. He told me to come and say “Hello.”

I was walking out of the Palace Hotel about 11 a.m. and saw a very stylish girl. I asked somebody who was standing there who she was. He said she was Miss Rappe, the moving picture actress.

I went up to the St. Francis and called up Freddy Fishbach [sic] and he introduced me to Arbuckle and Sherman.

We sat there and talked for a long time and in the course of the conversation I mentioned the fact that I had just seen Miss Rappe and asked the boys if they knew her. Someone of the party said he knew her and asked when I had seen her. I told them I had seen her in the lobby of the Palace Hotel.

Someone in the party phoned to Miss Rappe.

Miss Rappe phoned a little later and asked for the room number. She thought they were stopped at the Palace Hotel [my italics]. Miss Rappe came up to the room some time in the afternoon. I think this was about 12:30 p.m. This was Monday, September 5, 1921.

I was introduced to her and Sherman was introduced. There were four of us in the room at the time—Fischbach, Arbuckle, Sherman and myself.

Shortly afterward Mrs. Delmont came in the room. Miss Rappe introduced her to everybody. We had lunch and drinks were served. I had Scotch highballs. Miss Rappe had nothing to drink at that time that I remember of. Mrs. Delmont had a drink at the same time. The women ate none of the lunch.

I know of no injury that occurred to Miss Rappe while I was in the room and the first I heard of her injuries was the following day.

I could not say that Miss Rappe and Arbuckle were in the room all the time I was present.

Fischbach left about 2:30 p.m. I asked him if I would see him again and he said he would be back in about an hour.

They all had drinks and someone telephoned downstairs to send up a phonograph. the phonograph came up. I went into the bathroom in Sherman’s room and Sherman came in the bathroom and pounded on the door and told me to hurry up and get out of the room, as reporters were coming up to interview Arbuckle.

I wanted to go into the other room. They told me to go through the hallway, and in going through the hallway I asked where Fred Fischbach was. He came to the door and I told him I was going down to the club and would meet him down there. I didn’t understand the object in rushing me out that way. I judge the time I left the room between 2:30 and 4 p.m.

While I was in the room, Arbuckle and Miss Rappe were sitting near each other and kidding one another. Miss Rappe was drinking gin and orange juice. The party was drinking considerable liquor. There was considerable noise, but I heard no screaming.

I phoned from my room to Miss Rappe, having heard that the party ended disastrously and she was ill in her room at the Palace Hotel and was informed that she had left the hotel. This was the next day. Then I phoned the St. Francis and got Mrs. Delmont on the phone and she told me that Miss Rappe was injured internally and was very sick.

Last night [September 9] I was in the St. Francis Hotel. Somebody said the girl had died. I heard that there was something wrong as regards her death. Mrs. Delmont said that.

During the time I was in the room Arbuckle was dressing. He was wearing pyjamas, and when the girls came in he put on a dressing robe.

When I got back to the Palace Hotel last night there was a phone call from room 1227, St. Francis Hotel, and I called up and Mrs. Delmont answered. She asked me what I thought of the affair, what a terrible thing it was, and I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. She said a couple of the young ladies were with her. She asked me to come up and see her, as she could not sleep. She wanted me to sit up with her until they came back. I said I would not come up alone, but if allowed to bring a friend I would come. I brought a friend and went there and sat there waiting for her friends to come back. I advised her to get a nurse. I made arrangements at the hotel office for a nurse and when she arrived, I left.

I make this statement freely and voluntarily; no threats or promises were made to induce me to give and sign this statement.

(signed) IRA G. FORTLOUIS

Source: San Francisco Examiner, 11 September 1921, p. 3.

“Jeff,” Virginia Rappe’s brindle bull terrier pup, and Rappe wearing an outfit similar to the one she wore on September 5, 1921 (Library of Congress)