Previously, I have written about a couple of grand old hotels: the Flagship in Galveston, and the Shamrock Hilton in Houston. Thinking it over, I really should write about one more, old lost Texas hotel, the Jack Tar of Galveston. Sadly, all three are gone now.
Where the Shamrock was a giant relic of a bygone generation and the Flagship was a grand lady killed before her time by a hurricane, the Jack Tar, at least when I ran her, was a wild old drunk with the delirium tremens. She had endured her share of hurricanes, a memorable fire, and far too many years where owners didn’t put enough of the profits back into maintenance. If there is a heaven for hotels, then the old Jack slid through the pearly gates dead broke, battered, bruised, singed, and screaming, “What a ride!”
There are a thousand stories about the old Jack Tar. The Texas Rangers took four rooms and had a combination stake-out and drunken party, a desperate owner ignited a dozen fire bombs for the insurance money, the Ku Klux Klan objected to the cooks in the restaurant, and the Bandido Motorcycle Gang tried to take over the bar—these stories come to mind—and these were events just during the years I ran her. I will never forget standing in the giant ballroom and watching through the huge plate glass windows as a hurricane whipped the Gulf of Mexico into a white-capped frenzy. And my nightmares will never stop replaying the memory of when the 70 mph winds of that hurricane blasted a seagull right through that window directly at me.
The hotel was a relic of a forgotten time, and so was one of our tenants. Herbert Y. Cartwright had been mayor of the island during its rip-roaring gambling days. His actions made headlines across Texas and he was profiled In Time Magazine, but to the town, he was “Thanks a Million, Cartwright.” He was notorious, at least until the late 1970’s, when he was mostly forgotten and lived alone in one of the older rooms of the hotel. Penniless, his bills were paid by a few local businessmen who were still grateful.
The Mayor knew a few stories about the wilder days, when gambling, prostitution, and even liquor by the drink were all illegal throughout the state, but an ongoing and open secret on Galveston Island. Mayor Cartwright fought the state police for years and got away with it. Occasionally, I would take a “surplus” bottle of wine to the mayor and listen to his stories.
The Balinese Room was a famous nightclub built on the end of a pier extending out over the Gulf of Mexico. Besides good liquor, a great meal, and entertainment from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, or the Marx Brothers, you could also engage in a little illicit gambling. For 64 nights in a row, the Texas Rangers ran down that impossibly long hall connecting the street with the nightclub, only to find that by the time they reached their goal, not only had all the gambling paraphernalia been hidden in secret compartments, but all the guests would stand and sing as the band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas.”
According to Mayor Cartwright, when the Lipton Tea Company sent a buyer to Houston to purchase land for a new site, he was lured to Galveston by the Mayor and a few friends. By the time he was wined, dined, (and supposedly bedded) for a few days, he had signed a contract to build the new plant in Galveston. And it is still there.
Eventually, the pressure from the state politicians got to be too much: a political embarrassment in Austin, Galveston had to be closed down. The Texas Rangers pushed the County Sheriff until he was shocked (Shocked!) to discover that the town he had grown up in had rampant, wide open gambling and prostitution. It took a while, but eventually, the gambling dens were closed and the prostitutes were driven out of the houses and back into the streets. While no one even tried to stop the liquor, the golden age of Galveston was over.
Mayor Cartwright told me about the aftermath of the closures. Someone had to take the blame, so the Texas Legislature had a Senatorial Hearing to investigate the island’s corruption. Even though most of the senators could have testified firsthand about the situation, they subpoenaed Mayor Cartwright. Under oath, he was asked to explain why the town had never shut down the vice.
“Didn’t you know that Galveston had whorehouses and casinos?” asked the senator.
“Of course I did,” Cartwright answered. “I’m the mayor.”
“Then why didn’t you stop it?”
Mayor Cartwright’s answer made the front page of every newspaper in Texas. Hell, it may have been the start of the Libertarian Political Party in Texas.
“God knew what was happening in Galveston, “Mayor Cartwright answered. “If he didn’t want to shut it down, why should I try?”