The “Love Balm” Scandal of 1928 (part 2)

Luckily for Riker, by February 1928 Mrs. Rosencrantz had been picked up for passing bad checks, and was eventually sent to San Quentin as a habitual offender. The love balm suit was transferred to Santa Clara Superior Court in January 1930. By then, Mrs. Rosencrantz had filed a number of other lawsuits against Riker, keeping the newspapers busy for months.

Sky King, flown by stunt pilot Eddie DeLarm, was the only airplane ever to land at the Holy City airfield. Based south of San Francisco, DeLarm’s flight school was where Riker and Evelyn Rosencrantz met in October 1927. I.B. Fisher collection, collection of the author.

“Everybody’s Girl”

Lucille maintained her position as loyal, supportive wife throughout that stormy year. But in the privacy of her own papers, it’s possible she allowed her true feelings to show. In the archives at the Beinecke Library at Yale is a collection of Lucille’s poetry that she sent to a music company in 1941. With the passing of a decade or more, perhaps she felt she could finally express herself, such as in this unpublished song lyric entitled “Everybody’s Girl.” Aside from the allusions to the “girl” being sexually promiscuous, could “on the wing” be a veiled reference to a certain red-headed aviatrix?

She’s everybody’s girl

She’s to every man a pearl,

Sweetheart to all beneath the sun,

She’s in love with every man

In this great big perfect plan,

For to her all men are one.

And while she flits and flutters,

From palaces to gutters,

She smiles for what smiles will bring,

In no one place she’ll tarry,

Least [sic] she’ll be asked to marry,

She’s safe to smile when on the wing.[1]

A person can only wonder why Lucille stayed with Riker when he put her through so much public mortification. Perhaps it was a trade-off. She looked the other way during his affairs and stood by him in court. And in return, the disciples looked up to her as “Mother Lucille,” she had a comfortable home, and most important, she was free to exercise her excellent business sense to make Holy City a much greater success than it would ever have been without her.

Shelley Bates is the author of 42 novels. She writes steampunk and contemporary romance as Shelley Adina; as Adina Senft, writes Amish women’s fiction; and as Charlotte Henry, writes Regency romance. She is currently working on her PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in the UK. Her dissertation is a historical novel entitled The Comforter, about the tumultuous events of 1927–28 in Holy City.

[1] Box 16, Folder 294, Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


The “Love Balm” Scandal of 1928 (part 1)

On New Year’s Eve 1927, a scandal rocked Holy City the likes of which it had never seen. There had been court cases and lawsuits since its founding in 1918, as the whole mountain knew, but nothing like this—a spectacular half-million-dollar breach of promise suit against William E. Riker.

“Woman Sues Cult ‘King’ for $500,000”

Oakland Tribune, December 27, 1927

Called a “love balm” suit, the astronomical sum was to salve the wounded heart of Mrs. Evelyn Rosencrantz, who had been living with Riker for a couple of months in southern California, ostensibly as his secretary. The cozy brown cottage at 3679 Motor Avenue, Culver City, was the headquarters of Riker Productions. Mrs. Rosencrantz was not only to star in the production company’s first movie, entitled The Perfect Woman, but was also to fly Riker’s airplane, The Spirit of Holy City Love, from Holy City to Rome in a publicity stunt to rival the Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. He had, she said, promised her marriage—until two days before Christmas, when he backed out and returned to Holy City.

“Cult King’s Wife Raps Birdwoman”[1]

On New Year’s Day, 1928, Riker and his wife, Lucille, drove to San Francisco to hold a press conference in the offices of their attorney, James J. Bulger. Lucille had already spoken to reporters over the phone. “I feel sorry for the woman if she ever thought she was going to marry my husband, because I’ve been Mrs. Riker for twelve or fourteen years,” she told the San Francisco Examiner. “It looks to me like just another plot to throw scandal on Holy City. And anyone who tries that had better be pretty careful!”[2]

