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The Poet of Holy City (part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

William Riker was the front man at Holy City, the unquestioned authority on every matter, from staff behavior in the restaurant to who would be allowed to drive the new cars he bought. Strolling around in a suit, he did none of the actual labor.

“Mother” Lucille appears to have run Holy City behind the scenes, managing the disciples, deciding who stayed and who left, and overseeing its day-to-day operations. Then, at night, she would write. Below is the first verse of six in her poem “Your Holy City,” which promotes Riker’s role—The Law Divine in tangible form she refers to.

On that spot where God – the Law Divine

In tangible form may be seen,

In all holiness and completeness,

Stands a city, calm and serene.

It is here you may see God in action

Expressing through the flesh of mankind.

To the pure in heart and the worthy,

On this spot alone, peace may they find.

 

The road that leads into this city

Is by name – “The King’s Highway”

There in the Holy Cross Mountains

Is a scene that cannot fade away;

It is picturesque and it is pleasing,

For sacredness reigns there supreme,

It being the seat of order and law,

Holy City is both angel and queen. (1)

In the 1920s, Holy City was bringing in revenue to the tune of $100,000 a year from the peep shows, the stores, the garage and gas station, the restaurant, the observatory, the bottling works, the zoo, and the radio station. While the disciples were not paid for their labor, in return for having turned all their worldly goods over to Riker, they got full room and board and all expenses paid, whether that meant a trip to the dentist or a vacation. They had other time off, too—on summer afternoons, Lucille would gather the few female disciples for a picnic in the cool of the redwood grove they called the Temple of the Gods, and read selections of her poems aloud. 

Her only publisher was the Holy City Press (“High class work,” its signage proclaimed). Her poetry was published in several forms: in booklets, in the Holy City Hurrah newspaper, on broadsheets, and as frontispieces to Riker’s rambling treatises on subjects ranging from capital punishment to his theories of immortality. 

In 1941 Lucille sent to a music house a selection of poems written specifically as lyrics with choruses, aimed at the popular song market. But since these may not have been meant for her core readers in Holy City, perhaps they hold a clue to her real feelings about her husband’s many affairs while she was living in celibacy for the church’s sake. 

Beware, hands off, intruder,

That man belongs to me.

I have the right to own him,

For he owns me, you see.

 

Our kind of love is unique,

We love the self-same things,

Things that are unfailing,

Then love to us, love brings.

 

So he belongs to me,

For he is of my kind,

And I belong to him,

For we are of one mind.

 

We love the law that begets life,

Its bidding we obey;

The fulfillment of that law,

Will bring love that will stay. (2)

It’s difficult to know how Lucille Riker really felt about having to defend her husband to the newspapers about his affairs (“Holy City Cult Head Faces $500,000 L.A. Suit: ‘Dance Nearest Heaven’” [3]). Or to appear in court at his side after yet another car accident caused by his complete disregard for traffic laws (“Riker Crash Victim Dies” [4]). But in her poetry and songs she could speak—maybe even speak the truth.

While both Lucille and her husband are long dead, her poems live on in historical archives such as History San Jose, UC Santa Cruz Special Collections, and the Beinecke Library at Yale University. For a woman silenced by her husband’s constant talking and bullying in real life, maybe it’s fitting that her poems still exist, still speaking for her a century later.

 


(1) Riker, Lucille, “Your Holy City,” Levitation and Perfection: The Mystery Revealed (Alma: Holy City Press, undated), I.B. Fisher Collection, Undated Publications 1914–1941, collection of the author.

(2) Riker, Lucille, “He Belongs To Me,” Unpublished manuscripts, 1926–1944. Yale University, Beinecke Library, Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection, WA MSS S-1737, Box 16, Folder 294.

(3) “Holy City Cult Head Faces $500,000 L.A. Suit: ‘Dance Nearest Heaven’”, Los Angeles Evening Herald (Los Angeles: January 11, 1928). I.B. Fisher Collection, Folder 1928, collection of the author.

