By Nancy Faber
August 11, 1980 12:00 PM

When Hamlet told Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” Shakespeare scholars say, he was really urging her to go to a brothel, not a convent. There was no such double-talk when San Francisco Judge Daniel Hanlon told Marlene Baldwin, 40, the same thing. “I suggest Miss Baldwin find her way to the right nunnery,” he said from the bench, “or she could end up in state prison.” “Brandy” Baldwin has long been one of San Francisco’s best-known brothel keepers. With her fourth conviction for offenses related to prostitution last month, she seemed headed inevitably for the big house. While waiting to make bail, however, Baldwin came in contact with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a 339-year-old Catholic order devoted to helping women in trouble. After they put in a good word with Judge Hanlon, Brandy Baldwin found herself doing an unexpected penance—a 90-day sentence at Gracenter, a home run by the sisters. “Has Brandy put on a habit yet?” joked one reporter. “Well, she has a habit,” answered Sister Mary Columba, administrator of the convent, “but she’s trying to break it here.”

A Mormon from Boise, Idaho, Baldwin was a computer programmer before she decided to try a more ancient profession in the 1960s. As a madam, she closed four establishments after police raids—and was almost killed when she fell from a third-floor window during a 1973 arrest. Soon after, she lost custody of her daughter, now 13, from a marriage that had ended in divorce. She claims the injuries from the accident robbed her of any ability to feel sex; in any case, her health was a crucial factor in the judge’s decision to remand her to the care of the nuns.

In the convent Brandy’s life has been transformed—at least for now. She rises every morning at 6:30, does household chores, then leaves at 9 for a small office she rents in nearby Marin County, where she’s writing a book. “The nuns call me periodically during the day to see if I’m there,” she smiles. Curfew at the center is early evening, except on Friday and Saturday, when it’s 10 p.m. for everyone except newcomers like Brandy. “I tried to watch Dallas last Friday,” she laments, “but Sister Bernardine came in and said, ‘It’s after 10; you’ll have to turn it off.’ ” Still, both the madam and the sisters say the experiment is working. “I’m their first felon,” Brandy notes. “I’ve wrecked my life, but now I’m climbing out of the snake pit.” Sister Columba seems pleased with her guest’s progress. “She’s been very helpful and agreeable,” says the nun. “I wouldn’t mind having a whole houseful of Marlenes.”