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.

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