By James Zug
April 2013 was another extraordinary month in the extraordinary life of Victor Elmaleh. The ninety-four year-old Elmaleh (pronounced El-Mali) went to work each weekday as the chairman of his real estate development firm. He played squash. He and his wife Sono Osato celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary with a private party and concert at their home on East 49th Street. His latest investment in the future of squash came into existence in Toronto—the world’s first four-glass wall doubles court. And he was presented U.S. Squash’s highest individual award, the President’s Cup, before the finals of the men’s World Doubles.
Milestones, small and great, have always marked the improbable life of Elmaleh. He was born in November 1918 in Mogador, Morocco, and named Victor because he was born two weeks after the Armistice that ended the First World War.
Young Victor spent his first six and a half years in Mogador (now known as Essaouira). His mother’s father was a rabbi who had emigrated from Russia to Palestine and then to Mogador and married Elmaleh’s grandmother. They had seven children; Elmaleh’s mother was the oldest. Elmaleh doesn’t remember much from his Moroccan childhood: conversing in French and Arabic (his grandmother only spoke Arabic) and kicking a soccer ball—he has a scar on his shin from an errant tackle. These days he can speak a few Arabic phrases with his driver, who is from Casablanca.
The rabbi moved to the U.S. in 1923 and in June 1925 Elmaleh followed. He lived on 62nd Street in Bensonhurst with his grandparents and aunts and uncles (his parents and siblings were in Morocco—he didn’t see his mother for three years at one point). He learned English at P.S. 48 and on the streets where he played a myriad of games including punch ball, association (tag football) and handball. He went to Edward B. Shallow junior high and New Utrecht high school, before matriculating at Brooklyn College where he majored in music, specifically classical piano.
In his third year of college, he suffered a ruptured appendix. As he recovered, he decided he wanted to leave Brooklyn, so he applied to transfer to Brown and University of Virginia. Brown didn’t want to give him credit for his years at Brooklyn College and UVA did, so he went to Charlottesville. Virginia didn’t have a music major, so he studied architecture instead. He played handball and was on the Cavalier tennis team. After graduation, he joined the army but got a severe case of jaundice and was mustered out in 1943. For the next five years he worked as an architect, eventually starting his own firm doing mostly industrial design for the government.
He also lived quite an exotic life for an architect. His wife Sono was a ballerina (with the Ballets Russe and then the American Ballet Theatre) and performed on Broadway, including the original Our Town. The Elmalehs were very well connected on both coasts. Sono danced in the only Broadway musical Elia Kazan directed, and she appeared in a Frank Sinatra film (The Kissing Bandit, 1947). While making the film in Hollywood, the Elmalehs (with their baby Niko) lived with Gene Kelly in his house in Beverly Hills, thus regularly hanging out with Chaplin, Garbo, Lana Turner. Elmaleh played in a regular Sunday volleyball game with Peter Lawford. It is pretty much the equivalent of living with George Clooney while your wife appears in a Justin Timberlake film. (In 1980 Knopf published Sono’s memoir, Distant Dances.)
In 1948 Elmaleh quit architecture and joined his father’s firm, Craig-Stanton, which exported Moroccan almonds and imported sugar, tires, and clothing to Morocco. They started an automobile franchise in Morocco, importing De Sotas, Jeeps and Volkswagens. In 1954 the Elmalehs introduced Volkswagen to the U.S and sold 1,600 the first year; in the next 37 years they sold more than two million in the Tri-State area. In 1975 Elmaleh formed World-Wide Holdings to invest in real estate. He has built thousands of apartments and many corporate buildings, including the 1989 behemoth Worldwide Plaza, the block-wide development between 8th and 9th Avenue and 49th and 50th Streets. His latest building is a 52-story $825 million development on 2nd Avenue and 57th. It is an ambitious project for anyone to take on, let alone a 94-year-old.
