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.