Big Alma’s museum

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

FIRST SHE PERSUADED sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels to marry her and build as their home a spectacular Beaux-Arts mansion facing Lafayette Park.

Then came an even more ambitious project: a museum that would celebrate the glory of French art and architecture and showcase her collection of sculpture by Auguste Rodin in a replica of the Legion of Honor in Paris.

Alma Spreckels, who willed the Legion of Honor museum into existence and donated many of its treasures, was a big woman with big ideas.

The colorful story of her voluble life is told in Big Alma, a biography by Bernice Scharlach published in 1990 and still available at the museum bookstore.

“It’s an absolutely terrific story and it’s well told,” said James Heig, whose Scotwall Associates published the biography. “As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to publish it.”

Heig said the biographer was initially encouraged by the Spreckels family to write the book — until they read a few chapters. Alma’s grandson John Rosekrans’s wife, socialite and fashionista Dodie Rosekrans, was especially indignant.

“She was very cold,” Heig recalled. “But John was very warm.”

In the book, Scharlach acknowledges the openness of many family members about Alma’s bumptious life — especially her daughter Dorothy Munn’s “willingness to share family secrets no matter how painful.”

Scharlach traveled widely as she followed Alma’s international trail, which repeatedly led to Paris.

“She did a really first-rate job of research,” Heig said. “It’s a solid piece of work.”

He gave an editor’s highest praise to his writer, who was an experienced journalist.

“Amateur authors don’t like to be edited,” Heig said. “Professional authors know the value of a good editor.”

Heig has edited and published many books on Bay Area historical topics, none more acclaimed than Big Alma, which he called “an intense local success.”

He said the Legion of Honor leadership is committed to keeping the book in print, and naturally he is pleased.

“Alma would have liked it,” he said. “It’s a really important book for San Franciscans — and it would make an awfully good movie.”

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