Sally Stanford's Obituary


Sally in 1947 —'When you're married, it's a duty'

Sally in 1980—
Public honors came in her later years


Sally Stanford, San Francisco’s last grand madam, who later had a more sedate career as the mayor of Sausalito, died yesterday at the age of 78.

She died in Marin General Hospital at 3:10 am, apparently of a heart attack. She had survived 11 previous heart attacks and, in May, successfully underwent surgery for cancer of the colon.

Sally, who in the late 1920’s succeeded Tessie Wall as the queen of San Francisco’s high-toned bordellos, retired in 1950 to Sausalito’s waterfront as operator of the plush Victorian restaurant, the Valhalla.

A quarrel with town fathers over installing an electric sign for the restaurant first ignited her interest in seeking public office. She won a seat on Sausalito’s City Council on her sixth try, in 1972, and in 1976 was re-elected with the majority that made her mayor as well at the age of 72. She also served as vice mayor before she retired from politics.

Shrewd, stylish and outspoken, Mayor Stanford sought to "return Sausalito to the pleasant little village it was 25 years ago," but favored "controlled growth."

She liked money, cops, the flag, and being a guest on the Johnny Carson "Tonight" show. She disliked bureaucracy. She was nonchalant about death and all the major heart attacks she survived.

"Us sinners never give up," she once said.

Besides being Mayor Stanford, she was the Rev. Stanford when she felt like it, officiating at occasional marriages by authority of a mail order diploma from Kirby Hensley’s Universal Life Church in Modesto.

She addressed seminars, received senior citizens’ awards for distinguished citizenship, and was backed by Sausalito’s Good Governance League in her later career.

However, before she left the demi-monde, she was the undisputed queen of San Francisco nightlife.

To the aficionados of local bordellos, Sally’s girls were the prettiest and most elegantly gowned, her place the most sumptuous, her patrons the most select. She was the friend and confidant of many an important figure in the life of the city.

She was born in Baker (San Bernardino County) on May 5, 1903, as Mabel Janice Busby. Her father died when she was young and Sally had to help her mother support the family. Sally had three brothers and a sister.

As a child she earned money by caddying on a golf course.

Her life on the other side of the law began at 16, when she eloped to Denver with a man who boasted he was the grandson of a former governor of Colorado.

Sally helped him cash some checks he stole from a lumber mill in Medford, Oregon.

In later years Sally’s eyes would fill with tears as she related how she was sent to the Oregon State Prison at Salem for two years for obtaining goods under false pretenses.

"I gave a $10 check for an electric iron to take with us on our honeymoon," she would relate. "When I was taken to Salem, the warden said he had no place to care for a child, and turned me over to his wife, and I lived in their house for two years."

Nearly three decades later, Governor Earl Snell of Oregon gave Sally a pardon. She carried it around in the bosom of her dress.

In the 25 years after her first arrest, Sally was arrested 17 times under as many aliases on a variety of charges, but was only found guilty twice.

In 1938 she was fined $500 for keeping a house of ill fame in San Francisco, and in 1944 she was fined $1500 and given a 30-day jail sentence by a federal court for charging rents in excess of the wartime ceiling.

Sally came to San Francisco in 1924, and modified her given name of Mabel to Marsha, the name by which close friends know her.

To most people, however, she was "Sally" — perhaps from a song title. The Stanford came from a headline she saw reporting that Stanford University had just won the Big Game, and the idea of a pseudonym struck her.

In the late 1920’s, she married Ernest Spagnoli, an attorney. This was annulled after three years when it was discovered that Sally was not divorced from her first husband, Dan Goodan.

Her third husband was Louis Rapp, and the marriage lasted 12 years — longest of Sally’s five matches.

In 1951, she eloped to Reno with Robert Livingston Gump, grandson of Solomon Gump, founder of the Post Street importing firm. "It’s a real meeting of minds," said Sally, but she divorced Gump nine months later.

Her fifth and last marriage was in 1954 when she eloped to Las Vegas with Robert Kenna, 44, operator of a Fresno trucking company. This marriage ended in divorce two years later.

"One’s better off just being a friend," said Sally. "Then you do things because you want to. When you’re married, it’s a duty."

Sally’s children are a son, John D. Owen, and a daughter, Hara Melinda Owen, better known as Sharon, both adopted. Both were infants when she took them to rear, and in the case of John Owen, she adopted not only the infant, but his name.

In 1971, she went to court and changed her legal name from Marsha Owen to Sally Stanford. But she retained the name of Marsha Owen for phone listings at her residences on Pacific Avenue in Pacific Heights, in Sausalito, and at a 50-acre ranch in Sonoma County.

John D. Owen, now 53, recalled Sally as a straight-laced mother. He said there was a time when she took him aside for their first chat about the birds and bees. John was in grammar school.

"She was hemming and hawing so much, I finally had to tell her what I’d learned from the guys on the playground," he said. "That was the end of the lecture."

Owen said that when he was young his mother "kept me tucked away in military school to keep me away from the whole situation."

Later, she never advised him to patronize a bordello, and criticized him for taking out women who worked at her restaurant in Sausalito, which Owen eventually managed. " She told me I shouldn’t be playing in my own backyard," he said.

The most famous of Sally’s establishments was the house at 1144 Pine Street, reported to have been built by Sanford White for Anna Held. The huge Pompeiian drawing room held a fountain and off to one side a marble bath where the actress was said to have lavished herself in milk.

There was a giant fireplace in the room, and intimates of Sally tell, with misty eyes, of the jolly social evenings around the blaze when spirits were high and one of the girls would whip up a batch of fudge.

Once, Sally recalled, she caught a glimpse of a man peering through the skylight. She slipped out to a vantage point, and spotted Sergeant Jack Dyer, of the police vice squad trying to spy on her and her guests.

She telephoned police saying there was prowler on the roof, and watched with amusement as embarrassed police ordered the flustered plainclothesman off the roof.

Sally publicly denied that she ever paid a cent of protection money. She lived by the code of the underworld, that no on ever talks.

"You carried on your profession quite openly, didn’t you?" she was asked by a state attorney during a liquor license hearing in 1957.

"Whatever I did was well known," she replied. "I didn’t hide anything."

"And civil officials and police knew all about you?"

"I don’t know what they knew."

Her reign as "empress" of 1144 Pine Street was memorialized in her book, "Lady of the House," which was ghost-written by the late newsman Bob Patterson. A television movie starring Dyan Cannon was based on the book.

Sally was critical of Cannon’s portrayal of her. "She just didn’t have it in her to play me," Sally said after seeing the premiere of the movie in 1978. "I have to admit, it’s a hard act to follow."

Reform and cleanup were the order of the day in the postwar years, and Sally quietly folded her seraglio. In 1950 she blossomed as the operator of the Valhalla. The waterfront restaurant was a business success from the start.

Sally was known to her intimates as a woman of impulsive charity. She would read of the death of a homeless man, for instance, and anonymously pay for his funeral. She would send money in unmarked envelopes to disaster victims whose stories stirred her.

She was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, and personally tried to persuade Governor Goodwin J. Knight to halt the execution of Barbara Graham at San Quentin — even though Graham once had lied to establish an alibi for an ex-convict who had mercilessly beaten Sally in a robbery attempt. Sally saw her only as "a sweet kid."

In addition to her children, Sally is survived by her sister, Juanita of Oakland; two brothers, Joseph and Arthur Busby of San Francisco, and grandson.

Funeral services are pending. Flags in Sausalito, along with the Sausalito ferry boat flag, were flown at half-staff yesterday in her memory.



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