Christmas in San Francisco’s Jewish Community a Century Ago

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.” [] 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:

More on Berkeley Art Museums and Galleries

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.

Albert Bender and the PPIE

400px-Postcard_from_the_Panama-Pacific_ExpositionThere 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 Examinerover 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.

3 Sterling to Bender, 1 February 1915.

4 Sterling to Bender, 17 December 1914.

5 San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 1915, p. 7.

Bender’s Friendship with Ansel Adams

The artist with whom Bender was perhaps closest after Anne Bremer was Ansel Adams, who decided to be a professional photographer rather than a concert pianist through Bender’s encouragement. Immediately after they met in 1926 Bender invited Adams to his office, looked through his photographs of the High Sierra, and declared, “We have to do a portfolio of these.” He made all the arrangements for an edition of 100 portfolios, printed by Grabhorn, with 18 images each, to be sold for $50 each.  Bender said he would take ten copies and handed Adams a check for $500, then got on the phone and lined up additional supporters until half of the edition was pre-sold.

Ansel Adams, Albert Bender and Virginia Adams (Bancroft Library, photographer unknown)

Ansel Adams, Albert Bender and Virginia Adams (Bancroft Library, photographer unknown)

Bender was 60 when they met and Adams was 24. Bender was just over five feet and Adams was just under six feet. But they became great friends and jokesters with each other. Here they are with Ansel’s wife Virginia, probably at the Atherton home of Rosalie Stern.

Adams wrote glowingly about Bender in his autobiography.  In the Ansel Adams papers at the Center for Creative Photography and in the Bender papers at Mills College are numerous letters documenting their close friendship. Bender introduced Adams to many people who became important patrons of his work, as well as artists and writers. In 1927 they traveled together to Santa Fe and Taos, where Bender introduced Adams to Mary Austin. This led to the creation of a limited edition book, Taos Pueblo, with text by Austin and photographs by Adams. The photographer was eternally grateful to Bender for his early and continuing support, belief in his talent, and friendship.

What’s the header image?

It’s from a postcard representing the Golden Gate and the Panama Pacific International Exposition that took place in the Marina District of San Francisco in 1915. Albert Bender helped make insurance arrangements for the fair. Anne Bremer exhibited five paintings and was awarded a Bronze Medal.

A portion of the dome and arcade of the Palace of Fine Arts (where Anne’s work was shown) is at the lower left of the image.  The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck and still stands today, the only remnant of the exposition, after a series of restorations.


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.

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.