Ann Leslie "A Month in the Life of … the Bahamas"

Queen, 25 Oct. 1967, pp. 62- 67

It is ten o'clock one morning and I find myself drinking rum and Coke in the sumptuous sitting room of a DC3 converted at the cost of £35,000…

It has the Roberts Realty emblem emblazoned on its tail and a Roberts Realty air-hostess in her Roberts Realty uniform tittupping about in the white and gold interior. A group of prospective buyers, salesmen, myself and a man called Sam are going along to see Great Harbour Cay, in the Berry Islands, which is now owned by-—well, of course-—Roberts Realty.

Sam is a gentleman of Levantine appearance, gold cuff-links and cigar, who lives in Miami on Biscayne Bay and is here as a friend of Lou. Lou is Lou Chesler, a huge, flamboyant Canadian financier whose career in Florida real estate has been spectacular.

He was also involved with the Grand Bahama Development Company until Wallace Groves bought him out, and he was variously accused of introducing to the Bahamian gambling scene such notorious/ hoodlums as Meyer Lansky and Dino Cellini.

Be that as it may, Chesler's real estate operations have proved profitable for all concerned and it is highly unlikely that Great Harbour Cay will be an exception.
Sam's come to look around, and right now he's not enjoying himself. He has an ulcer and he asks the Roberts Realty hostess for some milk. The Roberts Realty varnish on her smile cracks a little: 'Milk? Oh, sir, I'm so very sorry we don't have any milk. Some gin and tonic? Vodka and lime?' Sam mutters 'Jeez' and falls asleep. He alone among us is not over-impressed by the sumptuous setting, the islands slipping away under us.

We arrive on the runway which stretches past the Tamboo Club and reception center for Roberts Realty clients. There is practically nothing else on the development at the moment, but all the buildings are to be constructed in the same curious candle-snuffer style.

We drive around the island: 'That's where the eighteen-hole golf course is going to be. Five of the fairways face on to 2,000 feet of beach property … There's 100 acres set aside for hotels, golf course and so on. 1,700 single-family residences round about here, 3,400 multi-family residences located here, two school sites here …'

'Listen, this island has everything. Lou knows what he's doing. It's just the most beautiful island in the world. I'm not exaggerating. We don't have to sell this land, we just have to bring people here and it sells itself!'

Bill Wright, who comes from Peterborough, is already installed on the island to supervise the work. We go to his house to have drinks. The house is beautiful, but Sam thinks Miami does things better: 'I'm telling you, I've got a bar in Biscayne Bay which is the size of this whole house!'

Sam comes alive when the talk turns to the absent but dearly-beloved Lou: 'I'm not exaggerating! I lost $1,000,000 one night to Lou when I was gambling. He's just the best gambler in the world!'

'Now, I'm telling you I'm the best salesman in the world, and Lou could sell my shoes right off my feet and I wouldn't know it. That man's got real class!'

But the one thing the gambling Lou is not selling is gambling. 'Great Harbour Cay is seventy-two miles from Freeport and about the same from Nassau. We want this to be an exclusive family type development. If they want to gamble they can fly to the casinos:

Lots on the island will cost from between £ 1,071 to £ 14,286 per acre or three-quarters-of-an-acre lot. Beach-front property will average £ 70 a front foot and the development, which will take about three years to complete, is to cost an estimated £ 17,000,000.

We have lunch of locally-caught lobster. 'I'm not exaggerating! This is the best food you'll get in the Bahamas!'

We whip through Bullocks Harbour, the tiny settlement mostly composed of fishermen and a disproportionately large number of bars. 'Do we own this, Bill? No, I thought not. The people in the Berry Islands, Ann, are known to be among the nicest in the Bahamas. I'm not exaggerating!'

For land that sells itself, it gets an extraordinary amount of help from the loyal henchmen of Roberts Realty. So it is with some exhaustion that we pile back into the DC3 for the flight back to Nassau.

A German couple have survived the entire day of salesman's poetry without a smile. On the other hand, a woman who arrived grim-faced, in unsuitable brown silk, high heels, stockings and hat complete with veil is now bare-footed, covered in sand, her hat full of sea-water and prattling happily: 'My children, well they'll just love this darling, darling place. They'll just love to water-ski in the winter and snow-ski in the spring. Why, right now they're in Aspen, Colorado, ski-ing. I'm going right there to join them and tell them all about it …'

The salesman nods kindly. Clearly, that one has been rung up on the cash register. Only Sam remains unimpressed and glum. A we wait for take-off, he looks out across the shimmering run-way, the palms and scrub-covered landscape, and says: 'Reminds me of one of those movies, you know, where everyone is running away from this outpost in the African jungle.'

