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The mystery of Timken Gallery's Putnam Sisters

They were rich and reclusive and changed San Diego's art world forever

"Death of the Virgin," by Petrus Christus. Amy complained that Poland, who brought ceramics and prints, contemporary and Asian art to the gallery, had turned too much to modern art.
  • "Death of the Virgin," by Petrus Christus. Amy complained that Poland, who brought ceramics and prints, contemporary and Asian art to the gallery, had turned too much to modern art.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Amy, Anne, and Irene. “If anyone tells you they knew them, they’re lying,” one longtime San Diegan says, when asked about the late Putnam sisters. The wealthy, reclusive spinsters went to and from their Hillcrest mansion at Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street in a curtain-shrouded limousine. Only an occasional citizen glimpsed them. They were zoo visitors, and contributed generously to the Zoological and Humane Societies. They gave money for musicales. In 1938 the sisters began to lavish San Diego with Old Masters. They donated an El Greco; a Goya; a Van Dyck; a glorious Murillo; the Zurbarán Agnus Dei, from which the woolly Lamb of God, bound for sacrifice, gazes helplessly off the canvas at the viewer. For a time after World War II, helped by Putnam contributions, San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery (since 1978 the San Diego Museum of Art) became the largest holder of Old Masters this side of the Mississippi.

"Young Man with a Cock's Feather in His Cap," by Rembrandt. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II in Europe liquefied the art market. Old Masters of quality became available at reasonable prices.

"Young Man with a Cock's Feather in His Cap," by Rembrandt. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II in Europe liquefied the art market. Old Masters of quality became available at reasonable prices.

Then in the late ’40s, the Gallery’s first director fell out of Amy’s favor. Putnam paintings were no longer donated to San Diego. The sisters’ acquisitions from that time on did not stay in town but instead traveled the nation, on loan to such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Washington’s National Gallery, Harvard’s Fogg, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What happened between Amy and the handsome young gallery director, no one knew. In 1950 San Diego attorney Walter Ames took over the sisters’ affairs and helped them to create the nonprofit Putnam Foundation, a move that would eventually secure all the Putnam paintings for San Diego. Later, through the Timken family of the Timken roller bearing fortune, Ames acquired funds to build the Timken Art Gallery in Balboa Park. That gallery now houses a remarkable collection of art composed exclusively of Putnam purchases.

"Cranberry Harvest," by Eastman Johnson

"Cranberry Harvest," by Eastman Johnson

Twenty years have passed since the last sister was buried, without ceremony, in a Greenwood Cemetery family plot. (Amy wrote in 1950: “I am allergic to funerals, and wish to be sure mine is simple, and that no one sees me.”) The Putnams’ earlier gifts (a total of 115) can still be seen in the San Diego Museum of Art, enriching that gallery’s collection. And the sisters’ gifts continue to radiate throughout the Timken Art Gallery, new purchases by the Putnam Foundation adding yearly to the growing list of Old Masters: the Petrus Christus Death of the Virgin with its angels ascending toward heaven bearing the Virgin’s soul; the Pieter Brueghel Parable of the Sower that beckons the viewer into its luminous, infinite distances; Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew; a number of distinguished American works, including Eastman Johnson’s celebrated Cranberry Harvest, a Winslow Homer, the Benjamin West Fidelia and Speranza, a Frederic Remington, and a gorgeous melancholy landscape by George Inness.

Timken Art Gallery. Did the women have beaux? The only evidence in Timken files of male attention is an undated poem, “To the Unseen Irene.”

Timken Art Gallery. Did the women have beaux? The only evidence in Timken files of male attention is an undated poem, “To the Unseen Irene.”

In addition there are more than 300 glittering Russian icons that were Amy’s special delight. The Putnam Foundation, beneficiary of the sisters’ estates, continues to endow the Timken gallery, the only fine art gallery in the area that does not charge an entry fee. The startling contemporary travertine marble and glass, bronze-doored structure sits to one side of the plaza in Balboa Park, in austere contrast to the nearby phantasmagorical Moorish and Mediterranean architecture. With the stylistic difference that keeps other park structures at arm’s length, with its chilly rectilinear simplicity never hinting at the interior’s richness, the building stands as a metaphor for the sisters themselves.

Reginald Poland, c. 1930. The city’s art collection was worth $50,000 when Poland took over, and 25 years later it was worth $7 million.

Reginald Poland, c. 1930. The city’s art collection was worth $50,000 when Poland took over, and 25 years later it was worth $7 million.

The Timken gallery also safeguards four file drawers of Putnam paper memorabilia. The quixotic assortment begins with an 1822 letter to the Revolutionary general, Israel Putnam. There are bills for Aubusson draperies, portières, and preparation of tapestry ($1068.03); faded obituaries; Irene’s poems (“With sad face turned aside, lest sudden comers see her weep, / She sits…”); queries to the city of San Diego for a permit to extend the ten-foot fence another few feet after a drunk plowed into the wrought iron with his Chevy sedan; smudged carbons. There are the New York Times and San Diego Union accounts of the sisters’ inheritance from their cousin Willie Putnam, the gift that would change the face of San Diego art. The Union headline reads: “FIVE MILLION BEQUEATHED TO 2 SAN DIEGO WOMEN.” (Sister Irene died prior to the inheritance.)

