Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck must have been a startling figure when the author of her biography, Pam Valois, met her at the Maybeck compound of homes in Berkeley, California, back in 1977. Jackie, as she was known, was already in her seventies with a shock of white hair, wearing shorts and a halter top, and tarring the roof of her home. She’d decided to rent out the Maybeck Cottage across the street from her own place, and once Valois and her husband passed Jackie’s tests, they were accepted as tenants. Their young life in the Cottage was “idyllic,” and it created a lasting friendship and bond with Jackie.
Jackie had become a guardian of family heritage, as her father-in-law was the renowned architect Bernard Maybeck. Many of his designs were in the San Francisco Bay Area, most famously the Palace of Fine Arts built in 1915. Described as visionary, dramatic, and eclectic, he could also be a demanding and impatient person, and as long he lived, his expectations shaped much of Jackie’s existence.
Yet it’s clear from this fascinating biography, Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman, that Jackie was also not to be trifled with. She grew up on a ranch that the Van Huizens built from scratch in still-wild northern California, and was independent, strong, and confident. The Maybecks, especially Bernard’s wife Annie, often found her opinions and decisions confounding and troublesome. But their son Wallen was smitten early, when his family bought 2000 acres about ten miles west of Ukiah and built a small log house near Jackie’s uncle’s place. Wallen was thirteen and Jackie was ten when they met in 1911. Their families worked and played together ever after. In her memoir People & Places, published when she was 91, Jackie recalled, “I sat beside Wallen in a shy glow of love and admiration, and deep inside I knew I would some day marry him.”
But first came years of work and education. After high school, Jackie taught in a one-room school to save for college. Finally, in 1923, she began studies at UC Berkeley. Her choice of schools was strongly influenced by Wallen’s presence. He had already graduated and was working in San Francisco as an electrical engineer, continuing to live with his parents in the Berkeley hills. Jackie and her brother, Piet, worked with the Maybecks on homes they built, and gradually Jackie’s hesitations about marriage were overcome. In September 1927, after sixteen years of courtship, Wallen and Jackie married. Their partnership, which appears full of acceptance and kindness, was the foundation of all that followed in her life, yet she continued to forge her own path as a “liberated, college-educated woman of the 1920s.”
Her story includes rearing twin daughters, lots of writing and drawing and pottery, and both building and preserving an assortment of houses. Like other accomplished women of her time, she faced extra challenges in order to create a life that was her own. In the end, she saved many Maybeck homes from destruction, becoming an influential person in the San Francisco art and architecture community and a remarkable role model.
Perhaps most significant to the author of this well-crafted biography was Jackie’s “acceptance of aging – understanding and savoring the gifts of each decade.” In fact, Valois found her so inspiring that she partnered with writer Charlotte Painter in Gifts of Age, including Jackie in a collection of portraits and stories about successful aging.
Jacomena Maybeck died at the age of 95, and Valois eventually became the owner of Jackie’s home. The author’s life is intertwined with her subject’s story, and this biography shines with affection. It will be of special interest to anyone who is a fan of California history or was once a Berkeley student. But it’s greatest value is in reminding us how far women have come, and how much they can accomplish when they stand up for themselves.