‘Big Alma’: The Philanthropist Firecracker Who Gave Us the Legion of Honor

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A statuesque white woman with long, tousled hair, leans forward clutching a bouquet of flowers.

If you live or work in San Francisco, chances are you already know a little about what Alma de Bretteville Spreckels looked like. That's because the Dewey Monument in the center of Union Square is topped with a statue that, while supposed to represent the Goddess of Victory, was actually modeled after Alma. Sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken hired the 6ft tall beauty, nicknamed "Big Alma", to be his model in 1901—and it was a job that would utterly transform her life.

Alma was born in 1881 to Danish immigrant parents with family ties to France. They raised her in San Francisco's Sunset District, back when it was still known as the "Outside Lands"—a name born from its rugged, sand dune-dominated landscape and sparse population. Early on, Alma acquired a solid work ethic, having watched her mother run three family businesses (a bakery, laundry service and massage parlor) out of their modest home. Alma dropped out of school at 14 to become a stenographer, but she knew early on that her true passions lay with the arts.

Alma's likeness sits atop the Dewey Monument as the "Goddess of Victory" in the heart of Union Square. (Photo by Jason Kempin/ Getty Images for Bud Light)

After taking some classes at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (today's San Francisco Art Institute), Big Alma found herself—thanks to her imposing presence and statuesque figure—inundated with requests to pose for artists. Her willingness to pose nude made her popular, financially comfortable, and totally infamous. That infamy was exacerbated by the fact that she had once sued a boyfriend for "personal defloweration," after he went back on his promise to marry her. (She won $1,250—about $30,000 in today's money.)

Being hired to model for the Dewey Monument wasn't just monumental because it would display Alma's likeness in the heart of San Francisco forever—even Theodore Roosevelt traveled from Washington D.C. for the unveiling in 1903—but it was also how she met her husband. Adolph Spreckels, son of sugar refinery entrepreneur, Claus Spreckels, and heir to a sizeable fortune, was on the Citizen's Committee responsible for funding the construction of the Dewey Monument. The moment he saw the Alma in real life, he was smitten.

Despite a 24-year age gap, Adolph and Alma were an excellent match. He was even more infamous than her when they met, having twice shot a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1884, infuriated that the writer had accused his family of monopolizing the sugar trade. Adolph only stopped shooting when another Chronicle employee shot him in the arm. Remarkably, Adolph was somehow found not guilty of attempted murder at the subsequent  trial, even though his actions seemed premeditated.

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If anything, Adolph's reputation improved after he married Alma, because of the charitable and philanthropic work she consistently engaged in once she was wealthy enough. Alma had been in a relationship with Adolph for five years before they married in 1908. Their honeymoon involved a trip around the world with him, but she took nothing for granted. At some point, she coined the term "sugar daddy" to affectionately describe her husband's generosity, completely unaware that the phrase would live on forever.

It was a title Adolph richly deserved, as he lavished his wife with extravagant gifts until his death in 1924. For Christmas one year, for example, Adolph gave Alma the Spreckels Mansion, which, having been completed in 1913, still stands at 2080 Washington Street. (Unfortunately, the house is no longer visible from the street, thanks to the enormous hedges put in place by current owner, romance author Danielle Steel.)

LEFT: the Spreckels mansion under the care of Alma; RIGHT: Danielle Steel's massive hedge

The Spreckels mansion was not wasted on Alma. Not only did she throw frequent sumptuous parties, full of dancers, socialites, drag queens and, rumor has it, naked swimmers, but she also used it for charitable efforts. During both world wars and the great depression, when Alma wasn't holding high profile charity auctions at high end venues like San Francisco's ornate Palace Hotel, she did so out of her own home. Additionally, in World War II, her over-sized garage was set up to double as a bomb shelter. In tribute to her war efforts, the city of Caen, France gave her honorary citizenship.

It was a fateful trip to Europe in 1914, right before the outbreak of World War I, that culminated in Alma leaving her most meaningful marks on San Francisco, however. While on a vacation in Paris, she became friends with Auguste Rodin and, totally enamored with his work, returned home with 13 of his bronze sculptures.

While displaying them at the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair, Alma fell in love with the Fair's French Pavilion—a three-quarter scale replica of Paris's Palais de la Légion d'Honneur. As the Fair, more formally known as the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, drew to a close, she became obsessed with the idea of setting up a permanent art museum in the city. Six years later, construction began on San Francisco's Legion of Honor—an exact replica of the French Pavilion replica of the Palais—and both France and Romania donated works early. The day the Legion opened,  France's Counsellor of State also awarded Alma with the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur.

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. The museum also contains work by Picasso, Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and more. (Photo by: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the things that made Alma so very special—and unusual—is that her ability to come up with grandiose ideas was always paired with deeply practical ones. From the time that the Legion of Honor opened in 1924, Alma set up and ran high-end thrift stores, with all monies raised going towards funding the Museum. Similarly, during the great depression, she set up several more thrift stores to raise money for the war effort, only to later donate the shops to the Salvation Army. In addition, during World War II, Alma set up the San Francisco League for Servicemen, to get extra supplies to the army and navy. Alma even gave up a ranch in Sonoma County so that soldiers could use it as a recreational space in their downtime.

Alma's final gift to the city was assisting in the construction and foundation of San Francisco's Maritime Museum, which opened in 1951.

The end of Alma's life was significantly quieter than the beginning. After her son died in 1961, she stopped socializing and retreated to the comforts of her mansion. She died in 1968 at the age of 87, of the very same thing that had killed Adolph 44 years earlier: pneumonia. Her funeral, described by the San Francisco Examiner as "perhaps the most opulent in the city's history," was held at her beloved Legion of Honor.

After her death, paying tribute to Big Alma, the Honolulu Advertiser called her, "The grandest of grande dames—a lady who not only gave generously, but lived in high old style, paddling around in her Roman pool daily, nipping appreciatively at her pitcher of martinis, and always talking straight and dry." She was, the newspaper noted, "A San Franciscan, true and through."

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For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here