Northside SF
The Back Story
The Bordello of Telegraph Hill

W hen my esteemed editor suggested I write a monthly San Francisco history column for Northside San Francisco, I told her I wasn’t old enough to be a historian. “Never mind,” she said, “You’ve had a lot of experience.” I don’t know exactly how to take that comment because I chose for this first “Back Story” column the subject of the above headline.

Future columns in this series will chronicle the lives of Belle Cora, Ah Toy, Madame Mustache, Diamond Jesse, Sally Stanford, and Brandy Baldwin as well as other less provocative musings on San Francisco history. But this month, let’s talk about the curious case of the Bordello of Telegraph Hill.

It’s not exactly hot news that there were bordellos, brothels and bagnios and parlor houses in the early days of sprightly San Francisco. There were many houses of ill fame, as they say, in the raunchy Gold Rush town’s Latin Quarter (now North Beach) and on adjacent Telegraph Hill, but none as mysterious as the full-fledged fancy house that existed on Telegraph Hill as late as the 1950s and ’60s.

A brainwashing brainstorm
The Bordello of Telegraph Hill (in a bay-view apartment on the north slope) was operated by the CIA, and we’re not talking here about the Culinary Institute of America.
Inside the bordello, the super spy agency tested unsanctioned, mind-altering drugs in a kind of Manchurian Candidate brainwashing brainstorm, and the story has more unexpected twists than a Thelonius Monk piano solo.

Mind-elevating activity
Not one of the CIA’s most inspired projects, the Bordello of Telegraph Hill came about like this. By 1953 the agency already had an active program searching for truth serum and behavior-controlling drugs that it hoped might lead to clandestine political assassinations and other such noble pursuits. In the midst of this mind-elevating activity, the agency happened upon lysergic acid diethylamide and became intent on exploring Ken-Kesey-Merry-Prankster-like, LSD acid dreams. It wanted to test this and other magic potions in real-life interrogation situations and to see if a person under drug influence could be made to do bad things just like in the movies.

Party punch and wacky trips
First, it did its testing within the agency in boyish, Animal-House-type pranks. Agents never knew when they were going to embark on a wacky trip after downing a little party punch. Later, the CIA opened a bordello in New York’s Greenwich Village to test pharmaceutical LSD and other substances. Then came the tragic suicide of a civilian biochemist working for the government who, without his knowing it, was given a huge dose of LSD at a CIA conference on biological warfare. Several days later in a depression, he plunged to his death from a New York hotel room.

Operation midnight climax
At that point the agency moved the bordello operation to a Telegraph Hill safe house, a sleek, three-story apartment building in a quiet neighborhood. It engaged a tough-talking, ex-undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who then hired and managed the prostitutes. Operation Midnight Climax was underway. The San Francisco hookers were paid to lure eager customers to the Telegraph Hill apartment who were then served LSD-laced cocktails. The stylish, playboy pad on the hill was tastefully decorated with French posters and bugged with microphones in lighting fixtures that connected to out-of-sight tape recorders. Another CIA agent sat on a toilet seat behind a two-way mirror and observed. The pad was said to cost about $2,000 per month in rental fees and operated until 1965.

Don’t bother to ask
Much of this information was brought to light when it was unclassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Today it can be found in political newsletters, various websites, on the pages of some prominent periodicals and even in one well-circulated book on the history of Telegraph Hill. The apartment that was the center for Operation Midnight Climax is still there looking out over San Francisco Bay. 

Ernest Beyl suggests that you don’t bother to inquire as to the location of the Telegraph Hill apartment in this story. Nevertheless, he does enjoy receiving e-mail:

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