MARGO ST. JAMES, THE SEX WORKERS’ ‘JOAN OF ARC,’ DIES AT 83

Sam Whiting Jan. 14, 2021  (SFChronicle.com)

Margo St. James was a proud advocate for the rights of sex workers. A one-time prostitute herself, St. James died on Jan. 13. She’s shown here on Sept. 10, 1980.
1of4Margo St. James was a proud advocate for the rights of sex workers. A one-time prostitute herself, St. James died on Jan. 13. She’s shown here on Sept. 10, 1980.Photo: John O’Hara / The Chronicle 1980
Margo St. James created COYOTE, a group focused on fighting for the rights of sex workers.
3of4Margo St. James created COYOTE, a group focused on fighting for the rights of sex workers.Photo: John O’Hara / The Chronicle 1996

Margo St. James, proud prostitute, union organizer for her trade, founder of the famed Hookers Ball to honor them and a flamboyant San Francisco character from back in the day when there were a lot more of them, has died at 83.

Best known for the creation of COYOTE, which stood for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, to fight for the rights of sex workers, St. James was also a social activist who helped start St. James Infirmary, an occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers, in the Tenderloin. Her death on Monday was later announced on the St. James website, and confirmed for The Chronicle by her sister, Claudette Sterk of Everson, Wash. St. James had been suffering from dementia for years and living in an assisted care facility in Bellingham, Wash., the city where she was born.

“Margo might be the single most important sexual liberationist and feminist revolutionary who ever slapped society upside its head,” said Santa Cruz journalist and longtime friend Susie Bright. “She was our combat soldier, field nurse and Joan of Arc.”

St. James had come to San Francisco in 1959 from Bellingham as an escaped housewife, mom and aspiring fine arts painter. Once she switched mediums, she became maybe the most prominent sex work advocate since Sally Stanford ran a bordello on Nob Hill.

“Margo only did the most idiosyncratic whoring,” said Bright. “But once she found the political kernel of what she was doing, she never shut up.”

Among the people she never shut up to were lecture audiences worldwide, various government commissions and national daytime TV hosts like Phil Donahue. She also never shut up in San Francisco, where she narrowly lost a campaign for a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1996.

Articulate and engaging, she was always good for a publicity stunt. This included dressing in a nun’s habit and making out with a man on the street, and running for the Republican nomination for president in 1980.

Margo St. James, former prostitute, gets a kiss from Robert McNie, a friend, on the way to her party to find out if she is voted as S.F. Supervisor.

“Margo was close to about a thousand people,” said Ron Turner, publisher of Last Gasp books and comics. “She was plainspoken and welcoming, but she took on extremely large adversaries, including just about every pastor in the country.”Margo St. James, former prostitute, gets a kiss from Robert McNie, a friend, on the way to her party to find out if she is voted as S.F. Supervisor.Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice / The Chronicle 1996

Margaret Jean St. James was born Sept. 12, 1937, the oldest of three children to George and Dorothy St. James, who ran a dairy farm. Known as Peggy, St. James had so much excess energy that when she finished her farm chores, she would take off and run in the hills. While at Bellingham High School, she established herself as a realist painter. One of her works was entered in a New York contest and was chosen to hang in Carnegie Hall, said Sterk.

This artistic calling was derailed when she met Don Sobjack in high school. They were married shortly before their son, Don Jr., was born, which was one month after her high school graduation, Sterk said.

Sobjack was a commercial fisherman and St. James was a housewife, which lasted about two years. “She just realized that she was not cut out to be a mother,” Sterk said. “She was going insane, and she just left her son with his dad and came to San Francisco to pursue her art career.”

St. James was derailed from her artist calling a second time, when she had some of her canvases stolen and lost the rest in a fire on a pier where she kept her studio. Sometime in 1962, she was picked up in a sweep of prostitutes, “though she hadn’t actually done it yet,” Sterk said. But when the judge insisted she did, it set St. James on a whole new trajectory.

