For several years I have been researching and writing about late-19th-century and early-20th-century California art, architecture, museums and patronage. My major long-term project is a dual biography tentatively titled Kissing Cousins, AMB and AMB: The Artistic Lives of San Francisco’s Albert M. Bender and Anne M. Bremer. Meanwhile, I would like to introduce you to these two remarkable people who had a major impact on the Bay Area cultural landscape.
Photograph of Anne Bremer by Dorothea Lange, about 1922 (Mills College Art Museum)
Photograph of Albert Bender by Consuelo Kanaga, 1929 (Mills College Art Museum)
Anne Bremer (1868-1923) was a highly regarded San Francisco-based artist, noteworthy for her interest in modernism and experimentation, especially after she studied in New York and Paris in 1910-1911. She held a number of leadership roles in the Bay Area art community. Her career was cut tragically short by leukemia. Albert Bender (1866-1941) was her cousin and beloved life partner. A successful insurance broker, he became a major patron of artists, museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations. Through Anne’s influence, he was particularly open to modernism, and he helped establish what are now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Mills College Art Museum.
To read more, click on “About Albert Bender” and “About Anne Bremer” at the top of this page.
In Albert Bender’s and Anne Bremer’s social circles, it seems there was no mention of Hanukkah, no neutral “Happy Holidays” greetings, etc. Jews were happy to celebrate Christmas in the American style with cards, gifts, Christmas trees and parties. As Frances Dinkelspiel has written, “they did not consider it a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus.” [https://www.jewcy.com/arts-and-culture/californias_christmas_jews/] They were not particularly observant of Jewish ritual traditions; many rarely if ever visited a synagogue. But they did participate in Jewish charities and generally married other Jews.
Albert had an eventful Christmas in 1912. He was celebrating at the Pacific Heights home of architect G. Albert Lansburgh when a chimney fire started. “Lansburgh, together with L. C. Mullgardt, also one of the exposition architects; Albert M. Bender, a well known insurance man, and James McNab, vice president of the exposition and chairman of the buildings and grounds committee, quickly lined up. although clad in holiday attire, with the firemen” to put it out. [San Francisco Call, 26 Dec 1912]
The Bender Papers at Mills College include many Christmas cards and thanks to Albert for thoughtful gifts. There is also a love poem by Anne, inscribed “To A.M.B., Christmas 1920.”
According to Oscar Lewis (who did like to exaggerate), “AMB’s orders for Christmas cards are said to run into the thousands. He addresses each one himself and he usually finds time to add a few lines of personal greeting.”
A few of the letterpress items Bender had printed at Grabhorn and other presses were labeled as Christmas offerings, including the Lord’s Prayer printed by J. H. Nash in 1939—a decidedly un-Jewish choice. Here is what it looked like:
Albert Bender loved to entertain visiting celebrities and save the letters they wrote to him. Basil Rathbone, best known today for playing Sherlock Holmes in 14 movies, was touring in 1933-34 with Katharine Cornell as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Rathbone wrote to Bender from Nashville:
Dear Albert, Thank you so very very much for your gracious and charming help in choosing so suitable a kimona for Ouida [his wife]. She likes it very much & it fits her. We like the picture of you as model trying on different garments for Ouida! & parading before the respectable Japanese vendor! The tour is getting along nicely—it has been very profitable, but very hard & most of the time very uncomfortable. We are all glad to be moving into the last stretch on the way home. The Barretts broke all records with 7 performances in Des Moines to which 4200 people came & which grossed $7087. But the good business & the pleasure of playing in “The Barretts” hardly compensates at times for the unutterable boredom of the hours spent in places I hope I shall not see for a long time again, if ever! We are still planning to be in California this summer & shall hope so much to see you then. Ouida joins me in affectionate regards & our kindest remembrances to Noel Sullivan if & when you see him. I am writing a note to Col. Wood to your home will you forward it for me. Most sincerely, Basil Rathbone
Just as a major Diego Rivera exhibition has opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I have been writing about Albert Bender’s friendship and support of Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I hear the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) has abruptly closed after an anticipated merger with the University of San Francisco fell through. This is sad news for many reasons, including that the Rivera mural at SFAI had just been restored with a $200,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. Plans were underway to showcase the mural with a series of public events. But as of now the entire staff is laid off, although there is some sort of plan for SFAI to “remain a nonprofit organization to protect its name, archives, and legacy.” Both the building and the Rivera mural have been designated city landmarks, which will limit their future possibilities.
