Celebrating Big Alma

March 24, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, a time to honor and celebrate women from all walks of life. And so, there is no better time to celebrate the founder of the Legion of Honor, Alma Spreckels. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (1881–1968), known to many as “Big Alma,” was a phenomenal figure in San Francisco history. A bold, affluent, successful philanthropist, Big Alma was a force to be reckoned with from an early age. Drawn from the book, Big Alma: San Francisco’s Alma Spreckels, here are some intriguing facts about her life and accomplishments:

  • Alma quite literally established herself as the symbol of San Francisco. She was the model for the famous Robert Aitken statue that now stands at the top of the Dewey Monument in Union Square.
  • She was nothing if not bold. How bold, exactly? According to Big Alma, she “swore like a sailor, swam naked in her pool, and took her false teeth out after dinner in front of guests and placed them in a glass beside her.”
  • When Alma was only 14 years old, she quit school to help her mother support their family. While Alma’s father refused to work, her mother moved the family to the San Francisco inner city, where she opened and ran a business—a combination bakery, massage service, and laundry service.
  • When Alma was 19 she began seeing Charlie Anderson, a successful miner. After a very brief courtship, she sued him for $50,000 for “breach of promise” to marry her. She won the case and was awarded $1,250. She referred to the trial as “the time I sued for personal defloweration, and by God, I won.” This trial put her in the limelight, and made her a celebrity in San Francisco
Big Alma posing with flowers

Courtesy Adolph Rosenkrans; photo by Randy Dodson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

  • Despite quitting school at a young age, Alma still valued cultural education. She took night classes to study miniature painting and worked as an artist’s model to pay for school.
  • The name “Big Alma” didn’t just come from Alma’s larger-than-life, flamboyant nature. The lady in question also stood at a whopping six feet tall!
  • As many know, The Legion of Honor and the de Young are interconnected, but that might have come as a shock to a young Alma and her first husband. The Spreckels and de Young families were actually extremely hostile towards one another. Alma’s husband, Adolph, was known to have shot Michael H. de Young, and Alma would frequently remind de Young’s daughters of the event: “We haven’t been friends since my husband shot their father.”
Robert Aitken statue being installed

Courtesy Adolph Rosenkrans; photo by Randy Dodson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

  • She was flamboyant and bold, to be sure, but she was also kind. After the 1906 earthquake, Golden Gate Park became home to a tent city that housed people who were left homeless by the disaster. Alma helped organize community kitchens staffed by local housewives. She directed relief trucks and organized schoolteachers to round up children so they could resume classes in the park.
  • Alma lived to be 87 years old, eventually becoming known as the “Great-Grandmother of San Francisco.” Big Alma quotes a particularly awestruck Danish reporter: “[she was] the most impressive great-grandmother we have ever met…Smoking cigarettes, scintillating with platinum jewelry and with quite a garden represented in the flowers of her hat… She is the richest lady of the Western America.”
Portrait of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels

Sir John Lavery, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, 1932. Oil on canvas, 46 x 36 (116.8 x 91.4 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, 1951.40 

  • Of course, we love Alma best for founding the Legion of Honor. Her architectural inspiration for the Legion of Honor's building was the French Pavilion from San Francisco's 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, a building that was itself a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris.

Text by Alexandra Giacomini, the Spring 2017 content development intern at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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