Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lee, Samuel (Sammy) (1912–1975)

by Gerard Oakes

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Samuel (Sammy) Lee (1912?-1975), night club and restaurant owner, was born probably in 1912 at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, son of Samuel Levi, broker, and his wife Flora, née Davis. From playing the xylophone in his school band, young Levi progressed to the vibraphone in big bands touring the west coast of North America. He adopted the stage-name 'Sammy Lee', and became a bandleader and a club-owner in Canada. After touring Australia in 1937 as a drummer with the Americanadians band, he returned to Melbourne before settling at Potts Point, Sydney. He opened the Roosevelt nightclub at Potts Point in 1939, but sold out in 1946. Next year, with Perce Galea, he opened Sammy Lee's Theatre Restaurant in Oxford Street. By 1950 he also operated other clubs.

A large man, with a North American accent and a thin moustache, Lee smoked Cuban cigars and was known for his flamboyant clothes—bright coloured jackets worn over black shirts and trousers. He was described as generous, excitable and as hard as nails, and built his reputation on a high standard of service and entertainment featuring overseas artists and 'nubile nymphs' in singing and dancing acts. Divorced from his Canadian wife Rachel, he married Joy Florence Joynton Rolfe on 29 April 1941 at the Court House, Manly. He changed his surname by deed poll to Lee on 23 January 1951.

Adverse publicity from his appearances in court affected Lee's business. In 1952 his first wife sued for arrears of maintenance; his company, Lee Enterprise Pty Ltd, was found to have used employees' tax deductions for its own purposes. He gave evidence before the royal commission of inquiry into the liquor laws: Judge Maxwell found that the Roosevelt and Sammy Lee's had sold black-market liquor; Lee was indicted for perjury and eventually acquitted in 1954.

Lee's ventures soon prospered: he brought Disney's Mousketeers to Australia in 1959 and added the Latin Quarter Restaurant in Pitt Street to his holdings. In 1963, in partnership with Lee Gordon and Reg Boom, he opened his most famous night club, Les Girls Restaurant, at Kings Cross. Men, dressed as women, mimed and danced in its all-male revue. Lee took over the sole running of Les Girls in 1964. He displayed a talent for discovering and naming 'drag queens', like the legendary 'Carlotta', and turned the club and the show into a Sydney institution. By the early 1960s, however, Lee's clubs were suffering through competition from suburban Returned Service League and Rugby League clubs. In 1965 he turned the Latin Quarter into a discotheque, but business fell off dramatically following the shooting there of an underworld figure in 1967. Lee was forced to turn the club into the Cheetah Room. The problems he faced at the Latin Quarter were symptomatic of the growth of illegal casinos and gang wars in the entertainment industry.

Divorced again in January 1957, Lee married a 26-year-old actress Maureen Ethel Grant on 18 September that year at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. By 1963 he had moved his family from Greenowe Avenue, Potts Point, to Watsons Bay. Once known as 'the King of the Cross', Lee found himself out of touch and described the area as 'bloody dangerous' for unescorted women. He died of myocardial infarction on 21 July 1975 in a Vaucluse hospital and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife, their son and daughter, and the son of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Liquor Laws and Allied Subjects, vol 2 (Syd, 1954)
  • D. Hickie, The Prince and the Premier (Syd, 1985)
  • C. and J. Cockington, He Did it Her Way (Syd, 1994)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19, 20 Feb, 5, 8, 30 Apr, 2, 4 July, 19-21 Oct, 25 Nov 1952, 20 Jan 1953, 23 Feb, 19 Mar, 22-24 June 1954, 10 June 1959, 22 July 1975
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 24 Oct 1954, 7 Aug 1955, 7 Mar 1965.

Citation details

Gerard Oakes, 'Lee, Samuel (Sammy) (1912–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-samuel-sammy-10805/text19163, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Levi, Samuel
Birth

1912
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Death

21 July 1975
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation