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.”