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Sally Stanford may have hoped to escape her past as a San Francisco brothel madam from the late 1920s to the late 1940s when she became Sausalito’s mayor at age 72 in 1976, but she couldn’t.

Even though she’d “reinvented herself as something else,” observes Jerry Taylor, president of the Sausalito Historical Society, “there were always mixed opinions about her — you might love her or hate her or both.”

When in March 1978 Peter Van Meter (center) and Fritz Warren (left) were inducted as Sausalito City Council members, Rene “Buddy” De Bruyn (right) succeeded ex-madam Sally Stanford (second from left) as mayor. The other councilwoman pictured, Robin Sweeny, served for 28 years. (Courtesy of Robin Sweeny and the Sausalito Historical Society)

No matter how civic-minded she became, or how generous, or how many celebrities she mingled with at the Sausalito waterfront restaurant she owned in the latter half of the 20th century, her stained reputation just wouldn’t disappear.

“The big question always was if the red light in the second story window of Valhalla, her restaurant, was more than just a decoration,” Taylor says wryly. “But I never heard of any of Sally’s girls working there — or of them becoming members of the Sausalito Woman’s Club.” 

Sally Stanford opened her Sausalito waterfront restaurant, Valhalla, in 1950. (Courtesy of Peter Van Meter and the Sausalito Historical Society)

Stanford, a not overly attractive woman who tended to wear her hair in a bun and to bedeck herself with jewels and furs, apparently went out of her way to be law-abiding in Marin County after more than two decades running bordellos in San Francisco. 

Peter Van Meter, ex-Sausalito councilman and a pallbearer at the 78-year-old Stanford’s 1982 funeral in San Rafael, remembers her well: “She was a very complex, interesting, outspoken character. She could be very hard-nosed, and she could also be very kind. She was a supporter of animals, with a special soft spot in her heart for dogs.”

Longtime locals say she paid for dual public fountains for humans and dogs at the Sausalito ferry pier that respectively proclaim, “Have a drink on Sally” and “Have a drink on Leland,” which were built three years after she died. 

Sally Stanford talks to her pet parrot, Loretta. (Courtesy of the Sausalito Historical Society)

Leland was her pet pooch.

Jan Wahl, KGO theater reviewer, credits Stanford, a friend, with doing “so much for the community, such as getting the [Sausalito Public Library] done — and it’s still running to this day” — 47 years later.

She adds, “I loved her. She was just great, wonderful on so many levels. She had the courage to run for office in a city that had some real conservatives mixed among the hippies and boat people.” 

In truth, the former madam, who moved to Sausalito in her late 40s in 1950, lost five times under her legal name at the time, Marsha Owen, before ultimately making it onto the City Council in 1972 as Sally Stanford, an alias she’s been using for a while before it became her legal name in 1971. After her first two losses, she’d pledged to run “again and again until I make it, if only to hear myself addressed as ‘Madam Councilman.’”

An old matchbook cover promotes Valhalla, Sally Stanford’s waterfront restaurant.

Her first campaign in 1962 — spurred by the Council not letting her install an electric sign on Valhalla — emphasized building a public toilet and adding money to the police department budget.

After finally winning a decade later, she declared that “we sinners never give up.”

Surprising her critics, she never missed a Council meeting. She did, reportedly, doze now and then if a session became dull.

She also bent the rules when she wanted. Van Meter cites this as typical: “Sally always smoked, so when a new no-smoking regulation passed, she left the next couple of sessions to go into the hall to smoke. After that, though, she just kept smoking — and was never cited for it.”

Stanford could also be fickle. When Van Meter was campaigning to become Sausalito mayor in 1980, he says, “Sally was in the hospital when the election happened. I sought her support and got it. Another guy also asked, and she said the same to him. I was never mayor — the last guy in the room got her endorsement.”

