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

"The Latin Quarter had revues with cancan girls shrieking and lifting their skirts. I still remember one acrobatic act, Darvus and Julia: This woman would climb up a ladder, jump, and do a split on top of a glass floor. Then there were all the gambling clubs up in Golden Beach and Hollywood A Tony Martin would play up there sometimes. The Roney was chic then, and Alfred Barton threw elaborate, sky's-the-limit parties at the Surf Club, with elephants and tigers and circuses. When he died, the whole thing fell apart. The Brook Club, where they had gambling, was very high-class A long gowns and white dinner jackets. Some of the private parties in homes around town were very decadent, but everyone was well behaved, even when they had too many drinks. John Jacob Astor had a big house on Pine Tree Drive, and he'd have huge parties, everyone in formal wear, with various entertainments: female wrestlers in bras and panties, rolling around on slick canvases.

"It was the beginnings of Dorothy Dey, who was a gossip columnist for the Hearst Syndicate. She and John Jacob Astor both survived the sinking of the Titanic, when Dorothy was a kid, and then she went on to start the "Suzy" column. Into the Sixties, it was a wide-open town, and Dorothy was the first nationally known gossip columnist based here. The column was called "Night and Dey," and she knew everybody in American society A celebrities, phonies, everybody. She'd dish them, but she wrote a bitch column like a lady. I really miss her.

"Society was a real melange then. Helen and her brother John were both on Pine Tree, the Firestones right on the beach where the Fontainebleau is now, and then there were all the enormously rich Cubans, like Julio and Jorge Sanchez A two sugar barons who lived on Star Island. On all the private estates, people entertained lavishly: sit-down dinners for 200 or 300, with party tents and orchestras. There were religious differences, of course, but people like Audrey Ruxton Love A a Guggenheim A were members at the Surf Club, for instance.

"When I was financially able to, I had my own parties for 200 or so at my place in the Venetian Islands. Before he moved to Star Island, Dan Paul had a three-and-a-half-acre waterfront estate on Key Biscayne, the old Matheson place. He always had wonderful parties. I still remember one of his New Year's Eve things on Star Island. People don't entertain like that any more.

"And there was always Cuba on the weekends. I remember going down to visit Doris Hedges in Havana A her husband Burke was ambassador to Brazil at the time A and going to the Barletta cräme-de-la-cräme wedding, when she married Count Somebody or another. There was a beautiful party on her estate with the Havana Symphony playing dance music. It was right before Castro took over, and all these guards with machine guns were crouched in the bushes.

"Everything has changed, the elegance of the private clubs, the parties. When they ended gambling, the chic people went somewhere else. I still have fun, though. Waking up in the morning and still being alive A that's fun to me now."

A Clothing designer Jay Anderson, retired and living in Coconut Grove "I came down here in 1940. I've owned Wolfie's for eight years. At that time the Roney was the northern end of civilization; there wasn't much above 23rd Street. In the Wolfie's space was a neighborhood bar called Fan and Bill's. They took over the club next door and made it into a really grand nightclub, also called Fan and Bill's, with singers and shows. Everybody went there. Then it became Chandler's restaurant, a very elegant supper club. Wolfie Cohen took over this space in '42 or '43, and it was popular from the start, lines around the block, 24-hour service. Tourists, locals who'd come by after the fights at the Fifth Street gym, and every major star. In our celebrity room we have pictures of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn. People would show up in chauffeured limousines. It was quite a scene."

A Joseph Nevel, current owner of Wolfie's restaurant "I moved down from New York, where I'd been involved in theater, in the late Fifties, and started handling the Empress Hotel at 43rd and Collins. I just sort of fell into being a press agent. Then I went to work for Patsy Abbott, who had a club called Patsy's Place. It was hot, sophisticated, and rocking. One night Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd walked in. The newspapers had room for that kind of stuff then, and every night photographers and columnists A Herb Rau of the News, George Burke from the Herald A would travel around the clubs looking for material. George didn't drive, and did the whole route by bus. I'd be dropping photos off at the papers and I'd see him waiting on Collins Avenue in the middle of the night and wind up giving him a lift somewhere. Then you had the smaller papers, the Post Mortems and Antennas of their day, working the same turf.

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