For a time after World War II, helped by Putnam contributions, San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery (since 1978 the San Diego Museum of Art) became the largest holder of Old Masters this side of the Mississippi.

For a time after World War II, helped by Putnam contributions, San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery (since 1978 the San Diego Museum of Art) became the largest holder of Old Masters this side of the Mississippi.

The files end with a veritable flood, a deluge, written by Amy from the late ’40s, as Anne’s health began to fail, and ending with Amy’s death in 1958. The letters increase in number and intensity as Amy loses hope for Anne’s memory to be restored, or her health to return. Amy’s misery breaks through her fat scrawl. She begins to write the most far-flung of relations, even third and fourth cousins in Sedro Wooley, Washington. She answers letters from an English family to whom the sisters sent food during World War II, keeping them up on Anne’s decline and her own vicious headaches.

The Putnam sisters. “If anyone says they knew them, they’re lying.”

The Putnam sisters. “If anyone says they knew them, they’re lying.”

The majority of this file consists of Amy’s correspondence with Frederick S. Parker, vice president of New York City’s prestigious Guaranty Trust, himself the sisters’ trust officer. The letters are replete with the desolation of Amy’s raw loneliness, as Anne more often hardly recognizes her. These letters, with their coloratura despair, their temper, went out almost daily to Parker, and have been preserved with his often daily, detailed replies to San Diego.

Putnam sisters' home, Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street in Hillcrest, since demolished

Putnam sisters' home, Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street in Hillcrest, since demolished

The many thousand sheets of paper tell more by absence and by what is not said, than by what is. This extraordinary volume testifies to the greater volume crumpled, tossed, and pitched into fires. (“I have been busy burning letters in the fireplace,” Amy wrote Parker in 1950.) There are parchment informals, engraved laid papers, stiff sheets taken from pigeonholes in club desks, crinkling onionskins and airmail bonds, typed with the Remington and Smith-Corona pica and elite that more than the Spencerian hand poignantly evoke a simpler era. But nothing in the pounds of paper opens the Putnams’ secret hearts. What their longings and disappointments might have been; why they never married; why they disdained San Diego society; why they were reluctant to be seen; how the museum gallery director got into Amy’s bad graces — a peruser of the paper can only guess the answers.

Henry Putnam began to manufacture his bottle “cap,” which, foresightedly, he patented. Immediately these were successful, and Henry began to fabricate other articles for domestic use.

Henry Putnam began to manufacture his bottle “cap,” which, foresightedly, he patented. Immediately these were successful, and Henry began to fabricate other articles for domestic use.

Stories of the sisters’ reclusiveness are not exaggerated. When it was necessary for Amy to be at the downtown Bank of America, arrangements were made to admit her before the bank opened. The late Julia Gethman Andrews, a Fine Arts Gallery employee during the sisters’ lifetimes, recalled their visits to the gallery as “in character; always announced days in advance, it was an occasion planned for in detail — everything clean and shining, a fresh bouquet beneath their latest gift. Finally their great black limousine appeared in the plaza and Miss Amy and Miss Anne were ushered in, the chauffeur remaining with the equipage while the ladies made their ‘royal progress.’ ” These came before or after gallery hours. Almost to the end, what they did, they did anonymously, although the staff and board of directors of the Fine Arts Gallery certainly knew who their benefactors were.

Nancy Ames Petersen, executive director of the Timken Art Gallery and a member of the board of directors of the Putnam Foundation, is the daughter of the late Walter Ames, the sisters’ attorney. (It is Petersen’s 80-year-old mother who warns, “If anyone says they knew them, they’re lying.”) Although Ames sometimes visited the mansion daily, his professional discretion was complete. He rarely mentioned the women. Mrs. Ames never met them. So, like other San Diegans, much of what Nancy Petersen knows about the Putnams is, she suggests, a mix of lore with conjecture. But Petersen, a sympathetic, gracious, and practical woman in her 50s and the mother of two grown men, one of whom also works at the gallery, wonders if the sisters’ father, Elbert Putnam, was not a rather typically dictatorial, mid-Victorian father, overprotective, a man who would have discouraged prospective bridegrooms. Certainly, Petersen posits, the father as Autocrat-of-the-Breakfast-Table was not an unusual role in the senior Putnam’s day. When they arrived in San Diego, and definitely by the time Elbert died, would it not have been too late for the women to consider marriage? Would they not have been fearful of fortune-hunting Lotharios?

It was said, correctly, that the sisters did entertain, but that they did so rarely. The guests were men from Los Angeles and the East Coast — art dealers, historians, curators. The women’s conspicuous distance from townspeople caused talk. Their distance was so deliberate, so complete. When the young gallery director was forced to resign, many San Diegans were angry with the sisters. But even today Petersen remains as baffled as anyone else about why the women avoided society, about the director’s fall from grace.