But that is the Elmaleh way—whatever he does, he does with gusto. In the 1970s he started painting. Primarily working in watercolor and collage, Elmaleh produced more than 4,000 abstract paintings. He showed his work in more than three dozen exhibitions and in 1987 David Godine published a monograph.
He loves music. He sits on many boards, sponsors television specials and hosts concerts. His latest effort is to mentor people who are at the same stage he was at when he was a young pianist at Brooklyn College in the late 1930s. Through the Concert Artist Guild, he pays for a studio recording and the printing of a thousand compact discs by an emerging pianist. In return, he only asks for a private concert at his home. So far a dozen artists have been blessed to join the Victor Elmaleh Collection. His watercolors adorn the discs.
But Elmaleh, the polymath, is more than a pianist (he still has a stand-up Yamaha in his office), painter, architect, businessman and weekend volleyball player to the stars. He is a court legend. He was a great tennis player, winning many senior age-group titles. He grew up playing handball, especially in the summers at Manhattan Beach where there were a hundred courts. In 1951 Elmaleh won the U.S. national handball doubles and lost in the finals of the singles. The tournaments were held on a special court at the City Athletic Club.
Instead of becoming a handball legend, Elmaleh literally never played the game again, for while at the CAC he saw squash.
Under the tutelage of the CAC’s legendary pro Lou Ballato, he started playing singles at the CAC, then at the North Shore Club in Bayside, Brooklyn, and in the late 1950s he joined the Heights Casino in Brooklyn. Elmaleh quickly became a top left-wall doubles player. He won the Heights Casino club doubles championship ten times. He partnered with Dave Johnson to take the 1963 Heights Casino open doubles tournament; when Johnson died two years later, the tournament was renamed after him. Elmaleh also won two William Whites, and once at Buffalo, Apawamis, Piping Rock, the Luckenbach at Nassau and Greenwich. He won the U.S. 50+ once.
The great coup of Elmaleh’s squash life was the late winter of 1968. He moved to the right wall and teamed up with a young Victor Niederhoffer. They lost 15-13 in the fifth in the finals of the Johnson Doubles. Three weeks later, they had a torrid weekend at the U.S. National doubles in St. Louis. In the course of thirty hours, the two Vics played four five-game matches and won them all. At age 49 years and four months, Elmaleh was the oldest man ever to win an open national title.
“49 Too Old for Squash? Don’t Tell Vic Elmaleh” ran the headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the next morning. “Jewish they might be, but they were the squash racquets doubles champions of all Christendom.”
It wasn’t always easy for Elmaleh in squash circles. He was fiercely competitive. “I never had a special ambition in my professional life, but I was ambitious about squash,” he wrote to me once years ago. “None of my squash friends or adversaries can quite reconcile the paintings with the Elmaleh they know on the court. Nor can I, for that matter—I guess squash takes all the competitiveness and the painting and business take what’s left over.” Many private clubs wouldn’t consider him for membership because he was Jewish, and for decades he was excluded from the cabal of New York WASPS that ran the game.
Recently, though, times have changed, people have passed from the scene and Elmaleh has become a tremendous supporter of squash. He has funded the Elmaleh Project, putting resources towards the doubles game. He has helped build two courts, one in Southampton, Long Island, and the other a space-age four-glass-waller in Toronto. He’s helped out at the Heights Casino. All this philanthropy, more than $1.3 million, has made Elmaleh one of the biggest benefactors in U.S. Squash history. Moreover, he is a quiet, avuncular mentor to many in the game. People regularly journey to his 18th floor aerie to have lunch and chat and strategize.
The best thing is that he still plays singles (his last doubles victory of note was in the pro-am at the Johnson, when at age 81 he won it with Gary Waite). He uses a doubles ball in a singles court. The only rule is that his opponent has to hit the ball near enough so he can get it without having to move too far. It makes it a real match. It is the only concession to age Victor Elmaleh will give on the court.