Northside SF
The Back Story
The St. Francis Hotel: History of a San Francisco grande dame
The St. Francis today (photo: Courtesy of the Rockwell Group)
Both high drama and low comedy have played out on the stagelike settings of the world’s great hotels. The rich and famous, the infamous, and just plain folks have performed leading roles against backdrops of gilded lobbies and mirrored bedchambers. Here is more history of the Saint Francis.

Many U.S. presidents have either stayed in the St. Francis or attended major functions there. So have kings, queens, emperors, and others, titled and entitled.

Japan’s Emperor Hirohito stayed there in 1975. Once considered Japan’s sun god, it was forbidden to raise your eyes to see him. But that was all in the past. Although an entourage that included a grand chamberlain, master of ceremonies, imperial physician, pharmacist, and even a hairdresser accompanied him, Hirohito’s desires were simple: He wanted to discuss marine biology (an expert came up from Stanford) and to take a tour of the City.

When Queen Elizabeth II visited San Francisco in 1983, she stayed in the presidential suite of the St. Francis. On hand was President Ronald Reagan, who stayed in the London suite, named for the flamboyant, longtime manager Dan London. The queen occupied one bedroom, Prince Philip the other. When the royal couple checked out, a hot water bottle with the royal crest was found in the queen’s bed. It was not revealed if the Reagans occupied the same bedroom in their suite.

Richard Nixon stayed at the St. Francis when he was president. He needed 160 rooms for advisors, bodyguards, advance men, press aides, photographers, doctors, valets, and technicians. Nixon had a late-night craving for milk and Oreo cookies. The milk was in the fridge. The hotel sent a bellman to a 24-hour convenience store for the cookies.

In September 1975, President Gerald Ford attended a luncheon at the hotel. Later accompanied by general manager Bob Wilhelm, celebrating his first day on the job, Ford exited onto Post Street and was shot at by a middle-aged, self-styled radical, Sara Jane Moore. She missed.

U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz and Adm. William Halsey planned the World War II attack on Okinawa in a St. Francis suite.

In 1951 when five-star general of the Army Douglas MacArthur was recalled from the Korean War by President Harry Truman, he flew to San Francisco and spent the night at the hotel before flying on to Washington, D.C. to speak before Congress. More than 500,000 MacArthur fans gathered to see the general.

Pampering temperamental celebrities has always been a specialty of the St. Francis. Without a disapproving eye, Ethel Barrymore’s pet chimpanzee was looked after without question. Florenz Ziegfeld’s ingénue wife, Anna Held, got 30 gallons of milk per day – for her bath. The unrestrained dancer Isadora Duncan checked in and shared her quarters with her pianist, that is, until his wife ordered him out. Charlie Chaplin, who was shooting some of his great silent films across the bay in Niles Canyon, was introduced at the St. Francis to Edna Purviance, who became his longtime lover.

But it was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle whose name became forever linked to the St. Francis. On Labor Day of 1921, the hefty silent film star spent a scandalous night partying in his suite with friends. Among them was a model and would-be actress, Virginia Rappe, who died mysteriously in suite 1221.

Arbuckle was accused of raping her and stood trial for manslaughter. The jury found him not guilty, but his career was ruined. Eventually the furor died down, and Arbuckle tried leading an orchestra and sang and danced a bit. He also directed a few films under the name Will B. Good.

In 1927 Al Jolson filmed much of the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, near Union Square. Jolson liked the St. Francis and in 1950 stayed in suite 1221. While playing poker with his manager and his piano player, he died of a heart attack. Today suite 1221 is the most requested suite at the St. Francis.

The 1920 Democratic National Convention was the first national political convention held on the West Coast. Delegates hung around the St. Francis, which published a daily newsletter called The St. Francis Lobbyist. The first issue featured this message: “As Chief of Police of the City of San Francisco, permit me to extend to you the courtesy of committing any crime within reason while a guest of this community.”

Big time newspaper writers like H.L. Mencken covered the convention, which nominated Governor James Cox of Ohio. Republican Warren G. Harding later defeated Cox. Mencken, the Baltimore Sun columnist who obviously enjoyed his time in San Francisco, praised the City by writing: “What fetched me instantly (and thousands of other newcomers with me) was the subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States. It [San Francisco] is no more American, in the sense that America has come to carry, than a wine festival in Spain or a carnival in Nice.”

Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the St. Francis; so regular that when he checked in the chef automatically prepared abalone from a personal Hemingway recipe: “Fry in oil, to which a little butter has been added, to a light brown like fried oysters. Oil must be sizzling before putting the abalone in. Time: A few minutes. Serve promptly with a little butter and lemon. Pop Ernest.” In 1943 Hemingway took Ingrid Bergman to dinner in the Mural Room to persuade her to take the leading role in the film of his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. He succeeded.

And so it goes at the St. Francis: high drama and low comedy – and the rest is history.
Ernest Beyl is a San Francisco writer and has roots in the St. Francis. He remembers dancing in the Mural Room. E-mail:

March 2012
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