Several redoubtable ladies, some curious to seize a look at the women and the mansion’s fabled interior, others guilelessly warmhearted, attempted, from one decade to the next, to pay a call. Servants took their cards. One or two are said to have been received coolly, to have visited with the ladies (who were reported to be tiny, bony, plain creatures, fingers glittering with diamonds and emeralds, in dress that evinced little thought of fashion). No encouragement to return was extended.

The late Julia Andrews, former employee at the Fine Arts Gallery, was one of the few women invited. She told of her visits in a paper she read at a 1966 meeting of the local Wednesday Club, prefacing her talk with this disclaimer: “Not that I wish to give the impression that I was an intimate of the Putnams. The nearest I ever came to this was when Miss Amy asked whether I could arrange an evening in my home when they might come and have my husband play for them…My visits to the mansion were for the most part in pursuit of my duties as curator of paintings for the gallery director, Reginald Poland.”

Andrews mentioned other guests. The ethnologist Edward H. Davis, an authority on Southwest Indian tribes, whom the Mesa Grande Indians called “the Great White Father,” spent weekends at the mansion. Natives of Old Russia, with whom Amy shared her interest in Russia’s folk art and the Ballet Russe, came for evenings.

Andrews offered this hypothesis to explain the Putnam reclusiveness: “The aloofness of the Putnam sisters, generally attributed to shyness and excessive modesty, was rather a native English dignity, never violated.”

Amy, Anne, and Irene arrived in San Diego in 1913, when the city was an optimistic metropolis of 55,000. They came from Bennington, Vermont, with their father, Elbert Putnam, who was then 76 years old, and their mother, Thetis Bishop Putnam. Elbert, retired ex-vice president of Bennington’s water company, joined his millionaire elder brother Henry, who had retired here in 1898. The sisters were past their mid-30s when the family moved into the mansion their father ordered built (and immediately deeded to his daughters) at the northwest corner of Fourth and Walnut, near Balboa Park, then a dusty chaos of horses, carpenters, and timber, noisy with shouts and pinging hammers as the area was readied for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

The Putnams were lured here by the climate and by older brother Henry. They reveled as they supervised planting of what were, to them, exotic “hothouse” oranges and flowers. Thetis saw to flower gardens to soften the lines of the new house. Henry, on his Alpine property (he also had a home near Balboa Park), fertilized New York Concord grapevines with “butcher’s blood.” In the balmy salt air he regained the energies that once amassed millions; when he wrote home, as did all these transplanted northerners, he noted, with emphatic underscorings, that this was truly Paradise.

Because Henry Putnam dominated the family in so many ways, he is often confused with the father of the three sisters. For example, an oft-told legend about the Putnams is that Elbert came to California before the Gold Rush and worked as a water boy. In fact, it was Henry, Elbert’s older brother, who came to San Francisco in the early 1840s and began peddling water by the bottle. And it was this early adventure that began Henry’s fortune. After he had accrued a small capital, Henry headed back home to Essex, New York, not far from the Vermont border. Using his money from California, he invested in a steel-rolling mill that, during the Civil War, supplied “ironsides” to the Union’s warship Monitor.

At heart Henry was no industrialist. He was an inventor, one of the 19th-century tinkerers out to build a better mousetrap. Appalled by water boys’ awkward tying of corks to bottles with string, Henry devised a simple wire fastener. In 1862 he moved to Bennington, Vermont, where he married a New York City widow who became the mother of his only child, Willie. Henry then began to manufacture his bottle “cap,” which, foresightedly, he patented. Immediately these were successful, and Henry began to fabricate other articles for domestic use. Some were his invention; most were others’. But all were placed under patents held in Henry’s name — and it is to his perspicacity in filing patents that San Diego owes its icons, the radiant Inness landscape, Rembrandt’s portrait of a melancholy St. Bartholomew, and the stipplings of vibrant red in a Timken Art Gallery favorite, The Cranberry Harvest. Henry’s factory turned out the double-pointed carpet tack, a mop squeezer, the first practical clothes wringer, a rubber bottle stopper, the “lightening” jar and other pressure jar-closing devices, and a machine that made barbed-wire fencing. (This last is another common error in stories told about the Putnams, that the sisters’ father Elbert “invented barbed wire.” Not true.)

In 1864, Henry bought the Bennington Water Company. Financially, this was his El Dorado. He was on his way to becoming a wealthy man. He bought out the town’s grist mill, its brick factory, constructed its leading hotel, built and operated an opulent opera house, and became the town’s largest employer and holder of the majority of its real estate. Later Henry moved to New York City, where he founded the Brooklyn Elevated Company.

Twelve years younger than Henry, Elbert surely felt the chill of his older brother’s shadow. In 1868, when Elbert moved to Bennington, Henry made Elbert vice president of the water company and built him a house on land that he himself earlier had abandoned. Working for Henry, a man consistently pennywise and dollar foolish, cannot have been easy. Elbert’s lifelong role is spelled out in his Bennington Banner obituary, which describes him as “associated with his brother…he was vice president and treasurer of the corporation.” The obituary goes on to call Elbert a man of “exceptionally methodical habits, quiet and unassuming…naturally reticent and not given to the making of confidences.”

