I guess it was inevitable that once these two met, their relationship would turn from unpleasant to downright ugly. Widow Jane Leland Stanford was a rigid, humorless, devoted temperance adherent who worshiped a vengeful God. She was described by an acquaintance as a lady with “ an assured position in the social and financial world." In other words, she was born with a stick up her bum, and after the death of her husband, she exchanged the wood for steel. Her antagonist, Ashley David Montague Cooper, was what was once politely called a bohemian, but more accurately he was a hedonist, an inveterate gambler, a constant drunk, a profligate womanizer, and an atheist. He was also a very good painter. About the only thing these two agreed upon was that if there was a hell, then A.D. Cooper going there in a hand cart. And it was fitting that their relationship, such as it was, sank completely when it ran aground on her rocks.
Jane Stanford's jewelry collection was the guilt on the gilded age. During her lifetime she was known as the queen of diamonds, and her private hoard remains famous to this day because after her husband died in 1892 the United States government slapped a $15 million tax lien (half a billion in 2012 dollars) on his estate. Jane refused to pay even a portion of it, even though the drawn out legal battle threatened to destroy the memorial to her only child.
The story that Stanford University was founded when Harvard rejected Leland Stanford Jr. is a myth. The reality was that in 1884, when he was sixteen, the boy's doting parents rewarded Junior with a “grand tour” of Europe. It was while exploring the temples of Greece that the boy contracted typhus, and he died in Florence, Italy. The parents were heartbroken, and the little comfort Jane's husband could offer was to tell her, “Now, all of California will be our child”. He might have actually said that, as reason for founding the University that bares his name. Stanford University was supposed to be free for all qualified students, women admitted equally with men, and to “qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life.” And when the cold hearted tax collectors prevented Jane from transferring money to the university, Jane decided to sell her bling to keep the young university afloat. But first, she thought it would be a good idea to memorialize her donation. Consider it a sales pitch.
She carefully arraigned the 34 diamond studded tiaras, necklaces, cameos, bracelets, rings, ear rings, lockets, watches, diadems and other assorted brick-a-brack, on a red velvet piano cover, and had it photographed. And then, because the resultant black and white image (above) did not do justice to the $100,000.00 ($3 million today) collection, Jane decided to have the jewelery painted. In the spring of 1898 she hired the most talented (and expensive) painter she could find, Ashley David Montague Cooper. The idea of donating what she intending on paying Cooper, to the cash strapped university, never seems to have occurred to the lady.
By the time he was thirty, A.D. had already painted the President's official portrait – U.S. Grant. But his most famous painting was titled “Inquest on the Plains” and depicted a small circle of American buffalo in the snow, surrounding a dead Indian warrior. Subtle was not A.D.'s approach to art. Said a critic, “When he was good, he was brilliant; when he was bad, he was laughable.” Most of his darkly romantic western allegories were hanging in the finest homes from New York City to San Francisco. His studies of nude females, on the other hand, were hanging over most of the bars between San Francisco and his home and studio in Santa Cruz. He used them to pay off his own and his friend's bar bills. A.D. had many friends and he was generous to a fault. And that may have been why, when the messenger arrived from Jane Stanford, A.D. agreed to the climb up Nobb Hill to her 50 room San Francisco mansion.
The lady had a few rules. First, while he was working on the still-life of her jewelry, A.D. was to wear formal dress. Couldn't have her diamonds see A.D. in his shirt sleeves. Secondly, he was to arrive at work sober, and since no alcohol was allowed on the premises, he was to do no drinking on the job. To be certain that her rules were adhered to Jane's personal secretary, Bertha Berner, was to be in the room at all times. A.D. readily agreed, so Jane showed him the piano cover she had draped her jewelry upon, and the jewelry itself. To be honest, it did not seem like that complicated a job, a bit like asking Leonardo Da Vinci to paint a rumpus room. It wasn't as if the dowager was going to be looming over A.D. while he painted. The hedonist must have wondered, what could go wrong?.