'Aw, come off it, Sam. You trying to ruin my pitch? Miami was a swamp once.'

A Rolls-Royce is about to be passed by a big American car on a dual carriageway in Freeport, Grand Bahama …

Jack Hayward, vice president of the Port Authority, leans out of the Rolls' button-operated window and shouts: 'Hey, Ron, come and have dinner with us tonight at El Casino!'

'Can't! Sorry, old chap. My night for the "skim" you know!'

Howls of laughter as the cars part ways. Ron Goulding is another member of the Port Authority. Mafia jokes are whizzing around Freeport like shotgun pellets these days.

In fact, if in Grand Bahama you don't know that the 'skim' is a way of removing money from the takings of gambling casinos; that Meyer Lansky is a dubious gentleman operating in Miami; that 'Uncle Dino' is Dino Cellini, expelled as an undesirable from Britain and the Bahamas; and that the phrase 'consultant fees' is liable to get you funny looks-—well, you must have been living in a cave for the past few months.

There is a stunning simplicity in the attitudes of many making their pile in Freeport—a conviction that making money is patriotic in itself, and that anything that seeks to hamper this activity can be considered in some way subversive to the rules of the place.

The fact that most of the people thinking this way are American and not British is just part of the nuttiness of this most nutty island in the whole chain.

Freeport is a huge, brass-tongued assault/ on the mind and the senses with about as much good taste about it as a dance-hall girl in a Wild West saloon. It is ugly and repellant and at the same time strangely exhilarating.

Born out of a large, graceless island of about 400 square miles, it was cradled in a most extraordinary agreement between the Bahamian Government and Wallace Groves, a sixty-five-year-old American financier. This was known as the Hawksbill Creek Act of 1955, under which 50,000 acres were sold to Groves' Port Authority for £1 an acre. Subsequent purchases brought the total area up to 211 square miles. Freeport was to be guaranteed exemption from any sort of Bahamian taxes until 1990 and from customs and import duties on business materials until 2054. Sir Stafford Sands was Groves' lawyer and a member of the Government's Executive Council.

Earlier this year, the largest casino in the Western hemisphere was opened: El Casino., a great white Moorish meringue of a gambling mansion. At night, its domes and turrets-from which no muezzin calls to worship any Allah—the crap tables and the stick-men are floodlit in the colours of neapolitan ice-creams.

Inside the rows of fruit machines chatter desolately in a wilderness of bright lights and garish colours. The Ladies and Gents are called Sultanas and Sultans, and the cocktail bar is called the Kasbar.

To get there, you can, if you like, hop on a red double-decker London bus, which grumbles along looking slightly foolish amid the American cars and the palm trees, without its gray London streets and skies. Not far from El Casino is The Pub In The Mall, which, to quote the publicity men, is 'an-authentically-styled old English pub', where you are served by 'authentically-costumed serving wenches'. Here the Ladies and Gents are styled M'Ladies and M'Lords. The merrie serving wenches pad about in tennis shoes, long skirts and low-cut blouses through which their bras gleam like white bomb-casings.

One such wench is thirty-two-year-old Doreen Dorman from Manchester, who has been in Freeport about twelve months and is very happy here. She earns between £60 and £80 a week, tax-free of course, and shares an apartment with another Manchester girl. It costs about £78 a month.

'It's a nice place for the young, Freeport. It's got this exciting atmosphere of being new, a place of the future. Listen, The Pub isn't very full right now. Why don't you come back again during Happy Hour? It really fills up then.'

Happy Hour is a skillful American-inspired device used extensively in Freeport to get people well-oiled for an evening's jollifications. Drinks consumed during this time are all one price and usually half-price at that. During The Pub's Happy Hour, they serve genuine Olde Englishe delicacies, such as conch fritters, free.

To complete the wild mixture of styles in Freeport, we have the multi-million dollar International Bazaar, yet to be completed, which aims at re-creating different areas of the world: Hong Kong, the Middle East, North Africa, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Montmartre and Granada.