The Contractor with a Heart of Gold

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco. This story contains references to sexual abuse of a minor, drug use, and attempted suicide.

The Poole-Bell House had become a bit dilapidated by 1956, its Victorian charm not much cherished in that era of modernist tastes. That year a contractor named Joe LoPresti bought it, one of his many fixer-upper projects. He renovated the large building, removing some of its period features in the process; it took the Gilmores in the 1980s to restore its original appearance. It wasn’t yet the time for San Francisco to rediscover the beauty of its old houses.

LoPresti was a character about town; just before he bought the Poole-Bell House, he got entangled in a public scandal—not as a perpetrator of vice, but as a kind of savior to a “fallen woman.” It was a renovation project, played out on newspaper pages and Herb Caen’s column, that was not destined to end well. The story was built for the 1950s, full of secret sin and dope fiends, public outrage and salvaged female virtue—a tale to put fear into the straight-laced parents and make them worry about their teen daughters—or the seemingly innocuous house on the corner in their middle-class neighborhoods, as a few houses in the city were revealed to actually be prostitution venues.

The story starts in 1954, with a young woman named Paula Winters. That was her prostitution pseudonym—her real name was Shirley Grimes of Daly City.

It unfolded in the San Francisco Examiner over a long week at the end of March, when the reporter Ed Montgomery chronicled the twenty-year-old woman’s life.[1] Winters struggled to get free of her heroin habit and the sex work that paid for it, and Montgomery’s interviews revealed how she’d come to such a state, and how she had broken the hold her old life had on her. An inspiring story for an age obsessed with women’s virtue and conformity. The city initiated prosecutions against several people Winters named as running prostitution houses, so the public was doubly relieved to see justice done as well as the crooked course of a young woman’s life set straight. All the publicity brought Paula another benefit, a handsome, or maybe just well-off, prince in the form of Joe LoPresti, the man willing to marry her. All the elements of a midcentury fairy tale.

Girls, Girls, Girls

For the reporter Ed Montgomery, these sorts of stories had become his specialty. The same year he reported on Paula Winters, he had entangled himself in the story of another woman, Barbara Graham, who was convicted of a brutal murder.

Still from I Want To Live! (1958). Susan Hayward. From Cineaste.com
Still from I Want To Live! (1958). Susan Hayward. From Cineaste.com 

Like Winters, Graham was conventionally attractive. The case was later made into the noir film I Want To Live!, in which Montgomery was made a character played by Simon Oakland. The film glamourizes the Graham character, played by Susan Hayward, and positions Montgomery as a advocate for her possible innocence, which was quite unlikely in real life.

The film was based on letters Montgomery received from the real Graham while she awaited her execution in 1955. So Montgomery had established his interest in, and the public had shown its appetite for, such stories centered on attractive women as criminals, while dangling forth the possibility that they were merely victims of evil men, combining ordinary sexual objectification with the anxieties of the time about women’s agency and their position as keepers of morality in a corrupt world.

I Was a Call Girl

The Winters story as related in the Examiner by Montgomery opens with her desperate attempt to escape the life of prostitution. Although she was saddled with an expensive heroin habit that drove her repeatedly back to the streets, she managed to get a straight job in a tax firm. But she was still using. Her boss confronted her about her frequent requests for pay advances. He himself was an ex-con. He knew Montgomery was a sympathetic reporter, and he so connected the two.

The exposé: Paula Winters spills all the reporter Ed Montgomery, eventually resulting in convictions of prostitution madams but not rapist cops. SF Examiner, 22 Mar 1954.
The exposé: Paula Winters spills all the reporter Ed Montgomery, eventually resulting in convictions of prostitution madams but not rapist cops. SF Examiner, 22 Mar 1954.

The result was Montgomery’s patient deposition of Winters’ long and harrowing tale. He posited her family as respectable, yet told how she had been abused by a family friend at age thirteen, then entered the abuser’s family home as a foster child at 15 to escape her own terrible family situation. Her abuser—a so-called “family man” of Daly City—promptly trafficked her. She subsequently became familiar with a number of “madams” of brothels located residential houses in several area of the city.

Restored to acceptable womanhood; Paula Winters after rehab. SF Examiner, 5 Apr 1954.
Restored to acceptable womanhood; Paula Winters after rehab. SF Examiner, 5 Apr 1954.

