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Spreckels [née de Bretteville], Alma Emma

Philanthropist, Socialite, and Patron of the Arts

Part 1
Entry Author: Christopher Craig


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.

ca 1947
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 society columns.

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. [1]

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 mores.

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.[2]

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.

Footnotes
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] The Spreckels mansion at 2080 Washington Street is currently not open to the public and is the private residence of successful writer Danielle Steel.

[2] "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?"

Bibliography

Scharlach, Bernice. Big Alma: San Francisco's Alma Spreckels
Publisher: Scottwall Associates, 1995

QUICK FACTS

Born: March 24, 1881
Married in 1908
Received the Cross of the Legion of Honor on November 11, 1924
Died: August 7, 1968

RELATED INFORMATION

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OUTSIDE RESOURCES

+ Dewey Monument
+ Panama Pacific International Exposition
+ Legion of Honor

 

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