Photo of the Motor Avenue cottage courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Brave words from a woman who would have to stand by her man in the face of a wave of scandal and publicity, calm and well dressed as always, knowing all the while that not only was her rival a six-foot redhead who could actually fly a plane, but also that Mrs. Rosencrantz’s allegations were likely true. If they lost the suit, Holy City would have to be sold, and everything Lucille had built there, the security she as a middle-aged woman would have counted on, would all be taken away. Riker denied everything, going so far as to admit that while he had called Mrs. Rosencrantz “dear,” she had clearly misunderstood him. “We believe that all people should live in brotherly love and mutual regard,” the Examiner quoted him. “We have a wonderful spirit down at Holy City and I call everyone ‘Dear’.”[3]

From his correspondence, this, at least, seems to be true. Mother Lucille went on to say, “This whole thing is caused by an unscrupulous woman after money. You know, some people think that Holy City is a ‘love colony’ and that we practice free love there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This woman is trying to capitalize [on] that popular belief.”

Continued in part 2

[1] “Cult King’s Wife Raps Birdwoman: Cult Folk Warring in $500,000 Love Suit,” Oakland Tribune (Oakland: January 3, 1928), p. 1.

[2] “Woman Sues Cult ‘King’ for $500,000,” San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco: January 1, 1928), p. 1.

[3] “Cult Leader’s ‘Dear’ Misunderstood by Woman, He Says,” San Francisco Examiner (January 3, 1928), p. 15.

The Comforter—PhD thesis

The degree I'm working toward is a PhD in Creative Writing. But what is my dissertation about?

Draft Abstract

This two-part thesis begins with an 80,000-word novel entitled The Comforter – one of the names of the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition, and one of the names appropriated by William E. Riker, the leader of a small utopian group called the Pacific Christian Divine Way based in the town of Holy City, California. In 1919, Riker brought Lucille—his third and last wife—there, where she spent her entire married life.

Set in 1927, the novel features two female points of view – one a fictional Eurasian divorcée named Clara Cercatore (the first name meaning “light” and the second “seeker”), and the other Lucille Riker (whose first name also means “light”). One woman is seeking a place to belong, the other has found her place—or perhaps created it out of what her husband founded. One woman keeps quiet to hide who she is, because Riker’s racist doctrines would have demanded that she go. The other is free to speak—in letters, in poetry, in essays that seem to uphold her husband’s religious theories but offer glimpses into what she might really have been thinking. 

The Comforter tells what did happen and what might have happened in late 1927 and early 1928, when William Riker was sued for half a million dollars for breach of promise by Evelyn Rosencrantz, an aviatrix with whom he was having an affair. So in a way, the novel is really about three women—two present and one absent, and the effects they had upon each other’s lives. 

Hundreds of newspaper articles report on Riker’s car accidents, court cases, and grandstanding, but in his shadow is Lucille, who held Holy City together behind the scenes for thirty years. Lucille’s writing – reams of poetry and essays – was published by the Holy City Press. But she also tried unsuccessfully to be published in a larger arena, sending hymns and popular song lyrics to music companies – even collaborating on a film script. Everyone in the area may have heard of Father Riker, but now, 70 years after her death, hardly anyone remembers Lucille. Part of the purpose of the novel and reflective thesis is to explore her character through the writing she left behind.

Nearly all the characters who populate the novel were real people, whom I seek to bring to life through extensive use of documentary evidence – to be precise, interviews, newspaper accounts, and primary sources such as letters, bills, broadsheets, religious tracts, radio transcripts, and sermons. 

The novel is accompanied by a 20,000-word reflective thesis structured as a literal walk through the ruins of Holy City today. All that remains are the foundations of the observatory, the zoo, and the fountain of holy water. The Riker home, perched on its knoll, is still a private residence. But the restaurant, bottling works, dance hall, dormitories, bar, print shop, market, shoe repair, and finally the seat of The World’s Perfect Government exist now only in black and white photographs. My reflective text works via these foundations and photographs to explore some of the ways in which my novel draws upon the once very real world that was Holy City.

Fact Versus Fiction

This week I’m attending the Kauai Writers Conference to take a “master class” called “Bringing History to Life.” This entails 12 hours of classroom time led by authors Whitney Scharer and Priya Parmar, both of whom have written acclaimed historical novels. 

