Sally Stanford in 1947. (Ken McLaughlin/S.F. Chronicle Chronicle via A.P.)

The madam who was arrested 17 times — and then elected mayor of Sausalito

She was a bootlegger, a fake check scammer, a brothel madam — and a Bay Area mayor. Sally Stanford, born in rural Oregon in May 1903, was among California’s more colorful figures.

Smart, stylish, and outspoken, she ran one of the world’s best-known brothels in the 1940s, operating out of a mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. It catered to high-society customers including, according to Stanford, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, and Humphrey Bogart. Foreign diplomats spent so much time at the bordello the columnist Herb Caen joked that the United Nations was founded there.

Arrested 17 times, Stanford was nevertheless allowed to operate under the passive gaze of powerful people terrified that her client book might be booked into evidence. Still, in time, the hounding of San Francisco district attorney and future governor Pat Brown proved too much.

Stanford fled across the bay to the Bohemian enclave of Sausalito, where she went legitimate with a restaurant called the Valhalla Inn. Settled into a sedate new life, her political ambitions grew. After six attempts, she was elected to the City Council in 1972 and later installed as mayor.

Draped in diamonds, she took office with a pledge to “see that everybody gets treated equally and nobody gets shoved around.”

Throughout her life, Stanford defended her madam occupation as legitimate, even a social good. Her path, she reasoned, was ordained by circumstance every bit as much as that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Morality is just a word that describes the current fashion of conduct,” she wrote.

Stanford retired from public office in 1980. Two years later she died of heart failure at 78 years old. The woman who was born into poverty and granted only a third grade education left behind an estate estimated at $20 million and a city that so adored her it officially named her “vice mayor for life.” Sausalito’s flags flew at half staff.

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