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.
3 Sterling to Bender, 1 February 1915.
4 Sterling to Bender, 17 December 1914.
5 San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 1915, p. 7.
6 The text of the Ode is available at http://www.books-about-california.com/Pages/Ode_On_the_Exposition/Ode_On_the_Exposition_text.html.