Half the frontier towns in Northern California contain buildings that, if you believe local lore, were once bordellos. I can’t count the number of times someone in Point Reyes Station has assured me that either the Grandi or the Western Saloon used to be a whorehouse.

I once asked the late Lefty Arndt, who had lived in Point Reyes Station since the 1920s, if there really ever was a brothel in town.

He told me there once had been one, but it was neither the Grandi nor the Western. Rather, it was a small building that once was on the main street and became a brothel after being moved to Mesa Road, where it is now a private residence. For the sake of the residents, I won’t identify it. Arndt, who had not been a patron, said it was his belief that only two women worked there, and noted that the town didn’t pay too much attention to it.

198px-eliot_spitzer.jpgIn contrast, it would be hard to imagine higher-profile prostitution than the Emperors Club VIP where New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (right) was a patron.

As the FBI revealed Monday, the governor had been frequenting the call-girl operation before it was raided a few weeks ago. From listening to folks around Point Reyes Station, however, I get the impression that people here are less interested in Spitzer’s high-priced call girls than his hypocrisy.

From 1998 to 2006, Spitzer was New York’s attorney general, and during that time he “prosecuted at least two prostitution rings as head of the state’s organized-crime taskforce,” The San Francisco Chronicle reported. “In one such case in 2004, Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of Staten Island.”

Government hypocrisy toward prostitution, however, is traditional and may never have been more bizarre than at Mustang Ranch, once the best-known brothel in the United States.

An oasis of mobilehomes amid 440 acres of sand and sagebrush located 10 miles east of Reno (and in a different county), the ranch offered security, cleanliness, and mirrors on the ceiling. The women who worked there were required to use condoms and get weekly medical checkups.

Although Nevada law permits bordellos in most counties, it insists that their operators — bizarrely enough — be of good moral character. But what in other people would be considered an expression of good character – such as civic-mindedness – can in the case of a brothel owner be criticized as grasping for legitimacy. In the 1970s, Mustang Ranch owner Joe Conforte found himself in that situation.

While he could easily have been considered a scoundrel merely because of the way he made his money, Conforte instead came under attack primarily because he was considered too involved in civic affairs for a brothel owner. Leading the attack was the local press, and in 1977, Warren Lerude, Foster Church, and Norman Cardoza of The Reno Evening News and Nevada State Journal shared a Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for denouncing Conforte’s influence in the Reno area.

100_6952_2.jpgReading about all this in California, I was surprised by Conforte’s rise to national prominence, especially when he was written up – complete with an Annie Leibovitz photo (at right is a toned detail from it) – in Rolling Stone magazine. Equally surprising was his subsequent fall.

In 1990, a federal court took control of Mustang Ranch after Conforte missed a $75,000 monthly tax bill. When word of the takeover reached the bordello, “prostitutes panicked and fled, customers were thrown out, and the doors were slammed,” The Chronicle reported at the time.

Given government’s usual repression of prostitution, one might have expected officials to be pleased that the brothel had closed. Not so. When a federal bankruptcy judge turned Mustang Ranch over to US Bankruptcy trustee Jeri Coppa, she considered it her top priority to immediately get the bordello back in business.

As her office saw it, the closure could not have come at a worse time. The Reno Air Races were to be held that Saturday, and normally this would be the busiest weekend of the year at Mustang Ranch. The whorehouse could not afford to lose so many potential customers if it was to pay off the IRS and its secured creditors.

I’m trying to get the girls back, straighten out the business licenses, insurance, and work permits, blood tests – and get the place back open,” Ms. Coppa, the federal bankruptcy trustee, told Chronicle reporter Kevin Leary three days before the Air Races. “It’s a new experience for me. I’ve never run a whorehouse before. But about 20 girls have signed up so far, and the bar manager and floor maids are anxious to get back to work.”

In any case, the federal government with unusual alacrity managed to reopen Mustang Ranch just in time for the Air Races. Later the ranch was sold at auction, where it was purchased by an associate of Conforte.

Notwithstanding prostitution’s being legal throughout much of the state, even in Nevada it carries a stigma. Onetime Harper’s editor Sallie Tisdale in Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (Doubleday, 1994) notes that prostitutes in Nevada cannot live and work in the same town, go into casinos or bars, or be in the company of men in public places. Still for women willing to put up with the stigma, working in a brothel at least pays fairly well and is relatively safe.

The same is not true for their sisters who walk big-city streets. My former employer, the old San Francisco Examiner, in 1995 reported not only that rape, robbery and beatings are a daily risk for the city’s streetwalkers but also that few of their attackers are ever prosecuted. Hitch-hookers, who ply their trade in strangers’ cars, face particular danger.

Fearing the AIDS epidemic, streetwalkers nowadays generally try to get their customers to use condoms, but hypocritical laws actually discourage this. If a woman is found to be carrying a supply of condoms, many courts in both the Great Britain and the United States allow that fact to be used as evidence against her should she be charged with prostitution.

There was a time back in the late 1970s when people lived upstairs in Point Reyes Station’s derelict Grandi Building although the county considered the place unsafe and eventually kicked everybody out. A couple of years before that happened, however, sheriff’s deputies began to notice that each evening, one of the Grandi’s female residents kept going across the street into the Western Saloon, picking up men, and then taking them back to her room. In the course of a night, she might do this two or three times.

Suspecting she was soliciting, officers began keeping an eye on her, only to discover she was not a prostitute, just very promiscuous.

Not exactly the Emperors Club VIP where Gov. Spitzer (who is scheduled to resign Monday) spent up to $80,000.