Noe Valley Voice March 2013

The Panache of Sheila Ash

B&B Owner Sparkles Both In and Out of the Nest

By Corrie M. Anders

Sheila Ash, who graciously agreed to be photographed while recovering from foot surgery, is proud of the romantic style of her Victorian bed-and-breakfast on Guerrero Street.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

Carol Yenne couldn’t help but smile one day recently when she bumped into friend and business associate Sheila Ash at a fitness center in Noe Valley..

The owner of Noe’s Nest was recently spotted at her gym on 24th Street decked out in an embroidered jacket and white fur boots and hat.    Photo courtesy Carol Yenne

In a room full of spandex and sweats, Ash was working the elliptical machine while wearing a white fur hat, white fur scarf, and matching fur boots.

“No woman comes to the gym dressed like that. She looked like a movie star,” said Yenne, proprietor of Small Frys children’s clothing store on 24th Street. “She’s just an interesting character in the neighborhood.”

Sheila Ash gets that a lot.

“I’ve been told I’m quirky, eclectic, outrageous, a character. I welcome all the adjectives of unusuality,” laughs Ash, 65. “Boring would be death to me.”

For more than 30 years—with a style that’s made her a San Francisco icon—Ash has been running Noe’s Nest, her popular bed-and-breakfast on Guerrero Street between 24th and 25th streets.

As owner and host of the eight-room inn that welcomes hundreds of visitors a year, Ash manages the business, helps with the cooking, entertains guests, and often invites them along on her adventures. “We don’t just rent a room. We rent a life. I take my guests under my wing.”

Her 125-year-old Victorian has been the scene of numerous weddings, new-age workshops, sumptuous banquets, even the surprise birth of a baby. Ash has entertained Hollywood directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas and the former porn star Marilyn Chambers.

Last month, she hosted a dinner in honor of three Ukrainian dignitaries who helped start an LGBT center in the former Russian republic. In December, her annual latke fundraiser raised several thousands dollars for two of her favorite charities—Heaven’s Door, a cancer support foundation, and the Bay Area chapter of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

In the Inn Crowd

Twice a year, Ash puts on a big breakfast social for the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. The first event four years ago “was a smashing success. And now they’re even better,” says association president Robert Roddick. They are so much fun that “many of her [inn] guests just join right in with us.” 

Ash’s flair for entertaining has earned her the spotlight in many newspapers and magazines. In July, she appeared on the cover of Oregon Jewish Life. Then in October she was featured in an eight-page spread in GEV (Gastronomique en Vogue), a quarterly food and fashion magazine.

But Ash is much more than a gracious innkeeper. She is a curator of urban hipness, leading offbeat tours of San Francisco that take in the naughty venues of North Beach, the trendy cafes along Valencia Street, and the inner sanctum of the plush Concordia-Argonaut Club, a private club founded by Levi Strauss in 1864.

As if that weren’t enough, she is also an event and wedding planner, a fashion consultant, a real estate relocation specialist, and a restaurant reviewer. Ash cheerfully says she has dined “in every restaurant known to man,” although she admits she nearly flunked her first food critic assignment.

“Lo and behold, it’s lamb night” at the restaurant, recalls Ash, a vegetarian who sometimes eats fish. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll taste but not swallow.’”

A Party Girl

More than anything else, though, Ash is a party-goer. She shows up at several hundred events a year—from art gallery, theater, and ballet openings to campaign benefits and intimate soirees—and sometimes she’ll hit as many as three in an evening. A group of well-turned-out women friends who call themselves the Sheilettes habitually accompany her.

“I’m only home 10 nights a year,” says Ash.

And wherever she wanders, she’s wearing an ensemble of colorful vintage or period clothing that only a fashionista with remarkable aplomb could pull off. Her wardrobe includes a collection of 150 hats and so many dresses and wraps—unabashedly purchased at thrift stores, estate sales, and wholesale fashion houses—that she often rents clothes out for theme parties and photo shoots.

“Sheila can do the funky to the very high elegance,” says Daphne Evans, the founder of Heaven’s Door and a regular reveler in Ash’s coterie.

Friends will never forget the Passover dinner where the guests were asked to dress like biblical characters. Ash showed up as a gefilte fish, wearing an ocean-blue sequined, off-the-shoulder mermaid dress.

In January, Ash needed an outfit that would do double duty for a party at the downtown Bohemian Club and an Edwardian costume ball later that evening. In the basement closet of her B&B, she pulled out a hot-pink leather jacket, studded on the back with Swarovski crystals fashioned into the shape of an eagle. Another showstopper: a cream-colored vintage dress with 1,000 real pearls and a pearl-studded Cleopatra headpiece.

“I’ve always listened to my own drummer,” says Ash. “I was very independent and I always will be and have been—mainly because I don’t care what people think.”

To her, dressing to the nines is a way of transforming “yourself out of your body into a new body of imagination, [and] my imagination is endless.”

Sheila Ash models the sequined mermaid dress she once wore to a Passover dinner with friends. The gorgeous getup made a big splash.    Photo courtesy Sheila Ash

Flashy from an Early Age

Ash’s verbal directness and flamboyant style might suggest she is a shade narcissistic or even a little bit out-there. She is neither, according to friends and business associates.

