Like most San Francisco mayors before him, George Christopher won election in 1955 on a platform of cleaning up the town. But unlike mayors before him, Christopher delivered. He appointed Francis Ahern as chief of police, and charged him with reforming the corrupt and inefficient force. Ahern professionalized the department’s upper echelons and launched a massive anti-vice campaign. For too long, San Francisco had enjoyed a reputation as a “wide open town” where anything goes: liquor, gambling, graft, prostitution, licentious entertainment and other sexual vices that dared not speak their names. Christopher and Ahern aimed to close it all down.
Ahern established the “S-Squads”, so named for “a strategy of saturation and selective enforcement.” For two to four nights a week, a squad of sixty-four undercover officers hit the city streets and interrogated anyone who looked suspicious. Those S-Squads dramatically changed San Francisco’s character in very short order. Ahern died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1958, and Christopher appointed Ahern’s deputy, Thomas Cahill, to replace him. Cahill promised to continue Ahern’s policies, which, to Cahill, meant “strict departmental discipline, heads up efficiency and a ‘closed town.'”
The S-Squad’s targets included the city’s gay bars and neighborhoods in North Beach, along the Embarcadero, and South of Market. The gathering holes had enjoyed several years of relative calm after a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling ended police efforts to shut them down. The calm was shattered in 1956 when a re-energized police Department and the state’s Alcohol Board of Control (ABC) found new ways to put these businesses in legal jeopardy. Dubious closures and arrests soared so high that even the city’s district attorney complained about the police’s “Gestapo” tactics.
Police also targeted suspected muggers, prostitutes, public drunks, and kids who had no business being out at night. For the most part, San Franciscans were happy with the results. A few thought the clean-up went a bit too far. They enjoyed the city’s reputation as a wide-open town. They just didn’t like the crime that went with it. But Christopher had solid support from the business community and the three major newspapers. And besides, he had successfully lured the Giants from New York to San Francisco. The city was, literally, in the big leagues.
So in 1959, the San Francisco mayoral race was looking like a real snooze-fest. The Chronicle complained, “Challengers can find nothing to sink their teeth into.” Christopher’s main challenger, City Assessor Russell Wolden, Jr., was a particularly weak candidate. His problems began with his blundering switch from Republican to Democrat. Everyone saw it as a naked attempt to ride the rising party’s coat-tails. To the average voter, this was unseemly; the Mayor’s race was nominally non-partisan. Ordinarily, endorsements rested on precisely those affiliations, and Christopher had the Republican’s usual line-up of supporters in his camp. But Democrats and labor unions mostly ignored this interloper. Their endorsements, when they came, were late and perfunctory, if they came at all. Wolden’s campaign was becalmed in a sea of boredom. He needed a bold move to pull ahead.
Wolden’s October Surprise
On October 7, the tiny and obscure San Francisco Progress, in obvious coordination with Wolden’s campaign, opened a new front in the fight for city hall. The headline read, “Sex Deviates Make S.F. Headquarters,” and the paper hit directly at Christopher’s strength: his law-and-order cred:
A just-completed survey of vice conditions in San Francisco discloses that this city, during the Christopher administration, has become the national headquarters of the organized homosexuals in the United States. It is a sordid tale, one which will revolt every decent San Franciscan, but one which the San Francisco Progress believes is of vital importance to our city, and therefore must be told.
The survey was made in an effort to determine the truth or falsity of George Christopher’s claim that he has given the people a “clean city.”
The facts are that some of the big call girl operations and a number of minor bookmakers have been put out of business. But in their place another form of vice — homosexualism — has been allowed to flourish to a shocking extent, and under shocking circumstances.
Last month at a convention of deviates in Denver, Colorado, a resolution, passed unanimously, praised the mayor of San Francisco — by name — for an “enlightened administration” which has permitted the group to flourish here.