What went wrong with A.D.'s plan was Bertha Berner. She was a slightly younger version of Jane Stanford; her hair locked down in a tight white bun, her bedroom and office adjacent to Jane's bedroom, upstairs. By A.D.'s second session with the hoard, once it was clear Bertha was not going away, A.D. snapped. According to Bertha, ““he rose … made a deep bow with a flourish, drew a flask from his pocket, and took a drink. Then he said, ‘Now you watch me put a little fire into that sapphire!’” Bertha probably reported this transgression to her mistress. But judging the work in progress, Jane decided to keep A.D. on the job and Bertha watching over the work..
Twice over the next few weeks A.D. became so inebriated Bertha had to be send him home. But climbing back aboard the wagon each time, he returned and forged ahead, memorializing this six foot by four foot record of wealth in every precise detail, until he had finished. A.D. was paid and discharged, and the painting hung in Mrs. Stanford's mansion's art gallery. For a few days it seemed the intrusion of the reprobate had been a mere bump in the broad serene calm which normally pervaded the Stanford mansion.
Then one morning a policeman knocked on the mansion's front door, delivering disturbing news. The officer reported to Bertha that a duplicate of the jewelery painting, this one on redwood, had appeared in the front window of a saloon in San Jose. And worse, the items depicted were prominently identified on the canvas to be the property of Jane Leland Stanford. It was like an advertisement for any thieves looking for a new target. A.D. had even showed the chutzpa to have boldly signed the copy.
What Jane Stanford supposedly said was recorded by her faithful servant Bertha. "What a sad thing,” she supposedly said. “All that talent, dulled by John Barleycorn.” She thereupon dispatched a servant and the police officer via the San Francisco, San Jose, Monterrey Railroad to retrieve the copy of her painting. A little cash smoothed the transfer of the art from the saloon's window into the servant's hands, and it can be assumed that some silver also made its way into the police officer's pocket. Three hours later the copy was in Jane's hands, and promptly destroyed. And in any normal household that would have been the end of the entire affair.
It was not ended for Jane because, first, as a temperance supporter she had been made a laughing stock in front of her Nobb Hill sophisticates. And secondly, when Jane traveled to London to sell her jewels, she learned the unpleasant lesson all jewelry owners must eventually learn, about the difference between an insurance value of diamonds and the market value. Diamonds, it turns out, are for forever only until you try to sell them. Jane found buyers for only about ten of the jewels in the painting. Still that was enough to endow the University with $20, 000 a year to buy new books for the library. The fund is still being used for that purpose today, and is called “The Jewel Fund”. Also immediately upon her return to San Francisco Jane had A.D.'s original painting taken down from her gallery and placed in storage. The queen of diamonds found it too painful anymore to gaze upon her jewels. The next year, 1898, the Supreme Court ruled for the Stanford estate, and Jane no longer had to sell her diamonds.
A.D.'s original painting stayed in the basement of the Stanford Nobb Hill mansion until Jane's death in 1905. The old lady died while hiding out in Hawaii. She was convinced that someone was trying to poison her. The Hawaiian police suspected strychnine, but most people considered that nonsense. Jane had left Bertha $15,000 ( half a million today) and a house. Meanwhile the vast majority of Jane Stanford's estate, about $40 million (over a billion in today's dollars) went to the institution which bears her only son's name, Leland Stanford Junior University.
Ashley David Montague Cooper continued on his road to perdition, unimpeded by public disapproval or personal regret until 1919, when at the age of 62 “grey-haired, but stalwart and erect” the old reprobate married 36 year old Charlotte George. The couple shared five happy years together until A.D. died of tuberculosis, in September of 1924. Presumably he was exhausted. His painting of "Mrs. Stanford's Jewel Collection" was brought out of hiding after her death. Now considered "one of the most extraordinary still-lives of our time" it hangs in Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus.
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