It’s a familiar story, whether it’s always true or not: A girl rises from poverty to become one of the wealthiest women in the world, the kind of rags-to-riches story that dreams are made of, or fairy tales.
Born the fifth child out of six to Danish immigrants in San Francisco, Alma de Bretteville (her father claimed descent from royalty, an unfortunate condition that seemed to prevent his finding employment) started working in her mother’s bakery-laundry-massage business when she was 14. She later entered art school, and earned extra money by posing as a nude model.
This led to some local popularity, understandably, and when she was 24 she met her future husband, sugar scion Adolph Spreckels. He was so enchanted by her he cast the deciding vote in a contest to select the sculpture for the Dewey Monument of a statuesque Nike, goddess of victory. (Alma was a fitting model, 6 feet tall by most accounts.) The statue is still there, rising 85 feet above Union Square, giving Alma a sort of bronze immortality – though in some ways, it’s the least of her accomplishments.
Alma and Adolph were finally married in 1908. Though he was 24 years older than she, he did have money from the Spreckels sugar fortune – becoming, as it were, the first “sugar daddy.”
In San Francisco they became extremely influential, primarily in the world of art due to Alma’s interest and passion. She became a collector of Rodin’s work following her trips to Paris, much of which is still housed in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor – a building the couple built to replicate the French Pavilion from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
After living for a time in Pacific Heights and Sausalito, Adolph and Alma built an estate in Sonoma, the 3,000-acre Sobre Vista. Their mansion still stands, though the estate’s acreage has been depleted somewhat over time through subdivision.
She died in 1968, having outlived her “sugar daddy” by 44 years.
More details on the scandalous and colorful life of Alma Spreckels will be unveiled in Danica Hodge’s lecture, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” Hodge recently edited the revised edition of Bernice Scharlach’s “Big Alma: San Francisco’s Alma Spreckles,” first published in 1990.
The lecture, part of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s “Second Saturday” series, to be held at Depot Park Museum on Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. Admission is $5, free to historical society members and docents.