The Progress published a photocopy of the notarized resolution. The sentence expressing appreciation “to Mayor George Christopher and Police Chief Thomas Cahill” by name was circled for emphasis. Wolden, told The Progress:
“This is a matter of grave concern for every parent,” Russell L. Wolden, assessor and candidate for mayor, declared today. “It exposes teenagers to possible contact and contamination in a city admittedly overrun by deviates. For a city administration to permit this situation to exist is nothing less than scandalous. The whole rotten mess cries for investigation.”
For those who missed the tiny paper’s exposé, Wolden took out a fifteen-minute paid political spot on KNBC radio. His speech began at 6:45 in the evening, just as families were eating dinner. “This is not a political speech,” he began, “but a heart-to-heart talk with the people of San Francisco, especially mothers and fathers.” He then listed his “facts.” “The number of sex deviates in this city has soared by the thousands.” There were more than twenty bars and restaurants downtown catering to “crowds of young men conducting themselves in a repulsive manner. They move from place to place. … They accost normal young men and boys.” He was just getting warmed up:
I say San Francisco is not a closed town! And it is not a clean town! And I charge that conditions involving flagrant moral corruption do exist here which will revolt every decent person. … Under the benign attitude of the Christopher administration, those who practice sex deviation operate in San Francisco today to a shocking extent, under shocking circumstances, and in open and flagrant defiance of the law. So favorable is the official San Francisco climate for the activities of these persons that an organization of sex deviates known as The Mattachine Society actually passed a resolution praising Mayor Christopher by name for what the resolution described as the enlightened attitude of his administration toward them.
…Pick up your telephone book. You’ll see the Mattachine Society — spelled M-A T-T-A-C-H-I-N-E — listed in it. The Mattachine publish and sell sex literature of the most lurid, distasteful and disgusting variety. The Mattachine Society is the national voice of organized sex deviates. … (Its) principles and objectives are subscribed to by the thousands of deviates who do not care or dare to join it. From these thousands come the sex gangs whose abnormal appetites are catered to by these bars and other joints whose operations I have just described. …
This is a matter of grave concern for every parent. It exposes teenagers to possible contact and contamination in a city admittedly overrun by deviates. … Every San Francisco neighborhood is threatened by the bold shadow they cast over the entire community.
The Poisoned Resolution
These accusations hit Hal Call like a ton of bricks. Call was officially the editor of the Mattachine Society’s magazine, The Mattachine Review. Unofficially, he was the de-facto leader of the Mattachine Society through the Review’s influence and with his allies installed in key positions in the organization. Call immediately recognized the man behind this attack. William Patrick Brandhove had just joined the Mattachine Society in August, and he accompanied the San Francisco delegation to its annual convention in Denver over Labor Day weekend. Brandhove made a huge splash, unusually so for someone who had only joined a couple of weeks before. He bought drinks for the conventioneers, paid for hotel rooms for several delegates, and even sprang for the cost of stenographic services. The tiny organization was never able to afford a stenographer before. This was pure luxury! San Francisco delegate Henry Foster, Jr., later told reporters, “He was spending money as if it was going out of style.”
Brandhove’s lavish spending didn’t arouse any suspicions. The Mattachine Society was chronically broke. Call was just grateful for Brandhove’s generosity. Besides, Call’s bigger concern was a push by East Coast chapters to loosen his grip on the Society. They wanted to remake the organization into a much looser federation. Brandhove, with his expensive bar tab, lobbied on Call’s behalf. Call admitted at the time, “Brandhove’s room became sort of the headquarters for the San Francisco delegation.” Call also installed Brandhove as the official parliamentarian for the Monday business meeting. And with Call armed with a pocketful of proxies, the Easterners didn’t stand a chance. One by one, their proposals were voted down.
