It’s one of San Francisco’s best-loved monuments — the figure of a heartbreakingly beautiful girl balancing lightly atop a granite column high above Union Square. She soars above both pedestrians and pigeons, gracefully clutching trident and victory laurels, lifting her shapely arms in triumph over the city of San Francisco.

It was intended to memorialize Admiral Dewey, a hero of the 1898 Spanish-American war. But in the century since then, it’s honoured this now-obscure naval officer in name only; the statue has become inextricably identified with its model, one of its wealthiest and most notoriously colorful characters in San Francisco history; Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

How did a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks end up atop of a column in the middle of Union Square? Better yet, how did this lead to first a scandal, and then the construction of the grandest home in San Francisco — 2080 Washington Street? And how does any of that relate to the history of our beloved Legion of Honor Museum?

Listen in to today’s podcast as I relate the rise of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels from Victorian pinup to eccentric “Great Grandmother of San Francisco”, the wealthiest woman on the West Coast.

For further edification:
» Legion of Honor Museum – official website
» Admiral George Dewey – Wikipedia
» Dewey Monument – inscription
» “Sugar Daddy and the de Brettevilles – Bay Time Reporter
» “‘Mike’ de Young Shot” – New York Times, 11.20.1884
» “Erection of Dewey Monument – San Francisco Call, 7.3.1899
» Union Square Dewey Monument dedication – film, American Mutoscope, 5.14.1903
» Spreckels Sugar – corporate website
» Loie Fuller – bohemian dancer
» Alma and Adolph’s first (and much smaller) home
» Danielle Steele interview – Entertainment Weekly





musical support:
Thanks to Eric Frampton for the theme track for today’s podcast, “Waltz for James”, and to the Piney Creek Weasels for “The Dog Song”, both courtesy of the Podsafe Music Network. Classical pieces came from Musopen.com, and those fabulously scratchy 78s and wax cylinders were excavated at InternetArchive.org. Image of the Dewey Monument at top of post by Peter Kaminski, protected by a Creative Commons license.

printed bibliography:


Big Alma

Bernice Scharlach – Scottwall Associates, 1990


Bonanza Inn: America’s First Luxury Hotel

Oscar Lewis – Knopf, 1943


Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915

Kevin Starr – Oxford University Press, 1986


As I Remember

Arthur Genthe – Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936

linking policy: Books in print available through your local independent bookstore; out of print books through Abebooks.com