Icons / May 2018

Bunker Spreckels: Riding the Wave of Sex, Drugs, and Sugar

Never has “live fast, die young” been taken more literally than in the case of Bunker Spreckels, the hedonistic, multi-millionaire surfing step-son of Hollywood legend Clark Gable. The Rake traces the incandescent trajectory of one of the 70s fastest burning stars

As far as history’s hellraisers go, Adolph Bernard Spreckels III is not a name that springs to the lips of many people. Keith Richards, yes. Jim Morrison, almost certainly. Oliver Reed, without a doubt. But Adolph B. Spreckels III? Born in 1949, and affectionately known as ‘Bunker’, his was a story of decadence orated through a megaphone dialled to full volume. The great-grandson of the German-born sugar baron, railway tycoon and publisher, Adolph Claus Spreckels, Bunker’s childhood was one punctuated by family feuds and Hollywood glamour, while his adulthood, fleeting as it was, played out in a palimpsest of drugs, sex, surfing, and martial arts. Bunker’s life was Exhibit A in the crime against conservatism, part cautionary tale about the dangers of flagrant excess, but also part inspiration to relentlessly pursue emancipation from mundanity.

The story of Bunker really starts with his Claus, his great-grandfather,  who in 1846 bid farewell to his home in Hanover, Germany and moved to the United States, carrying, reputedly, just one German thaler in his pocket (‘thaler’ is where the name ‘dollar’ originates). He married his childhood sweetheart in New York shortly after arriving (she had moved there three years previous) and, given there was little else to do in those days, had thirteen children, only five of whom were fortunate enough to make it into adulthood. The family moved to South Carolina to open a grocery business before upping sticks back to New York and then finally to South California, where the ever industrious and entrepreneurial Spreckels started a brewery. While reasonably successful, it wasn’t until the mid-1860s, when Spreckels got into the sugar refining business, that he quickly became extremely wealthy, able to corner the Hawaiian sugar refining trade. Railroad investment followed, and with a slew of clever investments in beet plantations, Spreckels was able to make a killing.

His standing was such in Hawaii that in 1878 Spreckels founded Spreckelsville, a company town along the northern shore of Maui, the home of Peahi, also known as  ‘Jaws’, one of the world’s most fearsome big waves. By the end of the 19th century, Spreckelsville had grown into the largest sugarcane plantation in the world. In turn, Spreckels would become de facto money lender to King Kalākaua, in return for favourable land deals and water rights. From the man with one thaler in his pocket to one of the wealthiest men on the planet, Spreckels was the consummate immigrant success story and the poster boy for a generation of Americans for whom business opportunities and hard graft would be viewed as birthrights. When Claus died in 1908, the business was passed onto his second son, Adolph II, and from that moment on the family descends into a litigation mess that makes Dynasty look like Little House on the Prairie. The siblings, all of whom were already millionaires, sued and countersued one another for a bigger slice of their father’s pie.

In 1884, furious after the Spreckels Sugar Company was accused of defrauding its shareholders by the San Francisco Chronicle, Adolph II tracked down the newspaper’s co-founder Michael H. de Young and shot him. Spreckels pleaded temporary insanity to the charge of attempted murder and was acquitted, which is perhaps no surprise given the wealth and standing of the man, not to mention the levels of investment the Spreckels family had poured into California over the years.  Adolph Bernard II was also the genesis of the term ‘sugar daddy’, a moniker given to him by his wife Alma de Bretteville, a woman 24 years his junior (Alma also had a number of monikers bequeathed to her, notably “Big Alma” on account of her 6” 1’ frame, and “The Great Grandmother of California”, for being a generous patron of the state). Between them, they had a son whom they named Adolph Spreckels Jr (still with us?) who in turn married a former model by the name of Kathleen Williams.

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Ryan Thompson