With that danger now passed, Call moved on to lighter fare. He offered a resolution on behalf of his new friend. It was a watered-down resolution that Brandhove had proposed earlier. This resolution read:
WHEREAS the goals of the Mattachine Society call for tolerance and understanding of the problems and rights of certain minority groups within a community, and
WHEREAS the Mattachine Society is cognizant of basic constitutional principles in America which guarantee these groups the rights of lawful and peaceful expression of their sincere aspirations of improvement and acceptance of the sometimes different groups, and
WHEREAS the Mattachine Society is deeply appreciative of the efforts of law enforcement authorities in San Francisco based upon an officially administered entity, enlightened, and just City Government and Police Force,
NOW THEREFORE BE IT HERE RESOLVED that the Mattachine Society go on record as recognizing and expressing its appreciation to Mayor George Christopher and Police Chief Thomas Cahill for their persistent and consistent efforts to conduct their administration with these high ideals foremost in mind and congratulate them for favorable results in the sociological problem.
The almost-apologetic resolution was pretty standard Mattachine copy. Brandhove’s original resolution was much bolder, but Call rejected it as “too political.” In this newer watered-down version, “homosexuals” appear nowhere — just “certain minority groups.” The gay community was reduced to a “sociological problem.” Christopher’s anti-gay campaigns were re-cast as “enlightened and just.”
Given the realities on the ground, it’s hard to believe a self-styled gay rights group would approve such a resolution. But all of this was in line with the Mattachine’s goal of currying favor with leaders that society deemed respectable. Call urged its passage “to butter our bread with a couple of areas in San Francisco … it will do the entire organization a lot of good.” The convention went along, and approved it unanimously.
“We thought it was just an innocent expression in favor of tolerance in San Francisco, ” said Mattachine General-Secretary Don Lucas, soon after the resolution hit the papers. “We had no idea that it was intended or might be used for any political purpose.”
But that was exactly its purpose. A few weeks after the convention was over, Brandhove contacted Darlene Armbeck, the Denver stenographer who Brandhove had so generously hired. Armbeck also just happened to be a notary public. Brandhove asked her for three notarized copies of the resolution. Just one week later, one of those copies showed up in the Progress. And a scandal was born.
The Undercover Is Uncovered
But the scandal that grew wasn’t the one Wolden and Brandhove intended. First of all, Brandhove apparently counted on the Mattachine Society being cowed and timid. But that wasn’t Hal Call’s style. He relished a good fight. And if that fight included a spotlight, it was all the better. Call launched a million dollar lawsuit against Wolden, charging slander against the Mattachine Society. That move alone was guaranteed to generate publicity. But Call had another card to play. He knew all about Brandhove’s role in getting the resolution passed. Call shared everything he knew with the three major dailies, The Chronicle, The Examiner and the recently-merged News-Call Bulletin.
Reporters recognized Brandhove’s name immediately. He was no stranger to bare-knuckeled politics. Brandhove had been involved in smear campaigns during a 1948 congressional contest and the 1949 mayor’s race. He once testified before the state’s Un-American Activities Committee, claiming to be an ex-communist. He then changed his testimony, fought with the committee, and wound up in jail on contempt charges. Brandhove had been entangled in a local blackmail trial involving Jimmy Tarantino, a small-time publisher of a local scandal magazine. Tarantino extorted large sums from local businessmen in exchange for keeping allegations of homosexuality out of the magazine. The Chronicle reported that Brandhove was “known to police and the underworld as an unreliable stool pigeon.” It also noted that he had been arrested in 1930 in Jersey City, New Jersey on a sodomy charge.
When reporters tried to find Brandhove for comment, they found that he had quickly checked out of the fleabag Grand Hotel in the Tenderloin. They tracked him down, with his car “plastered with Wolden stickers.” Brandhove admitted that he had, in fact, attended the convention. “I’m not a homosexual but I joined the Mattachine Society only to find out about its activities.” He also admitted to turning over the notarized copies to his lawyer, Ralph Taylor — who just happened to be Wolden’s campaign treasurer. Brandhove told Taylor, “Make sure it’s used.”
With those details now out in the open, the papers quickly branded the entire operation a smear. But the smear wasn’t on homosexuals or the Mattachine Society. It was a smear on the city’s good name, its honorable mayor and its upright citizens for supposedly tolerating all of these sexual deviants.
