This Means Lore!

The housewife who saved FDR's life, the ghosts that roam Vizcaya, the sea serpent of Biscayne Bay, and other Miami legends, yarns, and flat-out lies

If the aforementioned TV personality could use a little damage control, she should consider hiring someone with the talent of Hank Meyer, the public relations giant credited with bringing Jackie Gleason to Miami Beach. Immediately after the Cuban missile crisis, tourism in South Florida declined precipitously. Vacationers were staying away for fear they might be vaporized. Until, that is, the national press reported that John F. Kennedy had announced he would vacation in Palm Beach. In legend Meyer is credited with having planted that message in Kennedy's remarks, and, as a result, having singlehandedly saved the local tourism industry.

Social upheaval and cataclysmic events, like the Cuban missile crisis and the FDR assassination attempt, are wellsprings of legend. Hurricane Andrew was no different. If the rumors were to be believed, governmental authorities lied about the number of people killed in the storm. The medical examiner's office said 15 people died during the hurricane, and 23 after. Legend has it that the real figure is somewhere in the hundreds, maybe thousands, crushed in collapsed buildings, trapped in mobile home parks, buried in the debris of migrant labor camps. Others were sucked out of their homes and thrown into lakes, where they drowned.

Some bloated corpses were whisked out of town in refrigerated trucks and deposited in morgues and high-security military facilities up north. Some were given mass burials. Officials kept the actual death toll a secret to prevent panic and protect the tourist industry. The media, of course, were in cahoots with the government. It was all a tragic and twisted conspiracy.

While it was a traumatic event of a slightly different nature, the wild performance by the Doors at Dinner Key Auditorium on March 1, 1969, has taken on legendary overtones, as well. An estimated 12,000 people were jammed into the converted seaplane hangar that night watching a drunken, incoherent, and abusive Jim Morrison virtually self-destruct on-stage. At one point, in what became the pivotal moment of the evening, Morrison threatened to expose himself in front of the crowd. Some in attendance say he did, others say he didn't.

The resulting media and political firestorm resulted in Morrison's arrest eight months later on one felony charge and four misdemeanors. In addition, the remainder of the Doors' national tour was canceled; Morrison biographers James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky further contend that the Miami fiasco also encouraged the singer to shift his emphasis from live performance to poetry and film. The Doors' concert, and the embellished stories surrounding it, may also have prompted a rise in anti-rock sentiments in Miami.

Prohibition was another period of social turmoil that provided fertile territory for legend. Various stories relate how bootleggers used Vizcaya to store their brews throughout the 1920s, and others describe how Charles Deering, James Deering's half-brother, ran rum through the Deering Estate in South Dade. "Both of those men were extremely wealthy," Dade archaeologist Robert Carr points out. "They probably brought the stuff in for their own consumption, but there was no reason for them to run rum for extra dollars." (On the subject of the Deerings, a visitor to the estate once asked a guide if it was true that Deering was the first person in the world to die of AIDS.) Another Prohibition-era legend holds that police officers used to sell confiscated liquor out of burlap bags on the sidewalks around the county courthouse on Flagler Street downtown.

Perhaps the most tumultuous few years of social upheaval in Miami history were during the boom of the mid-1920s. Not only was it a time of rapid growth, but it was also a busy time for Miami's hucksters and con men. Realtors were particularly unscrupulous in their conduct, inventing stories about Miami history to make their property more appealing.

In one example, a real estate firm ran advertisements in the daily Miami Tribune, bragging that an area called Sherwood Forest (present-day El Portal) was actually the site of Huguenot settlements. Historians say there is no record that the Huguenots, French Protestants who fled to Protestant Europe and America in the late-Seventeenth Century, ever settled in South Florida. (On the subject of hucksters, some of the tourist traps in the Everglades would have you believe that alligator wrestling is a time-honored Native American virility ritual and method of hunting. In truth, the first person to wrestle alligators was probably a fat white man named Warren "Alligator Joe" Frazee who, around the turn of the century, performed for tourists at a site along the Miami River.)

Miami's rapid growth during the Twentieth Century has engendered countless legends about construction. Everest G. Sewell, the city's mayor during the late 1930s, allegedly proposed to fill in the Miami River and transform it into a freeway. Another legend, according to historian Paul George, describes how the county courthouse began to sink during its construction. Workers are said to have salvaged the project by hurriedly pouring cement into the basement, which until then had been intended for parking.

Some Miamians also insist that the contractors who built the Intercontinental Hotel made a tragic mistake. According to legend, the blocks that compose the building were supposed to be assembled in the exact order they were cut from the quarry, to preserve the harmony of the rock striations. When builders assembled the blocks out of order, the architect threw himself off the top of the building in despair.

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