Stanford, Sally

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Sally Stanford

Born May 5, 1903 (Baker City, Oregon)

Died February 1, 1982 (Greenbrae, California)

San Francisco madam

Sally Stanford was a bootlegger of illegal liquor during Prohibition in the 1930s before becoming a famous San Francisco madam during the 1930s and 1940s. A madam is a woman who manages a house of prostitution, also known as a brothel. Stanford supplied prostitutes to male customers and collected a percentage of the prostitute's fee. Experiencing financial success, Stanford opened brothels in the elite sections of San Francisco, catering to wealthy and influential men from around the world. Stanford eventually left prostitution to avoid prosecution and went into legitimate business. She was eventually elected mayor of Sausalito, California, and was the subject of a movie.

"Personally, I never met a white slave in my life. . . . If captive females were sold, drugged, and slugged into prostitution, I never knew [of] a case."

Poor beginnings

Sally Stanford, named Marcia Busby at birth, was the second of six children born to a poor family in Baker, Oregon. Her mother was an English teacher and her father an unsuccessful farmer. Marcia had an older sister and a younger brother. The family commonly called her Marcy while growing up. Developers built a golf course in Baker, and at just seven years old, Marcy caddied for the golfers earning fifteen cents a round to help support the family.

Marcy's education stopped at the third grade when her father moved the family to Sunnyslope, a town located five miles outside of Baker on the old Oregon Trail. (The Oregon Trail was opened in 1842. It was a trail from the Middle West to what is now western Oregon taken by thousands of migrants.) From there the family would move often between Oregon and California through the following years.

Vices or Crimes, or Both

A longstanding debate among criminologists concerns how to treat certain crimes. Some argue activities such as gambling, drug use, pornography, and prostitution should simply be considered social "vices" (immoral actions) and not crimes. While they may be morally offensive, they should not be the subject of criminal laws. These activities are often called "victimless crimes" because they usually involve an agreed upon exchange of goods and services between adults. Some believe if these vices are decriminalized, it would decrease government involvement in people's lives and reduce criminal caseloads in court.

Opponents to decriminalizing vice crimes argue that these crimes impose financial and social costs on individuals and society in general. As a result, they should not be considered victimless. They point out that compulsive gamblers and drug addicts are often driven to steal in order to support their expensive habits. The resulting victims endure the costs of replacing damaged or stolen property as well as increasing costs of protection and insurance.

In regard to prostitution, it affects women, children, and minorities more so than other groups and places them at risk of assault and health dangers. Individuals, and society as a whole, face increased costs for medical treatment and the spread of disease both nationally and internationally. Inaddition, prostitution is seen as one of soci ety's clearest expressions of the sexual domination of men over women and young people.

In 1873 Congress took a major step in criminalizing vice by the passage of the Comstock Law. The act targeted what it considered obscene literature, sought to restrict the flow of birth control information, and was used to fight abortion. In 1910 at a peak in vice-fighting in the United States, Congress passed the Mann Act. The act targeted what it termed "white slavery," or forced prostitution. The law assumed that all women in prostitution were involved against their will.

Congress concluded that women and girls in prostitution had become indentured sex slaves, forced into prostitution for someone else's financial gain because of the debts they owed. Specifically, the act made it a federal crime to transport women over state lines for immoral or sexual purposes. In the first five years of the act, over one thousand defendants were found guilty of Mann Act violations. Most offenders were male, but a study found some 160 women were convicted in one ten-year period beginning in the late 1920s.

In later times, fear rose of drug-addicted prostitutes becoming slaves, kept in houses and given drugs in exchange for sex with the dealers and their clients. In 1986 Congress amended the act to include any sexual activity that could be considered a criminal offense.

An aunt soon took Marcy in but died when Marcy was a young teenager. She was next sent to help her uncle and grandparents in Santa Paula, California. There she met a young fellow named LeRoy Snyder. They both lied about their age to marry. The marriage was annulled (legally ended) nine days later and Marcy returned to Oregon, where she went to work as a server in a restaurant and met another young man. The two were caught passing bad checks and Marcy ended up at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

By this time Prohibition (1919–33; law making alcohol illegal) was just beginning. The Prohibition laws banned the sale, possession, and production of alcoholic beverages. While in the Oregon prison Marcy learned about bootlegging, or supplying illegal alcohol to willing customers, from other inmates. She was just eighteen years old when she was released from prison. She moved to Ventura, California, and set up her own bootlegging business.

Using the name Marcia Wells, she bought a white Packard automobile and purchased an old Spanish house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Her bootlegging operation was booming when she met Ernest Spagnoli, an attorney from San Francisco, California. At the age of twenty, Marcia married Spagnoli and moved to San Francisco. The couple soon divorced, but not before they had adopted a baby boy. With money left over from her bootlegging, Marcia bought a little hotel at 693 O'Farrell Street in 1929 and began operating a brothel.

