Entry Author: Christopher
Considered by many local historians to be the "great
grandmother of San Francisco," the heiress to the fortune
of sugar baron Adolph Spreckels was born Alma le Normand
de Bretteville on a sandy farm in the city's Sunset District
in 1881. Alma's parents, both Danish immigrants, struggled
with near poverty during much of her early childhood.
Her father, Viggio de Bretteville, claimed a distant lineage
to French aristocracy and delighted in telling his children
of their "royal" heritage.
San Francisco Public Library (Photo ID#AAD-3011)
He had a distaste for work in general and
became embittered and jealous of San Francisco's nouveau
riche, whom he viewed as commoners, undeserving of their
Gold Rush wealth and privilege.
Alma's mother, Mathilde de Bretteville, had
assumed the role of sole provider for the near impoverished
family by the time Alma reached school age. Through her
ingenuity and good business sense, Mathilde managed to move
the family to a downtown flat on Francisco Street that the
stoic matriarch converted into a combination Danish bakery,
laundry service, and massage parlor.
At age 14, Alma was told by her father to quit school and
work with her mother full-time, which she did, providing
pickup and delivery laundry service to the palatial residences
of the city's elite. She continued to read and educate herself,
enjoying biographies of accomplished notables and the local
A fascination with fine art led her to enroll in night classes
at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute, where she studied painting
miniatures during her late teens. Her wholesome beauty began
to make heads turn and she soon found herself working as
an artist's model at the school, which paid for her lessons.
Fed up with her meager financial situation, she accepted
lucrative offers to pose in the nude for various local artists,
who provided tastefully risqué paintings to the many
saloons found along the city's infamous Cocktail Route.
With money to spend on stylish attire, and a growing local
notoriety from her modeling ventures, Alma blossomed into
a proper belle of San Francisco and attracted the affection
of miner Charlie Anderson, whom she later successfully sued
for "personal defloweration" in a breach of promise
suit that made newspaper headlines. Local novelty became
self-assured celebrity as Alma secured the position of model
for sculptor Robert Aitken. His creation, a monument honoring
naval hero Admiral Dewey and the recently assassinated president
William McKinley, would feature the buxom temptress as a
triumphant bronze libertine atop a granite pedestal, her
right arm outstretched, holding the laurel wreath of peace
towards the horizon, her left arm, raised above her head,
valiantly pointing a trident to the heavens.
The memorial still stands today in the center of Union Square
and is a recognizable backdrop in several notable films
including Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and Francis
Coppola's "The Conversation." A huge hit on its
unveiling in 1902, the towering tribute to the Republic
was one of many entries to the Citizen's Committee in charge
of the landmark's funding, and Aitken's work would not have
been chosen had it not been for the crucial vote of the
Committee's chairman, wealthy bachelor Adolph Spreckels.
Adoph was the loyal son of German-American industrialist
Claus Spreckels, who had amassed a fortune growing a sugar
production empire that virtually monopolized Hawaii and
most of the western hemisphere. After Adolph was granted
his initial introduction to "Miss Republic," the
two courted seriously for five years. She learned much about
the world and the refined culture of the Gilded Age through
her well-traveled suitor, who was 22 years her senior.
It wasn't until 1908 that the sugar magnate, horse fancier,
and yachtsman finally gave in to Alma's demands for marriage.
The newlyweds moved into Adolph's Sausalito residence where
Alma soon gave birth to a daughter, Alma Emma Spreckles,
in 1909. Returning to San Francisco, Adolph purchased a
temporary house on Vallejo Street, and as a Christmas present
to Alma, he purchased the Jean Boyd house, located at the
corner of Washington and Octavia Streets. The Victorian-style
Boyd house, bought specifically for its breathtaking view
of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, was torn down,
and several nearby homes were purchased and physically moved
down the street to make room for a new mansion designed
by architects Kenneth MacDonald Jr. and George Applegarth.
In 1911, Alma gave birth to a son, Adolph Bernard Jr., and
the family's new massive Beaux Arts style mansion was completed
in 1913. With the luxury of a staff of nannies and liveried
servants, Alma began to focus her attention away from childrearing
and towards the role of a proper high society hostess, not
an easy feat, considering that most of San Francisco's power
elite turned their noses up at the freethinking firebrand
whose humble origins and association with "bohemian"
artists caused controversy in an era of stifling Victorian
Alma forged ahead however, and hosted several lavish parties
at the opulent Pacific Heights residence. Although there
were many local high society "no-shows," many
city notables did attend, including writer Jack London,
sculptor Earl Cummings, and 1906 Earthquake celebrity Dick
Hotaling, whose whiskey warehouse was spared the flames
of the devastating fire that followed, inspiring a popular
poem of the day.
Alma gave birth to her last child, Dorothy Constance, in
1913. Adolph's health soon began to deteriorate and Alma
learned that her husband was suffering from progressed stages
of syphilis. Luckily the disease had been in a latent, non-contagious
stage during their years of physical intimacy, and had not
been passed on to Alma or the children. Apparently Adolph
knew he had the condition prior to their meeting and kept
it from Alma, which explained his reluctance to marry her.
Alma took the news in stride, and was relieved to end the
sexual relationship with her husband, finding her hands
more than full with her three children.
Intent on elevating the Spreckles name to a more prestigious
level among the city's upper class, Alma set her sights
on Europe, arriving in Paris in 1914. Originally planned
as a shopping spree for 18th century furniture, Alma's adventure
on the tumultuous continent on the brink of war was highlighted
by an introduction to the vaudeville veteran and modern
dance sensation Loie Fuller. World-renowned since her 1892
debut at the Folies-Bergere performing her notorious "Serpentine
Dance," the Illinois-born "La Loie" was still
the toast of Paris when Alma met her at a dinner party held
at the exclusive Parisian restaurant, Ciro's. Alma became
enthralled by the dance artist's colorful life and friendships
with continental aristocracy, and Loie in turn felt great
affection towards the wealthy American socialite who, with
Loie's contacts and encouragement, would turn into one of
the most important art collectors in America.
Through Loie, Alma met the pioneering sculptor Auguste Rodin,
whose works made an indelible impression on the culture-hungry
Alma, as well as on Loie Fuller, who had previously tried
to promote Rodin's works in the US.
Alma returned to San Francisco just as World War I was breaking
out in Europe, and she immediately set about acquiring several
works by San Francisco sculptor Arthur Putnam, who would
receive regular patronage from his new benefactor for the
rest of his life.
Alma then recruited the assistance of Loie Fuller to purchase
the Rodin bronzes, which she successfully accomplished through
much persistence, eventually securing 13 of the masterworks
for Alma, as well as some of the artist's drawings. Alma's
beloved statues made their San Francisco premiere at the
Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, where Alma,
mesmerized by the beauty of the fair's French Pavilion,
got the idea to build a museum of equal attractiveness,
to permanently house her Rodin pieces and other objects
d'art she had begun to acquire.
Click here for the continuation
of the story.
 The Spreckels mansion at 2080 Washington Street
is currently not open to the public and is the private residence
of successful writer Danielle Steel.
 "If, as they say, God spanked this town
For being much too frisky,
Why did He burn His churches down
And save Hotaling's Whiskey?"
Scharlach, Bernice. Big Alma: San Francisco's Alma Spreckels
Publisher: Scottwall Associates, 1995