This closure is also a blow to me personally, because I had been planning to revisit the SFAI archives, where I did some research early in the process of working on Bender and Bremer. The SFAI library was named the Anne Bremer Memorial Library, and I wanted to get a little more background on when and how it got that name. The school moved into the building in 1925, after Anne Bremer had died. Below is an image of the library, apparently just known as the San Francisco Art Association Library, in 1930. (Note Henri Matisse’s words of praise for San Francisco’s art atmosphere and art school!)
In 1935 this “dedicatory relief” was installed above the library fireplace:
I suppose the artist intended the subject matter to suggest that an art school was providing aesthetic nourishment to young people. I find it interesting that Schnier, himself a Jew as were Bender and Bremer, included Stars of David as Naziism was on the rise.
So it was probably in 1935 that the library got its name. The following year, Bender commissioned several artists to paint frescoes in the eleven semicircular lunettes above the wood paneling: Victor Arnautoff, Ray Boynton, William Hesthal, Gordon Langdon, Frederick Olmsted, and Ralph Stackpole. Most of these artists had worked on the Public Works of Art Project-funded fresco murals in Coit Tower in 1934. Besides wanting to beautify the room (recently called one of the most beautiful college libraries in America), Bender always wanted to help artists financially. In the midst of the Depression they could use all the help they could get.
Catching up on recent articles about the Art Institute, I also learned of a number of frescoes there that had been painted over in the early 1940s and were rediscovered and restored in the past few years. One of the student artists who created them was Suzanne Scheuer, whose name I recognized as the painter of the mural in the Berkeley Main Post Office. See her depiction of a Roman-themed artists’ costume ball here.
I hope there is some way that the building will once again be open to the art-loving public and its archives open to researchers like me.
As I explored the Albert Bender Papers at Mills College Library, I became very curious about a woman who had a complicated relationship with Bender. I soon learned that she once lived just a block from where I live now in Kensington, California, had earlier lived in a house featured in walking tours of the Berkeley Woods neighborhood, and had a shop in what is now the location of a business celebrating its centennial in 2022. She traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico with Albert Bender and Ansel Adams and later became a best-selling memoir author and popular public speaker. Bertha was a woman with pizzazz.
So I wrote a Wikipedia article about her, ten years ago this month. I’ll expand on it a bit here and in my manuscript for the dual biography of Albert Bender and Anne Bremer.
Bertha came to Berkeley in 1910 when her new husband, Arthur Upham Pope, was hired to teach at the University of California. After the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, they had a Tudor-style building from the fair shipped across the bay and up the hill to Woodmont Avenue, and, with an addition, turned it into a home. Arthur was a brilliant and fascinating man in his own right, but an affair with one of his graduate students, Phyllis Ackerman, brought an end to both his marriage and his teaching career. (Arthur and Phyllis remained lifelong friends of Albert Bender.)
