About Albert Bender

Anon Bender laughing

Anonymous Photo of Albert Bender (Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

“Albert Bender, Artists’ Patron Saint”

© Ann Harlow 2008

Saint Albert of San Francisco.  Prince Albert.  Mickey (or Micky) Bender.  AMB.  Albert “Medici” Bender.  Carrissimo Albertino.  Bachelor of Arts.  Patron saint of artists. The most popular man in San Francisco. The last envoy of fin-de-siècle San Francisco.  Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France, Cavaliere of the Crown of Italy, Honorary Doctor of Laws, Chancellor of Shedonia.

Who was this man of many nicknames and honorifics?  He was formally known as Albert M. Bender, and you may have seen his name as the donor of art works and rare books to Bay Area museums and libraries.  He was once called “the most active buyer—and donor—of the work of California artists the state had ever known.”  Stanford University has a Bender Room in its library, and at Mills College there is one in the former library building.  The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a large Albert M. Bender Collection.  But as the years go by, fewer people are aware of this little man with a great big heart who had a formative influence on the development of San Francisco’s cultural life from the 1910s through the 1930s.

When Bender died at age 74 in March 1941, the New York Times enumerated his many affiliations:

He was a trustee of Mills College, Calif.; a commissioner of the San Francisco Public Library, a director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Art Association, Opera Association and Opera Guild, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Geographic Society.

He was an honorary member of the San Francisco Institute of Art, American League of Pen Women, and Ina Coolbrith Literary Circle; a director and chairman of the publication committee of the Book Club of California, a life member of the Modern Museums of Art [sic] of New York and a member of the Artists Council of San Francisco. . . .

[In addition to honorary degrees from Mills and U.C. Berkeley and the international honors above] he was a holder of the Moraga Crest of St. Mary’s College. He was a director of the Japan Society, Home for Aged Disabled, a member of various committees of the San Francisco Community Chest and a member of Theta Beta Tau. His clubs included the Commonwealth and Commercial of San Francisco and the Faculty of Berkeley.

This obituary language, of course, hardly tells the full story. Bender was a man whose ebullient personality and indefatigability made a lasting impression on everyone who met him. He quickly formed new friendships with people of all sorts and kept in touch with friends who left the area through frequent, beautifully written letters. He was a beloved San Francisco character, as a person first and a philanthropist second. He was also an insurance broker, which was a good fit for his natural charm—and the source of the money he was able to spend on people and causes he cared about.

Although Bender did not quite belong to San Francisco’s Jewish social elite, he became acquainted with some of its members early on and soon had among his insurance clients such rapidly growing corporations as Levi Strauss, Roos Brothers, D. N. & E. Walter, and Sussman and Wormser Fine Foods (S & W). He worked hard, was liked and respected, and developed a very successful insurance business. He lived comfortably but not ostentatiously, and he had close enough connections with some of the very wealthy that if a worthy project demanded more than he alone could give he would help raise the remainder.

Words in Print

It seems that Bender’s patronage of the arts and education originated in his love of the written word. According to Oscar Lewis, who knew him well:

Reading, he often said, had been his greatest pleasure as long as he could remember. And from that had sprung his abiding interest in, and respect for, books—and not only books themselves but everything pertaining to them: their authors, their printers, their collectors, and their custodians. For such was Albert’s nature that once his interest was engaged, it tended to broaden until it took in every aspect of a subject.

Through this interest Bender helped San Francisco become a major center of fine letterpress printing and the book arts in general. He frequently commissioned limited edition books and pamphlets, co-founded the Book Club of California, chaired its publications committee for years, and donated rare books and fine printing profusely to Stanford, Berkeley, Mills, the University of San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Library and Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Poetry was a particular interest. Among the best-known poets who were close friends of Bender’s were Robinson Jeffers, Edwin Markham, George Sterling and Ella Young. He was also a friend and patron of numerous other poets, including Witter Bynner, Ina Coolbrith, Sara Bard Field, Herman Scheffauer, Genevieve Taggard, Marie Welch and Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

Playwrights, novelists, journalists and other writers were among the many other artists and intellectuals who frequented Bender’s home and wrote affectionate letters to him. He saved hundreds of these letters, which are now housed in the Special Collections of Mills College Library. Their outpourings of gratitude for his thoughtfulness and generosity, along with memories recorded in writing or in oral histories by people who knew and loved him, help fill in the picture of who he was.

