Madame Queen
by Herb Caen

 

When Sally died in the early 1980s, she was fittingly eulogized by Herb Caen

IF YOU LIVE long enough in the newspaper racket, you can spend most of your time writing obituaries. I said that before, no doubt, and I say it again. The passing parade never stops. Last week, there was Dr. Russ Lee, who lived a long and fruitful life. And Joan Hitchcock, a good-hearted soul, Dorothy Parker’s "Big Blonde" right down to the tragic ending, a drinker who drank herself out. Sunday, the remarkable artist, Wilfried Satty, who lived a surrealistic life in a subterranean cavern on Powell in North Beach, fell off a ladder and killed himself. It was an ending as bizarre as any of the Hieronymus-like illustrations he was famous for.

And then, early yesterday, there was Sally Stanford, or whatever her name was. It didn’t matter when she was riding high and it doesn’t matter now.

* * *

SALLY STANFORD (a.k.a. Mabel or Marsha Owen Gump Kenna, etc. etc.) was part of our own era of wonderful nonsense, the 1930’s, when the police ran the town and everybody played for pay. In the Tenderloin, the doors were never closed. Every other little hotel was a house of ill fame, as the journals of the time like to call them. You could drink all night in a dozen after-hours joints. The payoffs were good. A lot of cops, several politicians and a few madams, Sally Stanford, Dolly Fine and Mabel Malotte among them, got rich.

* * *

THE GREAT DEPRESSION was in full cry, but San Francisco was never more exciting. The mindless city stayed up all night, partying, from the penthouses of Nob Hill, where Socialite Anita Howard reigned, down to the Black Cat, over to Finocchio’s and on to Mona’s, a lesbian joint rivaling anything in Paris. Characters were king-sized: W.R. Hearst striding into his flagship building at Third and Market, Bill Saroyan betting wildly on the horses across the street in Opera Alley, Editor Paul Smith entertaining Noel Coward and Gertie Lawrence in his two-floor Telegraph Hill flat, Harry Bridges shaking dice in the back room at Bimbo’s. And a lot of people ended their evenings at Sally Stanford’s, where the champagne flowed all night and Sally herself would whip up a batch of dawnside eggs for this guy from Pebble Beach, that one from the Pacific-Union Club, and the City Hall playboy, who would be right down.

* * *

WONDERFUL nonsense is right: Sally’s first bed-a-whee, one of my lesser coinages, was the Russian Hill mansion owned by Paul Verdier, elegant proprietor of the City of Paris department store. It became so famous a landmark that it was included on sightseeing tours. Now and then Sally would allow the hayseeds to come right in and meet "my girls," all of them in kimonos and wearing gardenia corsages. "Every one a former Junior Leaguer," Sally would assure the rubes. A tour of the mansion revealed that every bedroom had a fireplace, "at no extra cost," twinkled Sally.

* * *

SHE CREATED HER own legend. About her name: "I was walking down Kearney Street in the rain, alone, friendless, when I saw the headline, ‘Stanford Wins Big Game.’ That’s for me, I said to myself. No more Marsha Owen — I’m going after big game." The story grew more polished by the year. Why Sally? "Well, Sally, Irene and Mary were famous hooker names," she explained, "and Sally went best with Stanford." When she married Robert Gump, grandson of Solomon Gump, founder of Gump’s famous store, and brother of the noted art dealer, Richard Gump, a reporter asked her, "How does it feel to marry into such a distinguished family?" Sniffed Sally: "The Stanfords are MUCH older." She loved telling the story of the eager young cop, son of a police captain, who burst into her house and shouted, "I’m bustin’ this place!" "Before you do that buster," replied Sally coolly, "I suggest you go out to the kitchen and talk to your dad — we were just having a cup of coffee."

* * *

SALLY’S MOST famous place was 1144 Pine, an old mansion with great iron gates and a sunken bathtub off the drawing room where Anna Held allegedly had her famous milk baths. The story didn’t check out but Sally went on telling it and everybody wanted to believe it. "I love this place," she would say dreamily, looking around at the Charles Addamsy décor. "It’s a real mausoleum. I wouldn’t mind being buried here." Among her visitors one time was her equally famous New York counterpart, Polly Adler, who wrote "A House Is Not a Home." Some of the conversation was quite delicious. Polly: "You know the madam’s lament — everybody goes upstairs but us." And "It’s a relief to get out of the business. No more opening the door and looking first at the man’s feet, you know?" Sally: "Yeah. Right. Big feet. Cops."

* * *

"DO YOU have a heart of gold?" I once asked Sally. "If I did," she snapped, "it’d be in a safe deposit box." She was tough, shrewd and conservative. After the cops finally shut her down in 1949 in a fit of morality, she opened the Valhalla restaurant in Sausalito. Her maitre d’hotel, Leon Galleto, reminisced yesterday about the time she had one of her many heart attacks, and he had to drive her to the St. Francis Hospital in S.F. As he slowed down at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza, Sally called weakly from the back seat, where she was stretched out: "Don’t forget to get a receipt, honey." In a crooked world, Sally Stanford always had her priorities straight.

 

   
 

Home | About the Author | Download the Book | Photo Gallery | News Articles
Radio Interview | Excerpts | Veteran Interviews | Guestbook | Links | E-mail

Copyright 2014, Marc David Bonagura. All Rights Reserved.

 

Website design by Lorraine Mazza