Fanny Bixby Spencer was a celebrity in Costa Mesa-- wealthy, charitable, controversial. A playwright, poet, social worker and philanthropist, she also was a fervent Socialist and pacifist. In her day, Spencer was one of California’s richest women. But during World War I, by her accounts, she was blacklisted, kept under surveillance and threatened with tar and feathers.
She cut a dramatic figure as she stepped through the doorway of the tiny Costa Mesa schoolroom that afternoon 60 years ago. With her trademark floor-length brown skirt and proper white shirtwaist topped with a flowing brown bow, Fanny Bixby Spencer was immediately recognizable, although the teacher had never met her. “She was a pretty woman, but she looked so strange, like she had just stepped out of the 19th Century,” recalls Mildred Fisher, who in 1928--the time of flappers and short skirts--was the 23-year-old second-grade teacher who received the visit. “When she appeared at the door, I knew who she was.” As well she should have. Fanny Bixby Spencer was a celebrity in Costa Mesa--wealthy, charitable, controversial and, by 1928 and 1988 standards alike, eccentric. The purpose of her schoolroom visit was as offbeat, but as predictable, as her outmoded attire. A poet, playwright, social worker and philanthropist, Spencer also was a fervent Socialist and pacifist, committed to a world free of war and the symbols that promote it. In her mind, those symbols included pledging allegiance to the flag, something she didn’t want her housekeeper’s son, a student in Fisher’s class, to do.
“She had a very nice manner, but she was very firm,” recalls Fisher, now retired and an active member of the Costa Mesa Historical Society. “She didn’t want Rodney to salute the flag.”
It was a minor episode and one settled quietly, compared with the difficulties Spencer had encountered as a pacifist during World War I, when, by her accounts, she was blacklisted, kept under surveillance and threatened with tar and feathers.
But the simple schoolroom request was indicative of the conviction and single-mindedness that governed the life of Fanny Bixby Spencer, a soft-spoken, but gutsy early-day activist who cared more for her causes than for the approval of society. Cervantes would have smiled at her. She tilted her lance at windmills and sometimes they bent a little. And so did her lance. But though Don Quixote would have understood her, few people at the time did.
Daughter of Jotham Bixby, the “father of Long Beach,” Spencer was one of California’s richest women in her day, but for many years she received her inheritance in the form of an allowance from a trust fund because of her father’s fear that her generosity to the poor would leave her in their ranks. Childless, she took in Japanese, Mexican, Russian and other disadvantaged children at Marina Vista Ranch, the farm she and husband W. Carl Spencer owned in Costa Mesa.
Indeed, at her own death in 1930, she left $5 sums (out of her $2.5-million estate, to that date the largest that had ever been admitted to Orange County probate) to several of her rich relatives, while giving thousands of dollars to loyal employees and foster children. Even in bequeathing property for the formation of a city park and money for the fledgling Costa Mesa library, she tinged the gifts with her political zeal--the park and library could not be used for military-training maneuvers, Boy Scout encampments or veterans’ group meetings, nor could war memorials or military posters and paraphernalia be displayed there, according to a newspaper account at the time.
She found the seeds of war everywhere in society. Teaching patriotism was dangerous, she wrote in a 1922 pamphlet, “The Repudiation of War,” because “to exalt patriotism without exalting war at the same time is something like going out to swim without going near the water.” “The Star-Spangled Banner” should not be sung in the schools because it is the most “bombastic and bloodlustful of any national anthem in the civilized world today,” she was reported to have written to the state schools superintendent in 1925. “If it is given to the children of the nation, generation after generation, as milk from the mother’s breast, how can we hope for peace?”
Even Boy Scouts represented the threat of violence to Spencer, who wrote that the organization taught boys army camp life, a warrior’s code of ethics and the discipline of soldiers. In effect, it was, she wrote, a “kindergarten of war.”
Born Fanny Weston Bixby on Nov. 6, 1879, at the historic Rancho Los Cerritos in what is now known as the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach, she was raised amid social prominence and educated in the best women’s schools.
Her social conscience was first stirred when, at 19, she traveled to Italy and saw poverty that “struck my heart with such depressing force,” she wrote in her pamphlet, “How I Became a Socialist.” She returned home to study and then ventured out to act on her concerns.
Her first “field of action,” she wrote, was San Francisco, where she was a social worker in a settlement house south of the Market District. ". . . I looked upon the face of living poverty as I might look upon a whirlpool in the ocean. It confused me and distressed me unspeakably in its terrible, perpetual reality. I finally realized that it was not a disease to be cured by charity, but an integral part of the social order . . . What I did for the poor of San Francisco I do not know, but I know what they did for me.”
She next worked in Boston among the working class, attended union meetings and grasped the principles of socialism as she was won over to the worker’s plight. She then returned to Long Beach, where she became the city’s first police matron, volunteering her services to take charge of women’s and children’s cases. Later, she did probation work for Los Angeles County. Some of her experiences with the downtrodden inspired verse in her 1916 volume of poetry, “Within and Without.”
President of the Political Equality League in Long Beach, she worked for the women’s vote, and once enfranchised, joined the Socialist Party, serving as recording secretary of the Long Beach branch. Admired for her humanitarian work and well-known for her pacifist speeches, she was a conspicuous and well-regarded figure in Long Beach, according to local historians.