Bender’s Roots

The beneficent Bender’s origins were modest. He was born in 1866 in Dublin, Ireland, one of five children of Rabbi Philip Bender and his wife, the former Augusta Bremer. There were fewer than 500 Jews in all of Ireland at the time, so the congregation renting space in St. Mary’s Abbey must have been a small one. Philip Bender also ran a private school for boys of all faiths. Many of his students became distinguished scholars. Albert Bender developed a lasting love of reading in this environment, although his formal education ceased when he came to California at age fifteen, presumably to seek his fortune.

All his life he remained very proud of being an Irishman. Encouraged by San Francisco friends who gave him the nickname “Mickey,” he emphasized his Irish heritage by celebrating his birthday each year on St. Patrick’s Day instead of in June. Friends ornamented gifts to him with shamrocks, and his funeral casket at Temple Emanu-El was draped in green. He also included Ireland in his philanthropy, establishing collections at Trinity College and the National Museum of Ireland, and took a great interest in modern Irish literature.

However, the Bender family’s experience of Ireland was not an entirely happy one. Philip Bender was passed over for a professorship in Hebrew at Trinity College despite being eminently qualified. Having previously lived in England, although born in Germany, in 1879 he took a new rabbinate in Hastings, in the south of England, where he again became a prominent local figure and started a school. So it was actually from England that Albert Bender came to the United States in 1881, accompanied by one uncle and ready to go to work for another.

San Francisco has a reputation for an unusually high level of acceptance of Jews in the late nineteenth century, but certain stereotypes affected how they were viewed. Benjamin Lehman, a professor of English at U.C. Berkeley who became a friend of Albert Bender’s, repeated the following story:

I remember his telling me with the greatest delight that the morning after his arrival in San Francisco his uncle, who was, I think, in the insurance business, gave him a silver dollar and said that he was to . . . take the day and explore his San Francisco environment, and this money was for lunch or whatever he wanted to do with it. Bender, who in complete maturity was still a man hardly five feet tall, was then doubtless shorter, so this little fellow walked about San Francisco through the morning, his hand, as he said to me, firmly clutching the silver dollar in his pants pocket. He skipped lunch because he couldn’t bear to break the dollar, which seemed to be a great deal of money and in some way a significant piece to hang on to, and he found himself in the later afternoon out on Valencia Street where he saw a man come down with a brick hod on his shoulder and greet another man who was stacking bricks at the curb, and these men spoke to one another in an Irish brogue.

He stared at them, for this was the first Irish intonation he had heard since he left Dublin, and as he was staring one of them said to him, “Boy, do you mind who lives here in this great house?”

He said, “No,” he didn’t.

“James Phelan lives here, and he’s tight as an Irish Jew with a dollar.”

Lehman speculated that young Bender must have resolved then and there not to be tightfisted with his own money, and he wasn’t. Most of the money he earned as an adult he gave away in one form or another. Many who knew him thought of him as by far the most generous person they had ever known.

If an artist were struggling financially, Bender would buy some of his or her work. For writers, he would either make an outright gift of cash, give them a “loan” that he did not expect to be repaid, or sponsor some writing project for which they would receive a fee. All of Bender’s friends and even casual acquaintances received frequent gifts from him—often a jade carving or other small piece of Asian art, the purchase of which had also helped out the owner of one of the Chinatown shops he frequented. Having encountered prejudice in his own life, he refused to be caught up in the anti-Chinese sentiment reflected in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (shortly after he arrived in San Francisco), which continued to be a force throughout his life. He also continued to patronize Japanese art shops during a boycott following the Panang bombing incident of 1937.

Looking Toward the Far East

Bender’s appreciation for Asian art and culture was not unusual among his intellectual circles. Several of his friends traveled or lived in Asia. Witter Bynner visited China with Beniamino Bufano and collaborated with Kiang Kang-hu on The Jade Mountain, a volume of translated T’ang Dynasty poems. Another close friend, Stella Benson, who, like Bynner, was a very prominent writer in her day, lived in China most of the time from 1919 to 1933. Maurice Sterne, one of Bender’s artist friends, painted in Bali from 1912 to 1914. The Studio Building at 1369 Post Street, where Bender lived from 1913 on, was on the edge of Japantown. Bender often took visitors from other cities to tour Chinatown and would send them home with at least one small gift.

