1950s Galveston: Easy on gamblers, tough on reporters

Henry Suydam, Life magazine Dallas bureau chief, and his lawyer. (The Galveston Daily News)

Henry Suydam, Life magazine Dallas bureau chief, and his lawyer. (The Galveston Daily News)

In the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 5, 1955, two journalists working for Life magazine hid in the shadows outside the Turf Athletic Club, a well-known Galveston gambling den owned by Vic and Anthony Fertitta. They were working on an article about the island’s reputation as “the last sin city.” A photo of the infamous club would be the perfect capstone to the story.

But the doorman spotted them, and thinking they might be robbers casing the joint, he alerted Anthony Fertitta. Once they realized they’d been “made,” Henry Suydam, Life’s Dallas bureau chief, and photographer Joe Scherschel, ran—with Fertitta not far behind. The journalists ducked into a nearby alley, scrambled into their waiting car—a green station wagon—and headed for the Hotel Galvez.

Scherschel went up to their room with the camera equipment. Fertitta caught up with Suydam in the lobby and demanded to know who he was. When the desk clerk identified the men as reporters, Fertitta slapped Suydam across the face.

“I am a member of the Greater Galveston Beach Association and for the past four years we have been asking Life to send reporters down here and cover some of our big events, but they never have,” Suydam later recalled Fertitta telling him. “And now you come sneaking around.”

Suydam said Fertitta told him he would have let the men take pictures, if they’d just asked. Then Fertitta apologized for hitting him, shook Suydam’s hand, and gave him a $20 bill. He also tipped the desk clerk and the switchboard operator $5 each and apologized for causing a disturbance. When Suydam wouldn’t take the money, Fertitta left it in an envelope for the hotel manager.

Later that day, Fertitta and his attorneys met with Galveston Mayor George Roy Clough, City Attorney James Phipps, the two Galvez employees who witnessed the incident, and the hotel’s lawyers. On Saturday, Life’s publisher, Andrew Heiskell, wired Clough, Phipps, District Attorney Marsene Johnson Jr., and Texas Gov. Allan Shivers to demand action about the interference with “the freedom of the press.” Johnson wired back to say Suydam had left the island without filing a police report, the first step toward any type of prosecution.

The next day, newspapers across the state were filled with stories about the incident, not exactly the kind of press the Greater Galveston Beach Association wanted.

On Monday, flanked by his Houston attorney, Suydam came back to Galveston to file charges against Fertitta. Judge James L. McKenna held a hearing on the incident immediately. Fertitta didn’t dispute what happened, although he said he didn’t hit Suydam hard. McKenna found him guilty of simple assault and fined him $25.

After the verdict, Fertitta shook hands with Suydam and his lawyer. Apparently, there were no hard feelings, although that might not have remained true after Life published Suydam’s story. Thanks to Google and online archives, you can read it here. (Check out the preview below, and note the picture of Suydam with a bruised cheek, allegedly from his altercation with Fertitta.)

Life magazine article about Galveston in 1955.

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