Salvatore "Sam" Maceo (March 1, 1894- April 16, 1951) also known as "Velvet Glove", was a businessman, community leader, and organized crime boss in Galveston, Texas. He and his brother Rosario Maceo owned numerous restaurant and casino venues including the now-vanished Hollywood Dinner Club and the Balinese Room. Sam's smooth style and ability to influence people were legendary. He was able to wield influence comparable to an elected official and he held relationships with celebrities and politicians throughout Texas and the United States. During his lifetime he and his island home were known nationwide. The culture and economy Sam and the Maceo syndicate helped create on the island engendered the nickname "Free State of Galveston." He was also involved in the development of the Las Vegas Strip during the late 1940s, particularly the establishment of the Desert Inn.
Maceo was born in Palermo, Sicily to Vito Maceo and Angelina Sansone in 1894. In 1901 the Maceo family immigrated to Louisiana. He and his brother Rosario were trained as barbers and moved to Galveston in 1910.
During Prohibition the Maceo brothers gradually became serious bootleggers. They allied themselves with the Beach Gang and invested in the gang's gambling operations. Eventually opening the Hollywood Dinner Club, the Gulf coast's most elegant night club at the time. Sam's smooth personality quickly made him the face of the nightclub. He is said to have developed his style and interpersonal skills by modeling Quinn's facility in dealing with politicians.
Fortuitous arrests of gang leaders in Galveston allowed the brothers to gain control of the local underworld. The Maceo's gradually invested in numerous clubs and other entertainment ventures in the city involving gambling and bootlegging. Their other big venture, besides the Hollywood, was a club and casino called Maceo's Grotto (later renamed the Balinese Room) which opened in 1929. The Maceos controlled most of the gambling, prostitution, and other vice on the island. Their wealth and Sam's ability to deal with influential figures allowed him to exert increasing influence over other businesses and the government of the island.
The Maceo syndicate
The syndicate created by the Maceos quickly became a business empire. Through business dealings and partnerships Sam Maceo was able to earn millions for the syndicate. The headquarters of the Maceo syndicate was the Turf Athletic Club. In addition to gymnasium and steam room facilities the club contained a bookmaking parlor for baseball and horse race betting as well as two clubs, the Studio Lounge and the Western Room. The business empire included dozens of bookmaking parlors, casinos, and clubs throughout the island and Galveston County, particularly Kemah and Dickinson. Additionally the Maceos came to dominate vice and narcotics as far north as Dallas.
The crown jewel of the Maceo empire was the Hollywood Dinner Club. Once the Hollywood was shut down by the Texas Rangers in 1939 the Balinese Room became the premiere club in the syndicate's holdings. Other properties held by the Maceos included the Moulin Rouge, Murdoch's Bingo, and the Pleasure Pier.
Investments in oil speculation helped to diversify the Maceo's portfolio and add to their wealth leading to the creation of Gulf Oil Properties. Other Maceo corporate holdings included Maceo and Company, Dickinson Equipment, Murdoch Bathhouse Company Inc., Gulf Coast Properties Inc., Gulf Entertainment places, and the Galveston Novelty Company.
Maceo cultivated relationships with business leaders throughout Galveston including William L. Moody, head of one Galveston's most prominent families. Over the years Sam was able to secure substantial financing from Moody's American National Insurance Company (ANICO) and many other institutions. Maceo established strong relationships with other leading families such as the Sealys and the Kempners. Major legitimate businesses on the island such as banking and hotels were, in fact, able to thrive in large part because of the illegal activities.
It would be a mistake to think that the Maceo's owned all the major vice businesses on the island. Though dominant figures in many ways, they generally did not attempt to prevent others from prospering so long as it did not interfere with their businesses. Nevertheless, in the view of many the Maceos ran the island for three decades.
Maceo married Jessica McBride in Galveston. He later remarried to Edna Marie Sedgwick, a ballet dancer from Rhode Island in 1941. Sam and Edna had three children, Sam Jr., Edward, and Sedgie. Reports indicate that Edna was never really accepted by Galveston society. Following Sam's death Edna four years later married Henry Plitt and we moved to New Orleans and later to NYC in 1958.
The Fertitta family and the Maceo family considered each other kin because of the marriage of Joseph Frances Fertitta to Sam's sister Olivia Maceo. The Fertitta's became involved in the Maceo businesses due to this relationship.
In the business world, Sam Maceo was known as being pleasant and persuasive. He was influential with politicians, business leaders, and Hollywood celebrities alike.
The general public saw Maceo as a kind, generous person who genuinely cared for the Galveston community. Sam was known for favoring local companies when hiring contractors for the syndicate. He donated heavily to the church and to local charities. According to one story, a local automobile dealer, on the edge of bankruptcy, fortuitously managed to sell a fleet of cars to all of the priests in the city, paid for by Sam Maceo. Another account says that when Maceo discovered that a local black church could not afford a new roof, a work crew soon appeared free of charge to do the work.
In 1937, federal charges were filed against Sam Maceo who was accused of being the mastermind of a nationwide narcotics trafficking scheme. Maceo was released on bail and fought extradition to New York. Ultimately he was acquitted in 1942. There was a great deal of speculation in the Galveston community as to whether Maceo was framed including speculation that the Moody family was involved.
Though the Maceo-owned clubs were raided numerous times the raids were rarely successful (with the important exception of the Hollywood Dinner Club being closed) and the Maceos were able to carry on their business throughout their careers.
End of an era
The heyday of the Free State was over by the 1940s. Because of conflicts with the United States Treasury, the Hollywood Dinner Club was shut down in the late 1930s. The local clubs found it increasingly difficult to attract major entertainment figures. Gambling had been legalized in Nevada in 1931 and this distinct advantage over Galveston gradually lured mob figures such as New York City's Bugsy Siegel to Las Vegas. The competition created by the up-and-coming entertainment center in the desert substantially challenged the island on the Gulf.
By the late 1940s corruption at the Texas state and county level was in decline. As investigation of the Maceo activities became more serious, the Maceos began plans to move their empire to Nevada. Sam Maceo became a major investor in the Desert Inn, which opened in 1950, the largest and most elaborate casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip at the time. Moe Dalitz, who opened the Desert Inn, and Sam had long been allies and business partners, and financing of the Las Vegas project was largely facilitated by the Maceos and Moodys through the ANICO company (the company is known to have lent millions to known mob figures). Sam and Rosario Maceo transferred controlling interest of most of their Galveston empire to a new group dominated by the Fertitta family with investments coming from business interests around the island. The Fertitta group, however, never wielded the influence that the Maceos had.
Sam Maceo died of cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, just after the opening of the Desert Inn. His death made national obituary news. Galveston's wide-open era ended a few years after Maceo's death when authorities raided the island's gambling establishments. The Balinese Room continued to operate as a restaurant until 2008, when it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Ike.