Bender did not limit his Chinatown buying to trinkets. He also purchased some major pieces of Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan art to donate to museums. He was ahead of his time in campaigning as early as 1927 for an Asian art museum for San Francisco. Although such a museum took many more years to develop, he gave Asian art to several Bay Area institutions (in addition to the National Museum of Ireland and the Louvre).

Besides their inherent beauty, Bender hoped that Asian art objects would help inspire greater understanding and tolerance of California’s Pacific neighbors.

To Mr. Bender they are but the beginning of a larger plan. He has long cherished the vision of an institute or school on the Pacific Coast to provide regular programs of instruction on the life, people, civilizations, religions, arts, crafts, letters and languages of Oriental countries and nations. In connection with the school would be a museum devoted wholly to the arts and crafts of China, Hawaii, the Philippines, Persia, Japan, Java, India and Burma. The whole to serve as a center about which Oriental research and education would revolve. This is an idea of vast, obvious potentialities.

At Berkeley (where Bender would be gratified to see the state of Asian studies today), Bender’s donations of Asian art helped create the impetus behind the University Art Gallery that opened in 1934 in the former campus power plant. He donated more than 200 Asian objects between 1931 and 1933 and helped raise the necessary funds for the building renovation. The opening exhibition featured Bender’s donations, including Chinese mural paintings, five massive marble reliefs of the Tale of Three Kingdoms, and two guardian “dog-lions” that flanked the entrance for years. (They are now outside Durant Hall, and another pair, also donated by Bender, stands outside the Mills College Art Museum. His other donations to the University now seem to be primarily in the collection of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)

In San Francisco, Bender also donated an Asian art collection to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where it was installed in a room with his name. The museum, a gift to the city from Adolph and Alma Spreckels, opened in November 1924. According to a letter Bender wrote in 1930, his was “the first gift from anyone and the first gesture toward recognizing that the museum belonged to the public, although the building had been generously donated by private parties.” By 1932 he had started giving art to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, also city-owned. His gifts to the de Young included many Asian items, European textiles, and works by living California artists. After the de Young and Legion museums came temporarily under the same management in 1933, director Walter Heil wrote to Bender that “in proportion you have undoubtedly done more for our museums than any other individual sponsor in San Francisco” and that he was “a veritable deus ex machina for our institution.”

But Heil made a misstep in his relationship with Bender when, without consulting the donor, he installed some of Bender’s Asian items from the Legion of Honor collection at the de Young. Bender was not pleased, judging from an apologetic letter he received from Heil, who certainly had his reasons:

I frankly admit that I most heartily wish to combine permanently the Oriental collections of the two municipal museums in one institution. The nature of the collections of the de Young Museum as well as the arrangement of the galleries would make it the logical place to house the Oriental material. Furthermore, Mrs. Spreckels has repeatedly complained about the showing of Oriental material in the museum donated by her, claiming that she had stipulated that it should be devoted to French art primarily. The advantage of combining the material owned by the two museums into one logical and impressive unit is so obvious that it can hardly be contested. Literally hundreds of people, who in former days criticized the fact that for studying Oriental art they had to visit two far removed places, have since complimented me or my collaborators upon the combination of all correlated objects in one institution.

Unstated in the letter, and conceivably unbeknownst to Heil, is that by this time the authenticity and value of many of the objects Bender had donated had come into question. Alfred Salmony, a distinguished historian of Asian art and German Jewish refugee, had been hired to teach at Mills College. When he saw the objects Bender had been so assiduously donating to Bay Area museums, he declared them unworthy of museum collections, saying Bender had been duped by the importers he had dealt with and that most, if not all, of the items were fakes. This must have been highly embarrassing and awkward for all concerned, and friends of Bender’s were still speaking many years later about how sad it had made them and how undiplomatically some of the institutions handled it as they proceeded to deaccession the objects from their collections.