Elbert had married Thetis Bishop two years before the move to Bennington. Daughter Anne, born in 1867, was a year old at the time, and Thetis was carrying Irene, who was born in 1869. Amy was born five years later. All three girls were born in New Russia, New York, a small hamlet near the Vermont border. Thetis’s family had long maintained a rambling two-story house in New Russia (it was also a popular inn), and the Putnam girls lived as often across the border in New Russia as they did in Bennington. For the three sisters life in New Russia was simple, but surely not commonplace. The area was rich in natural beauty (“…’tis my vast and lonely lake which winds / Through mountain chains,” Irene wrote) and in time it attracted artists, some of whom stayed at the inn.

The Putnam women went through Bennington schools. They learned Latin, German, and the Romance languages, philosophy, and history. Amy, that youngster about whom her mother reported, “She has begun to eat like a Christian child!” had some provocation for her interest in Russia and Russians (though New Russia was not a Russian community), but as to where, when, and with whom, the files at the Timken were given no hint.

Petersen suggests, strongly — and the letters bear her out — that the sisters were serious scholars. (Alfred Frankfurter, for many years editor of ARTNews, once spoke of receiving in his New York office a 12-page letter from Amy that continued the discussion of painting they had begun some evenings previous in San Diego.) Anne read and spoke French. Irene’s translations from French, German, and Italian poets, published in an unidentified newspaper, are in Timken files. In 1918 Amy studied Russian at Stanford University. Several samples of her correspondence in the notoriously thorny Cyrillic alphabet can be seen in Timken files. The mansion library and bookshelves on the second landing and in Anne’s and Amy’s rooms held more than 8000 volumes. A thousand of them made up Amy’s Russian collection. Another thousand volumes, in French, belonged to Anne. The titles were a mix of scholarly works and philosophy, history, art, music.

During the years between 1885 and 1900, the years most likely to have found the women courting, the files are a Sahara. A few stray letters remain from the genealogical searches that were Anne’s interest. Irene edited a literary magazine, but no copies are in the files.

Did the women have beaux? The only evidence in Timken files of male attention is an undated poem, “To the Unseen Irene,” written by a Mr. Bodkin on paper from New York City’s Connaught Bar, in response to poems of Irene’s he had read. The poem, opening with “Dear Little Stranger friend beyond the Sea… The brightest treasure of a happy home,” expresses Bodkin’s hope that the two can meet.

In 1900, still dividing their time between New York and Vermont, Anne turned 33, Irene 31, and Amy 26. They were still not married. Perhaps spinsterhood did not look ignoble to the three Putnams. They had lively Aunt Amy Bishop as a happy example (the maiden aunt whose letters urging the youngsters to learn taxonomy, botany, biology, are preserved in the files). One of their female cousins, a physician, never married. They had the presence of a mother, increasingly morose as years passed, a woman with talent as a painter who had chosen marriage and motherhood, a woman so unhappy that Irene, her apparent favorite, wrote a spate of poems whose motif is her longing to comfort her mother. These are the only poems in the files in which Irene snaps out of self-conscious poeticizing, and the few that offer a genuinely touching glimpse of Irene’s inner life.

Life must have changed in 1898, and Thetis’s despondency may have deepened, when Henry turned over the businesses to his son Willie, 34. Elbert, only 61, still tough enough to manage his brother’s larger interests, was passed over. He hung on at the water works until 1912, when Henry donated them to Bennington and assigned their profits to Bennington’s hospital.

Swashbuckling Willie spouted, by memory, entire plays of Shakespeare, and once he feted Bennington Hospital’s staff with three acts, done solo, of The Merchant of Venice. He was an enthusiastic theater buff and promoted sporting events, including boxing. Willie was also a yachtsman, and he entertained President McKinley on board his yacht, the Washita. Willie never married, and when asked why, he said he had “too many interests to pay proper attention to a wife.”

By the time Willie died in 1937, he had, through investment, tripled his father’s worth, and that with the Depression. He gave away millions — to Bennington’s hospital, to Shakespeare-reciting heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. He could hardly have resisted the pleas of Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna, who asked him to add Putnam largess to the pot that would help neo-Tory McKinley trounce the hapless Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, trampling across America with his “Cross of Gold” speech — and Willie’s “connections” to the high-tariff, pro-business administration would not have harmed Putnam interests.

Willie was the wild card that turned so many would-be straight avenues of Putnam history off on a new path. Willie’s falling heir to the Putnam business in essence kept Elbert in second place all his life, and may have kept the damper on family finances. But without Anne’s and Amy’s receipt, so unexpected, of one-fourth of Willie’s fortune (it had appeared, at first, that they were to have only $200,000 apiece from his personal legacies), the Rembrandt and the Rubens would not have been possible, to say nothing of the Timken Art Gallery.

Elbert did not leave his daughters to go begging. In 1927, when Willie turned Elbert’s final accounts over to the sisters’ lawyer, Willie was able to report, “The inventory totals $280,984.82, of which amount $15,809.20 represents actual cash on hand with me.” The women lived comfortably, but as yet they did not have the money to permit true scope. In 1938 all that changed. Willie, 73 when he died in Miami, against all expectations left more than five million dollars of his twenty-two to Anne and Amy, his two remaining cousins. (Irene had died two years earlier, at the age of 67.)

