‘We sinners never give up’: Sally Stanford’s journey from madam to mayor


The “undisputed queen of San Francisco nightlife” ran brothels for two decades before becoming Sausalito’s top elected official

Sally Stanford, July 21, 1947
Sally Stanford, July 21, 1947Joe Rosenthal / The Chronicle 1947
Sally Stanford with her parrot Loretta, October 18, 1965
Chronicle coverage of the raid of an establishment owned by Sally Stanford, November 28, 1949

“You can’t explain Sally Stanford,” a friend once told author Curt Gentry. Stanford, the “undisputed queen of San Francisco nightlife” in the 1930s and 1940s, ran brothels in the city for two decades — with a clientele that reportedly included some of the most prominent figures on the West Coast. Then in 1950, she moved to Sausalito, opened a restaurant and eventually became mayor of the town.

A recent search in The Chronicle’s archive turned up dozens of photos and photo negatives of Stanford from each act of her life, including some that haven’t been published in decades.

Sally Stanford (born Mabel Busby — the first of many names) grew up poor and married young at 16. She went to prison for two years shortly afterward for using a stolen check. She said it had been given to her by her husband to buy an iron.Save on Digital Access16 WEEKS FOR 99¢

It wasn’t the last of her run-ins with the law. In the 25 years after that first charge, “she would be arrested 17 times on a variety of offenses,” The Chronicle wrote much later, “and only found guilty twice.”

After she was released, she settled in California, married three times and moved to San Francisco, becoming a madam in the late 1920s. When the last of those marriages ended, “Sally Stanford” appeared for the first time in the phone book. Stanford had just beaten Cal in the Big Game, and she needed a new “nom de plume,” as Sally put it.

In a later column, Herb Caen remembered when he’d first met her.

“Sally’s place became so celebrated, I recalled, that it became a regular call on a special Yellow Cab nightlife tour. A wide-eyed kid from Sacramento, I first paid a visit to Mme. Stanford’s in 1938 under the auspices of John Pettit, a Yellow Cab official who was helping break me in as a columnist,” Caen wrote in 1991.

“When the young ladies filed down to the drawing room to meet the gawkers over champagne, I wrote, they were ‘as proper as Junior Leaguers in their silk wrappers’ — perhaps I meant negligees — and each wearing a gardenia corsage. That’s the way I remember it, but maybe I just imagined the corsages.”

Stanford was fined only once for what everybody seemed to know. In 1938, she was charged with “keeping a house of ill fame” and paid $500 as part of a plea deal.

She later denied having ever paid protection money to keep her business going — and once called the police on a plainclothes officer trying to peer into one of her houses through a skylight.

In November 1949, police raided her “fortress” at 1144 Pine St. and arrested two women with “keeping a house of prostitution” or “ill-fame.” Neither of them was Sally, but police noted the residence had two telephones listed to her name.

“We have information that she owns the place,” District Attorney (and future Gov.) Edmund G. Brown told The Chronicle, saying Stanford was the subject of a police inquiry.More from Chronicle Vault

But by the time of the trial, and a visit by the jury to the Pine Street residence, Sally hadn’t been directly implicated.

“A Superior Court judge, jury and attendants padded up four scarlet-carpeted flights, spending 30 minutes tiptoeing through the luxuriously furnished house,” Chronicle reporter Orr Kelly, who joined the court field trip, wrote. “Don’t ask me to show you around,” the court’s bailiff said. “I’ve never been in this place.”

Stanford was already in the process of moving to Sausalito to start a restaurant — and her reputation preceded her.

The town “has been simply agog all these months knowing that Sally, San Francisco’s best known stable boss, was actually going to come to Sausalito,” Chronicle columnist Bob De Roos wrote on March 27, 1950, on the grand opening of Stanford’s Valhalla. “They all came out, in their checked shirts and best dresses.

“Simply everyone was there, peering this way and that to see the notorious lady. Most of them went home thinking they had seen Sally sitting at the bar, the one with all the jewels, but that was a San Francisco society woman, there to peer at Sally too.”

Stanford was elated. “Why, we even had a rainbow this afternoon,” she said. “One end came down and touched the place. What better omen for a pot of gold?”

A fight with the town over the installation of an electric sign in front of Stanford’s Vahalla sparked her interest in politics. She first ran for Sausalito City Council in 1962 and finished third. But Stanford was undeterred. After six tries, she garnered second place in 1972, ensuring her place on the City Council.

The victory party lasted until practically daylight. “We sinners never give up,” Stanford said.

When Stanford won election to a second term in 1976, she was the top vote-getter and became mayor of Sausalito. Her first official act as mayor was to adjourn the council meeting early and break out a case of Champagne from her restaurant. “I should have run for president of the United States,” she said. “At least there’s some dough in it.”

Stanford resigned from Sausalito politics a few years before her death in 1982 from a heart attack — the last of 12. She was given a “civic send-off,” reporter Don Wegars wrote, buried with “full honors and the plaintive but redemptive message that, well, nobody’s perfect.”

From the Archive is a weekly column by Bill Van Niekerken, the library director of The Chronicle, exploring the depths of the newspaper’s archive. It’s part of Chronicle Vault, a twice-weekly newsletter highlighting more than 150 years of San Francisco stories. It is edited by Taylor Kate Brown, The Chronicle’s newsletter editor. Sign up for the newsletter here, and follow Chronicle Vault on Instagram. Contact Bill at bvanniekerken@sfchronicle.com and Taylor at taylor.brown@sfchronicle.com.

Bill Van Niekerken is the Library Director of the San Francisco Chronicle. He does research for reporters and editors and manages the photos, negatives and text archives. He has a weekly column “From the Archive”, that focuses on photo coverage of historic events. For this column Bill scans and publishes 20-30 images from photos and negatives that haven’t been seen in many years.

Bill started working at the Mercury News in 1980, when nothing in news libraries was digital. Research was done using paper clippings, and cameras shot film. He moved to the Chronicle in 1985, just as the library was beginning their digital text archive.

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