Sally Stanford was the wholly invented persona of a woman who catapulted herself from childhood poverty into national and international prominence as San Francisco’s best mid-century madam, and later award-winning Valhalla restaurateur, and Mayor of nearby Sausalito.
Successful madams were either discreet about their business, or, when caught, flipped and threatened to expose customers and protectors. Sally was among the most discreet. When she told stories, they were well crafted in order to hide the truth. Of course, each was an independent entrepreneur who created and followed her own rules, so one madam’s stories never apply completely to those of the others. Nevertheless, the memoirs of other madams provide some useful insights.
- Polly Adler – Polly Adler, A House is not a Home. (Popular Library, Published by arrangement with Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1953). – said to be the true story of America’s most famous madam – immigrant from Russia (near Poland) to New York, whose clientele included top crime-land bosses, top politicians, top entertainers.
5 – “During the twenty-five years I ran a house, it often seemed to me that my time was about equally divided between answering questions and avoiding answering them. Customers and cops, reporters and prosecuting attorneys kept me constantly on the receiving end of a fusillade of queries which ranged from the routine to the dynamite-packed, from the naïve to the knowing, from the obscene to the ridiculous…”
- Bee Davis – “Call House Madam.” The Story of the Career of Beverly Davis, as told by Serge G. Wolsey. (The Martin Tudordale Corporation Publishers, San Francisco and New York, 1942; reprinted in 2013). – got her start as a prostitute in San Francisco, then opened houses in southern California
- Mayflower Madam – Sydney Biddle Barrows with William Novak, Mayflower Madam. The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows. (Ivy Books, New York, Published by Ballantine Books, 1986).
- Nell Kimball – Nell Kimball. Her Life as an American Madam. By Herself. Edited by Stephen Longstreet. (The Macmillan Company. 1970) – worked various places, lastly in Storyville, New Orleans until the government shut down this neighborhood in 1917.
As in many aspects of Sally’s life, her marital history was complicated. OK. Not as many husbands as names, but complicated nonetheless.
I used to think Sally had 8 husbands—this would put her on par with Liz Taylor’s record. (Not that I’m competitive, or anything… ) But maybe there were only 7 husbands, or maybe only six. Then, how do you count annulments in the marriage total? How about marriages that wouldn’t have been legal because they were bigamist? I think we can confirm that at least three husbands thought they were her first; another two thought they were her second.
Then I realized I’d counted husband #1, Mr. Fansler, twice; she’d given him the code name Snyder in her book. So, that left her with only 7.
Then, there’s a good chance that she didn’t actually marry Mr. Goodan (#2), so the total drops to 6. Marriages #1 and #4 were both annulled—does this mean that it’s as if they never happened? That would bring the total to 4.
Now I fear we must subtract two more from the total, because marriage #3 (to Mr. Byham) did notend in divorce or annulment, at least not in San Francisco, where both parties lived. As Mr. Byham didn’t die until 1953, her two subsequent marriages would have been bigamist, so they don’t really count.
Finally, we get to her 1954 marriage to Big Bob Kenna. This happened after Mr. Byham died, so we can add that to the dwindling total of legal marriages. Still, what had started as 8 husbands, is now down to only TWO (legal) husbands!
What’s the fun in that???
Let me re-cap:
1 –Fansler – annulled
2 –Goodan – never happened
3 –Byham – probably didn’t end till he died in 1953
4 – Spagnoli – annulled because she was still married to Byham
5 – Rapp – ended in divorce, but probably wasn’t legal as it was bigamist
6 – Gump – [same as Rapp]
7 – Kenna – ended in divorce (Byham had died, so it was NOT bigamist)
Six years after Sally married Ernest Spagnoli, the love of her life, he annulled the marriage due to bigamy. She’d never divorced her previous husband.
How did Ernest even know she’d been married before? I asked myself. The marriage had been brief, probably lasting only a few months, if that. They were married in Los Angeles, so that when she married Spagnoli two years later in Ventura, no one in the county clerk’s office would have recognized her. On the marriage certificate to Spagnoli, she claimed this was her first marriage.
Ralph Byham, the previous—and as it turns out, current—husband never even got a mention in her autobiography, published decades later.
In the autobiography, she claimed that Spagnoli’s sister had broken up the marriage, claiming Sally was a gold-digger, after Ernest’s recent inheritance. In the movie, based on the autobiography, the story line was that Ernest should cut all ties with her. He shouldn’t adopt the child Sally (then known as Marciea) brought into the family because Sally had a disreputable and criminal past.
At first, when I became aware of the annulment ending her Spagnoli marriage, I assumed that Ernest, being a good Catholic wanted to be allowed to marry again. They’d been married for nearly six years; it would be hard to contend that the marriage had not been consummated. Spagnoli was known for his courtroom antics and the ability to maneuver around the law, so I imagined that maybe he slipped a few dollars to some needy fellow who would claim to have married her earlier. That is, I assume that Ralph Byham was created from whole cloth to serve Spagnoli’s purpose of disentangling himself.
Then, I discovered that Ralph Byham really did exist, and they really were married.
How would Ernest Spagnoli have ever heard of him? It’s possible that a private detective unearthed the story. It’s also possible that during a moment of anger, when she felt vulnerable or betrayed, she blurted out that Ernest wasn’t so special as he thought he was, that she’d known other men, had other husbands.
With some embarrassment, I will admit that I came to this insight in watching TV coverage of Donald Trump, as he fended off competitors on the way to become the Republican nominee for President. I’ve already admitted to my Sally obsession. That said, pretty much everything I see is through my Sally Lens. It filters everything.
While I watched Donald Trump, like many observers, I found my brow creasing, incredulous. What? What? What did you just say? And now, are your really doubling down?
I hate to make the comparison—in her worst moment, I believe Sally was never as psychologically unhealthy as Mr. Trump—but trying to understand the candidate has helped me try to understand Sally. The characteristics they share include being bossy, willful, quick-tempered, resourceful, energetic and charismatic. They fear being controlled by others, and ironically, when they lose their tempers, they become vulnerable and lose control.
After years of privation and wartime horrors, delegates from fifty nations came to San Francisco in the spring of 1945 to form what would become the United Nations. The official ceremonies and deliberations took place at the War Memorial Opera House and next door at the Veterans’ Building. Nearby, at the top of Nob Hill, in the Fairmont Hotel’s penthouse suite, U.S. Secretary of State and chief envoy Edward Stettinius hosted delicate and often heated round-the-clock negotiations.
Just around the block from the Fairmont, Sally Stanford helped relieve the stress, by hosting delegates at what she would call the world’s best brothel. “Every night, the place was jammed with UN delegates, tackling the subject with great vigor and getting down to the business at hand. You know, details. I would have to say that 1144 Pine was the true seat of the United Nations—all those rich Arabs, all that French champagne—I could cry when I think about it.”
When the negotiations were complete, and it was time to sign the final declaration, a messenger was sent to Sally’s place, the world’s best brothel, to retrieve the last stragglers for the official signing ceremonies. Or, so the story goes.
The stories Sally Stanford told were delightful, colorful, heart-warming, and fun—and they almost always contained a kernel of truth.
Sally herself was the source of the oft-told story about the UN Organizing Committee and the “finest and most distinguished pleasure house in the world.” (Lady of the House, p.115) San Francisco Chronicle columnist repeated this version (11/3/1968, p.107). Variations on the theme are included in many other publications.
Who would confirm the story? Who would refute it? Except for Sally, none of the participants would bear witness. So, the story lives on.