The San Diego Union printed this under the headline:

FIVE MILLION BEQUEATHED TO 2 SAN DIEGO WOMEN:

— If somebody dropped $5,000,000 into your lap, you’d probably feel like telling someone of your good fortune. That happened to two San Diegans today, but it won’t cause a ripple. Their lives will go on with quiet dignity, as always. The San Diegans are Amy and Anne R. Putnam, sisters, who live at 328 Walnut Street. For years they have made their home a beauty spot. Behind the high iron grille fence of the busy corner of Fourth Avenue and Walnut, they have maintained a magnificent garden, surrounding their tile-roofed mansion.

SHUN SOCIAL LIFE

Living in quiet seclusion, shunning the usual parties and social doings of the elite, revered by their domestic staff, the Putnams have enjoyed life in a manner described by friends as “sensible.”

News like that [of the bequest] would be exciting to most individuals, but even the Putnam household staff knew nothing of the bequest until it appeared in the papers. Life goes on unchanged.

LIKE TO TRAVEL

The Putnams could not be reached for statements today, and it was believed they were out of town. Recently they visited friends and relatives in the east and reportedly took in the New York Fair. One of their major pleasures is travel, comments of friends indicated.

By the ’40s Anne and Amy, 73 and 66, were legends. They were never seen idly munching a pastel Jordan almond at a bridge table. They attended no teas, no gallery openings, were never “run into” shopping downtown. Although they favored religious art, no one saw them in church. They secluded themselves behind the spiked wrought-iron fence that surrounded the formal gardens. They sat in the gardens on warm days, reading and writing letters and playing with the 25-pound longhaired cats whose parents came from Bennington. They visited with out-of-town guests in among the flowers their mother loved: the vining clematis, the ruffled phlox and pungent stock, the columbine, the scented single petunias, the baby’s breath, the blue cornflower backed by spikes of paler blue delphinium.

The German cook Bertha and her helpers stirred up lavish breakfasts in the antiquated kitchen. Bertha also ordered groceries, dealt with tradesmen, and supervised the help. The chauffeur, Hercules Robbins, the only remaining servant hired by their father, managed the gardeners; drove Amy to the hairdresser (“It certainly improves my morale,” she said of her hour at the beauty salon); ferried her back and forth to her torturous sessions with the dentist; traded the Chrysler for a Dodge (“I hope the car doesn’t look cheap,” Amy wrote). Robbins picked up guests at depots and airports. Their lawyers came to them. The dentist came to the mansion to do Anne’s dental work. In Anne’s bedroom, with its ornately carved and swagged mahogany and satinwood French rococo furniture, he “filed down her teeth, which were so sharp that they were cutting her lips,” Amy wrote. Because Anne’s health had deteriorated and Amy found herself increasingly unable to shake off her tormenting headaches, Amy invited their physician to begin eating breakfast with them each morning — a service for which the sisters are rumored to have paid $50 per morning. Not infrequently as many as eight nurses carried trays laid with tea and coddled eggs, toast points, up and down the stairs.

The decorator who installed the Fortuny drapes came and went. His son, a young teenager then, remembers the mansion as dark, crepuscular, and gloomy. He recalls the ladies as plain women, wearing Victorian lace collars high at the throat, and that a marvelous aroma of fresh sugar cookies baked by Bertha filled the house.

The evidence left by Putnam memorabilia is that the sisters truly cared for painting. No dilettante would have labored so over books, kept such track of sales announced in ARTNews and in catalogs sent by galleries and art auction houses as did Anne and Amy. More than once Amy was forced to draw on her personal bank account (in addition to her trust account) to meet $40,000 payments for purchases as trop cher as a Rembrandt landscape. Julia Andrews hypothesized that “to buy Russian icons instead of Russian sables, to forgo travel in favor of Titians and Tintorettos, to choose a Goya rather than a gay winter on the Riviera — the decision to secure paintings for our city rather than a thousand and one personal pleasures must have been based on some criterion of value, firmly followed.”

For the rich, giving away art is practical. The Putnam sisters were practical New England women. Donating Goyas lightened the oppressive Putnam tax burden, hugely increased by Willie’s five million and the subject of many letters to Frederick Parker at Guaranty Trust.

To learn how Reginald Poland came to San Diego to become director of the Fine Arts Gallery, and how Anne and Amy entered his life, a reader must backtrack through files to 1925 when the Fine Arts Gallery was built in Balboa Park. Amelia C. Bridges, born a Timken, and her husband, Appleton S. Bridges, gave $400,000 toward construction of an art gallery — to be operated by the Fine Arts Society — and Amelia Bridges offered, for her lifetime, to pay the gallery director’s salary.

