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Victor Elmaleh

Birthplace: Essaouira, Essaouira, Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz, Morocco
Death: November 17, 2014 (95)
New York, New York County, NY, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Raphael Haïm Elmaleh and Sarah Elmaleh
Husband of Sono Elmaleh
Father of Private and Private
Brother of Helene Kossoff; Jacques Elmaleh; Leonard Elmaleh; Gloria Miriam Fultz; Stanley Elmaleh and 1 other

Managed by: Pam Karp
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Victor Elmaleh

Victor Elmaleh (pronounced el-MAHL-ay; November 27, 1918 – November 17, 2014) was a Moroccan-born American businessman. He was born in Mogador, now Essaouira, Morocco, the oldest of six brothers. He was the first person to import Volkswagens to the USA. As The New York Times said in his obituary, "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."

Early life

Victor Elmaleh was Jewish, and was born in Mogador, now Essaouira, Morocco. He was the eldest of six brothers. His surname was an Arabic-Moroccan name that his Sephardic Jewish forebears had adopted after running away from the Spanish Inquisition to Morocco.

He came to the United States in 1925, and grew up in Bensonhurst and Borough Park in Brooklyn. He attended P.S. 48, and later majored in music at Brooklyn College. He then attended the University of Virginia.

He won the one-wall handball national doubles championship in 1951. At 49, he and Victor Niederhoffer won the national doubles championship.


Victor Elmaleh was born in Mogador, now Essaouira, Morocco, on Nov. 27, 1918, the oldest of six brothers. Besides his sons Niko and Antonio, Mr. Elmaleh, who had homes in Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, on Long Island, is survived by his wife; two brothers, Leonard and Stanley; and four grandchildren.

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.

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.”


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Victor Elmaleh's Timeline

November 27, 1918
Essaouira, Essaouira, Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz, Morocco
November 17, 2014
Age 95
New York, New York County, NY, United States