Big Alma Spreckels was a big woman with an even bigger story. Her life and legacy shaped the city of San Francisco in ways that will be felt for centuries to come. Many of the Bay Area’s museums and cultural institutions, from the Palace of the Legion of Honor to the San Francisco Maritime Museum, wouldn’t exist without Big Alma’s patronage.
But the story of Big Alma Spreckels is much more exciting than that of generous philanthropist with the penchant for the arts. Alma was larger than life in more ways than one, and lived a life complete with tawdry affairs, crazy riches, and martini pools (yes, really).
Here’s the real hackstory of Big Alma Spreckels, philanthropist, art collector, and sugar baby.
No Plain Danes
Big Alma Spreckels, born Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville, grew up in the Sunset District of San Francisco back when it was just sand dunes and the broken dreams of gold rushers.
Alma’s parents were Danish immigrants descended from Franco-Danish nobility, which basically means that they had that air of “old money” that Rose’s mom in Titanic was always talking about. But the money was not just old – it was gone, so Alma and her six siblings grew up poor. Alma’s mother, Mathilde, kept her family afloat by opening up a Danish bakery–laundry service–massage parlor (aka, a one-stop-shop for treatin’ yo self), where Alma worked full-time after leaving school at 14.
Alma soon discovered a passion for art and enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art to study painting. While studying, she began nude modeling for classes and was in high demand because of her statuesque build (she was a touch over six feet tall) and striking features.
But Alma wanted more in life than just posing naked for artists and knew one surefire way to get what she wanted was to find herself a rich man. As Alma herself put it, “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.”
And soon Alma met just the old man she was a 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 crazy 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. The small fortune, plus Alma’s propensity for drinking martinis big enough to swim nude in (that’s not just a weird reference – that’s an actual thing she also did), solidified her “party girl you don’t mess with” reputation.
From Union Square to Holy Union
Alma’s most recognizable 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 for $30,000 after losing her virginity to the wrong guy?
Soon after posing for the Goddess of Victory statue, Alma, six feet tall and boisterous, caught the eye of Adolph Spreckels. Adolph was loaded (he was the head of Spreckels Sugar Company) and old (24 years Alma’s senior).
At last, fate had given Alma the literal Sugar Daddy of her dreams. For five years, Alma worked on Adolph, until finally, whether because he had fallen deeply in love or he was afraid of a lawsuit, the two were married in 1908.
And lest you think the only similarities between Alma’s husband and Hitler were that both were German and named Adolph…
Spreckels also had syphilis.
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.
Unfortunately, Adolph was also prone to dramatic episodes, once shooting Chronicle and de Young Museum founder Michael de Young in his office after discovering de Young had posted disparaging remarks about his family in the paper. de Young, thankfully, survived. Spreckels claimed temporary insanity, and was acquitted of all charges.
Basically, it’s good to be rich.
The Legion That Alma Built
Having locked down her Sugar Daddy, Alma enjoyed all the material benefits of her new social standing but was often snubbed by those who dwelled on her slightly shady, slightly naked, past.
To up her high society cred, Alma did what all fancy people do and went to Paris to rub beret-covered elbows and collect art. It was there she met sculptor Auguste Rodin and started an art collection that would be become one of the finest in the world.
When Alma returned to San Francisco after WWI, she displayed some of her arts at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s rebirth from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. A temporary French Pavilion was created for the fair and Alma fell in love with it. She ordered an exact replica of it to be created to hold her art collection and thus, the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was born.
Again, it’s good to be rich.
Save a Horse, Marry a Cowboy
After Adolph’s death in 1924, Alma was distraught and spent much of her time collecting and fundraising for various causes, but needed a new project she could really throw herself into. Alma found that passion project in a distressed Parian-themed hotel she wished to renovate, as you do, if you’re an extremely wealthy widow.
It was during this time that Alma also met a rancher named Elmer Awl, which is just about the rancher-est name you can get. Alma and Awl fell fast in love, had a whirlwind romance, and got married.
But Alma soon got the wind whirled right out of her sails when she discovered her beloved Elmer was having an affair with her niece Ulla. 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.
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. The mansion she lived in until her death is now owned by romance author Danielle Steel who is no doubt is inspired by the passion and charisma of the woman who once roamed those halls. So the next time you swim nude, support a cause, or have a big ole martini, pour one out for Big Alma Spreckels, the sweetest sugar baby that ever was.
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