When the Beach was Hot

Eisenhower was president, shark-finned Cadillacs ruled the highways, and Miami Beach was the nightlife capital of the Western Hemisphere

After a long dry spell, Miami Beach is once again the nightlife capital of America, a wide-open town with nonstop action, the playground of the Western world. The Euro-chics, the celebrated, and the simply rich, the emblems that guide the rest of the glitter-hungry world are pouring in: Gianni Versace, Bruce Weber, Paloma Picasso, Chris Blackwell, Prince Albert of Monaco, David Geffen. Like everyone else, they are driven by publicity and an itch for getting on the inside track to wonderland. A place where anything might happen, where everyone is young and beautiful, where life assumes a promise that it doesn't seem to have anywhere else. A town slightly out of control, where the normal rules that govern society always seem to be in a miraculous abeyance.

South Beach is the nightlife epicenter of the moment, but there was a time when most of Miami Beach was one big cauldron of flash and high-rollers. It began as early as the Twenties, during Al Capone's Star Island days, peaked during the era of gambling and big-name entertainers, and began to ebb during the Jackie Gleason period. The golden time, the years between the late Forties and the mid-Sixties, was the final great gasp of glitz before the bleak Seventies and early Eighties, when Art Deco was not yet a viable marketing concept. But there was never anything quite like the Beach in its heyday. Cuba was beautiful and offered perhaps more opportunities for dissipation, but it lacked the unique spin of Miami, a tropical but still familiar American landscape. Vegas at its zenith was too overloaded, too claustrophobic, too centered on gambling. Palm Beach was closed off to ordinary mortals. Miami Beach was, as it is now, in the right place at the right time.

In those grand old days, it was a town of unlimited potential, with a weird constellation of players that jelled into one big moment of American pop-culture history. From the start, the moneyed crowd liked it here: old-guard names, on the order of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Coleman DuPont; lots of imported royalty with pretension value A Lord Cromwell, the Marquis of Waterford, various European counts and princesses. The dead-ahead WASPS, solid citizens like Gardner Cowles of Look magazine and Elliott Roosevelt, cavorting at the Surf Club (known for hiring club fighters to entertain during dinner), the Bath Club, both on upper Collins. A society heavy with auto industry figures encouraged by pioneer developer Carl Fisher (who had made his fortune with Prest-O-Lite acetylene gas, used for headlights) to come down and join the party: Gar Wood, Albert Champion, James Allison, Harvey Firestone. And the money, as always, attracted the fringe crowd: sports figures, gossip columnists, real estate hustlers, con artists, hookers, shop girls looking for husbands.

And mobsters, everybody from Meyer Lansky to Joe Adonis, men who had come down with Al Capone during Prohibition and moved into gambling and legitimate business. By the time of Senator Estes Kefauver's investigation of Miami's organized crime network in 1950, the city was known as "the winter crime capital of America." The infamous S&G Syndicate had bookies in every hotel, controlled the illicit gambling houses (places like the Colonial Inn in Hallandale and the Island Club in Sunny Isles), and ran whorehouses on Second Avenue in downtown Miami. When public pressure became too intense, they moved on to Las Vegas and Havana. And gradually some of the punch went out of the city.

But there was still plenty of juice around, and anybody who was anybody came through the Beach. A universe of legends out on the town, creating an alchemy of pure star power, making the clubs and restaurants jump, the place to be that particular night. Elvis cavorting with the Rat Pack A Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop A at the Fontainebleau. Maurice Chevalier dining with his wife at Le Parisien on 41st Street. Jimmy Durante laughing with singer Jerri Pollak, now a Miami stockbroker, at the Eden Roc. Martha Raye holding down the fort at the Five O'Clock Club, the legendary one-for-the-road joint on 22nd Street. One block away on 23rd, the three graces of raunch A Belle Barth, Patsy Abbott, and Pearl Williams of Place Pigalle A at Patsy's Place. Marlene Dietrich and Nat King Cole dining together at the Eden Roc. Tennessee Williams and Gloria Swanson at the Embers on 22nd Street. Joe E. Lewis and Frank Sinatra nearby at Murray Franklin's. An all-star lineup A Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Tony Martin, Marie McDonald, Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Roberta Sherwood A on parade at the Latin Quarter. Jack E. Leonard and Uncle Miltie hosting a party for the Footlighters (an association of male comics), Berle mugging and grabbing his crotch for the cameras. An endless procession of the famous A Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny A dropping in on clubs with intensely atmospheric names: the Black Magic Room, the Neptune Lounge, the Copa.

Plenty of celebrity firepower, and lots of laughs and sex, the essential components of nightlife. Rumors of "buffet flats," South Beach hotels with different sex shows on each floor. As with the modern epoch, the Beach had a considerable number of gay bars, the clientele favoring suits and ties rather than Spandex shorts: the Charles in the Charles Hotel on Collins Avenue, where female impersonator Charles Pierce started out; the Echo Club on Collins at Tenth; Billy Lee's on Alton Road at Dade Boulevard, with a notorious back room that was periodically raided. Then as now, people tended to get carried away on the Beach. John Jacob Astor VI, an incorrigibly decadent playboy, was known to hire a half-dozen women at a time for his lavish private parties. Even at the elegant Surf Club A run by Alfred Barton, a former Hollywood art director who counted Noel Coward among his friends A an incident of sorts was provoked when the actor Clifton Webb became infatuated with one of the pool boys.

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