On the other hand, the National Museum of Ireland, which received 260 Asian art objects from Bender between 1931 and 1941, considers these a very fine collection with some extremely rare, valuable pieces. They are, in fact, showing many of them in a current exhibition: A Dubliner’s Collection of Asian Art – The Albert Bender Exhibition, November 13, 2008–March 1, 2009. [2014 note: This exhibition has become semi-permanent, and a catalogue of the collection was published in 2011; see the museum’s website.]

Even the San Francisco Museum of Art exhibited Asian artifacts from Bender in its early years, before it developed a focus on modern and contemporary art. The museum opened in January 1935 with an array of exhibitions: the San Francisco Art Association Annual, Gothic and Renaissance tapestries from the collection of Mrs. W. H. Crocker, 46 examples of “Modern French Painting” that included Cézannes and Renoirs, and, courtesy of Bender, Chinese sculpture.

Modernism and a Love Story

As a donor and trustee of many of the city’s major cultural institutions—the Public Library, Opera, Symphony and Museum of Art—Bender not only supported the arts in general but also challenged San Franciscans to pay attention to exciting modern trends. Modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis was a close friend and beneficiary of his generosity. He supported the work of experimental composers Ernst Bacon, Ernest Bloch and Henry Cowell. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was introduced to this country largely through Bender’s efforts. When photography was only beginning to be recognized as art and Ansel Adams was unknown, Bender sponsored Adams’ first portfolio. Bender was one of the first donors of photography to the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Besides Rivera and Adams, a few of the other modern artists whose work Bender enthusiastically collected and donated to museums were Beniamino Bufano, Jacob Epstein, William Gaw, Sargent Johnson, Peter Krasnow, Otis Oldfield, Gottardo Piazzoni, Joseph Raphael and Maurice Sterne. Bender was the prime mover behind the murals Piazzoni painted for the old San Francisco Main Library (now in the de Young Museum). Countless artists of lesser fame also benefited from his support.

It was a cousin, Anne M. Bremer, who opened Bender’s eyes to modern art. She spent most of the years 1910 and 1911 studying art in New York and Paris, and when she returned to San Francisco she became “a crusader for the modern movement,” “the most ‘advanced’ artist in San Francisco.”

Spencer Macky, the director of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1919 to 1935, said about Bremer, “I remember her very well on the occasion of her return from her studies abroad and I remember too the courage with which she introduced to this country and to this coast the new art which has come to be almost so common to you now that you think it has always existed. It took rare courage and foresight and conviction on her part to build the way she built.”

Spencer and Constance Macky were neighbors of both Anne Bremer and Albert Bender in an old building Anne had converted into artist live-work spaces and renamed the Studio Building. Bender and Bremer lived in adjoining apartments. They were “very much in love, but they were first cousins and in those days that was absolutely taboo,” according to Elise Haas. So, although their close friends knew them as a loving couple, to others they were an artist and an insurance broker-art patron whose names were seldom linked.

Bender became most active in buying and donating contemporary art after Anne’s death in 1923. He often told people it was her involvement in the art world that led to him becoming an art patron. Her enthusiasm for modernist art must have influenced his collecting choices, which were often adventurous. He, in turn, almost single-handedly developed the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art (now Modern Art) in its early years, donating some 1100 art works. When he died in 1941 the museum received more art and a fund for art purchases. So had it not been for the “taboo” relationship between the two cousins with the same initials, Albert M. Bender and Anne M. Bremer, San Francisco might not have the Museum of Modern Art it has today.

Museum Patron

Grace McCann Morley, the museum’s first director, wrote in 1940 about Bender’s impact on the museum:

The San Francisco Museum of Art has had frequent and recurrent reasons for being grateful to Albert M. Bender. On the Board of the Museum, he worked tirelessly to aid its President in making possible the reopening in the new quarters in the War Memorial, January 1935. Since then he has not only given his own support generously but he has, by his example and urging, actively solicited the support of others, so that his part in assuring the existence and growth of the Museum has been of an importance that both Museum Trustees and Museum Staff gratefully recognize.

The Museum owned few examples of art—almost none in its field of contemporary art—in January, 1935. At the end of 1940, it can display fourteen well filled galleries for its annual exhibition of the Albert M. Bender Collection. This is only a selection—of the newer things, of the most important examples, of special groups of material, but much more of equal interest and quality is in the store rooms for lack of space in the galleries.

To visit the exhibition is to learn much about Albert M. Bender—his interests, his tastes, his friendships, his beliefs and his integrity. The artists of the Bay Region are his friends, and he has constantly been their encourager and patron. He is devoted to art and always has been, but art to him is a very human thing, inseparable from the human beings that make it. Yet, though gradually the leading artists, young as well as established, are finding representation in the collection, the enthusiasm of friendship has been tempered by critical judgment and Bay Region art is represented by its most gifted artists in excellent examples. Artists from elsewhere—many famous names among them—often appear because of personal interest, but more often because fine examples of their work make the collection stronger as a representation of what is living in the world of art today. Albert M. Bender believes that art flourishes only if it is understood, appreciated, purchased as it is produced. He does not expect every painting or sculpture to be a masterpiece, he knows that every good work has importance for its own time because of its living quality, he is content to let the future discern the masterworks if he can lead the public to see its own time reflected worthily in its art, and can help the creative artists to live while they work.

In short, Albert M. Bender has helped the Museum to exist, has helped it build collections in its own field, and by his spirit has emphasized the principles of a museum of contemporary art on which it is founded.

Bender’s donations included works by prominent European and Latin American artists, mostly works on paper, that are still in the museum’s collection. Paintings by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are especially proud possessions. But many of the paintings by Bay Area artists that Bender and others donated were deaccessioned and sold at auction in the 1970s. Although this is considered a shame by some, it actually helped bring pre-World War II California art into greater prominence. Collectors and dealers began showing more interest in these artists, in turn eventually inspiring museum exhibitions like the de Young’s “Facing Eden: 100 Years of Landscape Art in the Bay Area” (1995) and Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000” (2000). There are numerous private collectors and museums today that are proud owners of paintings once owned by Albert Bender.

Memorials to Anne Bremer

Some of Bender’s projects were done in memory of Anne Bremer after her premature death from leukemia in 1923. Again, to his friends he was very open about how much she meant to him. He wrote to Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn:

Anne was so much part of my life and soul of my soul . . . I know the inexorable law of our being, the law for you and for me and for everyone else, and yet while intellectually I accept my emotional nature refuses to assent. I feel that Time alone can help me to reconcile myself to the inevitable. I cannot escape the awful cruel hard reality that Death is Death and that Anne in the fullness of her powers has been taken. Yes, in the fullness of her powers, for everywhere she is acclaimed as one of the few big artists who have brought honor to Californian Art. She expressed her love of art in ideals of eternal beauty and never compromised one of those ideals for temporary success or popular favor. She believed with the simple faith of ancient Greece that art should be the servant of the public and used her great gifts for the common good. There was no one who appealed to her in vain for help to create a beautiful home, to adorn a public institution, to make things everywhere and for everyone with beauty, simplicity and dignity.

Yet when he commissioned a memorial fountain by sculptor Edgar Walter for Mills College he requested that his name not be publicized, that the gift be attributed to “a friend of the college.” Perhaps he didn’t want the innocent young ladies of Mills speculating about why he would be so interested in memorializing a particular woman artist. At Berkeley, he added to the row of marble chairs in the Greek Theatre with one inscribed with Anne’s name, life dates and the words “Her art was the expression of beauty in universal and enduring form for the enrichment and happiness of mankind.” This was basically an anonymous gift also. But in the more bohemian artistic community he was more overt. At the San Francisco Art Institute he established an Anne Bremer Memorial Fund for student aid, an Anne Bremer Prize, and the Anne Bremer Memorial Library. The largest limited-edition book that Bender personally funded was a two-volume set consisting of poems by Anne and tributes to Anne by other writers. In the introduction to the latter he wrote:

This slender volume of loving tributes to Anne Bremer is intended only for her friends. With such a group I may safely trust myself “to unlock the heart and let it speak” some thoughts about her whom all who will read this love and who was the most precious and formative influence in my life. That, even here, I must speak under great restraint is imperative lest I lose all sense of proportion and fall down in worship. Such an attitude would be unjust and repellant to her modest, self-critical and essentially human spirit.

