In 1978, a movie named Lady of the House hit American televisions, carrying with it a story that would be utterly 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 in the Tenderloin.
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, and she was soon successful enough to open a second house of ill repute.
Attempts to settle down evaded Stanford at every turn. At one point, she was married to attorney Ernest Spagnoli, who once defended notorious gangster Spud Murphy, for three years. The union was annulled when Spagnoli discovered Stanford was still married to her first husband.
By the age of 37, Stanford, having thrown herself full-force at a life of madaming, was running a high-end Nob Hill bordello that was so legendary, it was said to be 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, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart (who eventually got 86'd) as regulars. “Madaming is the sort of thing that happens to you," Stanford wrote in her 1966 autobiography. "Like getting a battlefield commission or becoming the dean of women at Stanford University."
In 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. A local man told KPIX News in 2018: "She did provide a useful service, and a good place to eat, and people appreciate that.”
Her 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 five 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, Sally Stanford was married five times, adopting two children, John Owen and Hara "Sharon" Owen, along the way. She had at least four different aliases, and lived according to her own moral and social codes. It speaks to her character and personality that they successfully endeared her to almost everyone she encountered. "Morality," she once wrote, “is just a word that describes the current fashion of conduct.”
After her death in 1982 of a heart attack (she had, quite remarkably, survived 11 previous ones and a bout of colon cancer), flags around town, as well as on the Sausalito ferry, were flown at half-mast in her honor. Today, a life-size bust of Stanford is still present in Sausalito's visitor center, and a water fountain at the town's ferry landing instructs visitors to "HAVE A DRINK ON SALLY."
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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