“She’s an extremely bright and intelligent person,” says Roddick. Evans notes that Ash is “very authentic” in her embrace of everyone, from “very wealthy friends” to artists and musicians and people on the street.

Ash says her attitude relates to the cards life has dealt her. A congenital defect left her hard of hearing, she’s had a string of foot surgeries, and she is an early-stage cancer survivor.

“It starts when you’re born. I say not being born perfect is actually a blessing,” she says. “Maybe I would be conceited if I were perfect. But life is not perfect.”

She was born the youngest of three girls of Orthodox Jewish immigrants. Her father, 51 when she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., was a house painter and fill-in rabbi at the local synagogue. To her strict religious family, she was considered strong-willed, bordering on intransigent.

When she was 12, Ash hitchhiked alone to the Borsch Belt, then a summer resort region in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, to visit a relative. She returned home safely that evening, via bus, but her parents were horrified.

Even earlier, at age 7, she had defied her parents’ efforts to put her in a yeshiva school for Jewish students—“I hated the way the girls dressed”—and demanded to attend public school.

“And so I did,” says Ash. “They couldn’t believe how I was so strong-headed. They’re from Poland, and they weren’t used to a child telling parents what they’re going to do.”

Her mother was so concerned that she asked the school principal to evaluate her daughter’s disposition. The principal wrote back that the child appeared “very normal” at school. The March 31, 1954, letter, framed and under glass, hangs on a wall in Noe Nest’s kitchen.

“I don’t think my mother believed it because I didn’t find that letter until she went into assisted living,” Ash says.

Life Is a Stage

Ash got dual degrees in education and theater from Hunter College in New York, taught public elementary school in Harlem, directed a production of A Raisin in the Sun for a high school performance, modeled furs, and tried to break into acting.

Too many directors “wanted to take you to bed and not give you a part,” says Ash. “So rather than dedicate my life to the stage, I made my life a stage. And I’ve had a great time with that.” 

Unmarried and with a 2-year-old bi­racial child—“a real big issue for my parents”—Ash escaped to San Francisco in 1977. Broke and in need of foot surgery, she went on welfare right away.

“I was so happy to get a Thanksgiving dinner at Glide Church when I first moved here,” says Ash. “Now I donate to it.”

She eventually found a job as a public school teacher. At night, she worked a variety of waitressing jobs, including stints at Salonicas bar and Panos’ Restaurant, two now defunct businesses on 24th Street. The two jobs were enough to send her two daughters, Anais and Kendra, to the French-American School and to buy a house on 23rd Street in 1982.

Noe’s Nest owner and fashion maven Sheila Ash stands before a gallery of portraits in her parlor, including a painting of her by San Francisco artist Joanne Uribe and a photograph of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

Gussying Up a Grand Dame

Within a few years, Ash was calling her home Noe’s Nest and taking in overnight guests. In many ways, she was an accidental entrepreneur. Ash says in those days her two daughters and a foster son “were all sleeping with me. So I built [two] extra bedrooms. And when I finished, they were still sleeping with me!” She decided to rent out the extra space to make money to support the family.

The 125-year-old “Grand Dame” at 1257 Guerrero St. has been home to Noe’s Nest for 10 years.    Photo by Corrie M. Anders

A decade ago, she relocated her Nest a few blocks away to 1257 Guerrero St. Ash says she wanted “a place that was a ‘true’ Victorian, and this one is like a Grand Dame, and it’s great for entertaining.”

A mezuzah, a symbol of Jewish identity, graces the doorframe of each guest room. To “equal things out,” says Ash, a French painting of the the Virgin Mary hangs on a parlor wall, not far from a portrayal of the Last Supper with black male figures. A statue of St. Francis guards the B&B’s entryway.

One of the first things arriving guests get is a tour of the inn’s downstairs common area. It is filled with an assortment of antique furniture and art objects, including a pair of red-and-white-striped Italian settees, a mahogany and elm burl dining set, delicate Greek statuary, Ash’s Japanese teaset collection, and myriad gold-leaf-framed paintings and mirrors.

“If someone wants a very run-of-the-mill place, they should stay at Run Of The Mill,” says Ash. “My place represents me—my love of art, my passion for art, antiques, and unusual pieces.”

A Time to Give

When she first opened in the ’80s, most guests were tourists from the U.S. and Europe. Now, the clientele has grown to include global business travelers, tech workers relocating to new jobs in San Francisco, and “a lot of Noe Valley families who have their parents stay here so they don’t have to travel from downtown.”

Over the years, the B&B and Ash’s social life have blended comfortably together. At parties, her original clothing makes such a splash that “people come over to me to find out what I do and, of course, it advertises my business,” says Ash.

And her notoriety also helps to promote her charities, which include the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the American Breast Cancer Society, and ­Variety, an organization that helps ­physically handicapped and neglected children.

Ash says she has been guided by her family’s strong values and tradition of helping those less fortunate. “You can’t take your whole life.

“When I grew up, my parents always said, ‘You have to give back, tzedakah, and that’s my way of giving back,” says Ash, unconditionally accepting one of her parents’ teachings.

There’s another reason as well.

“Just to go to a party to party, I do that all the time,” says Ash. “But to have a charity and party…”

That’s heaven.