About the Search

Sally Stanford was a master of illusion and obfuscation, and at keeping secrets.

It’s taken me years to figure this out, and now, with a sigh, I admit I’ll never know all her secrets. But she’s taken me on a wild ride, and here, I intend to share some of what I’ve learned about trying to find the real Sally Stanford.

Here is how the sleuthing began:

Monday, just past noon. I am wrapping up my monthly historical walking tour of Maiden Lane, once San Francisco’s most wretched red-light district, where the successful “girls,” could service 50 or more men a night. To end the walk on a positive note, I tell the story of Sally Stanford, the girl who turned her back on the dire poverty of her youth to become San Francisco’s best madam, then left the business, opened the Valhalla restaurant across the bay in Sausalito, and became Mayor.

When she was a kid, in eastern Oregon, she’d raised carrots and caddied at the local golf course to help support her family. When she died, some estimates put her estate at $20 million. … One walker reminisced about a great meal at the Valhalla. Intrigued, other walkers asked the title of her biography—they wanted to know more.

But, the only substantial treatments of her life—her own 1966 autobiography, and a chapter in Curt Gentry’s The Madams of San Francisco (1964)—were both written nearly two decades before she died. … That got me thinking. I’d been searching for an iconically San Francisco story to tell. The Golden Gate Bridge? Already done. The 1906 Earthquake? Already done. Sally Stanford—the city’s best madam? Wide open territory.

That Monday was ten years ago.

Since then, fleshing out Sally’s story became my quest. And soon, uncovering Sally’s secrets became my passion (some would say, my obsession).

I travelled to her hometown of Baker City, Oregon, and to the Oregon State Archives in Salem. I have spent countless hours in archives and libraries in San Francisco, San Bruno, Sacramento, Berkeley and Sausalito (California). I have unearthed trial testimony and other court records, real estate deeds and transactions, husband and family demographics, her FBI record, and photographs. I have tried to understand what was to me the foreign land of bootlegging, police protection, and prostitution by reading widely in newspapers and official reports, as well as the memoirs of other madams. I have interviewed people who knew Sally as employer, friend, political colleague and adversary. I even delved a bit into psychology to try to understand her actions and motives. The picture that emerges is one of a psychologically complex woman who loved her power but never learned to trust.