And the fact that Wolden’s radio address came at dinnertime only made things worse. One letter writer to the News-Call Bulletin complained that Wolden’s speech had “invaded San Francisco homes at the very time the family is assembled — the dinner hour.” Picture it: whole families sit down at the kitchen table. The radio is playing in the background. It’s 1960; television censors are still struggling with the word “pregnant.” And children all over San Francisco simultaneously look up from their meat loafs and ask, “Daddy, what is a homosexual?”
The papers rushed to prove that San Franciscans certainly did not tolerate homosexuals. The News-Call Bulletin reminded readers, “A special unit of the vice squad is detailed to keep tabs on possible deviate colonies, and is augmented from time to time by special squads of plainclothesmen from districts — notably North Beach and South of Market — where homosexual invasions may begin.”
Deputy Police Chief Al Nelder told reporters, “The San Francisco Police Department has always had a special squad to check on sex deviates. They are doing a good job. Since the first of January they have made over 150 arrests. San Francisco is not the headquarters for sex deviates.”
“If anything,” added Chief Cahill, “they know from our sustained drive they’re not wanted here, and most take the hint.” He also added that police police had cracked down on seventeen gay bars in the last two years.
The Chronicle took severe umbrage that Wolden would stain the city’s reputation so carelessly. Wolden’s “charge that San Francisco officially condones flagrant moral corruption is preposterous. … He has degraded the good name of San Francisco. A man who would recklessly and spuriously do this shows himself unfit for the office he seeks.”
The Examiner fumed, “He succeeded only in smearing the city he professes to love.” It added, rather defensively, “The situation here differs not one whit from that in any large city of like size and makeup. … Mr. Wolden’s taking of this socio-police problem to make of it a piece of political sensationalism was an act of the most sordid and unforgivable kind.”
The News-Call Bulletin just screamed, “Get out, Wolden!”:
Russell L. Wolden has slandered San Francisco in a radio speech containing an amazing perversion of fact and has thus disqualified himself as a serious candidate for mayor.
He should withdraw from the campaign.
The speech was the most distasteful pottage of slime, innuendo and falsehood ever cooked up and piped into San Francisco homes at the dinner hour.
His wild charge that a moral offender finds easy tolerance in San Francisco is a resort to the extremes of irresponsible demagoguery and an affront to the truth.
Wolden has deviated from the path..of political responsibility and shown himself incapable of the role of sober civic servant.
He has insulted San Francisco with gross and desperate distortions. He should get out of the race.
Mayor Christopher defended his city and everyone in it. “In a blind drive for office, my opponent has degraded the city,” he charged. “I am deeply regretful that his sordid campaign material has been thrown on the doorstep of every home.” Christopher cancelled a planned televised debate on KQED. “I want no formal arrangement with Mr. Wolden of any kind.”
Wolden claimed he didn’t know Brandhove. “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him.” The News-Call Bulletin published that denial under a friendly-looking photo of the two together. Wodlen’s financial backers began wishing they didn’t know Wolden. Ben Swig, owner of the Fairmont Hotel and Wolden’s finance chairman, was in Sacramento when the story broke. “I don’t want any mud slinging,” he said. “I don’t want any part of it.” Adolph Schuman, a prominent women’s clothing manufacturer, remained a Wolden supporter. But he complained, “If I’d known we were going to go around saying how many homosexuals were running around San Francisco, I would have stopped it.” Those Democrats and labor leaders who had endorsed Wolden quickly, loudly, and angrily withdrew their support.
“And You Parents of Daughters”
There’s a cynical saying: when you dig yourself into a hole, dig deeper. That’s what Wolden did. But now, his campaign’s desperation became glaringly obvious. He took to the airwaves again, and accused the downtown papers of conspiring against him. He claimed they were suppressing public opinion polls showing him in the lead. “San Franciscans,” he pleaded, “if they destroy me, we will never have another free and open democratic election in this city in your lifetime, or in mine. … then, Russian-type elections have come to San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, his ally, The Progress, printed another “exposé.” This one named most of the gay bars and cited arrest statistics. His campaign printed up transcripts of his radio speech and sent them to PTAs, religious groups and civic leaders. He also distributed leaflets door-to-door with another warning about deviates. This time, it was the lesbians’ turn:
And you parents of daughters — do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family, everything is all right as far as you are concerned. To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, whose purposes are the same as the Mattachine Society, the male counterpart, make yourselves acquainted vlith the name “Daughters of Bilitis”.
