Foxes

By noon the New York Timesman was tipsy on bootleg champagne. His necktie was long gone, and he found himself stumbling up an endless flight of stairs. The whole scene was too much. Since stepping off the train in Miami two days ago, January 14, 1926, he'd been pulled and prodded and peppered with figures and facts and canned quotes by a trio of public relations men assigned to follow him everywhere.

The Biltmore, they told him, was not only the most elegant hotel in the world but also the tallest structure in Florida, rising 315 feet above the glorious new city of Coral Gables. The Biltmore tower, they explained, was modeled on the Giralda Tower of Seville, and designed by the same architect responsible for Grand Central Station. The Biltmore swimming pool, they remarked more than once, was the largest in the world.

A banquet for 200 visiting dignitaries took place on the first night of the grand-opening festivities. The public relations men sat on either side of him pointing out New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, golf great Bobby Jones, and various members of the Chicago Grand Opera Company. These last guests passed around a tuba, tooting it with gusto. All had come down from New York on a specially chartered Miami Biltmore Special in world-record time: 36 hours, 23 minutes.

The second night, after a formal inspection of the new hotel, the public relations men accompanied him to a black-tie dinner dance and fashion show, featuring three orchestras, a fox-trot competition, and fifteen of America's hottest fashion models. A riot nearly broke out as 3500 would-be guests were turned away from the hotel. In brash disregard of Prohibition, gallons of Scotch were consumed, along with platters of sea trout and pheasant. Stepping out for a smoke with his three handlers, the Timesman observed a woman fall headlong into the swimming pool from an imported Italian gondola. The imported Italian gondolier, smoothing his mustache, jumped in after her. The public relations men laughed nervously.

In the morning he gave them the slip. For a while he wandered the hotel grounds with a half-full bottle of champagne, dodging stray polo and golf balls, and scribbling a few desultory notes. The thought of climbing the hotel tower seized him like the answer to a riddle.

Sweating and dizzy at the top of the tower, the Timesman noticed a scene on the greenery far below. Men and women on horseback ambled about in the red and black garb of eighteenth-century huntsmen. One of the riders blew gingerly into a curved horn, which produced a high-pitched, farting squawk. Servants struggled to hold back a pack of dogs on tangled leashes. After an expectant pause, the lid of a wooden box flapped open with a bang, and a rust-color blur moved toward the tree line at the border of the golf course. The dogs went berserk.

The Timesman yanked a pair of opera glasses from his trousers pocket, spewing spare change over the edge of a low parapet. He held the glasses up to his eyes and the fox leapt suddenly into focus. He could see it running pell-mell around a dense stand of pines beyond the second fairway. Just out of sight of the hounds, the fox stopped, doubled back on its own trail for approximately 100 yards, and burrowed under a flat rock. The hounds, braying idiotically, ran past the fox's hiding place and into oblivion. The horsemen followed.

Just before vomiting against the parapet, the Timesman screwed the opera glasses up to his eyes and saw the fox emerge from under the rock, lick its fur thrice, and trot toward Miami. Through the glasses, the fox's snout appeared to curl in a grin.

At least that's the way it might have happened. Fox hunts did take place at the Biltmore in 1926, as at least one photograph illustrates. (The Florida land boom collapsed a few months after the hotel opened, bankrupting the first in a procession of unlucky Biltmore owners and dooming all further fox hunts.) That some of the foxes used in the Biltmore hunts escaped to the encircling Coral Gables pineland seems probable. And chances are good that the Biltmore foxes were of the species vulpes vulpes, the red fox long prized by Continental and American houndsmen and imported across state lines to star in the ancient blood sport. At any rate, no record remains to tell where the Biltmore foxes originated.

For decades Coral Gables residents have repeated the genteel history of the Biltmore fox hunts. They've also reported seeing descendants of the Biltmore foxes in the predawn light, slipping through yards and parks. The legendary flavor of the Biltmore fox stories was reinforced in the early 1980s when a lone and elusive fox took up residence in the then-vacant hotel, as though returning to an ancestral mansion.

Local scientists and state wildlife officials say residents of Coral Gables are probably mistaken when they stubbornly claim to have spotted red foxes descended from Biltmore escapees. What the startled citizens are actually seeing, they suggest, is the native Florida gray fox, whose thin salt-and-pepper fur is tinged bright orange around the belly, upper legs, and neck. The red fox - larger and better-known cousin of the gray - has the widest-ranging habitat of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere, but South Florida remains one of the few places it officially does not exist.

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