The process by which Poland was hired is well documented in the files. A Society member had been connected with the Detroit Institute of Art. When time came to find a director, San Diego turned to Detroit. The first choice refused the job and suggested Poland. Responding to this, a November 2, 1925, night letter was sent to Detroit, asking about Poland: Is he “Catholic or Jew [...] has he peculiar characteristics… Give me Poland’s age antecedents your opinion of his ability qualifications personality and nationality.” The November 3 response notified San Diego that Poland came recommended. “HIGHLY AS GOOD EXECUTIVE VERY CAPABLE AND EXTREMELY HARD WORKER/POLAND WAS GRADUATED FROM BROWN UNIVERSITY/TOOK MASTERS AT YALE/ALSO WAS AT HARVARD ONE YEAR/FATHER PROFESSOR BROWN UNIVERSITY/ENGLISH ORIGIN/MOTHER SCOTCH IRISH/POLAND 32 YEARS OLD HIGHEST CHARACTER AND REPUTATION/MARRIED NO CHILDREN.” Poland got the job.

A 1930 photograph of Fine Arts Gallery director Poland can be seen in Iris H.W. Engstrand’s San Diego, California’s Cornerstone. Poland, 37, is posed with local artists at Leslie Lee’s studio and home, “Hollow of the Hills,” near Alpine. In the casually dressed group only Poland wears a suit. A drawing of Poland could have illustrated Scott Fitzgerald’s Collier’s stories. His is a chiseled, handsome face, firm at the jaw, and “artistic” — dreamy, brooding — and around the eyes, melancholy. It was the “right” face for the job.

From the first telegrams it is apparent Poland’s job won’t be easy. The files show he did well. A 1950 San Diego Union article reported the city’s art collection was worth $50,000 when Poland took over, and 25 years later it was worth $7 million. Poland forged friendships with local artists and helped them by purchasing their work and providing them with Gallery lectureships. Crafts were among his interests, and he served on the National Ceramics Jury. He and his wife had significant numbers of supporters and personal friends, including Edmund T. Price, president of Solar Aircraft Company, by the late ’40s also Fine Arts Society president.

When the Putnam sisters came into Willie’s money and then began to spend that money on art, Poland must have felt rewarded. A 1475 Bermejo; a Goya; an El Greco; a Van Dyck; the Murillo Mary Magdalene — Old Masters stacked up in the gallery.

Amelia Bridges died in 1940 and the sisters assumed her role in supporting the gallery, including the payment of the director’s $6000 salary. Julia Andrews characterized Poland in her Wednesday Club paper as “Miss Anne’s favorite,” and it was Anne, in 1940 still active, who wrote the letter to the Society’s board, offering the salary contribution.

Dapper Poland, his hair turned silver in his 15 years in San Diego, dropped by the mansion often in the early ’40s. He was particularly welcomed by Anne (of whom Julia Andrews said, “She was the eldest of the three sisters but the closest to her youth. There was nothing austere or ascetic about her, or her room, which breathed an almost gay romanticism”). They had in common a love of the Gallic. Poland had been a curator of French paintings at Detroit, and knew the language. Anne, at Poland’s behest, stepped out of anonymity and allowed him to place her name on the Society’s letterhead as an honorary vice president.

No time was more auspicious for the purchase of European paintings. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II in Europe liquefied the art market. Old Masters of quality became available at reasonable prices. Anne and Amy began to buy. Their early gifts concentrated on Spanish, Netherlandish, and Italian canvases, the Spanish as a nod to their adopted hometown’s Spanish colonial past. In The Los Angeles Times Book of California Museums, L.A. Times art editor William Wilson devotes a chapter to the Timken Art Gallery. He writes about those heady years that opened the Putnam spending spree. “The Putnams made such impossible acquisitions as Goya’s Marqués de Sofraga and Sanchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber.”

In the early ’40s the sisters were reading, in depth and in several languages, about artists whose paintings they considered for purchase. Never trusting to their own judgment in buying paintings, they consulted curators and dealers, scholars, and historians. They invited Frankfurter; Spanish art historian Chandler R. Post of Harvard; and W.R. Valentiner, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to come to San Diego to give their opinion on purchases. They entertained the gentlemen in the library, where from above the books, Amy’s glittering icons, in the heat from the fireplace, gave back the heady aroma of incense their wood had absorbed centuries earlier in Old Russia.

Poland would have been present at the huge, round mahogany Empire dining table sent by rail from Bennington, where the Putnam guests feasted on Bertha’s cooking. It may have been at this table, or perhaps by the fireplace in the library, where Poland irked an art-dealing friend of Amy’s, a man who would help put the skids under Poland. Years later, when Poland became persona non grata in the mansion, Amy claimed that Poland “never liked Alfred Frankfurter.” Whether Poland did or did not like all the cast of Putnam advisers — among whom was more than one rascally art dealer, out for the ladies’ vast account — no one knows. But a reader of Timken files learns that Amy, who to the end had only praise for Valentiner and Frankfurter, never shared Anne’s enthusiasm for Poland. Once Amy decided Poland had to go, his already doomed ship was only further damaged by his alleged dislike of Frankfurter and his distrust of one art dealer who was Amy’s favorite. (In 1949 Poland warned Amy privately of this painting-huckster. Investigators were asked to look into his life. They discovered several lawsuits brought against him by dissatisfied clients, and several more pending; that he was purported to sell “schoolroom studies” as “masters”; that his certification and authentication of certain fine art pieces were in question; and that all down the East Coast and even throughout European art circles and among reputable art dealers, the man was anathema.)

How had Poland garnered Amy’s wrath? In her letters Amy claimed that Poland had failed to appreciate the Old Masters and that he did not care for the paintings properly. She wrote to Frederick Parker in late 1949, “I cannot agree to give these treasures to the Gallery while Poland has the care of them. He has shown so openly his ill will and desire to be rid of them after having promised to keep them in the vault.” In a 1950 letter to Parker, Amy wrote of having spoken with her attorney, Walter Ames. “I told him Mr. Poland is not suited to the position and not worthy of entrusting such valuable pictures to. I reminded him that one of our especially beautiful and rare paintings, which Poland asked permission to hang on the wall, before we paid for it, he took down afterward, without our knowledge, and placed it in the basement instead of returning it to the vault.

She complained that Poland, who brought ceramics and prints, contemporary and Asian art to the gallery, had turned too much to modern art. Nettled one day by this, Amy wrote to Parker, “They have a group of people who are interested in contemporary art, who are giving a party in the Gallery today, to raise funds to bring ‘outstanding exhibitions of contemporary art to San Diego.’ ” Parker replied, “The management with Poland there is making the Fine Arts Society into a modernistic institution instead of a museum where the great masters predominate from an exhibition standpoint, and this to me is unfortunate for as far as modern art is concerned it is all ridiculous to me.”

Amy also made petty charges. In mid-1949 she alleged to Parker that during all the years they furnished Poland’s salary — $6000 from 1940, rising to $8000 after 1946 — Poland had not paid personal income taxes. She insisted that funds which the sisters and an art-dealer friend had put toward a Fine Arts Society catalog had been improperly administered. Quickening the tempo of her angry letters, Amy literally scrawled to Parker at the end of 1949, “Neither Mr. or Mrs. Poland have ever enquired about my sister’s health.”

By 1949 Anne could no longer manage, and Amy, for the first time, was bereft of the family connection upon which she depended for 75 years. Had Anne been well, perhaps the Poland fracas would have been contained. “Anne’s physical health is good now,” Amy wrote Parker in 1949 (and her condition did not change in 1950), “and she goes out to sit with her nurses, for a while, nearly every morning. She rarely comes down to the dining room now for her meals. She grows more forgetful. The painful thing is that she has lost a lot mentally… I am unable to discuss any matter with her, as she forgets what one is talking about. It is very sad and difficult.”

The doctor had recommended a television set for Anne. A swivel-based table model Hoffman was procured. Amy reported to Parker, “She eats well and for several days appeared interested in looking at her television pictures… I presume she will look at it again this evening. She appears to try to say something about it to the nurses, often, when watching it, so they think it may induce her to make more effort to speak. The doctor hopes it may be a mental stimulus, and told me it would be better to have an antenna so as to receive more variety of programs. We had one put up on the roof Monday morning and the nurses tell me the reception is very clear and good. The antenna is only about ten feet high and is on the ‘deck’ of the roof, not through the tile, but it does show from the street. I cannot help that.”

By late 1949 Amy’s frenzy accelerated. Telling Parker that as long as Poland and his supporters were at the gallery she felt unable to visit, Amy announced she wanted Poland gone. She demanded that Fine Arts Society president Edmund Price fire him. Price, in conversation and by letter with Amy, sidestepped the incendiary issue. He tried — at one and the same time — to hold firm his authority as Society president and to placate the impassioned wealthy spinster, on whose contributions the Society leaned.

On a day of “chilly, dark weather,” when Amy described the house as “the nurse-filled household,” she upped the ante. She reported to Parker her latest conversation with Price: “I told him plainly that Mr. Poland had opposed the purchase of every picture and had been extremely rude to our friends, who had been generous to the Gallery, which I resented more than his rudenesses to us. I told him if Mr. Poland is to continue as director we will take the paintings and marbles out before March first, and give them to the Los Angeles museums where they will have good care. I said I did not wish by any means to force Mr. Poland’s dismissal, but if the public prefers contemporary, local pictures, with Mr. Poland to direct them, it was only their loss, but we were trying to help them to see better art. He looked annoyed when he left, and said several times that he wished you could come out here this winter.”

Over Christmas, Amy’s obsession turned fanatical. Early in January of 1950, she wrote Parker, “If Mr. Price had any strength of character he would dismiss Poland and get this big gift [a Rembrandt landscape for which she had just finished paying, which had been stored in the gallery vault] we can never repeat. If he retains Poland, I shall have to change my will.”

Several days later, Amy wrote Parker that the Society was “not worthy”; and notified him that she wanted to “annul” all Putnum gifts given to the Society, to change the provision in her will that gave the “residue of her estate” to the Society, and to remove all the paintings being donated in 1949 from the gallery vault, especially her Rembrandt landscape.

Amy had finally gotten to Parker. He sent a night letter, “There is no way you can annul the gifts that have been made, nor would you want to do so because of the tax feature, which is of such importance that the cost of the pictures is fully taken care of through the tax deduction. It involves close to $200,000 in taxes and this is not stretching the point.”