But during World War I, her activism earned her ostracism. In the war fever that swept the country, those opposed to the conflict were considered traitors and risked arrest, but that did not keep Fanny Bixby from organizing and attending pacifist meetings. In June, 1917, a newspaper reported, she felt the wrath of fellow Unitarian church members in Long Beach when she refused to salute the flag because, she said, the salute represented an approval of war.
More dramatically, several months later, she was literally run out of town when authorities broke up a Christian pacifists’ meeting she attended in South Pasadena, according to a biography printed by the Southern California Local History Council. Two young ministers and a theology student were taken to jail and others--presumably Fanny Bixby included--were taken to the edge of town and released.
“As the war progressed . . . I received anonymous letters threatening me with tar and feathers . . . bitter glances of neighbors . . . I was forced to meet my convictions face to face. I made no retractions,” she wrote in an introduction to one of her booklets.
Her family’s influence probably kept her out of jail, apparently to the pacifist’s chagrin, says Long Beach history buff Roberta Nichols.
Indeed, Fanny Bixby Spencer presented a somewhat romantic picture of a woman going to jail for her pacifist beliefs in her 1920 play, “The Jazz of Patriotism,” a strident indictment of war that, reminiscently enough, opens with a scene at a church club meeting where another woman is ostracized for not saluting the flag. And a few years later, in an eloquent letter to the editor of a Santa Ana newspaper, she once again decried sending people--this time, members of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union--to jail for their beliefs.
“When men can go to prison smiling and singing, with heads high and hearts warm, they are a moral force to be reckoned with,” she wrote.
In 1918, she married W. Carl Spencer, a fellow Socialist, and moved to Harper--later to be named Costa Mesa in a contest sponsored by the couple, who put up a $25 prize. That was but one example of their civic involvement; the Spencers not only took in poor children, but also donated land for a women’s clubhouse and provided money for school lunches.
Former schoolteacher Fisher recalls that Fanny Bixby Spencer once had a lunch for several teachers. Fisher was not invited, but it was much talked about later. A vegetarian, Spencer served no meat, “just vegetables and fruit, I heard later,” Fisher says.
The city’s library became a favorite cause. In 1924, the Spencers rented the Rochester Building at 18th Street and Newport Boulevard for five months, at $70 a month, for the library. Until then, the books had been kept in a room over the Costa Mesa Bank, whose customers had complained about the noise of library patrons climbing the stairs. The Spencers also donated thousands of books and paid a good portion of the librarian’s salary.
Through the years, the activist continued to help the poor and disadvantaged, although the dollar value of her charity was known to no one but herself. She was a soft touch, says historian Nichols. Spencer once financed a woman’s trip to India to talk to Gandhi. “Whether she ever got to him, I don’t know,” Nichols says.
And it’s unclear whether she was truly ostracized after the war, or whether her strangeness kept her at a distance.
“I don’t think she was hated. She was peculiar . . . I think people were probably in awe of her,” says Nichols. But Spencer believes she was shunned. “I think she had a martyr complex,” Nichols says. “She made much of the tar and feathers.”
In a 1928 letter to her cousin, Sarah Bixby Smith, Spencer wrote of her ostracism: “Since I have been a social outcast, clubs, like churches, are not in my sphere. I have three lines of work, bringing up my foster children, helping my neighbors (mostly Japanese farmers) and banging my head against the stone wall of militarism and conservatism that hems me in. I am planning to put my play ‘The Jazz of Patriotism’ on the stage this fall. This will be my last bang, perhaps, for it will probably leave my head and not the stone wall demolished . . . “
Indeed it was her last bang. The play opened and closed in Los Angeles.
Her health failed soon after. “I am so weak that my conversation sometimes becomes a little maudlin,” she wrote from a Los Angeles hospital in a letter dated March 16, 1930, “but my thinking is clear.”
She stayed true to her beliefs to the last. In her final days, according to a newspaper story, she provided a fellow patient, a black man, with enough funds to ensure his recovery, and she shared her flowers with other patients.
Fanny Bixby Spencer probably would have been surprised by the flowing tributes in her obituaries. According to the Long Beach Press Telegram, she was “a woman who, though she could have enjoyed the luxuries of life, chose to devote her energies to the betterment of mankind. The full extent of her benefactions will never be known, for she never permitted her right hand to know what her left hand was doing.”
But even the kind words might not have mollified her. As she wrote to her cousin two years earlier, after a family funeral:
” . . . but what does it matter if we can leave a record of some service or other to our fellow man? Aunt Martha left an enviable record. What Mr. Booth said about her was fine, but I don’t agree with him on immortality. I have no hope of living after the disintegration of death . . . I have even given up the doctrine of reincarnation . . . I now accept the philosophy of ‘The Rubaiyat’ which I have always inclined to:
Oh threats of hell and hopes of paradise,
One thing is certain this life flies,
One thing is certain and the rest is lies;
The flower that once hath blown forever dies.”
Spencer died of cancer on March 31, 1930, in a Los Angeles hospital. As for flowers, she wanted none at her funeral, she said, “except simple wildflowers and garden blossoms, such as little children may pick for me.”