After introductions and getting an idea of both the breadth of historical fiction being written by the students, and our needs for the class, the discussion seemed to circle around the tension between fact and fiction in this particular corner of literature. Whitney said that invariably when she speaks to groups, someone wants to know, “How much of your book is true?” That’s a hard question to answer. My reply would be a succinct, “All of it is true. Sixty-eight percent of it is factual.”

But this question does remind us that readers like historical fiction because of the historical facts. They read to learn as well as to be entertained. They want a story underpinned by the real, though they’ll accept a certain amount of made-up stuff. But as Priya said, “History is essentially unknowable, because we weren’t there. All you can do is be true to your story and its emotional landscape.”

History is essentially unknowable.

This probably comes as a surprise to those of us who got good marks on our history exams. But from a literary standpoint, if history is unknowable except for the (probably biased and incomplete) facts that someone thought to write down, then how much is a novelist free to make up? Where is the tipping point at which the author loses credibility by going off the known track of history?

In an interview published in the BBC History Magazine in June 2017, Hilary Mantel said, “If you want to foreground real people as actors in your story, you must know as much about them as a biographer would, and then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer can’t go: into the private aspect of the individual, the unshown and unshowable. … You are allowed to speculate, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plausibly.”

Priya Parmar shared that for each novel, she comes up with a frame, a rubric, a code for herself to manage the mix of fact and fiction. For this book, this is how far off the track I will go in service of my characters, real and imagined. 

On a continuum that has Hilary Mantel on one end and E. L. Doctorow on the other, I fall on the Mantel end. I want to be able to point to the facts in my book, and say, “This is what we know happened. And this here? This is what could have happened because of what did happen.” 

We were asked to come up with our own code or rubric for our current project, which in my case, is The Comforter. So, here’s my line in the sand:

“My approach to the facts is to include events on the dates they happened, and use people’s words as they were quoted in newspapers and in the letters they wrote. Facts will form the bones under the personalities and behaviors I create for the people of Holy City. My fiction will fill the negative spaces between the facts.”

It was a good exercise to work through, because this is a question that bothers more experienced historical fiction writers than I. It’s almost a relief to have it worked out in my mind. To give myself permission to write what I believe could have happened, and by doing so, create an emotional landscape of living people as an overlay to the physical landscape still existing at Holy City.


November 5, 2019

The walled grove

Photo by Shelley Bates

In a town that was as much about stasis ("We're going to be immortal!") as about change (if a business wasn't profitable, it was closed), there are still a couple of things that have outlived both William and Lucille Riker and the ravages of time and human misbehavior.

One is the Riker home, which is still lived in. The other is the circle of redwoods once known as the Temple of the Gods. And if you were to walk into the grove and look up, you'd see another feature that seems impervious to time.

Today, the Old Santa Cruz Highway runs past the grove. However, most of the commuters who speed by are oblivious to what happened there, primarily because the trees are protected by a wall of cut stones about the size of bricks, laid a couple of feet thick and some twelve feet high.

There are two stories about the source of these stones. According to the first, they were made by inmates of San Quentin Prison and trucked to Holy City (bringing to mind the old bluegrass tune, "In the Gravel Yard"). According to the second story, they were ballast from a ship sunk in the San Francisco harbor. Between the Gold Rush years and the earthquake of 1906, ships were sometimes sunk on purpose, or for that matter, repurposed, to extend the waterfront. I have no proof of either theory about the stones, but I wonder if their purpose at Holy City was less protection from land movement than protection from prying eyes.

Photo by Shelley Bates

The wall does not extend all the way around the grove; its U-shape only protects the public side. The side facing the town is wide open. The arc gives the effect of a broken or half-constructed apse ... made of stones chipped into shape by other criminals and con men, if the San Quentin story is true. In this natural church, there was no altar then, but instead only the stage on which the Comforter performed. Today, the stage is gone and there is only a homemade ofrenda, with pictures of loved ones and other religious icons left by people over the years.

The wall still protects the quiet grove from what critic Leo Marx calls the “shocking intruder” of the highway and all its traffic (The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, p. 29). The wall excludes people on the one side, but at the same time it invites them in from the other.

Perhaps both the wall and Holy City were at once exclusive and inclusive, depending on the direction from which the curious approached.


SAB, October 25, 2019