Amy quailed at the sum, but held firm. Poland had to go. She wrote Parker, “It upsets me very much to find they are all such fools in the Society. Mr. Price has made promises for a year and has not done one thing.” By March 1950, Amy warned Parker, “I am filled with anger and frustration, so please brace yourself and do not be annoyed with this long letter.” She had talked again with Price. “I told him we would require definite proof that Poland was dismissed, with a provision that he could not return to the gallery in any capacity.”

Amy trusted Walter Ames, while in the same breath she complained that Ames, a small, frail, spare man not in the best of health, “has no pep.” Ames had firmly told Amy that the Society could not simply go to Poland and “tell him to get out”; both Ames and Price told Amy that the director had supporters. This turned her fierce. It also depressed her. She admitted to Parker, “I am growing more and more discouraged and angry to think they do not care enough for the pictures we have given, and may give, to get rid of such an unpleasant, inefficient person.”

By the middle of spring in 1950 Ames found a compromise. Poland, who not once in 25 years had a vacation, and who worked all seven days of the week, would receive a year’s paid leave of absence, and during that time could look for a new position.

The letters in the file do not show how Poland responded to the events of 1949 and 1950, but on June 24, 1950, the San Diego Union announced, “Poland Resigns as Director of Art Gallery,” and printed a photograph of the still-handsome 57-year-old. The photograph is haunting even now, with Poland’s eyes appearing to gaze deeply into those of the viewer.

Poland submitted his resignation to the Society’s directors, to be effective July 1. At the meeting, supporters urged Poland to take the leave of absence. Poland replied that he wanted the resignation to be “full and complete.”

Amy, a careful newspaper reader, watched avidly, and waited — “fearfully, anxiously,” she wrote Parker — for some word of Poland’s demise at the gallery. When the June 24 issue appeared, she cut the clipping and airmailed it to Parker, with an accompanying note that expressed “our” appreciation for his help in this matter. “We could not have accomplished this without your help.” Several weeks later she wrote to Parker that she was relieved it was over. “I am thankful,” she added, “that they do not come to talk to me about our withdrawal from the Society.”

Certainly Amy found solace in Parker’s attention. “I am thankful to have a Guardian Angel to tell my troubles to,” she wrote him. Whatever his motives, he was the joy of her last years. Parker had been associated with Guaranty Trust since the ’20s, and from his letters he can be accounted a man who knew well how to deal with the vagaries of the well-to-do. He was Willie’s friend and financial adviser, “although I often took his advice, for he was very wise,” Parker wrote Amy. Parker assured her that he considered himself dedicated to Putnam interests. The tenor of Parker’s several hundred dictated and typed letters to Amy moves between avuncular, even patronizing, to giddy conspiratorial. (“I am only your lieutenant,” he wrote Amy. “You are the general… I think back to our midnight suppers, giggling by the fire.”) Although Parker met with the family as far back as the time of Willie’s Bennington funeral, the voluminous correspondence, and Parker’s many visits to San Diego, did not begin until Anne’s illness and memory loss, and were made largely in connection with the Poland affair. Parker was married, and by 1950 a grandfather. A diabetic, his condition was exacerbated by intemperance in eating and drinking, and Amy’s letters to him fill up with warnings about his health. At some point in early 1950, Parker had expressed a desire to retire from the Guaranty. By August 1950, two months after Poland’s resignation, Parker had been named president of the newly formed Putnam Foundation, and he moved to San Diego. For eight years he managed the foundation and traveled throughout the United States, buying paintings. While he was on the road, he continued to write long letters to Amy. In 1957, Parker died. A year later, Amy died at the age of 84.

It was Parker, initially, who preserved the correspondence; later, as the sisters’ attorney and president of the Putnam Foundation, Ames kept the papers. They prove to be as much a treasure as the paintings, the icons, and the Gobelin tapestries.

Parker, in his own way, after Anne was no longer well, saved Amy’s life. (Anne outlived Amy, and died in 1962, two months shy of her 95th birthday.) But Ames saved the day. Even though Poland resigned gracefully, hoping to save the gallery, Amy remained adamant in her disapproval of the Fine Arts Society. After 1950 she turned her back on the Society. The post-1950 Putnam acquisitions, purchased through the foundation, did not have a permanent home; Amy refused to donate them to the Fine Arts Gallery. So those paintings wandered the country on loan to various museums. But she remained troubled about their eventual disposition, and even at her angriest, she wrote to Parker that she felt “San Diego needs them.” The creation of the Timken Art Gallery resolved that. The wandering paintings came back to San Diego to a permanent home.

Nancy Ames Petersen likes to tell this story: When she started work at the Timken Art Gallery in 1965, she would excitedly tell her father how many visitors the gallery had that day. Her father would say to her, “I don’t care about numbers. If only one person comes in here and is inspired, that’s what matters.” The letters show this is also what Amy truly cared about. Nancy Petersen knows this, of course, and when she carefully takes the Putnam folders from the filing cabinet, places the folders in a huge wicker basket down for a reader, she says, “I don’t want anyone to hurt my wonderful dear old ladies.”

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