St. Francis Hotel
Few hotels can boast the storied history of the St. Francis. Built in 1904, the hotel survived the 1906 earthquake, has hosted numerous celebrities and other luminaries, and has seen more than a few scandals over its long career.
Backstory and Context
The hotel was immediately popular, and became a hub of the city's artistic and literary life. Two years after it opened, however, San Francisco was devastated by the 1906 earthquake. The building's structure withstood the earthquake, but the ensuing fire destroyed the hotel's interior. The hotel reopened in late 1907, and the grand Magneta clock was placed in the lobby to mark the event. For more than a century, San Franciscans have told each other "Meet me at the clock."
Another wing was added to the hotel in 1908, and other additions followed. These additions made the St. Francis the largest hotel on the West Coast at that time.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the St. Francis became one of the most fashionable hotels in the city, with a large following among celebrities and public figures. Among the hotel's many notable guests were President Woodrow Wilson, former president Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, Cecil B. DeMille, and many others. According to legend, John Barrymore was in bed with a female guest at the time of the 1906 earthquake, but initially attributed the rumbling and swaying walls to passion.
If famous guests were a boon for the hotel, they also occasionally came with a cost. One of Hollywood's first great scandals grew out of an event at the St. Francis in 1921. Comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle threw a Labor Day party in a suite of rooms at the hotel. Arbuckle summoned a doctor to his room to report that a young woman, Virginia Rappe, was ill. The young actress died days later, and a friend of hers claimed that Arbuckle raped the woman. Her testimony was considered unreliable, and Arbuckle was tried three times; the first two trials resulted in a hung jury and he was acquitted in the third trial. The scandal did lasting damage to Arbuckle, however; his career never recovered.
Interestingly, the singer and performer Al Jolson died of a heart attack in 1950, in the same suite of rooms made infamous by Fatty Arbuckle.
The St. Francis was nearly the site of another famous death in 1975, when a woman named Sara Jane Moore fired two shots at President Gerald Ford as he exited the hotel. A bystander, who happened to be a former Marine, grabbed Moore's arm as she fired the second time, possibly saving Ford's life.
In 1972, a 32-story tower was added to the St. Francis, making the hotel one of the largest in the city.