High Stakes Among the Jet Set – Casino du Liban
I want to tell you about the famed Casino du Liban, which epitomized Lebanon as a destination for the international jet set in the 1960s. At the time, it was described by many as the loveliest casino in the world.
My father, Victor Moussa, was a brilliant business lawyer and the one who brought the Swedish company Ericsson to Lebanon to install the telephone switching system in the early 1950s. My father was the driving force behind the casino. He was the majority shareholder and chairman of the board of Société du Casino du Liban, the company which was granted a monopoly on gambling in Lebanon by a special law. My father’s vision for building the casino was to promote tourism in Lebanon, create a global image of Lebanon as a civilized place, and spur development and investment outside of Beirut. His model was the legendary Casino de Monte-Carlo in Monaco. Purely for the view, my father chose to build the casino on a vacant tract of land on a rocky point in the seaside village of Maamelteine, just north of Jounieh. He hired his architect friend Albert Monasseh to design the building. The buildings and terraces occupied 20,000 square meters. It was a grand day when the Casino du Liban opened on December 17, 1959.
I want to bring my mother, May Ghanem Moussa, into the picture. My mother, who was well known as a society hostess, handled all the public relations for the casino and served as the social director. She was the one who had the cruise liner Leonardo da Vinci and other cruise ships divert from Turkey to bring passengers to Lebanon and the casino and she was the one who recruited the international glitterati. Among some of the people to visit the Casino du Liban were: the Kennedys; American actors Hugh O’Brian, Gloria Swanson, and George Hamilton; French singers Charles Aznavour and Johnny Hallyday; Austrian actress Romy Schneider; and, King Hussein of Jordan. Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, even insisted on attending a show incognito at the casino during their August 1962 visit to Lebanon. A Miss Europe beauty pageant was held at the casino for five consecutive years, generating invaluable (and free) international publicity.
My aunt India, French rocker Johnny Hallyday, and my mother May Moussa, at the Casino.
All of the top shows in Paris were brought to perform at the casino’s dinner-theater, Salle des Ambassadeurs. In addition, the casino boasted a theater, Théâtre du Liban, and a nightclub, Baccarat. Théâtre du Liban had 1250 seats and the theater scene rivaled that of Opéra de Paris. During the Kennedy administration, the Department of State sponsored a tour of the Helen Hayes troupe, which performed five plays at Théâtre du Liban, including The Diary of Anne Frank and The Glass Menagerie. Baccarat was scintillatingly decorated with Baccarat crystal pillars and chandeliers and noted American columnist Elsa Maxwell referred to it as the “modern Baalbek.” Contemporary Lebanese statistics revealed that the casino was the number one tourist attraction in Lebanon, exceeding Baalbek!
My mother used to go to Europe to see the shows and if she liked them, she would book them for the casino. I particularly remember the shows of famed Russian-French producer Charley Henchis and Comédie-Française. The entertainment lost money but was subsidized by the gambling operations. My father reasoned that if the entertainment lured people into the casino, these people would then gamble.
The mores were very different then. Only guests in formal attire would be admitted into the casino. I do not know the reason, and it was perhaps by agreement with the government, but public employees could not enter the casino.
My father sold the Casino du Liban in 1965 to Intra Bank, then the largest financial institution in the Middle East. Intra Bank underwent a spectacular bankruptcy in 1966 and its assets were taken over by the government of Lebanon, which has owned Casino du Liban ever since. Due to the hardship of the civil war, the casino closed in 1985. After massive renovations, the Casino du Liban opened its doors again in 1996 and has operated ever since.
I am very proud of the role that my parents played in founding the Casino du Liban, an enduring symbol of Lebanon. Despite managing a casino, I recollect something that my father told me. He said, “Don’t ever gamble, because the casino will always win.”