Bertha kept the house and became quite the hostess and social butterfly. As one author wrote, “The so-called Roaring Twenties had broken out prematurely in the San Francisco Bay area, at least in Bertha’s set.” She met Albert Bender around 1917, and by 1920 he had arranged for her to become the part-time secretary of the Book Club of California. They had a close, teasing relationship. Bertha somehow started referring to herself as the “Queen of Shedonia” (probably referring to hedonism). Her “court” included Oscar Lewis, the “valiant knight Primo”; Albert Bender, the “Chancellor”; and a female “Comic Poet”—possibly Maude Fellows, who served as the Book Club secretary between Bertha and Oscar. In the summer of 1922, Bertha, Oscar and the “comic poet” went to Europe. Albert wrote, and Edwin and Robert Grabhorn printed, a booklet about their trip, presented to them as a welcome-back gift: “How the Queen of Shedonia, her valiant knight Primo & the comic poet Lady Tomato Hood acquired a trans-Atlantic touch.” Here is a sample passage:
They were so busy scrapping over Bills, looking up Time Tables, paying Excess Baggage and sending Illustrated Postal Cards that they had very little Time for Sights. Still, they managed to look into 400 Cathedrals that seemed just alike and had the same damp Odor and they stood in front of several thousand faded Masterpieces and let on to Admire them. After a while all Scenery looked alike to them and when a Guide tried to pull them into a Gallery they resisted. This was the Time when the Queen took a Drink of Bender’s Port.
In the Bender Papers is another spoof by Albert, dated 14 September 1922, purporting to advertise “The Royal Ford for Sale.” It ends with claiming the Ford’s great historical significance as having belonged to the “Queen of Shedonia, Conqueror of Mens’ Hearts and Lightning Calculator of the Revenues of Disordered and Decrepit Buildings.”
Bertha evidently created two scrapbooks about the Court of Shedonia as Christmas gifts to Albert. One mentions her giving him a puppy named Albertha and him giving her one named Duke Mickey. Both scrapbooks refer to fires destroying her shop and an apartment house she owned, with the insurance proceeds making it possible to buy the Kensington lot, but I have found no evidence that these fires actually took place, and the chronology makes no sense. As of January 1925 her Old World Shop at 2998 College Avenue in Berkeley was still in business but she was liquidating its inventory. Soon thereafter the building became the home of Tulanian Rugs, still operating in the same location.
Whatever the truth may be, Bertha had the Spanish-style house at the top of Eagle Hill custom designed by architect Roland Stringham and built in 1925. She named the house Mar y Ciel and hosted recitals and other gatherings there. (In 1941 she sold it to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Katherine.)
In the early spring of 1927, Bertha and Albert went by car, with Ansel Adams driving, to Santa Fe, New Mexico—“twelve hundred long miles, mostly on washboard roads,” according to Ansel. There they visited with Witter (“Hal”) Bynner and Mary Austin, and Bertha bought numerous Native American souvenirs. On the way home, Bertha sat in the front. Ansel recounted in his autobiography:
I shall never forget Albert, squeezed in the back, draped with rugs and adorned with pots, literally covered with Bertha’s collection. There was no air conditioning, of course, and if the backseat windows were opened, the blast of air would damage the feathers of the Hopi Kachina dolls. Red as a beet and dripping with perspiration, Albert manfully endured the three-day ordeal of the hot return trip. Bertha and I thought the trip had been wonderful. Albert was less impressed with the wild west but enjoyed the human contacts and the sophisticated life of Santa Fe.
After that, Albert and Bertha were no longer close friends, as various letters written by or to mutual friends testify. She wrote to Marie Welch in April 1927, “I went with Albert on a semi-reconciliation trip to Santa Fe. Had a glorious time with Hal, wished you were there. Offended A. by said glorious time and he is off again. No use, my dear. As we novelists say ‘This is the End.’” How close they had been between Anne’s death in 1923 and Bertha’s marriage to Lindsay Damon in March 1928 is up for speculation. She typed a letter in the style of Don Marquis’s “archy the cockroach” that implies the end of a romance with Albert wanting to remain friends. It ends “goo bye i love you.”
For the past few months I’ve been working on an exhibit for the Berkeley Historical Society, “Berkeley’s Fascination with Food.” I’m pleased to let you know that a team of us have created an online exhibit you can view here. I hope it’s the first of many, although my BHS activities do draw me away from working on the Bremer/Bender book.