San Francisco Madam

Police began investigating Marcia's business in the early 1930s. Because of her criminal record in Oregon, she feared she might end up in prison again. As a precaution, she sent her adopted baby to live with her mother in Oregon. As she expected, authorities charged her with operating a house of prostitution. Marcia was acquitted but found she was stuck with the label "madam" by the news media. She decided to make it official and go into the business in a bigger way.

Marcia's first order of business was to create a new name in order to avoid embarrassing her former attorney husband with whom she remained friends. One weekend the two local universities, the University of California and Stanford University, played a football game against each other. After seeing the resulting newspaper headlines about Stanford beating California and having just won her trial against the state, she decided Stanford would be a good fit for her new surname. Then, while dining out, a band played a popular tune, "I Wonder What's Become of Sally?" and Sally Stanford was born.

Stanford set up a business at 610 Leavenworth Street in San Francisco. She hired a group of professional prostitutes, created an inviting atmosphere, and hung up a sign advertising "Rooms." San Francisco had many establishments for gambling, drinking, and prostitution at the time but Stanford's business flourished. She attracted a wealthy clientele from the city's high-society, including government officials. Stanford established several more houses and married once again, this time to a man named Lou Rapp.

Stanford kept busy throughout the 1930s despite the Great Depression (1929–41) and the growing threat of the United States entering World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). The Great Depression was a major economic crisis lasting from 1929 to 1941 leading to massive unemployment and widespread hunger. It was also a time of numerous official investigations
into corruption spreading throughout the country. Prostitution was often included because of its ties to organized crime and white slavery (see sidebar).

The Bureau of Internal Revenue began a grand jury investigation when a San Francisco police captain was suspected of bribery and tax evasion. The bureau hired a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent named Edwin Atherton to conduct a thorough search into prostitution in the city. The Atherton Report resulted in a series of indictments (formal charges). Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the investigations, Sally Stanford decided it was time to look for a new location for her business enterprise.

Heidi Fleiss

Sally Stanford was not the last of the famous California madams of the twentieth century. In the 1980s Heidi Fleiss (1966–) became known as the "Hollywood Madam." Fleiss provided prostitutes to the rich and famous in Hollywood and beyond. Fleiss learned her trade while working for Elizabeth Adams, known as the infamous Madam Alex. Adams ran the most prosperous prostitution service in Los Angeles.

In 1986 Fleiss decided to go into business on her own. At the age of twenty, with her earnings from Adams, Fleiss purchased a home in the Benedict Canyon section of Los Angeles. She hired beautiful young women from the area's population of aspiring actresses, university students, and businesswomen. Within months she had cornered the high-end prostitution market and was earning millions of dollars.

In June 1993 law enforcement closed in and ended Fleiss's lucrative operation. She was arraigned in August and entered a plea of not guilty. Fleiss agreed to a plea bargain (pleading guilty to a lesser charge so that prosecution drops more serious charge) and was convicted on three counts of pandering (acquiring prostitutes) in charges filed against her by the state of California. Her legal troubles, however, were not over. In 1995 a federal jury convicted Fleiss on eight
counts of conspiracy, tax evasion, and money laundering. Her father, Dr. Paul Fleiss, a Los Angeles pediatrician, received three years probation for his part in the conspiracy.

Heidi Fleiss received a total of three years in prison for the state and federal convictions as well as an additional three hundred hours of community service. Upon her release in September 1999, Fleiss engaged in legitimate business ventures and wrote a book appropriately titled Pandering that described her experiences.

A move to legitimacy

In 1941 Stanford moved her prostitution business to 1144 Pine Street. She remained there until November 1949 when a young woman under eighteen years of age was arrested for fighting on the street. She claimed she worked at Sally's place. As a result, authorities arrested Stanford and prosecuted her for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a felony criminal charge. Much to her relief, she was once again acquitted, but it signaled the end of her days as a madam.

Stanford opened a restaurant called the "Valhalla" just across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco in the suburb of Sausalito. She also married a wealthy dealer in Oriental art. Becoming well established in the business community, Stanford served as vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and was a popular figure in the town's social circles. Stanford was elected mayor of Sausalito in 1976.

In 1966 Stanford published her autobiography, The Lady of the House. Hollywood actress Dyan Cannon (1937–) portrayed Stanford in a television movie version of the book. Through her life Stanford used over twenty names and was arrested seventeen times, but only convicted twice. She survived eleven heart attacks and colon cancer surgery. She died of heart failure in 1982.

For More Information


Brock, Deborah R. Making Work, Making Trouble: Prostitution as a SocialProblem. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Flowers, R. Barri. The Prostitution of Women and Girls. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998.

Stanford, Sally. The Lady of the House. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966.

Web Site

"Infamous Inmates: Sally Stanford, 1949." San Francisco Sheriff's Department. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

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