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The Tenderloin Brothel Madam Who Became Mayor of Sausalito

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A plump smiling woman poses in front of a bar, her hair curled into a 1940s style, wearing a patterned dress and matching bolero jacket.


n 1978, a movie named Lady of the House hit American televisions, carrying with it a story that would be preposterous if it weren’t, in fact, true: hard-bitten brothel madam works her way up to become popular mayor of a small town. This was the life story of the legendary Ms. Sally Stanford, who conquered hardship and a third-grade education with a winning combination of sass and street smarts.

Born in 1903 (with the name Mabel Busby) in Baker County, Oregon, the second of five children, Stanford’s wild spirit showed itself early. She eloped at the age of 16 and ran straight into a life of crime, immediately landing herself in prison for cashing checks that her husband had stolen. During her two-year sentence, she learned the art of bootlegging from fellow prisoners. After her release, she headed to Ventura to open a speakeasy. Once she’d saved enough money, a 21-year-old Stanford made the move to San Francisco, and immediately opened a brothel at 693 O’Farrell St. in the Tenderloin. “Madaming is the sort of thing that happens to you,” Stanford wrote in her 1966 autobiography, The Lady of the House. “Like getting a battlefield commission or becoming the dean of women at Stanford University.”

Stanford’s dazzling confidence, wit, and steadfast ability to keep secrets quickly made her an infamous figure in the city. She was arrested repeatedly, but charges against her rarely stuck — in part because of her friends in high places.

“The politics of the town were dominated by Mayor Jimmy Rolph,” she wrote in her memoir. “He was a doll, a political dreamboat … Not only did Jimmy do OK, but the rest of us did pretty well too. For if there ever was a live-and-let-live type, it was Mayor Rolph.” She continued: “At this point [in the 1920s], it was easier to come by professional female company in San Francisco than it was to catch a rash in a leper colony.”

By the early 1930s, Stanford had opened a second bordello in the Tenderloin, this one at 610 Leavenworth. She made such a success of her first two establishments that, by the end of the decade, she had opened four more: 837 Geary, 1526 Franklin, 929 Bush and 1224 Stockton in Chinatown. The madam had no problem finding women who wanted to work for her either.


“Starving jobless dames? Forget it,” she wrote in her autobiography. “They wanted to have intercourse with men for money … Some were just plain lazy. Others had the strange idea that any activity illicit in nature was glamorous.”

Sally Stanford’s bordello sites.
Top line: 1144 Pine Street (this original house was torn down in 1961), and 693 O’Farrell Street. Bottom line: 610 Leavenworth Street, and the building that once housed the Valhalla Inn.

In 1941, Stanford added what would become one of her favorite business locations to her roster. Housed inside a mansion built by a prominent businessman for his fourth wife, Stanford’s high-end Nob Hill bordello at 1144 Pine was legendary for the eight years its doors remained open. (Stanford once called it, “the finest and most distinguished pleasure house in the world. Maybe the universe.”)

Word was, the Pine house and its marble pool were frequented by the most respected politicians and businessmen in the region, as well as visiting dignitaries and celebrities from around the country. Stanford listed the likes of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart as regulars. Stanford eventually 86’d the latter, however, for being in her own words, “a foul-mouthed, pugnacious drunk who came around to badger, belittle and insult the girls.”

Banning Bogart was one of the many ways in which Stanford worked to keep her employees happy. “I did my conniving, scheming, defensive best for them,” she later stated. “They did their enticing, seductive, coquettish best for me and the house prospered. For their efforts I gave them 60 percent of the take … They were a lovely set of girls and they contributed quite a bit to the success of the place.”

A matchbook from Sally Stanford’s Valhalla


n 1949, increasingly harassed by local police and then-District Attorney, Pat Brown, Stanford moved to Sausalito and opened a restaurant, appropriately titled Valhalla. While the venue attracted celebrity customers including Marlon Brando, Bing Crosby, and Lucille Ball, and advertised itself as a venue strictly for wining and dining, local rumor and a red light at the back of the building suggested otherwise. Thanks to the Bohemian nature of the Bay Area enclave, neighbors adored and supported the inn, regardless. In 2018, a local man told KPIX News: “She did provide a useful service and a good place to eat, and people appreciate that.”

Stanford’s good standing in the community, as well as the fact that the local council wouldn’t allow her to install an electric sign on her restaurant, eventually led to Stanford’s political ambitions. A momentous 1970 press photo captures just how far her reputation had come in two decades in Sausalito. The caption reads: “Sally Stanford, nails up sign boosting her candidacy… in this upper middle class… suburb. Lamenting ‘a general breakdown in morals,’ the retired madam of San Francisco’s best known bordello is running for city council — with the support of local women’s clubs.”

It took Stanford six attempts to win a seat, but she was dogged in her determination to win, once noting, “We sinners never give up.” Once in office, she successfully held onto her position, and her ongoing popularity led to her being elected mayor in 1976. After her decision to retire in 1980, in a beautiful gesture, the council insisted on naming her “Vice Mayor For Life.

In the end, there was nothing dull about the life of Sally Stanford. She was married five times and adopted two children, John Owen and Hara “Sharon” Owen, along the way. Stanford had multiple different aliases, lived according to her own moral and social codes and wrote daringly and openly about the secret lives of men. Despite it all, she successfully endeared herself to almost everyone she ever encountered. “Morality,” she once wrote, “is just a word that describes the current fashion of conduct.”

During her 78 years on the planet, Stanford survived multiple robberies at gunpoint in her establishments, one bout of colon cancer and 11 heart attacks. The one that arrived in 1982 finally took her down for good. After news spread of her death, flags around Sausalito, as well as on the local ferries, were flown at half-mast in her honor. Today, a water fountain at the town’s ferry landing still instructs visitors to “Have a drink on Sally.” A second fountain sits lower to the ground, in honor of Stanford’s beloved dog, Leland.

Stanford is best remembered for her indomitable spirit and seemingly invincible ability to always come out on top. “If you are being run out of town,” she once said, “get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade.”


For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here

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