Saint Albert

The San Francisco post office once received a letter simply addressed “Saint Albert of San Francisco.” They delivered it to Archbishop Edward Hanna, who passed it on to Albert Bender with the note, “This must be for you.”

Bender was not perfect, of course. A few people thought he was overly eager for recognition for his good deeds. He had a tendency to show off letters he had received from famous people. His enthusiasm sometimes overruled his judgment, so not everything he bought was good. But he has also been praised for having an excellent eye for art; most people didn’t mind his excitement about celebrities; and there were many times when he helped people in need with no possibility of public recognition.

Albert and Ansel

The artist with whom Bender was perhaps closest after Anne Bremer was Ansel Adams. Here is Adams’ story of their first encounter and where it led:

I met him first at Cedric Wright’s home in Berkeley [in 1926]. Let’s see, it was a musical evening, but Cedric said, “Show Albert Bender some of your mountain pictures.” Albert was very much impressed and said, “Come and see me tomorrow morning, and bring some prints.” Well, I showed him some work and he said, “We have to do a portfolio of these.” It was the furthest from my thoughts. I was still trying to be a pianist. So I said, “Let me think about it.”

In two or three days I went down there again in the morning with a big bunch. He selected a number and he said, “Grabhorn will print it. And Jean Chambers Moore says she’ll publish it, and now we’ve got to sell some copies. So how much is it going to cost?” So we had to figure that out, and it cost quite a little, as all such things do. I never counted my work in it; that’s the way you do these things. So he started off with five copies. Now, they were one hundred dollars apiece, I think, which was high for those days.

Then he calls up Mrs. [Sigmund] Stern. “Top of the morning, Rosie. How are you? Well, I’ve got a man in my office, and he’s got some pictures and we’re going to do a portfolio, and starting it off,” he says, “I’m taking five hundred dollars.”

She says, “Well, Albert, put me down for $750.” “Thanks, Rosie, that’s fine.” Then he calls Cora [Mrs. Marcus] Koshland. “Top of the morning to you, Cora.” Describes what he’s going to do with the portfolio. “I’ve put in five hundred dollars and Rosalie put in $750” and she says, “Put me down for five hundred dollars, Albert. I’d like to have the work.” And in just about two hours’ time on the telephone, he’d sold much more than the cost of the portfolio.

He wasn’t a rich man; he was well-to-do. He had a good insurance business. And of course he was a bachelor. And he just gave away a tremendous amount of things and money. But mostly in small parcels. He never gave really large amounts he didn’t have it. But some artist would come and show him some pictures, and Albert would buy one, give him a hundred-dollar check and spend an hour or so on the telephone getting contacts for him. It was that kind of true philanthropy. I mean, he just didn’t write checks, he really helped people. He was the most generous man, by fifty times, of anybody else I’ve ever known.

. . . . So it was this kind of patronage that really got me started. And even during the Depression times, there was always something to do. I did a catalogue for the de Young Memorial Museum. Bender had a group of very handsome Chinese carvings, and we made a portfolio of that for Mills College. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I think there were ten or twenty images in each set and they sold for several hundred dollars apiece, and the proceeds then enabled him to buy these marbles for the college. So, many things were done on that basis: I’d get a fee for the job, then he would sell four or five copies, and the difference would allow things to happen.

. . . . I would take Albert (he didn’t drive) on innumerable trips. We’d come down here to Monterey and Carmel every so often, and see all the friends, Robinson Jeffers and Johnny O’Shea and Criley, a kind of a circuit. Albert liked nature, as a Christmas tree with human ornaments on it. He didn’t care much for the natural scene; he just liked fresh air and people, which is wonderful.

Then we’d go over often to Mills College with the back of the car laden with books and things, maybe some Chinese things he’d gotten. We went to Yosemite, and I can’t tell you how many trips in all. He’d call me up and say, “Well, Dr. Adams, are you free today?” Sometimes I wasn’t, but I would certainly make an effort to be. And we’d get in the old car and go out. Knew somebody at Napa, writers, and knew somebody at College of the Pacific over in Stockton. We’d drive over and see these people and go and see printers. And then people would come. He’d entertain. He was a great friend of Ruth St. Denis. And I remember we drove to Los Angeles to hear the San Francisco Symphony, and Ruth St. Denis’s group danced with it, and we took her down, she and Ted Shawn. We drove down to Los Angeles.

