• Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

SF’s ‘Cable Car Nympho’ Story Isn’t What You Think

ByRandall B. Phelps

Feb 4, 2022

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Gloria Sykes, the San Francisco cable car nymphomaniac.

The story is rarely more than a few lines, usually peppered with cheeky puns or sly asides. The busty blonde was on a nighttime excursion up the city’s famous hills when her cable car crashed. Pretty Gloria went headfirst into a pole, turning her ordinary brain into an action-obsessed mind. So Gloria took her case to court, suing the city of San Francisco for turning her into a sex demon. She won, taking home a $50,000 payout.

It’s a classic SF-only story, a subject of mirth and mockery from the day it happened. But, like many tales of years past, the reality of Gloria’s suffering was far darker than the fall to which she was reduced.


Gloria Sykes was born in Michigan in 1941. She was the eldest of seven children, and her strict parents had “not much love for children”, a psychiatrist would later testify. She was a good student and was admitted to the University of Michigan, where she attended and enjoyed college life like any ordinary 20-year-old.

At 23, she took the plunge to San Francisco, where she had landed a job as a dance instructor. Two weeks into her new life in California, she went for an after-dinner cable car ride at Fisherman’s Wharf. The cable car was traveling up Chestnut Street when the right of way lost the underground cable. The car began to roll back as passengers screamed and tried to free themselves.

“I kept yelling, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic,’ but no one was listening,” Gloria told the San Francisco Examiner the day after the crash. “It reminded me of being in a submarine that was starting to sink and you couldn’t get out.”

The cable car accident on Hyde and Chestnut which injured Gloria Sykes in September 1964.

Art Frisch / Chronicle of San Francisco

As the runaway cable car descended towards the bay, an automatic locking mechanism triggered, causing the car to come to a violent stop. The passengers crashed into the seats and fell into the street. “It was like we hit an embankment,” Gloria said. “I don’t remember anything like that.” “I breached a steel pole,” she added. Gloria, along with eight other people, were taken to hospital. She was treated for a head injury and released. “I was pretty much the only one who was calm through it all,” she said. “But then I became hysterical.”

Gloria’s life would never be the same again.

In March 1970, six years after the accident, Gloria sued the city of San Francisco and Muni. She demanded $500,000 in damages for, as the examiner put it, “an insatiable desire for sex since she was injured.”

“The extreme desire for intercourse” that “could be triggered by the mere meeting of the eyes while passing down a street” was ruining her life, Gloria’s attorney Marvin Lewis told reporters.

It was, of course, an instant media sensation. She was branded in the headlines as a “nymphomane” and daily coverage of the trial harassed her so much that she stopped going to court altogether.

The trial was a parade of sexual shame the city has rarely seen. The names of dozens of men she had relationships with were read into the filing, apparently for the sole purpose of giving the Bay Area something to talk about. An IBM engineer in San Jose joked on the stand that he had tried to sleep with her a few years before, but she only agreed to take him back after the accident. Despite the fact that he described her as “distressed, very emotional and lonely”, he still slept with her.

A former employer said he fired Gloria after three months, cruelly calling her a “ding-a-ling” under oath. And city attorneys blamed Gloria’s obsession on the fact that she started taking birth control pills in 1965, a decision that led to “promiscuity and unnatural sexual urges”.

The story of Gloria’s camp was much darker. Several doctors and psychiatrists who treated her said she showed signs of “traumatic neurosis” after the accident – ​​what today we would probably call post-traumatic stress disorder. She was constantly under medical supervision for heart disease, kidney infections, asthma, and a host of other physical issues. It was not known how many were psychosomatic. Lewis told the jury that Gloria struggled to cope with the impact of being allegedly physically and sexually abused as a child. His many sexual encounters made him hate himself. “I feel like trash,” she wrote in her diary.

When Lewis asked him on the stand, “Don’t you think there’s something left to live for?” Gloria shook her head.

In April 1970, a jury of eight women and four men voted to award Gloria $50,000 in damages. A female juror cried as the decision was read. She told the media that she tried to convince her fellow jurors to give Gloria at least $300,000. “My conscience is not well,” she said. “I think the girl has been in pain for a long time and needs to be taken care of.”

Remarkably, Gloria remained in the Bay Area after the trauma of her trial. She married a 23-year-old man in San Francisco in 1976, and state records show she lived in California until the 1980s.

A Powell-Hyde cable car climbs a hill in San Francisco with Alcatraz Island in the background.

A Powell-Hyde cable car climbs a hill in San Francisco with Alcatraz Island in the background.

bluejayphoto/Getty Images

In 2007, local TV station KPIX tracked her down, living in the Midwest again. Gloria was then a resident of an assisted living facility. She said she traveled after leaving the Bay Area, but declined to talk more about her life.

In 2015, she became the subject of a “racy and riotous” musical titled “The Cable Car Nymphomaniac”. In promotional photos, fictional Gloria Sykes is cheeky and sexy, boldly stepping forward in the sexual revolution. It’s wishful thinking, perhaps.

As for Gloria herself, no one has heard from her publicly since 2007. She disappeared from view, something she so desperately wanted half a century ago.

“My wound is so deep,” she told reporters after her trial. “I just want to go to oblivion where no one knows who I am.”