Montgomery then connected Winters with the San Francisco public prosecutor, and the information that Winters provided to him resulted in the prosecution of various drug dealers and brothel owners—even a political figure in South City was implicated. When the investigations were underway in the spring of 1954, Montgomery began his series of articles to make public the woman’s story—but not before driving her to an unnamed East Bay sanatorium for rehabilitation for three weeks.

The newspaper features were prone to part-by-part descriptions of Winter’s body and face, as though this told us relevant things about her experiences, worth, character, or essential qualities. Herb Caen mentioned Winters several times in his column over this year and the next—as always the chronicler of the city’s peccadilloes. Caen quotes a police inspector who laments that Winters was “getting fat,” when he spots her at the Hall of Justice a few months later as she arrived to testify against one of the brothel owners.

It came out that there were several police officers who had victimized Winters while she was on the street. Taking bribes was common enough, but she also reported she was raped at San Mateo county police station by a cop who had offered to drive her home from her legitimate job at a drive-in movie theater late at night. A few SF police officers had also approached Winters, offering to pimp her on their beats. The police department was not eager to prosecute its own, and claimed there wasn’t enough hard evidence to peg any of the crimes to the officers who had allegedly committed them. So no cop paid a price for victimizing Winters.

The drama was thick on the page through the numerous accounts over the week-long exposé. Winters had struggled repeatedly to get free of life on the street. One of her madams told her she was not suited for sex work and actually gave her money to train in stenography—and also funded some psychiatric treatment for Paula, which the older woman felt she was in real need of. But Winters fell back into the need for heroin repeatedly, and said she couldn’t do sex work without it.

At some points in Montgomery’s reporting, the angle taken was the hapless and innocent girl corrupted by opportunistic scum; other times it highlighted Winters’ inability to recognize who was trustworthy and who was not, who acted in her own interest and who did not. The mother—that ever-ready scapegoat of 1950s pop-psychologizing—was blamed for Paula’s lack of moral discernment.

The reporting does not really reckon with the fact of Winters’ early abuse at the hands of trusted family members, that she was subsequently put into situations where she was vulnerable to further abuse. It would take until the 1980s for sociology to fully reveal the causal relationship between early sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in the family, and early sexual activity, prostitution, drug use, and other self-destructive behaviors by such victims later. The details of Winters’ story were shocking enough—but the era’s usual narratives of how bad people ruined young girls’ lives did not then readily include neglect and abuse by family members.

Saved by the Love of a Good Contractor

Three weeks after her release from the sanatorium in May, Montgomery reported in the Examiner that she was fighting the urge to go back to dope.

Winters struggling with addiction. SF Examiner, 8 May 1954. Read entire piece here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/1954May08-Examiner-Paula-Winters-crackup.jpg
Winters struggling with addiction. SF Examiner, 8 May 1954. Read entire piece here. 

It was a cry for help, and help came. Enter Joe LoPresti, a man who had a habit of helping the vulnerable.[2] In late summer 1954, LoPresti met and befriended Paula Winters.

Unfortunately, around that time she was arrested in the company of two men who were drug suppliers while they were all parked in a car on a lonely road in Daly City. Drug paraphilia was found in the car; she was charged with vagrancy. It was Joe who bailed her out of jail. He described himself as her boyfriend and said he wanted to marry her. “If he still wants me after this, I’m going to marry him,” Winters told the reporter. They left the jail “hand in hand.”[3] LoPresti’s lawyer, Henry Jacobsen Jr, got her charges dropped a few days later.[4]

Where did they meet? His daughter Diane said of him, “Joe knew everybody—when he arrived, that’s when the party started.”[5] Joe even knew Herb Caen, who mentioned the prospective marriage in one of his columns a week after the vagrancy charges against Winters were dropped.

Herb Caen took an interest. SF Examiner, 24 Sep 1954.
Herb Caen took an interest in the Winters-LoPresti courtship. SF Examiner, 24 Sep 1954.

Whirlwind Romance Blows Over

Joe and Paula were married in Las Vegas in November 1954. By December things weren’t going too well; Paula slit her wrists after a domestic blowup, which put her name back in the papers.[6] She admitted she just wanted attention from Joe, who had hit her during the fight. Further problems followed, and the two were separated in January after just seven weeks of marriage. LoPresti married her to save her from the drugs and get her off the street. When they got married, she had promised to give up her old habits. But those habits followed her into his nice house on Guerrero Street; she continued to take barbiturate pills secretly. Herb Caen was the first to break the story.