If you’re interested in the art and artists of Northern California in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, you need to be aware of a magnum opus by a fellow alumnus of U.C. Berkeley , Robert W. Edwards. It’s called Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, Vol. 1. (Oakland, Calif.: East Bay Heritage Project, 2012). At my suggestion, the author has posted an online facsimile of the entire text on the Traditional Fine Arts Organization website, http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/10aa/10aa557.htm. It’s about much more than Jennie Cannon, although he’s done a great service in bringing out the story of this prominent artist who faded into undeserved obscurity. In almost 400 pages of fine print, he has compiled detailed biographies of more than 200 artists who worked in Berkeley or Carmel (with more to come in volume 2). In the introduction he writes:
From these histories we can draw some startling conclusions. For example, from the mid to late 1920s, a period when many consider that the Carmel art colony had reached its apogee, eight artists, who are recognized today as outstanding figures, can be confirmed as preeminent based on the frequency of exhibitions outside the Monterey Peninsula and the degree of critical acclaim during their lifetimes: E. Charlton Fortune, Arthur Hill Gilbert, Armin Hansen, Joseph Mora, Mary DeNeale Morgan, John O’Shea, William Ritschel and William Silva. However, the same contemporary sources indicate that ten other Carmel exhibitors were quite exceptional and given equal if not more attention in the press: Roberta Balfour, Margaret Bruton, Ferdinand Burgdorff, Jennie V. Cannon, Gene Kloss, Edith Maguire, Clayton S. Price, J. Blanding Sloan, William C. Watts and Stanley H. Wood.
Likewise, in the first Berkeley art colony Edwin Deakin, William Keith and Xavier Martinez are today viewed as “the celebrities,” but critics and the public between 1906 and 1911 held in the greatest esteem nine other Berkeley artists: Henry J. Breuer, Louise Carpenter, Charles M. Crocker, Carl Dahlgren, Jules Mersfelder, Perham Nahl, Charles P. Neilson, Eda Smitten and Elizabeth Strong.
For my own research on Anne Bremer, this book has provided references to specific articles in sources like the Carmel Pine Cone and Berkeley Courier that I might never have tracked down. So if you want to learn in depth about any artist of Carmel or Berkeley prior to about 1950, be sure to check this resource!
There are just two more weekends left of my exhibit at the Berkeley Historical Society. The official closing day is Saturday, April 2, but it will also be open on Sunday, the 3rd, 2-4 p.m., for a talk by Aleta George about her biography of poet Ina Coolbrith (who, by the way, was one of Albert Bender’s many friends; the Bender Papers at Mills College contain 85 letters she wrote him beginning in 1917).
An exciting and serendipitous discovery during my research for the exhibit was a 1929 Sanborn map of the Cal campus, with the building that was the University Art Gallery from 1934 to 1970 labeled “Bender Art Museum.” I think the map was tweeted by someone at the Bancroft Library. According to the Centennial Record of the University of California (1967) list of buildings, it was in 1931 that the power and steam plant operations moved out of John Galen Howard’s 1904 brick building, but this map shows that its future use as an art gallery was already contemplated in 1929, and that the university was proposing to name it the Bender Art Museum. Art professor Eugen Neuhaus is credited with the idea of converting the building to an art gallery. At the building dedication, Provost Monroe Deutsch gave Albert Bender most of the credit for making it happen:
. . . though the University of California had no art gallery, with faith in the future and an eagerness to provide the material for a great art gallery, which he saw one day coming, he gave us paintings, marbles, and other works of art, even though he realized that for a time some would have to be stored and others serve merely to embellish the previously austere offices of the President and myself.
The Class of 1933 made a monetary gift that covered part of the cost of the renovation, and Albert “proceeded at once in characteristic fashion to go out and tell his friends how important the enterprise was and to secure the necessary additional funds to supplement the gift of the class. But he did not stop with this. He threw himself into the whole process of converting the Power House into a suitable place for works of art.”
Deutsch wrote in a letter to Albert,
I feel confident we are now laying the foundations of what will some day be a magnificent art gallery, something of which the State will have a right to be proud. Neither you nor I will be here to see it but in spirit at least we can frequent its halls and rejoice in the accomplishment of a dream. And when that day comes I shall pat you on your immaterial back and say, “Albert, you see what you have accomplished.”
