The Fascinating Bertha Clark Pope Damon

Bertha Pope, Witter Bynner and Albert Bender in 1927

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.”

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