The Examiner responded to all of this with a retraction of sorts. Its first editorial called on Wolden to withdraw from the race. Now the Examiner said Wolden should stay in. “The public should not be denied its right to pass judgment on a man … who would openly defame his city. … on the basis of ‘evidence’ planted by one of his supporters.”
San Francisco’s judgment was harsh. On November 3, Christopher won in a landslide, 141,644 to 90,268. Another 8,231 votes were split among six minor candidates. Interestingly, about 9,000 voters cast ballots for the Board of Supervisors, municipal judges, bond proposals, and city charter amendments, but left the choice for mayor blank. Mayor Christopher reassured the city in his victory speech: “It is time to forget the unpleasantness that has occurred in the past few months. San Francisco is on the move in the eyes of California, the nation and the world.”
The newspapers’ lining up against Wolden meant that they wound up being more or less on Mattachine’s side. This was a very unusual position for Mattachine to be in. This was the first time homosexuality was injected into a major city’s political campaign, and Mattacahine (and to a lesser extent, the Daughters of Bilitis) received neutral to positive coverage.
The Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society both were happy to publicly report that neither organization suffered from the campaign. The Ladder, the DOB’s official magazine, bragged, “Actually, the publicity brought the groups to the attention of potential members who had not otherwise been aware of their existence.” Hal Call, in a letter to Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute, said much the same thing:
None of our members have resigned or panicked. All are behind us. We have gained some 10 memberships in the past three weeks. We have continued our schedule of activities as planned, canceling nothing — and we even had a fund-raising party last Saturday night at which 64 persons were present (including a UPI feature writer and his wife). … The telephone has run incessantly. Many have called seriously — to learn about the Society and to ask for help with problems. Many others, though, have been cranks and crackpots, some of them shouting obscenities when we answered.
Despite the bravado, there were some tense moments behind the scenes. Historian Alan Bérubé wrote in 1981:
Such hostile publicity, while certainly bringing DOB to the attention of many lesbians for the first time, also made DOB more vulnerable to attack. The organization responded by calling an emergency meeting to prevent a panicked exodus from their ranks. But instead of an exodus, the crisis brought together an unexpectedly large number of DOB members, who voted to put out a special issue of The Ladder, their national magazine, and to remove mailing and membership lists from their office. For the duration of the mayoral race, DOB operated out of the back of a station wagon, with boxes of their papers hidden under a blanket. DOB founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon later discovered that San Francisco police had in fact attempted to search their empty office as a result of Wolden’s expose.
Bérubé also wrote that Brandhove’s actions drew the FBI’s attention:
Recently uncovered US Justice Department memos, though heavily censored, suggest FBI involvement in the Brandhove affair. Following Wolden’s broadcast, the FBI monitored Brandhove’s activities in Denver and San Francisco, and stepped up their ongoing surveillance of both the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
San Francisco did move on from that election, just as Christopher promised. And Christopher learned a valuable lesson. Never again would he leave himself vulnerable to accusations of being soft on homosexuals. The police department’s anti-gay campaign intensified. In the next two years, nearly every gay bar in town saw its license revoked or threatened. In 1962, police arrested more a hundred men and women in the biggest gay bar raid in the city’s history. By 1965, police antagonism towards the gay community reached its zenith with the California Hall raid. That raid would finally unify the gay community with religious leaders to demand substantive changes in police relations.