Herb Caen featured the Winters-LoPresti saga. SF Examiner, 4 Feb 1955.
Herb Caen featured the Winters-LoPresti saga. SF Examiner, 4 Feb 1955.

Two weeks later, she sued him for divorce, revealing that he made $1000 a month, about five times what a longshoreman would take home then—and she wanted $300 of that for her alimony.[7] Joe countersued, alleging breach of promise, in that Winters had said she would give up the drugs, but had continued to take them. The same lawyer who defended Winters in Daly City won an annulment for LoPresti. “Joe would help people who were down and out—but once they had betrayed him, he would fight back,” Diane recalled.[8]

Joe LoPresti wins his countersuit and annulment. SF Examiner, 3 Jun 1955.
Joe LoPresti wins his countersuit and annulment. SF Examiner, 3 Jun 1955.

Builder and Shutterbug

LoPresti owned many buildings in the Mission District and nearby—living in each in order to work on them, renting out units, and often selling up after a short while. He always had a camera and took pictures of his properties.

In 1956, the year after his short-lived marriage to Winters ended, LoPresti bought the Poole-Bell House. He often lived in his buildings while fixing them, so it is likely he lived there.[9] He may well have been the “Italian contractor” who removed much of the Victorian interior decorative fixtures in the house, according to later owner, Polly Gilmore. A staircase was covered over, and high ceilings were lowered with false ceilings that ended below the tops of the tall bay windows. “I understand that in the 1940s a little Italian man who owned the house and didn’t care for Victoriana had many of the fixtures and detailing carted off to the dump,” she told the Noe Valley Voice in 1985.[12]

Given the aesthetics of 1950s, LoPresti may have felt it would have greater appeal free of its furbelows. It would take another twenty years for a popular taste for San Francisco’s painted ladies to return.  Having done something to increase its value for buyers of his own time, Joe LoPresti sold the building in 1958.

Loyal to his Pigeons Alone

Joe LoPresti was married many times, often for very short periods—although Paula Winters must have been the shortest of all.[10] Later, in 1961, Joe married Diane’s mother but stayed with her for just a year and half. They separated amicably and stayed in touch. As a young girl, Diane would go to visit her father at his house on South Van Ness Avenue, another one of his fixer-up projects. He kept show pigeons in the backyard, winning awards for them and selling them all over the world.[11] In 1970, Examiner columnist Jack Rosenbaum mentioned him in his column, because Joe had had many pigeons stolen—by someone who was down and out that he had generously taken into his home and tried to help, according to his daughter.[13]

Joe LoPresti's pigeons stolen! Jack Rosenbaum's column in the SF Examiner, 21 Apr 1970.
Joe LoPresti’s pigeons stolen! Jack Rosenbaum’s column in the SF Examiner, 21 Apr 1970.

Here is a photo of him in his later years with his pigeons.

1990s. Joe LoPresti with his show pigeons. Photo courtesty Diane LoPresti Christensen.
1990s. Joe LoPresti with his show pigeons. Photo courtesy Diane LoPresti Christensen.

Unlike LoPresti, following up on the life of Paula Winters aka Shirley Jean Grimes proved to be impossible. Montgomery may have given false information all the way along about her, such as the address of her parents and her “true name,” because even as experienced as I am about finding slim traces of people’s lives in public records, I could find nothing about what happened to her.

More stories about the Poole-Bell House here.


ENDNOTES

  1. Articles were published daily on the front page of SF Examiner by Ed Montgomery from 22 to 28 March 1954, with numerous other stories also in the Examiner for the next year that deal with the repercussions of Winters’ accounts. My account is based on Montgomery’s reporting.
  2. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  3. SF Examiner, 9 Sep 1954.
  4. SF Examiner, 16 Sep 1954.
  5. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  6. SF Examiner, 31 Dec 1954, p3.
  7. SF Examiner, 17 Feb 1955.
  8. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  9. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  10. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  11. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.
  12. “Mansion Steeped in History Looks for a New Owner,” Noe Valley Voice, September 1985 
  13. Phone conversation with Diane LoPresti Christensen, 11 Oct 2019.

 

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