They even drove to New Mexico, where they made friends with Mabel Dodge Luhan, an important promoter of modern American art, and set up a collaboration between Adams and the author Mary Austin on a book about the Taos Pueblo. Also on this 1927 trip was Bertha Pope, who seems to have been a second romantic interest in Bender’s life for a few years, or at least a very close friend with whom he had a sometimes rocky relationship.


Bender’s name for Bertha Pope was “the Queen of Shedonia,” for unknown reasons. He was her “Chancellor,” and Oscar Lewis was “her valiant Knight Primo.” Pope, who later married Lindsay Damon and wrote under the name Bertha Damon, was a very funny writer and lively companion. She lived in the East Bay in a series of houses she either built or remodeled, where she hosted parties that were like “salons,” gatherings of interesting, talented people. Mabel Dodge Luhan was a salon hostess; so was Anne Bremer, in one writer’s memory:

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 for easeful, intimate exchange of ideas, expanding in an atmosphere congenial by reason of its very simplicity, repose and privacy.

She was referring, really, to the parties given by Albert Bender and Anne Bremer together in the Studio Building.

The most famous salon of all for the American avant-garde in the early twentieth century was at the home of the Stein siblings, Gertrude and Leo, in Paris. On Saturday evenings and at other times, artists and intellectuals visited them to see and talk about the modern art they collected. Their older brother and legal guardian, Michael Stein, and his wife Sarah, after several years of living in San Francisco also moved to Paris and collected art, especially paintings by Matisse, who became their close friend. A letter from Sarah Stein to Gertrude Stein mentions both Albert Bender and Anne Bremer as if their names would be well known to Gertrude.iv Over the next few years, a number of Sarah’s unmarried Jewish women friends from San Francisco visited her in Paris, including Annette Rosenshine, Harriet Levy, Sylvia Salinger, Therese Jelenko, and Alice Toklas (who never went back). The chances are excellent that Anne Bremer would have attended some of the salons of both pairs of Steins while in Paris, vastly broadening her perspectives on modern approaches to art.

Aftrer Anne’s death Albert continued to bring wonderful people together in the Studio Building for many more years. But all their wit and wisdom could never quite fill the hole left when the love of his life died, and all of the hearty laughter for which Bender was known could never completely disguise an undercurrent of loneliness.

The Personal Connection

One point made time after time by people who knew Bender was how deeply he cared about artists as people. Owning art was secondary; getting to know and help individual artists was foremost. Patrick Bruce, head of the New Deal art programs, said Bender had a “quality of wonder” that “shows in the expression of the eyes, in the tone of the voice and in the human approach of one individual to another. . . . One may forget his words but the spirit out of which they were born, the enjoyment of the work of art that he was able to convey is never forgotten.”

Elise Haas (daughter of Sigmund and Rosalie Stern and wife of Walter Haas, Senior) said, “I don’t think anyone like that will ever exist again. I’ve never known anyone who had all these qualities of spirit and soul, enjoyment of life and of people, and generosity of heart and mind that he had.”

Most of the people who knew Albert Bender are dead now, but he clearly left a lasting imprint on the cultural landscape of the Bay Area.

For complete illustrations and notes, see The Argonaut, Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society 19:2 (Winter 2008).

7 thoughts on “About Albert Bender

  1. Years ago I included Albert Bender in my writings on Joseph Raphael–I wonder if there is more there? And do you have any information on Bender vis-a-vis Ray Coyle in whom I’ve become very interested?

  2. I actually own a reproduction of “The Flower Carrier” by Diego Rivera. It still has the placard on the frame stating it was donated by the Bender collection to SF MOMA. It appears to be an official reproduction (tempura/oil on Masonite). It came to me through the family who owned the Normandie restaurant on Powell.

  3. To commenters from Ann: I’m terribly sorry that I haven’t been checking back in the admin area for comments—I would have thought they would be emailed to me. I just found one from William Gerdts, who has since passed away! You can reach me more effectively by email, ann (at) annharlow.com.

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