(4) “Riker Crash Victim Dies,” The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco: March 9, 1929). I.B. Fisher Collection, Folder 1929, collection of the author.

Copyright 2019 by Shelley Adina Bates. First printed in the Mountain Network News, Vol. MMXIX, No. 7 (Los Gatos: July 2019).

The Poet of Holy City (part 1)

Lucille Riker, as pictured in the Oakland Tribune, January 3, 1928

Many mountain residents know the story of Holy City, founded in 1918 by Father William E. Riker, who died in 1969. But not so many people now remember his wife Lucille, who was a college-educated woman from a well-to-do family in the Midwest, and who had met Riker on one of his preaching junkets. Even fewer people remember now that Lucille was a poet and a songwriter who was actively trying to break into the music market as late as 1941.

Before Riker and the disciples of the Perfect Christian Divine Way (PCDW) moved to the clearing in the woods that became Holy City, they lived at church headquarters at 674 Hayes Street in San Francisco. A 1918 edition of The Enlightener, the PCDW newsletter, features Lucille’s poetry, which was of the sentimental type found in women’s magazines of the time. But instead of stanzas rhapsodizing about sunsets and apple-cheeked children, from the beginning Lucille’s poems were written in support of her husband’s religious ambitions. That didn’t mean she ignored other subjects—in 1926 the Holy City Press published “Facts About San Francisco,” a 20-stanza paean to her favorite city. 

San Francisco, the great metropolis

Of the Golden West, serene—

Reaches out her arms of welcome

With the grace of a real Queen.

To the waters round about her,

She bestows on them a smile

When she sees the ships in harbor,

Metropolitan in style. (1)

But the bulk of Lucille’s output was religious in theme, supporting Riker’s doctrines and philosophies. As time went on and he became more blatantly white supremacist in his writing and speeches, Lucille’s poetry sought to soften his rhetoric and re-establish the spiritual element that had been there in the beginning, as in “The Divine Plan” from 1931:

O, blessed be the human race,

When once they find their lawful place;

Each one in order at the wheel,

Will bring forth heaven that is real—

Upon this earth is the ideal place

To witness heaven and God to face;

This earth is fairyland as well,

When woman can bid adieu to hell.

An angel is a human being,

With mind pure, and eye all seeing;

Man is a God, when conscience is clear

To onward press, and know no fear.

Equality means all on a level,

A balance, then you have tied the Devil. (2)

For the PCDW (known to its critics as the Pacific Coast Devil Worshippers, probably as a result of Lucille’s poem “Devil Worship”) was not exactly a church. Back in his single days, when he was a tie salesman, Riker saw that the best way to relieve people of their money was not in neckwear, but in religion. He tried being a fortune-teller, then a yogi, and finally became a traveling street-corner preacher, which is when his instincts proved to be right and he saw his greatest success. With Lucille and her business brain by his side, the PCDW began to make money, and when the group moved to the Holy City site, its moneymaking possibilities kicked into high gear. Lucille’s poem “My California Home Among the Trees” from 1932 illustrates why:

Automobiles by the score,

Each day pass by my door

Seeking pleasures, scenery and rest.

They have left their city home,

To in the mountains roam

Among the tall trees God has blessed. (3) 

(continued in next post)

 

(1) Riker, Lucille, Facts About San Francisco (Holy City: Holy City Press, 1926), University of California Santa Cruz, Special Collections

(2) Riker, Lucille, “The Divine Plan,” in Hurrah, Vol. 1, No. 7, page 3 (Holy City: Holy City Press, November 1931).

(3) Riker, Lucille, “My California Home Among the Trees,” in Hurrah, Vol.1, No.12, p. 5 (Holy City: Holy City Press, April 1932), I.B. Fisher Collection, Folder 1932, collection of the author.

Copyright 2019 by Shelley Adina Bates. First printed in the Mountain Network News, Vol. MMXIX, No. 7 (Los Gatos: July 2019)