Swelter

The Hell phenomenon, another strange story from the naked city. A mysterious German developer, Thomas Kramer, descending on the city out of nowhere and acquiring major-league properties with endless cash: socialite Jan Cowles's Indian Creek estate, attorney Dan Paul's Star Island home, acres of lower South Beach for a new little Hell town. The downtown jewel of the empire, the Leonard Beach Hotel -- formerly a brave Bohemian stronghold, much like Versace's Amsterdam Palace -- becoming a private stomping ground, a club called Hell. Instant easy-marketing possibilities, and indeed, the debut the most ballyhooed affair since the opening of Club Nu, covered by everyone from USA Today to MTV. Nine thousand people turning up for the satanic maelstrom, the valid and not-so-valid mobbing the front door, one drunken victim led away in handcuffs, actually yelling, "God, man, this is like hell." Inside, an Alice in Wonderland world of wildly fluctuating status, sucked into a universe of chance and random attitude. One moment a glittering vision of nightclub heaven, the dream of the ultimate private room, where life is always interesting and fun and nothing bad ever happens. An imperceptible shift, a trap door springs open, and it's back down to the purgatory of being just another schmuck waiting in line. Hell on Earth, or at least Miami Beach.

The hell/heaven analogy springing to mind constantly, along with other less appetizing associations. Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death, the poor and plague-ridden beseiging the king's last costume ball, the looming apocalypse adding a jolly edge to the evening's entertainments. A prison of fun, the club version of Stalag 17/Hogan's Heroes, where the inmates can leave freely but never return. Herr Kramer as the devil, presiding over the front door in the manner of Steve Rubell, making arbitrary and occasionally pitiless aesthetic decisions, accompanied by a Doberman pinscher chained to the pearly gates. Everyone behaving like marionettes in the devil's own Punch and Judy show, cyborgs on the loose, conducting themselves with the desperate urgency of B.F. Skinner's lab rats, pushing the feeding bar for cheap thrills to the point of oblivion and self-destruction. Struggling up to the light, to salvation, the Madonna suite on the third floor, where Madonna and maybe even the Antichrist himself are rumored to be hanging out.

Throughout, a parallel universe of entertainments. Nasty pile-ups at the stairs to the second circle of hell, normally sensible people groveling before a phalanx of security personnel, slipping through and leaving best friends and lovers behind on the lobby level. Outside, a gallery opening-style reception on the very pleasant patio, Bryan Norcross and assorted other catered guests, press, South Beach regulars, a few unlikely visitors like a true North Miami Beach duo, Saul Gersch and collagen-cream hawker Leslie Brody. Gersch in Gucci accented with a Moschino belt and a Sex Sells hat, Brody in a quilted gold Chanel ensemble: "I've been working out on the stairmaster. Hot pants are back now, right? You get older, your lips get vertical lines, your earlobes droop. Aging is a bitch."

The out-of-town press contingent, flown in for the festivities, ready, set, go -- right to irate. Richard Goff of Out reeling from being turned away at the door for wearing a T-shirt. Stephen Saban of Details having major doorman troubles: "They bring us all down, and then we get dissed by five-dollar-an-hour grunts. We have enough of that in New York." The Village Voice's Michael Musto doing a robo/downtown-man stint for the television cameras: "I'm allergic to the sun, and I can't swim, but Miami Beach is heaven. This is hell." One wag deeming the place Club Heck, Saint Patrick McMullen of Interview wondering if the Envy installation, a girl in white bra and panties lolling in a glass-enclosed room, had something to do with the fact that Lolita had the good fortune to be away from the smoke, noise, and attitude. David Adams, the Latin American and Caribbean correspondent for the London Times, never making the inner sanctum. New to town, and still unswayed by breathtakingly shabby behavior, Adams refusing to go upstairs without his wife Ines Lozano, brushed off as "that lady" by one of the doormen.

Being impervious to offense after more than two numbing decades in Miami, taking a sinful delight in every hot, disgusting, truly interesting moment. Confronting TV news cameras and discovering a worrisome knack for profoundly superficial glibness, loathing another friend who went national with the Current Affair crew. Celebrity spotting from the balcony, smoke pouring out over the dance floor in the shadow of a huge devil's face, the eyes rolling back and forth in a sinister way. No Norman Mailer sighting, unfortunately, but Gloria Estefan dancing, Dmitri of Deee-Lite playing records, Dan Paul and a Bible-bearing Micky Wolfson ("So this is where you live") making an odd late entrance. Baseball player Jose Canseco on the prowl, serving as a kind of spoor dropping for Madonna, who as it turned out, reportedly spent the evening in the Paragon private room with Versace, an appearance that Paragon co-owner Dennis Doheny declined to comment on.

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