Russell Wolden, Jr., returned to his job as City Assessor. He held that post from 1940 to 1967. He had taken the office over from his father, Russell Wolden, Sr., who held the office since 1916. In l965 rumors began circulating that dozens of businesses were enjoying lower property taxes due to “arranged” assessments by Wolden’s office. Deputy assessors were undervaluing property in return for bribes. A portion of the payments were then kicked up to Wolden. A grand jury indicted him for bribery and conspiracy, and he was convicted on nine felony counts. Wolden was sentenced to state prison from one to 14 years. Authorities gave him a medical release after only eight months due to a heart condition.
On the Timeline:
Headlines for October 7, 1959: President Eisenhower invokes the Taft-Hartley Act and asks for an 80-day back-to-work order in a bid to end a dockworkers’ strike on the East and Gulf coasts. A summit between steel executives and union leaders collapse, ending efforts to end a twelve-week strike; Eisenhower is expected to invoke Taft-Hartly to reopen the mills. Herbert M. Stempel and James Snodgrass, former contestants on the TV quiz show Twenty-One, testify before Congress that the show had been rigged.
The Soviets extend their lead in the space race by launching Lunik III, a satellite which is expected to allow people on earth to see the dark side of the moon for the first time in human history. It’s the last full day of campaigning in Britain as voters prepare to retain Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. Popular opera singer and actor Mario Lanza dies of a heart attack at the age of 38. Berkeley’s Board of Education approves a policy allowing corporal punishment. An unidentified woman leapt to her death off of the Golden Gate Bridge; it is the 189th known suicide from the span.
On the radio: “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, “Put Your Heard On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka, “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny, “(‘Til) I Kissed You” by the Everly Brothers, “The Three Bells” by the Browns, “Teen Beat” by Sandy Nelson, “I’m Gonna Get Married” by Lloyd Price, “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods, “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Poison Ivy” by the Coasters, “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips with the Twilights.
On television: Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Andy Griffith Show(CBS), The Real McCoys(ABC), Rawhide (CBS), Candid Camera (CBS), The Price is Right (NBC), The Untouchables (ABC), The Jack Benny Show (CBS), Bonanza (NBC), Dennis the Menace (CBS), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS) The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS), My Three Sons (ABC), Perry Mason (CBS) The Flintstones (ABC), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC).
New York Times best sellers: Fiction: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (Pulitzer Prize winner), Exodus by Leon Uris, The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Non-fiction: The Status Seekers by Vance Packard, For 2c Plain by Harry Golden, The Years With Ross by James Thurber.
“Sex deviates make S.F. Headquarters: ‘Enlightened’ city rule earns praise.” San Francisco Progress (October 7, 1959). As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 15-24.
“‘Smear Campaign’ backfires in S.F.” Oakland Tribune (October 9, 1959): 8.
“Wolden may lose labor’s support.” Oakland Tribune (October 10, 1959): 2-B.
Editorial: “Wolden Should Withdraw.” San Francisco Chronicle. As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 32.
Editorial: “Unforgivable Slur on San Francisco.” San Francisco Examiner. As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 32-33.
Editorial: “Get Out, Wolden!” San Francisco News-Call Bulletin. As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 30.
“‘Organized Homosexuals’ Issue in S.F. Election.” The Ladder (November 1959): 5-10.
“S.F. Election Aftermath.” The Ladder (Deember 1959): 23.
Christopher Lowen Agee. The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014): 90-91.
Allan Bérubé. “Behind the Spectre of San Francisco.” The Body Politic (Toronto, ON; April 1981): 25-27.
Nan Alamilla Boyd. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): 204-206.
George Draper. “Praise of Mayor’s policy on deviates engineered by ex-police informer.” The San Francisco Chronicle (October 9, 1959). As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 26-29.
Wes Knight. “Smear Drive.” The Mattachine Review 5, no. 11 (November 1959): 12-15.
Dal McIntire (pseudonym for Jim Kepner). “Tangents: The Campaign that Deviated.” ONE (November 1959): 6-12.
James T. Sears. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2006): 418-423.
Yancey Smith. “‘Mystery man’ seen in ‘smear’.” The San Francisco News-Call Bulletin (October 8, 1959). As reprinted in The Mattachine Review (November 1959): 24-25.