Woody Weingarten and Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
Loyal Marinscope readers will recognize the byline of Woody Weingarten, who was the paper’s arts and entertainment editor for 11 years. He recently contacted the Historical Society to research a retrospective on Sausalito’s Madam Mayor, Sally Stanford, for the Local News Matters website.
We’ve told a lot of Sally stories over the years, but Woody dug deep and came up with some fresh ones, which are excerpted below.
Sally Stanford opened her Sausalito waterfront restaurant, Valhalla, in 1950. 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.”
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.
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’d been using for a while before it became her legal name in 1971. 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 was also known for her philanthropy. Van Meter, for instance, remembers that she funded a Rotary Club scholarship program for the trades. 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.
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, recollects: “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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Woody’s full retrospective can be found at https://localnewsmatters.org/2021/01/26/madam-of-san-francisco-mayor-of-sausalito-the-wild-life-of-one-of-marin-countys-most-devoted-civil-servants.