In San Francisco, the Legion of Honor Museum looks over the Bay.
As children growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, we were told many stories about the Legion of Honor: how the French government approved of it as an architectural replica of the Palais de la Légion d’honneur, or how it was built on top of the former Golden Gate Cemetery, or the number of unearthed bodies that surfaced during its construction.
But a lesser-known story has to do with the sculpture of a Greek goddess looking over Union Square: that of a woman named Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the museum founder.
Not to mention the greatest sugar baby the West Coast has ever seen.
Alma de Bretteville Spreckels was a San Francisco art collector and socialite in the early 20th century. Towering at six feet tall, she was also known as “Big Alma.”
But her story is even bigger. As a San Francisco native, Alma was born to a poor Danish immigrant family. She dropped out of school to help the family business, but eventually returned to art school and took up nude modeling as a side hustle.
Adolph, himself, had a notorious history to match his soon-to-be wife’s.
But Alma wanted more in life than nude modeling and knew one surefire way to get what she wanted was to find herself a rich man.
Soon Alma met the old man she was looking for, an ex-miner named Charlie Anderson.
Alma quickly became Anderson’s mistress. Later, when Anderson refused to marry Alma, she got pissed and sued him for “personal de-floweration.”
The juiciest part? She won!
Alma didn’t get the $50,000 that she originally asked for but walked away with a respectable sum of $1,250, which is about $30,000 today.
With that backstory, it’s time to get into the meat and potatoes of Alma’s life.
Her most recognizable nude modeling gig was posing for a sculptor named Robert Aitken. Aitken was creating a statue to honor the victory of the American navy at Manila Bay under a Naval commander named Dewey and needed a model for the “Goddess of Victory” at the top. Who better to represent the Goddess of Victory than a woman who had won a lawsuit against a man who refused to put a ring on it?
Soon after posing for the Goddess of Victory statue, Alma, six feet tall and boisterous, caught the eye of Adolph Spreckels.
Spreckels was loaded, the heir to the Spreckels Sugar Company. Although the Spreckels owned railroads, shipping companies, and real estate, they were best known as sugar tycoons.
Adolph, himself, had a notorious history to match his soon-to-be wife’s. Previously, he had attempted to assassinate Mike De Young, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Who better to represent the Goddess of Victory than a woman who had won a lawsuit against a man who refused to put a ring on it?
Allegedly, Adolph was upset that the Chronicle accused the Spreckels’ business of being a monopoly (which they were). De Young survived by deflecting the bullet with a package of books—proving that books are actually the best weapons; and Adolph, to the surprise of everyone in the city, got off scot-free.
With Spreckels’ and the De Young’s respective fortunes, this was the equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial, reminding everyone that money buys freedom.
For Adolph, money also bought love. According to legend, Adolph saw Aitken’s statue and demanded to meet its model.
When Adolph met Alma, he was 50 years old (24 years her senior!), and she affectionately referred to him as her “sugar daddy,” coining the popular term that is still used today. “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s [property],” Alma used to say.
“I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s [property],” Alma used to say.
“At breakfast all over town that Sunday, June 8, 1908, San Franciscans opening the morning papers rattled their cups and spilt their coffee when they read the headlines,” wrote a Chronicle reporter in 1990. “Readers knew who she was, and who (he) was, but they had no idea that the two of them knew each other.”
Sure enough, Adolph lived up to that nickname.
After their marriage in 1908, he gifted Alma the 55-room Spreckles Mansion, tearing down surrounding houses to create a panoramic view of the Bay. The manor still stands at 2080 Washington Street in San Francisco, although it is now owned by romance author Danielle Steele.
At the time, Alma hosted parties that included socialites, drag queens, and artists such as author Jack London, sculptor Earl Cummings, and dancer Loie Fuller.
Despite her party hosting skills, Alma was occasionally snubbed by the San Francisco society for her less-than-“reputable” past.
Of course, a trip to Paris fixes everything. On this vacation, Alma met Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor best known for The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. After purchasing 13 pieces of his work, she convinced her husband to establish a permanent art museum inspired by the French Palais de la Légion d’honneur (French for “Palace of the Legion of Honour”).
The Spreckels had three children together before Adolph passed away. The awkward part?
When Adolph and Alma got married, he somehow “forgot” to tell his new wife that he had some untreated syphilis. Alma only discovered this after the birth of their third child. Fortunately, neither Alma nor their children contracted the disease.
Later, Alma would move on, marrying a cowboy named Elmer Awl. But this would end in divorce as she discovered Awl was having an affair with her niece. With “a very large pitcher of martinis and a very big box of Kleenex,” according to the Chronicle, Alma successfully secured her divorce with Awl.
By the time she passed away in 1968, she was known as the “great grandmother of San Francisco.”
Elmer and Ulla later married, leaving Alma left with only the small peace that came with knowing her niece would have to live her life as Ulla Awl.
By the time she passed away in 1968, she was known as the “great grandmother of San Francisco.” Not only did her philanthropic work establish the Legion of Honor Museum, but it also supported the San Francisco League for Servicemen, the Maryhill Museum of Art, and the San Francisco’s Maritime Museum.
Today, you can still see Alma as Aitken’s Goddess of Victory in the San Francisco Union Square. Big Alma Spreckels died of pneumonia at 87 years old, but her impact on the city of San Francisco and the art world at large will live on forever.
Here’s to the sweetest (and coolest) sugar baby there ever was.
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