Meet the Original Celebrities of the Bay Area
By Maria Judnick
While Kanye West has compared himself to everyone from Jesus to Walt Disney to Beethoven, he still doesn’t have the one thing these local San Francisco celebrities have: a statue, location, or plaque that pays tribute to their legends. (Ironically, his wife, Kim Kardashian, does have a statue commemorated in her honor.) Long before people worried about keeping Portland weird, San Francisco was already home to the eccentric, the colorful, and the creative. These are the stories of some truly original Californians – from the first child star of the Gold Rush, to the originator of the term “sugar daddy”, to the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, who was humored by all who met him in the streets.
Lotta Crabtree / Lotta’s Fountain, Intersection of Geary and Kearny
Charlotte Mignon Crabtree isn’t a name most people know today, but, long before the child star Shirley Temple stole America’s heart, there was a girl known as “The Nation’s Darling.” Lotta’s parents moved to California during the Gold Rush hoping to strike it rich. After a few years, her father, a former bookseller, established a boarding house in Grass Valley, down the road from infamous actress and Countess of Landsfeldt, Lola Montez. Lotta’s mother, a former upholsterer, was friendly with many theater people in San Francisco and encouraged her daughter to take lessons from Lola. Soon, the family moved back to San Francisco and little six-year-old Lotta began performing to sold-out shows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. By 1859, “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite” was strumming her banjo in some of the city’s most popular halls. Then, until she retired in 1889 at the age of 45, the diminutive Lotta toured the country and abroad with her stage-manager mother, acting in popular theatre productions in between her shows (she often played a child’s role due to her size).
The quirky woman took to smoking thinly-rolled black cigars and never quite fit in with the East Coast socialites. Her heart, however, was large, and when her steamer trunk filled with gold (her mother distrusted banks and paper money), the richest actress in America often gave to local charities.
She never forgot San Francisco though. In 1875, Lotta commissioned the famous cast-iron “Lotta’s Fountain,” which served as a meeting point during the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires. In 1910, legendary opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini sang at the fountain on Christmas Eve because, although she had legal troubles preventing her performances, she could still sing here (“I know the streets of San Francisco are free”). Lotta’s final public appearance was in her beloved city in 1915 for “Lotta Crabtree Day” at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, where it seemed like all of San Francisco turned out to remember their star. Lotta Crabtree died in 1924.
Joshua Abraham Norton (Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I) / Memorial Plaque, Transbay Terminal
Joshua Norton, the man who declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, is a curious figure in San Francisco lore. An Englishman by birth, the orphaned Norton was lured to the California Gold Rush in 1849 with his father’s estate (about $40,000) burning a hole in his pocket. While Norton first was a model of success in real estate and merchant investments in the bustling San Francisco community, by the end of the 1850s, thanks to a poor investment in Chinese rice exports and a string of bad luck, Norton was nearly penniless.
Norton was frustrated with the Civil War and was heard to casually remark to a friend during that decade, “If I were Emperor of the United States, you would see great changes effected, and everything would go harmoniously.” So he decided to do just that — the September 17, 1859 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin published his first declaration as Emperor. From there, a phenomenon was born as Norton began to advocate for many different ideas, including abolishing the United States. Rival newspapers made up their own proclamations to compete, stores and restaurants vied for Norton’s endorsements for free publicity, and writers like Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) and Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized him in their stories.
While Norton was occasionally prescient — he advised creating a League of Nations and building a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco — he often attracted attention because of his larger-than-life personality. Norton rode the cable cars with his pack of dogs and dined for free in some of the best restaurants of San Francisco wearing an elaborate blue uniform given to him by officers at the Presidio with a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. While some believed him insane, Norton’s death in 1880 merited a front-page obituary and many of San Francisco’s elite attended his large funeral.
Alma de Bretteville Spreckels / Dewey Monument, Union Square
Although Viggo de Bretteville liked to claim he was distantly related to French aristocracy, when his fifth of six children, Alma, was born in 1881 in the Sunset District, the family was anything but wealthy. Viggo had a distinct distaste for work, so his long-suffering wife Mathilde was the sole family breadwinner. By the time Mathilde managed to move the family to a downtown flat on Francisco Street that was converted into a combination Danish bakery, laundry service, and massage parlor, the 14-year-old Alma had dropped out of school to help, while attending the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art at night.
The six-foot-tall beauty was soon attracting attention as a nude model for artists (and for successfully suing the miner Charlie Anderson for “personal defloweration” in a breach of promise lawsuit that made local headlines). Most famously, Alma was hired by Robert Ingersoll Aitken to serve as the model for the “Goddess of Victory” statue atop a monument in Union Square honoring naval hero Admiral Dewey and the recently assassinated president William McKinley. Alma was specifically chosen by the wealthy committee chairman, Adolph Spreckels (head of the local Spreckles Sugar Company), who became smitten with her image. This man, 24 years older than Alma, courted her for five years before finally marrying her in 1908. (She famously said to have agreed to the marriage because, “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave”). Alma went on to have three children with the man she called her “sugar daddy,” and, although much of the San Francisco elite initially turned their noses up at this bohemian woman, “the Great Grandmother of San Francisco” left quite a legacy; she donated the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (and her Rodin collection) to the city and with her next husband (the younger rancher Elmer Awl) worked to construct the San Francisco Maritime Museum. She died in 1968.Related