“What’s a nice girl like you … ?” was the usual reaction of men to my becoming a feminist as well as to my becoming a prostitute,” St. James wrote in a preface to her then-lover Gail Pheterson’s 1989 nonfiction treatise, “A Vindication of the Rights of Whores.” “The difference for me was that I chose to be a feminist, but I decided to work as a prostitute after being labeled officially by a misogynist judge in San Francisco at age twenty-five. I said in court, ‘Your Honor, I’ve never turned a trick in my life!’ He responded, ‘Anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional.’ ”

So she followed his advice and became one, though it has been debated as to how hard she worked at it. This led to the 1973 creation of COYOTE, which came out of a sister organization called WHO, which stood for “Whores, Housewives and Others,” the others being lesbians who had not yet come out. These included belly dancers, topless dancers and bottomless dancers, along with a supporting cadre of feminist and liberal intellectuals, politicians and even police.

Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was an obvious fan due to the copy generated, most prominently when COYOTE announced itself in the early 1970s and the first Hookers Ball was held in the meeting room at Glide Memorial Church in October 1974. In an on-site TV interview, St. James, wearing an eye mask, said, “My goal is the complete decriminalization of sex for human beings, even commercial sex. Just because we are getting paid for our time doesn’t mean we have to go to jail for it.”

“There were 100 or 200 people there,” said Turner, who attended. “People wore very little clothing but dressed very nicely with what they had on.”

The Hookers Ball became a standard event that moved on to the Civic Auditorium, an event cut short by a bomb scare that left all of the attendees standing out in the cold in their skimpy attire. At another Hookers Ball, at Maritime Hall, “Margo came out riding an elephant,” said Turner, who also once saw her at the Pride Parade dressed as a doctor, in white coat and mustache.

“That was Margo,” Turner said, “she always liked to make a big entrance.”

The ball peaked at 20,000 attendees at the Cow Palace in 1978.

Once when St. James was invited to lecture at Western Washington University, she invited Sterk, by then a country gospel singer with three records out, to come sing a gospel hymn as part of the lecture.

“She liked to shock people,” said Sterk. “From the time that we were little, sister would do whatever she felt like doing.”

Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld, the San Rafael psychiatrist known as Dr. Hip, met St. James in the late 1960s, in a hot tub in a hillside Mill Valley neighborhood known as Druid Heights. She had no clothes on at the moment of introduction and neither did he. At the time, St. James was supplementing her other sources of income with work as a private investigator, and this was one way she gathered information.

From that night on, St. James and Schoenfeld were clothed and close, though it almost cost him his radio talk show and KSAN its license. As an invited guest, she was giving a pleasurable experience to Paul Krassner, while they both were waiting to appear on Dr. Hip’s program. After warming up Krassner, St. James went on the air to offer tips for successful oral sex.

“She was very intelligent and warm and helpful to people,” Schoenfeld said, “and she had a wonderful sense of humor and taste for the outrageous.”

When St. James told Schoenfeld she was settling down again, by marrying Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (later portrayed in the film “Zodiac”), she gave a logical reason. Avery at the time was suffering from emphysema and in a wheelchair, carrying an oxygen tank.

“This is one who can’t run away from me,” she said. But she didn’t run away from him either. Married in 1993, she eventually left the Bay Area to take Avery to Orcas Island, Wash., where her family had a cabin.

Avery died in 2000, but St. James stayed on the island. She lived there quietly until memory loss issues overtook her and she was moved onto the Washington mainland.

Survivors include her son, Don Sobjack of Custer, Wash.; sister Claudette Sterk of Everson, Wash.; brother George St. James of Kanaskat, Wash.; half brother John Wachter of Orcas Island; three grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

In the summer, there will be a celebration of life on Orcas Island, where St. James asked that her ashes be spread alongside the ashes of Avery.Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf

Sam Whiting

Follow Sam on:https://www.facebook.com/SFChronicle/samwhitingsf

Sam Whiting has been a feature writer at The San Francisco Chronicle for 30 years. He started in the People section, which was anchored by Herb Caen’s column, and has written about people ever since. For five years he had a weekly Sunday magazine column called Neighborhoods. He currently covers art, culture and entertainment for the Datebook section. He walks a minimum of three miles a day in San Francisco, searching out public art and street art for posting on Instagram @sfchronicle_art.

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