The latest incarnation of that dream opened as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive where the campus meets downtown Berkeley on January 31, 2016.
I’m curating an exhibit for the Berkeley Historical Society, to run October 11, 2015–April 2, 2016, called “Art Capital of the West”: Real and Imagined Art Museums and Galleries in Berkeley. It was Jennie V. Cannon, an artist, who visited Berkeley in 1907 and wrote in her daybook, “I could not believe my eyes—there were artist groups and displays everywhere—so many fine artists that this place surpasses San Francisco as the art capital of the West.” As Berkeley town and gown look forward to the opening of the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive this winter, the exhibit will look back over more than 130 years of hopes, dreams, successes and setbacks.
Old Art Gallery, UC Berkeley, with WPA mosaics
Who knew that there was a Berkeley Art Museum back in the 1920s? That UC Berkeley’s third building, after North and South Halls, was built as an art gallery as well as the campus library? You may know about the “Old Art Gallery” at Cal, a brick building behind Sproul Hall that had been a power and steam plant before it became a gallery in 1934 with the help of art professor Eugen Neuhaus and art patron Albert Bender. The exhibit will feature the rocky history of the dream for a major university art museum that dates back to the generosity of Phoebe Apperson Hearst in the 1890s and early 1900s but took a long time to come to fruition.
I’ll also try to cover private and non-profit galleries, including the ACCI Gallery, Ames Gallery, Berkeley Art Center, Judah Magnes Museum, Kala Art Institute Gallery, and any others that come to my attention as having existed up to 25 years ago. Please let me know if you have relevant material to lend, other ideas, or would like to receive an invitation to the show.
There will be much talk in the coming year about the centennial of the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. This world’s fair was a spectacular and significant event for San Francisco, less than a decade after much of the city was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Albert Bender, an insurance broker, played a key role in arranging for fire insurance coverage for the exposition, although it seems he kept a pretty low profile (he often preferred anonymity). In October 1913, the San Francisco Insurance Brokers’ Exchange had established a committee, including Albert, to propose “a plan whereby the insurance of the Exposition Company would be handled in the simplest and most economical manner . . . and which at the same time would secure the hearty co-operation of the members of the Brokers’ Exchange.”1 A dispute arose, in which a “syndicate” of just a few of the hundreds of local brokers appealed to the Exposition Company to contract exclusively with them, but it seems the larger group prevailed, agreeing to arrange for the complexities of insuring the exposition with no profit to individual brokers. A few letters from Albert to officers of the exposition during 1914 and 1915 attest to his continued involvement. Two plaques in the Bender Papers at Mills College express gratitude to him in relation to the exposition. A letter written by George Sterling in February 1915 refers to Albert as having “overworked himself on the P.P.I.E.” But I have not found his name in any of the published records of the fair or in newspaper accounts of such events as “Insurance Day.”
In late 1914 and early 1915 Albert was in frequent contact with the poet George Sterling, who, separated from his wife Carrie, had moved to New York and was struggling financially as he tried to sell his poetry or find work at a magazine or newspaper. In October Sterling wrote, “Can you tell me if the Exposition is really to be opened in Feb.? I hear all sorts of rumors, pro and con. I intend to write (unofficially) an ode for the occasion, and know it’ll be the best thing I’ve ever done. But I don’t want to begin it if there’s to be no Exposition till God-knows-when!” Albert reassured him it was on schedule and did his best to influence the exposition board to commission the poet to write an official ode. Sterling said he wouldn’t expect much payment—“a hundred dollars is enough. Probably I could get that much from even a newspaper. So I’ll take as much more as the P.P.I.E. would give, provided they’ll give anything at all.” But when Sterling heard that Ina Coolbrith might be receiving this commission, he wrote to Albert, “I want to thank you most heartily for all the trouble you’ve gone to in my behalf, and assure you that I appreciate it immensely. But I can’t keep any laurels or emoluments from so unfortunate and gifted a singer as Miss Coolbrith.”2
Ina Coolbrith, who was now in her seventies, had been a highly regarded but impecunious Bay Area poet and an honorary member of the Bohemian Club since the 1870s. In 1892 she had been dismissed after nineteen years as librarian for the Oakland public library, where she had been paid meagerly but was fondly remembered for mentoring Jack London and Isadora Duncan, among others. In 1893 she had been commissioned to write a poem for a California event at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But it seems the Panama Pacific Exposition Board did not come up with funds for a commissioned ode, so Sterling went ahead and wrote and submitted to the San Francisco Examiner “over 250 lines. I hope to Gawd they accept it! It’s rather Socialistic: but Hearst shouldn’t be particular along lines!”3 The Examiner paid him $125 and published the poem on the exposition’s opening day, February 20, 1915. Before that, Sterling was surviving in New York largely through the charity of Albert and other friends.
