White Lotus character Tanya McQuoid mentions her heiress pedigree as coolly as she dismisses people’s dreams with an envelope of cash: “My father was a shipping magnate who owned half of San Francisco.”
Yet could the aside in the Season 2 opening of HBO’s hit show reference a real-life person? The Standard did some digging, and we have a contender: William Matson Roth.
Roth is the grandson of the Swedish-born William Matson, who arrived in San Francisco in 1863 and founded the Matson Navigation Company. A shipping executive and Yale graduate who made an unsuccessful bid for California governor, Roth died in 2014 in Petaluma, the epitome of San Francisco royalty.
He purchased the Ghirardelli chocolate factory along with his mother, Lurline Matson Roth, who was named after the wooden sailing ship Lurline and adored riding horses at her Why Worry Farm in Woodside. As it turns out, Lurline regularly sailed to Hawaii, where Season 1 of White Lotus was set.
The pair developed the area into what is now Ghirardelli Square, a notable tourist destination representing one of only a handful of Gold Rush-era brands to survive to the present day. Maybe Tanya’s dad didn’t quite own half of San Francisco, just half of the heart of it—including the famed Matson Building at 215 Market St., a skyscraper whose wave-like ornamental details suggest Matson’s ships sailing between the West Coast and Hawaii.
Roth grew up in the 43 rooms of the 654-acre estate of Filoli along with his twin sisters, Lurline Coonan and Berenice Spalding, who were “launched like luxury liners” in rhinestone-studded gowns amidst a sea of rare flowers at their debutante ball in 1939, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
Family patriarch William Matson embodied the rags-to-riches American dream. Arriving in the Bay as a teenaged orphan, he went on to build a company valued at more than $2 billion today, the signature blue font of its logo echoing the waves in which his now-ubiquitous containers sail. He also built luxury resorts on Hawaiian islands—ones akin to the fictional White Lotus.
Claus Spreckels of sugar refinery fame funded Matson’s first ships. Spreckels’ name is also sprinkled across the city, including the hedge-encased Pacific Heights mansion now occupied by romance novelist Danielle Steel.
Matson honored the support of his sugar daddy by naming his first ship, the Emma Claudina, in honor of Spreckels’ daughter.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com