But she could also be loyal, evidenced by her years of frequenting Juanita’s Gallery, a Sausalito restaurant operated by her frenemy, the potty-mouthed, heavy-drinking, muumuu-wearing, big-haired, 300-pound Juanita Musson, who thrived on insulting patrons. 

Taylor, aka “Mr. Sausalito,” recalls that Stanford was a strong advocate of property rights and “bought some underwater lots to keep them from being built on because that would have spoiled the view of the bay for lots of neighbors.”

Rene “Buddy” De Bruyn, another former mayor who served with Stanford on the Council, says succinctly, “She was good for the City of Sausalito.”

Sausalito restaurateur Juanita Musson, Sally Stanford’s frenemy, wields a rolling pin like a weapon — but with a smirk. (Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society)

Stanford was also known for her philanthropy. 

Van Meter, for instance, remembers that she funded a Rotary Club scholarship program for the trades. She also contributed heavily to charities such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, still leaving an estate of roughly $20 million to the organization when her 12th heart attack killed her in 1982. 

It’s generally agreed Stanford was impulsive about giving — anonymously paying for the funerals of the homeless, mailing money in unmarked envelopes to disaster victims, picking up checks of soldiers who ate at Valhalla.

But the facts of what she’d done (in public and in private), with whom she coupled and what philosophy she spouted may depend on whose report you’re reading. It’s nearly impossible separating truth from fiction. 

Regardless, it isn’t her public service locals remember most, it’s her running the enormous Valhalla waterfront compound with three houses that was listed last spring for $11.8 million but was quickly taken off the market for remodeling. 

Reminiscences about Stanford and the restaurant, which drew Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando and Bing Crosby as customers, are plentiful. 

Jerry Taylor, Sausalito Historical Society president, at a ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Taylor and PhotographyByPrivette)

Recollects Taylor, “I lived a block and a half away from Valhalla so for me it was a neighborhood spot, a neighborhood bar. On Halloween, when I was about 10, I walked in the front door and Sally took my hand and walked me through. She always had a jar of jelly beans near the bar, and she let me take a handful.”

Peering into another rearview mirror, Van Meter looks back to when Stanford had placed a barber’s chair next to the cash register so she could “watch over the employees and money with an eagle eye.”

Etched into Wahl’s memory is that “I was going to open a shop called Bridgeway to Hollywood. [Stanford]was sitting at the Valhalla bar, with a piano player playing. I said, ‘I’m a fan of yours,’ and told her about the store. She said it was great, what I was doing, that it was great for women to get in there and fight.”

A smart businesswoman, Stanford sponsored a Little League team and served as vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce. Her motives were clear. In her 1966 autobiography, published under the name Sally Stanford, “The Lady of the House,” she wrote, “I knew what I wanted to be: an ex-madam.”

The book jacket for the hardcover of Sally Stanford’s 1966 autobiography, “The Lady of the House.”
The cover of the paperback of Sally Stanford’s “The Lady of the House.”
A detail of a Betamax cover of the 1978 “The Lady of the House” film starring Dyan Cannon as Sally Stanford.

When the book was turned into a movie of the same name in 1978, she griped about the way Dyan Cannon portrayed her.

But cartoonist Phil Frank, a founding director of the Sausalito Historical Society and its 1991-95 president, boosted her fame by drawing her into his daily nationally syndicated San Francisco Chronicle comic strip, “Travels With Farley” in the late ’70s.

A detail from comic strip by Phil Frank depicts Sally Stanford with dangling cigarette and cocktail. (Courtesy of Susan Frank and Sausalito Historical Society)

Stanford’s infamy still didn’t go away, having stemmed from running houses of prostitution in San Francisco starting in the late ’20s on O’Farrell, Taylor, Geary, Leavenworth and Vallejo streets and, finally, during the 1940s, at a Pine Street mansion on Nob Hill. Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn supposedly were customers.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote that “the United Nations was founded at Sally Stanford’s whorehouse,” professing that so many delegates to its 1945 San Francisco founding conference were her customers and informally met in the living room. 

