Memories of growing up in the SF Bay Area

Memories of growing up in the SF Bay Area

Sally Stanford remembered.

Famous mayor and notorious madam Sally Stanford is well represented in the Sausalito Historical Society’s collection.
Longtime Sausalito resident recalls her days working for the ‘lady of the house’
By Phyllis Kinimaka, Special to Marinscope
Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:06 PM PST
In 1972 I rented an apartment on Second Street in Sausalito, just across the parking lot from the Valhalla, a restaurant owned by Sally Stanford, “San Francisco’s last grand madam.” I had just returned from living in Hawaii and needed to find work in a hurry.

There was a hostess-waitress position open at the Valhalla. I was thrilled to think of working so close to home. After making an appointment, I was interviewed by Bobby, the bar manager.

“Do you know who Sally Stanford is?”

“I’ve heard of her.”

“Well, I’ve worked for Sally for 26 years, and she’s fired me 27 times. That will give you an idea of how difficult she can be.” He smiled, “Nobody lasts very long here.”

I liked him immediately. He mentioned that he was tired of the constant turnover. Interviewing new people was boring and a waste of his time. After asking me a slew of questions, he said, “I don’t think you’ll last very long, but if you want the job, come back this afternoon to talk to Sally.”

I went home and thought about what he had said. I had never met anyone in the restaurant business who was not difficult. When I was 13 years old, my mother leased a restaurant, the House of Burgers in San Francisco. I worked on weekends, school holidays and summer vacations. Believe me, my mother was not easy. Most of the time she didn’t even pay me. I had worked for a few Italian restaurateurs and decided they weren’t happy unless they were screaming at someone for some reason. Bartenders tended to be bossy prima donnas. So the thought of working for Sally didn’t scare me.

Arriving at the Valhalla in the afternoon for my interview, I saw Sally drive up in her beat-up white pickup. She was honking the horn over and over and her German shepherd Leland was barking like he owned the place. I thought she was a little nutty, but then realized they were just letting the help know she had arrived. The back of her truck was loaded with huge baskets of vegetables she had grown on her farm in Sonoma. Everyone came out the back door of the kitchen and started unloading the truck.

I waited inside. When Sally came in, I was very surprised to see a homely woman. I knew she had been, or perhaps still was, a madam, and expected her to be a lot more attractive. Instead, she looked tired: big bags under her eyes, deep crevices in her face, and no sign of a smile anywhere. Piled on her head was a messy bun of salt-and-pepper hair.

Bobby introduced me to Sally. She looked me up and down several times. I almost thought I was being interviewed for the bordello. Uncomfortable, I kept smiling.

Finally she said: “I think you’ll do. But these are my rules: Each day when you walk in the door, go upstairs and turn on the red table lamp in the window. That tells people we’re open for business. You must always address me as Ms. Stanford, never Sally. Always wear a long dress, the sexier the better. Always wear your hair up; I don’t care if it’s curls or a bun, but never straight. Turn on all the lamps, wipe down all the tables and dust all the antiques. If I join a customer’s table, drop everything, come to the table and say, ‘Would you care for a drink, Ms. Stanford?’ If the people I am sitting with do not offer to buy me a drink, ask again. If there are no offers, I will promptly move to another table. Feed Loretta every day and clean her cage at least every other day.”

I said, “Excuse me, but who is Loretta?”

“She is my 19-year-old parrot, and it will be your job to take care of her.”

She went on: “When people walk in the front door, never seat them until you have taken their coat, hat or wrap. Show them the large mustard jar with the sign ‘Coat check donations go to the Sausalito Little League.’ Once you have taken their wraps, escort them to the lounge and ask if you can get them a drink. Even if they don’t want a drink, make them wait a little while before taking them to the dining room; maybe they will change their minds. Do you think you can do the job?”

I looked across the room at the huge bay windows with the incredible view that stretched from Tiburon to San Francisco, glanced at the intricate etched-glass mirror, lamps and other priceless antiques, considered the proximity to my apartment and said, “Yes, I can do the job.”

“Tell Bobby you’ll start tomorrow.”

The next day I put on my long, sexy, blue polka-dot dress with a slit to the thigh, tucked my hair into a French twist and walked to work. As soon as I entered the Valhalla, I turned left through the hat-check room and up to the second floor. There at the top of the stairs was a beautiful little antique lamp with a red light bulb. I laughed and turned it on. Down the long hallway were several closed doors on both sides. Were they bordello rooms? I hoped not, but after all, I was working for a madam.

Downstairs, I said hello to Bobby, then went to the small room just off the lounge and uncovered Loretta’s cage. She was beautiful, a green feathered body with touches of yellow.

“Hello Loretta, I’m Phyllis.”

“Loretta, Loretta.”

“Can you say Phyllis?’

“Loretta, Loretta.”

That evening Sally sat in her black leather antique dental chair drinking with the customers. She summoned me to deliver Loretta. People gathered round to see Loretta do her tricks. Sally said, “Roll over, Loretta; talk to me.” Loretta rolled over on the bar several times and said, “Loretta, Loretta, kwuk you, kwuk you, you’re fired, Loretta.” She then rolled over onto her back with her claws in the air and played dead. Sally placed her on her shoulder and put a sunflower seed in her mouth. Loretta said, “Loretta, Loretta, whrew, whrew, huh aw, where’s Bessie?”

