By Eva Ulz, curator of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. Ulz is co-curator of a new exhibition, Phoebe Apperson Hearst: California’s Grande Dame, on display at the History Center’s museum through October 2015.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst, honorary president of the Woman’s Board, exerted a quiet yet pervasive influence on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Widow of Senator George Hearst and mother of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Phoebe was one of the wealthiest women in America, an internationally renowned philanthropist, and honored by her fellow Woman’s Board members as “the most distinguished woman of California and second to none in the country.”1 Her work for the exposition encompassed everything from entertaining visiting dignitaries at her hacienda in Pleasanton to decorating the California Building and organizing—and substantially funding—the Traveler’s Aid Society.
Phoebe Hearst’s connection to Panama began decades earlier in the fall of 1862. George Hearst and his pregnant bride traveled from Missouri to New York, where they caught a steamship bound for Panama. They crossed the isthmus by train at Aspinwall, then boarded another steamboat to San Francisco. Phoebe, who was ill for much of the month-long journey, befriended Margaret Peck, another young mother traveling with her four children.2
Mrs. Frederick Sanborn (née Helen Peck) was one of those children who traveled with Phoebe Hearst across the isthmus in 1862. Helen and Phoebe would later serve together as president and honorary president of the Woman’s Board for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, and anticipating a new wave of immigrants to the West Coast.
The Woman’s Board was organized in January 1910, even before San Francisco’s bid to host the exposition was approved. It incorporated in November 1911 and recruited Phoebe Hearst, who “never lent her name without her participation,” as honorary president. Phoebe had attended many expositions, starting with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and she understood the importance of this opportunity for San Francisco. “[T]hose who asked Mrs. Hearst to honor California by taking office in this important organization, hoped for her counsel and knew the pleasure in store because of her association with the cause … . From a material standpoint, Mrs. Hearst’s generosity seemed boundless. … But far and above all that, was the value of the presence at all important deliberations of this gentle, low-voiced, discriminating, kindly, generous woman.”3
Unlike previous expositions in Chicago and Saint Louis, where the woman’s board was an adjunct to the general administration, the Woman’s Board for the Panama-Pacific Exposition was both independent and independently funded. The group was delegated to oversee hospitality for the exposition and asked to “furnish and maintain and administer” the California Building.4
Phoebe Hearst was a legendary hostess in her own right, and she put her considerable experience entertaining in Washington, DC and San Francisco to good use throughout the course of the exposition. In addition to the reception rooms in the California Building, Phoebe pressed her own homes, the Hacienda del Pozo de Verona in Pleasanton and Wyntoon Castle (designed by exposition architect Bernard Maybeck) in McCloud, into service for the Woman’s Board. It is estimated that during 1915 alone, she entertained nearly 4,000 visitors. Six thousand more were hosted in the two years leading up to the exposition.5
“The unparalleled official entertainment extended by the Board’s Honorary President, Mrs. Hearst, had all the intimate charm of personal courtesy. … The names of every notable architect and artist, dignitaries from other countries and practically every American of distinction who came to California in the interest of the Exposition, can be found on Mrs. Hearst’s guest list. The courtesy extended to them was often a few charming restful days, sometimes a dinner, again a luncheon, but always something that gave them an opportunity of enjoying the country and of knowing the hostess whose courtesies were those of a principality.”6
Phoebe also shared her extraordinary passion for collection with the exposition. Her interests ranged from painting and sculpture to antiques, architecture, anthropology, and ethnic textiles. When tasked with decorating the reception room at the California Building, she arranged to loan a set of rare Gobelin tapestries. Archways were constructed especially for their display, and Phoebe commissioned a Scottish carpet with border pattern and color scheme designed to harmonize with the works on the walls.7
Following the close of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, Phoebe and her son William Randolph Hearst would campaign to make the Palace of Fine Arts a permanent structure. Designed by her friend Bernard Maybeck, the classically inspired palace was repurposed in 1916 to display Phoebe’s own vast collection of art and antiques.8 She hoped to endow a permanent art museum in San Francisco but died in 1919, a victim of Spanish Influenza, before her plans could be realized.
The Woman’s Board also took up the intensely practical concern of visitors’ safety and comfort during the exposition, something unaddressed—with disastrous results—at earlier expositions in Chicago and Saint Louis. The board organized a new branch of the Traveler’s Aid Society and sent representatives to meet each every train and boat that arrived during the course of the exposition. Of her myriad accomplishments, Phoebe was particularly proud of the role she played in helping to establish a branch of the Traveler’s Aid Society in California.9 She was the single largest donor to Traveler’s Aid, donating $4,230. Following the close of the exposition, the remaining funds of the Woman’s Board were transferred to the Traveler’s Aid Society to establish it permanently in California.10
A generous and supportive patron of artists at home and abroad, Phoebe helped to design and fund the Pioneer Mother monument by sculptor Charles Grafly. She and Senator James D. Phelan formed the committee that traveled to Boston and gave final approval to the statue before it was sent to the foundry. When the time came for dedication, it was Phoebe’s young grandson who was selected to pull the cord and lift the curtain. Exposition President C. C. Moore said in speech, “I hope John Randolph Hearst will remember this occasion and tell it to his children and his grandchildren, for never in his life will he participate in a more beautiful ceremony or one fraught with more sacred sentiment.”11
The catalog of Phoebe Hearst’s contributions to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition could go on and on. The Woman’s Board—and the exposition as a whole—counted themselves fortunate to have “… an Honorary President like Mrs. Hearst, who eased that road at every turn and who also kept the light burning.”12 The connections she provided to key people and ideas; the generosity of her donations; and, above all, her steadfast support are evident throughout the course of the exposition and in its legacy today.
- Simpson, Anna Pratt, Problems Women Solved: Being the Story of the Woman’s Board of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (San Francisco: The Woman’s Board, 1915), p. 131-132.
- Hearst, Kathryn P., Phoebe Apperson Hearst: The Making of an Upper-Class Woman, 1842-1919 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 2005), p. 50-51.
- Simpson, p. 8.
- Ibid, p. 97.
- Ibid, p. 125.
- Ibid, p. 118.
- Ibid, p. 91.
- Laurvik, J. Nilsen, Catalogue Mrs. Phoebe A. Hearst Loan Collection (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Association, 1919).
- Bonfils, Helen Black, The Life and Personality of Phoebe Apperson Hearst (San Simeon: Friends of Hearst Castle, 1991), p. 127.
- Simpson, p. 83-84.
- Ibid, p. 161.
- Ibid, p. 191.