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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Personal Influences : The Eccentric One

October 16, 1988|MARCIDA DODSON | Dodson is a Times staff writer .

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.

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