Digital Archive > Our People > Jacob Bertha Levison


Jacob Bertha Levison was born in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1862, and emigrated to San Francisco with his parents in 1875. He began working as an office boy for the New Zealand Insurance Company in 1878, and then for the Marine Insurance Department of Hutchinson & Mann in 1880. He stayed there for 10 years, until the company was absorbed by Fireman’s Fund. J.B., as he was known, went to work at Fireman’s Fund as the marine secretary. In 1900, he was named second vice-president, with supervision of the company’s Marine Division. He was named vice-president in 1914, and became president of Fireman’s Fund in 1917.

J.B. was known as the savior of Fireman’s Fund during the San Francisco Conflagration. It was Levison who came up with the idea create the separate Fireman’s Fund Corporation to reinsure the unburned risks, stem the flood of policy cancellations, and leave the Fireman’s Fund Company to deal solely with the earthquake claims. It was also Levison who got the bank loan to start the new corporation, and who ultimately saved Fireman’s Fund from ruin by coming up with a plan to partially reimburse policyholders with company stock. In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Levison opened their home in San Francisco as the temporary headquarters of Fireman’s Fund immediately following the earthquake.

During Levison’s tenure with Fireman’s Fund the company formed its four affiliates—Occidental Insurance Company, Home Fire & Marine Insurance Company, Fireman’s Fund Indemnity Company and Occidental Indemnity Company. Levison was also responsible for Fireman’s Fund’s move into the automobile insurance industry, making Fireman’s Fund the first company in America to write automobile insurance on a national scale. To promote auto safety, Levison created a motion picture called "Remember Jimmy," a memorial to a young Fireman’s’ Fund employee who died in a car crash. It was still being shown thirty years later.

Levison was an avid theater and music lover, as well as an amateur flutist. He rarely missed a concert or recital, and had a legendary collection of concert programs. He also belonged to numerous music groups, including a concert trio and the first San Francisco amateur symphony orchestra. An avid traveler, there was a widely held though apocryphal legend that he once traveled around the world carrying a walking stick that concealed a flute, ready to charm a snake in India should the opportunity present itself.

J.B. Levison was a man who liked to play as hard as he worked, and once described the Bohemian Club as his second home. He founded the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Association, as well as organizing all the music for the Columbian Exposition. Belonging to numerous other clubs and organizations, Levison was the president of Mt. Zion Hospital and the Insurance Federation of California, and had the distinction of being the only man to ever hold the presidency of the Board of Fire Underwriters of the Pacific, the Board of Marine Underwriters of San Francisco, and the Pacific Coast Automobile Underwriters’ Conference.

Levison served as Fireman’s Fund president for two decades, until his retirement in 1937. He held the position of chairman until shortly before his death in 1947. His motto, "Don’t take yourself too seriously" served him well through his almost half-century in the insurance business and helped him bring Fireman’s Fund to international attention.

Taken from California Magazine of Pacific Business, March 1937, p. 24, [01-03-00-005-0003, 01-28]


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