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.

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)

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.


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)

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.