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.

Bit Players #1: Helen Hansen

Helen Hansen

(This entry is the first in a series of briefs about peripheral though significant figures in the Rappe–Arbuckle case.)

During the first week after Virginia Rappe’s death on September 9, 1921, members of the “film colony” in Hollywood—actors, actresses, directors, and the like—spoke out in support of Arbuckle. Mabel Normand said that her former Keystone costar was a gentleman and incapable of intentionally hurting a woman let alone kill her. For a short time, many film colonists also came out in support of Virginia Rappe, even though more than a few didn’t know her. Helen Hansen was an exception. She was called an “intimate friend” of Rappe. She lived only a few blocks away, on N. Oxford St., from Rappe’s house on N. Wilton St. in the Melrose neighborhood of Los Angeles. Hansen was said to be an actress. Some of the newspaper accounts of Hansen were accompanied by a publicity photograph of her wearing a long strand of artificial pearls. What she said about Rappe fed into the public’s image of Rappe as “Virginia, the Girl Victim,” as one headline read in the Los Angeles Record.

Hansen describe Rappe as a quiet, reserved young woman—presumably like herself—who didn’t go in for Hollywood parties, that is, the kind given by Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions. Her meaning was clear to the newspaper readers of the early 1920s—Rappe wouldn’t attend a gathering where she was expected to drink and engage in sex. Hansen said that Rappe showed little interest in other men. She remained loyal to comedy director Henry Lehrman and she was waiting for him to return from New York City. Hansen’s meaning was clear here as well: Rappe was keeping herself for the man she loved. Much of what Hansen said was anodyne and, perhaps, for that reason she goes unmentioned in previous texts about the Arbuckle case.

There is a takeaway from Helen Hansen that we think shouldn’t be overlooked though. But first, who is she? A filmgoer in the 1920s would have been hard pressed to think of a motion picture featuring Helen Hansen. None of the news stories in which she was quoted mentioned her being associated with any studio. One reason was that she withheld her screen name, Patricia Crawford, from reporters. While even that name likely meant little to the contemporary reader/filmgoer, it was apparent that Helen Hansen wanted to protect her brand, a name and image she had been gradually cultivating since her arrival in Hollywood just before 1920.

Her real name was Helen Grace Crawford. She was allegedly born in Scotland and lived with her parents in Vancouver, British Columbia, until 1918, when she, at the age of sixteen, married a telephone company clerk named Harold B. Hansen in Tacoma. Soon after, the couple moved to San Francisco, where she modeled clothes. Then Helen left Harold for Hollywood (as if inspired by headlines in fan magazines).

Camera!, a motion picture industry magazine, provided a clue to Hansen’s identity. A “Helen Hansen” was cast in a Dorothea Wolbert vehicle for Universal Pictures, Nearly a Lady (1920). Not long after this film was released in the autumn of 1920, a press release, undoubtedly written by Hansen’s press agent, identified her as the beautiful—and likely uncredited—Patricia Crawford who appeared in the finished two-reel comedy. Three other uncredited roles were also mentioned, as though she had been a supporting actress to Viola Dana in Cinderella’s Twin (1920), Anita Stewart in Sowing the Wind (1921), and Dorothy Phillips in Man–Woman–Marriage (1921). Such exaggeration shouldn’t cast doubt on the veracity of what Hansen said about Rappe. But we have to consider that she had abandoned her husband for Hollywood, didn’t correct reporters who called her “Miss Hansen” in their copy, and avoided mentioning her screen career.

Such problems are common when parsing the lives of actors from a hundred years ago and reconciling them with their real selves. That said, how was Helen Hansen irrefutably linked with the uncredited Patricia Crawford? In 1923, in a San Francisco courtroom, a Grace Crawford Hansen sought to have her marriage annulled from a Harold B. Hansen. That same year, a Patricia Crawford of Vancouver, B.C., married the actor Eddie Phillips. She was still married to him in the 1930 census, where her given name was Helen Phillips and her true age, thirty, which was certainly not rounded to the nearest 10.

And the “takeaway”? Helen Hansen told reporters that the publicity man, press agent, talent scout, and Rappe’s alleged “manager,” Al Semnacher, had asked Hansen to accompany him and Rappe on that long Labor Day weekend. Despite Rappe’s insistence that a friend and fellow actress come, Hansen ultimately refused to go. She told reporters that she had suffered a recent “break down.” Hansen said, too, that Rappe wouldn’t have gone alone with Semnacher, a married man in the midst of divorce proceedings. By Hansen’s estimation, Rappe only went along because Semnacher found a willing party in Maude Delmont.

At this writing, we can only ask questions. But the inclusion of Helen Hansen in the traveling party certainly could change the accepted notion that the trip was intended as nothing more than a day trip to Selma, California, which got extended by chance to include a visit to San Francisco. The fact that Al Semnacher paid for the lodging and meals of his traveling companions at a not inexpensive hotel suggests the purpose of the trip was business rather than pleasure or a mix of the two.

When the first Arbuckle trial opened in the third week of November 1921, another press release about Patricia Crawford appeared in small-town newspapers from Ohio to Mississippi to Kansas. It featured a photograph and no dots connect the person in the image to the Helen Hansen who spoke for Virginia Rappe, even though Crawford and Hansen are the same, as are the string of pearls they clutch.

The three faces of Helen: from left to right, Helen Hansen, Patricia Crawford, and Helen Crawford Hansen (Newspapers.com)

Although Hansen never appeared in any subsequent film as Patricia Crawford, she did take the stand for the prosecution at the second Arbuckle trial on January 23, 1922. If she said anything about Rappe wanting her to come to San Francisco, it wasn’t reported. She only stated that she had never seen Rappe ill, which, by the second trial, was the focal point. Indeed, Rappe’s health was on trial as much as Arbuckle was for fatally injuring her.