You may never have heard of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, but if you live or work in San Francisco, chances are you already know exactly what she looks 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, 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 Danish bakery, laundry service and massage parlor) out of their modest home. Alma dropped out of school at 14 to become a stenographer, but from early on in her life, she knew that her true passion lay with the arts.
After taking some classes at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (today's San Francisco Art Institute), she 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. The latter wasn't helped 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, which is about $30,000 in today's money.)
Being hired to be the 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 the reason 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 model the statue was based on, he was smitten.
Despite a 24-year age gap, Adolph and Alma were a good 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 at the subsequent Attempted Murder trial, even though his actions were clearly premeditated.