Fantasy Island

The new owner of the famed Balinese Room has dreams that appeal to the Galveston loyalist in me. And the pirate. And the madam.

October 2002By Comments

BACK TO THE B-ROOM: The author (black) ties one on in August.
Photograph by Rocky Kneten

PEOPLE ASK WHEN I FIRST knew that I used to be the pirate Jean Lafitte. Winter of 1987, I tell them.

I was living in a one-room apartment in the pre-Civil War Hendley Building on the Strand, researching a book on Galveston. Walking along the harbor road one morning, I felt irresistibly drawn to the weed-cloaked ruins of La Maison Rouge, the fortress home where Lafitte lived from 1817 until 1821. At its peak, the pirate colony that he called Campeachy prospered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Anchored in the harbor were Yankee clippers from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that had come to take advantage of bargains on jewelry, spices, sugar, and the like. “Black ivory” liberated from Spanish slave ships sold wholesale for $1 a pound. Everyone made money: Ordinary deckhands pulled down $150 a month. Then it all ended.

Shivering under a cold mist, I considered the remains. I had been in that very spot several times before, not that there’s much to look at: a historical plaque, part of a red stone wall, some crumbling arches, steps leading up to nowhere. On that day, however, a particular stone near the top of the crumbling wall arrested my eye. It was the color of dried blood and slightly wider than the surrounding stones. Mortar had been chipped away so that it could be removed. Wrapping my arms around my chest, I listened to a voice with a soft French accent: This would have been Lafitte’s wine cellar. And a fine wine cellar it was!

Somehow I knew that behind that stone was a map with an X marking a spot on the west end of the Island, fourteen paces due north of a grove of trees—a spot much favored by the cannibalistic Karankawa. But of course! This is where I buried two sea chests of silver that I, er, privatized from a Spanish schooner in the winter of—what was it? Oh, yes, 1821. The Karankawa were perfect watchdogs for my treasure. The fiercest of the Texas coastal tribes, they took pleasure in roasting and eating slabs of flesh carved from the shoulders and thighs of still-living captives. They massacred an entire hunting party of my corsairs, those pesky Karankawa. For all I know, they ate that cross-eyed buccaneer from Portugal, the one whose body we never found. It’s funny, the things you remember.

Over the centuries, I’ve drifted back to Galveston many times as though in a fitful dream, flashing on odd fragments, stumbling over atavistic hazards, puzzling beside unmarked graves. Occasionally I recall bits and pieces of other incarnations, most of them less dramatic than my days as the swashbuckling Lafitte. At various times I’ve been a custom’s clerk, a baker, and once, a parrot owned by a quadroon princess with hazel eyes.

One hot morning last July, I again experienced that icy quiver. I had come to the Island to inspect the renovation of the long-dormant Balinese Room, which had recently been purchased by a Houston attorney named Scott Arnold. In the forties and early fifties, the Balinese was the swankiest, wickedest nightclub and casino on the Gulf Coast, the pride of the Sicilian-born crime bosses Rose (short for Rosario) and Sam Maceo. For three decades the Maceo brothers controlled the rackets and everything else in the Free State of Galveston. It all ended in 1957 when a posse of Texas Rangers stormed across the causeway with axes and injunctions.

I found a parking place directly in front of the Balinese, between an electrician’s truck and an SUV plastered with Bush-Cheney stickers. Opening a freshly painted front door, I walked into history. A whiskey bar doubled as a gift shop and museum, its walls papered with old photographs of stars that had played the Balinese: Sinatra, Frankie Laine, the Marx Brothers, Jayne Mansfield, Bob Hope, on and on. There were a couple of crap tables of recent vintage and two chalkboard ledgers that had survived from the Maceo era. One ledger posted daily odds on baseball games. I could still make out the faded names of old Texas League teams.

I recognized Arnold at once. Shaggy reddish hair, mustache, shifty eyes—he could pass for a gangster or a pirate. In fact, he’s a lawyer and a real estate speculator, so I wasn’t that far off. He had already spent more than half a million dollars fixing up the B-Room, he told me, and was looking for tenants to turn the old casino into a top-flight restaurant and nightclub (there are no takers as of yet). Arnold led me down a long hallway that will soon be lined with a hair salon, an Internet cafe, and a shop selling New Age trinkets (the Balinese is not a “room” in the literal sense but a series of rooms strung along a six-hundred-foot pier). We crossed a grand ballroom and nightclub that Arnold will rent out for special events. It looked much as it did in the forties: artificial palm trees, cheesy South Seas murals, the piano on which Duke Ellington played “Sophisticated Lady.” Ghosts whispered from the pilings. I’d never been in the Balinese before, at least not that I remembered, but I got the creepy feeling that I’d known the Maceos.

