Alma Spreckels Got Her Sugar Daddy
© Copyright 2019 by Dale Fehringer
Illustration by John Milestone.
Alma Spreckels, a well-known arts patron and philanthropist in 19th century San Francisco, knew what she wanted and went after it. In the end, she got her "sugar daddy."
Alma Spreckels spent a lifetime trying to influence the city she so badly wanted to accept her. In the process, the 19th century San Francisco heartthrob left behind several monuments and an enduring legend.
“Big” Alma knew what she wanted and she went after it. She had aspirations of glamour, which she vigorously pursued and often obtained through determination, imagination, and sometimes just dumb luck.
Born in 1881 into a family with a father who claimed he was of royal heritage and didn’t need to work, Alma de Bretteville dropped out of school to help her mother support the family. She studied art and used her wholesome beauty and well-sculptured body to find work as a model, posing (sometimes naked) for artists, and for the bronze statue atop the peace monument in Union Square.
She sought a rich husband, saying she would rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave, and she succeeded when (after years of effort) she talked Adolph Spreckels, a sugar baron, into marrying her. She took his name and spent his money.
Publically, Alma referred to her husband, who was 24 years her senior, as her “sugar daddy.” When he died, she became the richest woman in the West. Not generally accepted by San Francisco’s high society, she threw lavish parties (that were often not well-attended), drank and smoked, and cussed like a sailor.
Alma used her wealth to travel and build a villa in the north end of San Francisco that is still known as the Spreckels’ Mansion. She loved art and wanted to appear cultured, so she bought sculptures and paintings and with her sugar daddy donated funds to build the Legion of Honor art museum that is still an attraction for locals and tourists.
Alma spent a lifetime social climbing, but she never reached the top. Her later years were lonely; she donated to San Francisco causes, drank pitchers of martinis, swam in her private indoor pool, and mourned her declining social status.
her ambitions had exceeded her attainment, she had led the life she
wanted, left a legacy to the city she loved, and above all else she
got her sugar daddy.
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