Crowded sailboat includes bearded beat poet Allen Ginsberg (in white shirt), author Evan Connell (in suit next to him), Sally Stanford (in jaunty hat on other side of Connell), Jean Varda (at tiller of her vessel) and other Bohemian types. (Courtesy of Larry Clinton and the Sausalito Historical Society)

Only when Stanford wearied of dealing with legal hassles and “people whose halos are on too tight” did she decide to start over on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1950.

In the final analysis, though, she reinvented herself virtually every time she came to — or created — a fork in the road.

She even wove the name Sally Stanford from whole cloth: In her autobiography, she contends she adopted the surname after Stanford University won a big football game. She reputedly lifted her first name from the 1924 song “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally.”

Stanford actually was born Mabel Janice Busby in 1903 in Oregon. Buttressed by a third-grade schooling and a voracious self-educating reading habit, she eloped as a teen with a guy her book lists as LeRoy Snyder. Some claim she left him the night of their wedding when she realized what he wanted from her. 

In a life filled with multiple marriages, multiple name changes (she repeatedly assumed the last name of her husbands) and multiple other twists, that became the first of six weddings.

In 1920, the recently remarried 17-year-old Mabel Goodan was sent to an Oregon state prison, convicted of fraud for using a stolen check. But when she arrived, the warden admitted his facility had no place for a teenage girl. He therefore let her spend her entire two-year term under house arrest in the nearby home he shared with his wife. 

A prayer card for deceased Sally Stanford.

According to a Stanford obituary by Marc Bonagura, associate professor at New Jersey’s Brookdale Community College, “nearly three decades later, Gov. Earl Snell of Oregon gave Sally a pardon. She carried it around in the bosom of her dress.” 

That hiding place figures in at least one other memorable moment. 

Taylor cites the late Robin Sweeny, another Sausalito mayor, telling him “a story about Sally giving her a $100 bill to help a children’s project. When Robin said that it was a lot of money and she was afraid to carry it, Sally said she should just stick it in her bra and that way she’d know who took it.”

Stanford’s brushes with the law eventually became legendary. In the quarter century after the fraud charge in 1920, “she would be arrested 17 times on a variety of offenses,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote much later, “and only found guilty twice.” 

Rumors spread that she was bribing authorities, but she always denied that.

What’s clear is that before becoming a successful madam she’d dabbled in bootlegging and running a speakeasy — both a far cry from what she said was her first job, caddying at a golf course.

She also said, according to AZquotes, “It doesn’t take much to produce a good merchant of cash-and-carry love: just courage, an infinite capacity for perpetual suspicion, stamina on a 24-hours-a-day basis, the deathless conviction that the customer is always wrong, a fair knowledge of first and second aid, do-it-yourself gynecology, judo — and a tremendous sense of humor.

About leaving her brothels behind, Stanford joked: “If you’re being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade.”

Her life made good enough television to earn a guest-shot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show in April 1976.

Stanford didn’t seem to mind talking about her life in general — or how many times she’d wed.

In her early 20s, she married for the third time (Ernest Spagnoli, a San Francisco lawyer), and it was in San Francisco in 1924 where she changed her first name from Mabel to Marsha. The relationship lasted six years. Lou Rapp, with whom she stayed twice as long, followed in her late 20s — and then Robert Livingston Gump, grandson of the San Francisco department store founder, when she was 47 in 1951 but for a mere nine months. Her final marriage took place when she eloped to Las Vegas with Robert Kenna in 1954, divorcing him after two years.

She then exited the marriage game and spent the last 25 years of her life single. 

Kids? Well, at some point she adopted two orphaned infant children — John and Hara Owen (better known as Sharon) — and took their last name. 

This Sausalito water fountain suggests that thirsty sightseers “Have a drink on Sally.” (Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society)

To keep residents and visitors from forgetting what Stanford means to Sausalito, a statue of her was dedicated, and the Council designated her, perhaps as double entendre, “Vice Mayor for life.”