In one corner of the pier’s T-head, we came to an empty space that was the casino where Houston oilmen Diamond Jim West, Glenn McCarthy, and Jack Josey gambled for stakes approaching the national debt. Before Arnold restored the B-Room, the whole area was a wreck, but the damage was the work of a tropical storm, not the Rangers. The Rangers needed fifteen years to bust the joint. The Maceos were damned near bulletproof. Frank Biaggne, the clown who was sheriff of Galveston County from 1933 until 1957, swore that he had never raided the Balinese because it was a private club and he wasn’t a member. On rare occasions when raiders made it through the front door, the Maceos usually had been tipped in advance. Everyone assumed they had a private hotline to the governor’s office.

Seeing the layout firsthand, I appreciated the Rangers’ problem. To reach the casino, they had to pass the guard station, walk through a door past the hatcheck room, proceed down a long hallway through another door, across the ballroom, the bar, the dining room, and the kitchen, and finally march through a series of six heavy doors. Partway through their journey they would hear the bandleader announce, “And now, the Balinese Room takes great pleasure in presenting, in person, the Texas Rangers!” The band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas,” and patrons would stand, blocking the aisles. By the time the Rangers reached their target, it was gone. Slot machines had folded into the walls. Roulette wheels had vanished into air conditioning ducts. Crap tables were covered with tablecloths, candles, and silverware, and ladies and gents who moments earlier had implored dice to give baby a new pair of shoes sipped cocktails and chatted about the hardships of wartime rationing.

The déjá vu came back strong late that afternoon. After leaving the Balinese, I stopped for dinner at Willie G.’s. I was enjoying oysters and a passable fumé blanc when I noticed something funny about the sunset. Its violent billows of mauve and cream, sinking fast behind a drilling rig, reminded me of something . . . sensual. Then it hit me. I had known the Maceos! No, I’d never been to the Balinese: I went to my reward years before it opened. But in the twenties, when I was Madam Janet, the proprietor of the most exotic brothel on Postoffice Street, I socialized regularly with the Maceo boys. My French House catered to doughboys whose European adventures taught pleasures more stimulating than the missionary position. Let me tell you, honey, we raked in so much money that in 1928 I took my star hooker, a lovely Baylor co-ed named Stella, to the World Series in New York.

Rose was mean as a snake, but underneath he was a pussycat mumbling broken English. Sam was smooth as silk, the easiest touch in town. Need a favor? Ask Big Sam. He sent orphans to college and saved widows from eviction. Every summer, he paid for free concerts on the beach. Once a year, he paid for Monsignor O’Connell to visit his old mama in Ireland. What a showman! Two decades before anyone had heard of Las Vegas—or even the Balinese—Sam was booking into his Hollywood Dinner Club stars like Sophie Tucker, the Ritz Brothers, and Ray Noble’s band, with Glenn Miller playing first trombone. Oh, I almost forgot: The Hollywood’s resident dance instructor was a young hoofer named Fred Astaire.

Talk about your best of times! Everyone had work. Not a single Galveston bank closed during the Depression. While merchants across America struggled to stay in business, mistresses of high rollers shopped for Paris gowns on the Strand. And slot machines! The syndicate put slots in every barbershop, washateria, and cafe in the county. The little Alamo Café on Twenty-fourth pulled down $600 a week from its five slots at a time when, mind you, some families subsisted on $25. No one worried about crime, not with Rose’s Night Riders patrolling the streets. Sure, gangsters killed other gangsters, but it was just business.

Galveston was the most glamorous, most romantic place on earth. The beach was a year-round carnival, with roller coasters and Ferris wheels and countless bathing girl revues. The Boulevard glittered with nightlife: the Grotto (as the Balinese was called when I was Madam Janet), Murdoch’s Pier, the Crystal Place, the Garden of Tokio, where marathon dancers worked for cash prizes. The city erected a sixty-foot sign that spelled out, in three thousand electric lightbulbs, “Galveston, the Treasure Island of America.”

People say it was just the times, that it can’t happen again. But they don’t really know, do they?

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