As time passed, I started to feel sorry for Loretta. In the evening, as the lounge filled, the overflow customers were seated in the small room and she was surrounded by smokers. On sunny days, I took her cage outside on the deck and gave her a bowl of water to play in. I sprinkled her feathers a little, then she would start jumping around in the bowl saying, “Loretta, Loretta.” She loved it. We bonded.

Dusting the antiques one day, I met Bessie, Sally’s white long-haired Persian cat. She followed me around the restaurant a few times, meowing. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I handed the chef a pie tine and asked for some food for Bessie.

Sally barged into the kitchen and said, “Jesus, what is Bessie eating?”

“Mahi, Mahi, I believe.”

“Did you feed her?”

“Yes, Ms. Stanford. She was hungry.”

“Don’t ever let Bessie eat from a pie tin: she has her own sterling silver plate in the kitchen. You can’t miss it, it has her name engraved on it.” “Yes Ms. Stanford.” I couldn’t understand why she was so upset. Later on I heard rumors that a few of Sally’s pets had been poisoned by disgruntled employees.

Sally had written a book about her San Francisco bordello life, “The Lady of the House.” People came from all over to dine at the Valhalla and meet her. She told them funny stories and autographed their books. I was amazed to see how awestruck women of all ages were of her. They asked so many questions about her customers and at times she even gave young women advice. Sally made it sound glamorous and exciting.

Every afternoon, the busboy would bring 20-30 small vases with flowers in them from the refrigerator. He lined the vases up on a huge table with clippers, buckets of water and a trash can. She would stand at the table and trim dead petals off each flower, clip the stems and arrange them again. She bragged that she could keep cut flowers looking fresh for weeks.

One afternoon a man named Dan came into the bar, said hello to Bobby, then looked at me and said, “Where’s the old bitch?” I said, “Ms. Stanford is trimming her flowers in the back of the restaurant.”

I relayed the message; Sally tilted her head and said: “Oh, that a—hole. He says he’s going to kill me. Well, tell him I’ll have a double Cordon Blue.” It was the most expensive cognac behind the bar?

After a while he said, “Give the old bitch another.”

Sally told me, “I’ll have another, but make sure Bobby charges the bastard.”

Hours later, Dan staggered out saying, “Tell the bitch I’ll be back.”

Ms. Stanford walked slowly to her office and didn’t return.

Sally’s most famous bordello was located in the very elite area of Nob Hill in San Francisco. Her clientele included an ex-governor of California, the police chief of S.F., councilmen, wealthy businessmen and anyone else who could afford her prices. Law enforcement turned a blind eye to Sally’s business in return for “favors” now and then. Sally’s favorite customer was the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn. He used to rent the entire whorehouse for the night and take on all the women in her stable. All by himself. Long before Viagra.

Shrewdness was the key to Sally’s success. The girls in her bordello were allowed only one towel per customer. At the end of the day, if there were more towels than customers, she knew someone was cheating. One very busy night a fire almost destroyed the bordello. The maid ran out the back door with a basket full of dirty towels. When Ms. Stanford saw her with the towels, she said, “Thank God you saved the books.”

At closing time, I would cover Loretta’s cage and join Bobby and Sally at the bar for a drink. While Bobby was still cleaning glasses, Ms. Stanford would ask me to bring her the mustard jar. She would sit quietly, sipping her Chivas Regal, counting the small amount of money, then say, “Jesus, someone is stealing from the Sausalito Little League.”

Since I was the only person working the coatroom, I felt she was accusing me. One evening, after hearing her say it a few too many times, I said, “Ms. Stanford if I decide to steal from you, I certainly won’t waste my time with the Sausalito Little League’s money.” She looked at me and didn’t say anything. She never accused me again.

I took a second job at Zack’s on the bay in Sausalito. I was making a lot a lot more money than at Sally’s and it was a lot more fun. Sally’s bad language and condescending treatment of her employees was wearing heavily on me. The lady of the house was no lady. When I gave notice, she turned to Bobby and said, “How do you like that, the girl is quitting on me.” I had worked for her for three months. She either didn’t know my name or refused to say it. Probably shocked that someone had quit instead of being fired.

Sausalito is a very small town. A few weeks after I left, I heard that the maitre d’ had asked the busboy to take Loretta out for some sunshine (it had become a ritual). The restaurant got busy and everyone forgot about Loretta. She died of sunstroke. I was so sad. When Sally heard the news, she was devastated. Word got out that she had fired everyone, including Bobby, which would have been No. 28. Of course everyone was rehired the next day.

A few months later, Sally decided to run for City Council. One evening she was politicking in the neighborhood and came into Zack’s.

The owner, Sam Zackasian, asked me to bring Sally a drink. When she saw me she said: “So this is what you left me for. I’ll have a Chivas on the rocks.” That was the last time I ever saw her.

A few years later, Sally became the first ex-madam mayor of Sausalito.

“One day me and all my close friends will have a grand-sized reunion in a good-sized telephone booth.”

— Sally Stanford

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