Victor Elmaleh (1918-2014)

Chairman and founding partner Victor Elmaleh was personally engaged in all of World Wide Group’s activities for more than 60 years. A renaissance man with many talents and interests, he brought his unique vision to the company’s endeavors.

Obituary from The New York Times:

“One translation of Victor Elmaleh’s Arabic last name is “the master,” and he lived up to it. He imported the first Volkswagens to the United States. He developed $7 billion worth of real estate. He painted more than 4,000 watercolors, most of them small-scale, which were shown in many gallery exhibitions. He won national championships in handball and squash and a squash tournament at 81.

One of Mr. Elmaleh’s many charities, the Concert Artists Guild, sponsors a competition for young musicians; the winner’s only obligation has been to play a private concert in Mr. Elmaleh’s home. He married a beautiful and celebrated ballerina, who went on to play “Miss Turnstiles” in the original 1944 production of the Broadway classic “On the Town.”

Mr. Elmaleh’s vastly accomplished life ended on Monday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, his son Niko said. He was 95.

Again and again, Mr. Elmaleh (pronounced el-MAHL-ay) surmounted tough challenges. When he and his partners became the first distributors of Volkswagens in the United States in 1954, they had to persuade American dealers to stock a product from Germany, which had been their country’s enemy only nine years earlier. He enlisted bicycle shops and used-car lots to sell the cars, to make up for the reluctance of established dealers.

Another problem was the Volkswagen’s squat, buglike look. ‘It was a pretty ugly little car,’ Mr. Elmaleh said in a 2011 oral history. The solution was to trumpet its distinctiveness. “Think small” was the slogan the ad agency came up with.

The partners, who also handled Porsches, Audis and other brands, sold some two million cars before selling the business in the mid-1980s.

Under the name World Wide Group, Mr. Elmaleh and his partners bought buildings and built new ones. They pounced on sites from which others shied away, building Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue at 50th Street in Manhattan, the site of the old Madison Square Garden, when the area was still tawdry; and developing the first building in the industrial section of Long Island City in Queens, which became known as Queens West. The group also made one of the first conversions of an office building on Wall Street for residential use.

Victor Elmaleh was born in Mogador, now Essaouira, Morocco, on Nov. 27, 1918, the oldest of six brothers. Elmaleh was an Arabic-Moroccan name that his Sephardic Jewish ancestors had acquired after fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition to Morocco, then a French colony. The name Victor was chosen to commemorate the victory of France and its allies in World War I.

He was brought to Brooklyn in 1925 to join family members who had already established roots there. Later that year his parents moved back to Morocco, but he stayed behind with relatives because he wanted to attend school in New York. ‘I’ve never quite understood how they let a 7-year-old make such a decision,’ he said in the oral history.

Growing up in the Bensonhurst and Borough Park sections of Brooklyn, Mr. Elmaleh came to love playing one-wall handball. He won the game’s national doubles championship in 1951. That led him to four-wall handball, which led to squash. At 49, he teamed with the squash legend Victor Niederhoffer to win the national doubles championship. At 81, he and a partner beat players a quarter their age to win a pro-am event.

Mr. Elmaleh’s first ambition was to be a concert pianist, and he majored in music at Brooklyn College. Then a ruptured appendix nearly killed him. Wanting a change of scenery, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, which offered few courses in music, so he majored in architecture. At Virginia he became reacquainted with Arthur Stanton, whom he had known in Brooklyn. Mr. Stanton and his brother, Frank (not the broadcasting executive), later joined Mr. Elmaleh and members of his family in many business ventures.

Mr. Elmaleh’s first job after graduating was as a draftsman for Norman Bel Geddes, a theatrical and industrial designer whom The New York Times once called the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century. Mr. Elmaleh was drafted into the Army but was discharged after developing jaundice. When he returned to New York, he helped to start an architecture firm.

In 1941 he met Sono Osato, who had once been the youngest member of the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Soon inseparable, they made plans to marry in Chicago, a city to which the federal government had confined her father, who was Japanese, rather than putting him in an internment camp.

But Mr. Elmaleh’s own father, Raphael, was against the marriage, vehemently so, and threatened to commit suicide if his son married outside his faith. Dutifully but reluctantly, Victor agreed not to marry Ms. Osato, a decision, he said in the oral history, that “certainly didn’t make my in-laws happy or very friendly to me from that point on.” They started living together in New York, however, and ultimately put love ahead of paternal approval. ‘We just decided to get married,’ Mr. Elmaleh said. The ceremony took place at City Hall in 1943. Ms. Osato’s mother attended.

Ms. Osato made more money as a performer than Mr. Elmaleh did as an architect, but with children coming into the picture she wanted to devote all her time to her family, she wrote in a 1980 memoir, “Distant Dances.” So Mr. Elmaleh reluctantly gave up architecture to join his family’s export-import business, which had offices in Morocco and New York.

The company exported Moroccan dates while importing goods like tires and clothing. At one point it was the biggest importer of Cuban sugar into Morocco. It was in Morocco that the company’s collaboration with Volkswagen began, before expanding to the United States.

Besides his son Niko, Mr. Elmaleh, who had homes in Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, on Long Island, is survived by his wife; another son, Antonio; two brothers, Leonard and Stanley; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Elmaleh started painting in the 1970s, working mainly in watercolor and collage on surfaces smaller — sometimes much smaller — than a page in a desk dictionary. ‘The more you look, the larger these works become,’ the art critic Grace Glueck wrote in The Times in 1984.

As he moved into his 90s, Mr. Elmaleh devised rules to allow him to play squash without moving too much. ‘I get a good workout,” he said in the oral history, “and I wind up beating almost everybody I play.’”

“For us, great architecture is about integrating functionality with beautiful design.”

{1} Mr. Elmaleh has produced over 3,500 watercolors and collages, which have been celebrated in over 35 exhibitions and multiple publications.
{2} In honor of his wife, Sono Osato, a former ballerina, Mr. Elmaleh established and endowed The Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies.
{3} A personal photo of Frank Stanton, Victor Elmaleh, and Arthur Stanton.