Although New York hadn’t given Sterling much recognition, he was greatly revered at this time in San Francisco, and a quote from one of his poems was inscribed over a prominent gateway at the exposition. But it was Ina Coolbrith who was honored as California’s first Poet Laureate by the International Congress of Authors and Journalists at the Exposition.5 Sterling is referred to often as “San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate.” His “Ode on the Opening of the Panama Pacific Exposition” appeared later in 1915 as a limited-edition book published by Alexander M. Robertson of San Francisco, who had produced a book of Sterling poems the previous year. The book is dedicated “To Albert M. Bender” and may have been underwritten by Albert and others Albert persuaded to pre-order it.6
1 George Newhall to Charles Moore, 11 October 1913, PPIE Archives, Bancroft library, UC Berkeley, box 66, folder 41.
2 George Sterling to Bender, 24 November 1914, BP. This letter was published in facsimile in 1935 (years after Sterling’s death) by the Book Club of California with an introduction by Robinson Jeffers about Sterling’s generosity: “The Letters of Western Authors–Number One,” 1935, sponsored by Albert.
“He is that rare patron, a man who is one of those he helps, modest and generous always in the presence of another’s achievement.” (George West, 1931)
“Bender was a man small in stature but big in his enthusiastic support of the arts.” (James Hart)
“Albert Bender, that adored, elf-happy, Maecenas-hearted San Francisco character” (Julia Cooley Altrocchi in The Spectacular San Franciscans, 1949)
“If I am entitled to half a page in the Chronicle, the whole issue would be too little for you.” (Walter A. Haas in a letter to Bender, August 17, 1938)
“Everyone in that place [Temple Emanu-El, Bender memorial service attended by 3,000 people] felt that he or she was Albert’s closest friend. . . . I don’t think anyone like that will ever exist again.” (Elise Stern Haas)
“I think his cousin was the one who had the knowledge. Anne Bremer was a very brilliant woman.” (Elsie Martinez)
“Miss Anne Bremer, who stands among the first women artists of the West . . .” (Anna Pratt Simpson, 1907)
“Miss Bremer is distinctly a pioneer.” (Michael Williams, 1914)
“She was one of the most intelligent, one of the most independent, one of the most original of our painters. . . . With a small canvas and her magic brushes she could light up a room with immortal brilliance, and at the same time strike a spark in the brain . . . . Anne Bremer’s paintings will be valued more and more as the years pass. She painted out of her own rich nature, borrowed nothing, conceding nothing to the whims and fads that beset the painter’s art in this epoch of artistic unrest. Her genius burned strongly in a frail body . . . .” (Edward F. O’Day, Oakland Post-Enquirer, reprinted in the limited edition book Tributes to Anne Bremer)
“As far as a salon has existed in San Francisco Anne Bremer’s beautiful studio home was a salon where met and where one could meet the artists, the writers, the thinkers, the workers, the progressives, the personages of the hour in friendly informal association. From all the world and all fields of endeavor they gathered at her dinner table and around her studio fire . . . .” (Helen Dare, ibid.)
“Always she was original, as powerful personalities must be; never trifling, catchy, superficial: a colorist in painting, a philosopher in poetry; always serene.” (Charles Erskine Scott Wood, ibid.)