The Hand of Fate

A beloved South Beach eccentric fell ill. Then her friends and relatives discovered she had hidden away millions. What does this have to do with Miami Beach? Plenty.

The shafts of light formed a luminous triangle above the darkened beach, drawing curious onlookers from the terrace of the Cardozo Hotel and stirring the population of senior citizens from ancient contemplations. As a crowd gathered, light artist Sidney Smith set his work in motion. Beams ricocheted off mirrors angled in the sand and bounced off a glass door over which poured sheets of water. Two figures in flowing, translucent costumes pantomimed images of rebirth.

People who witnessed the work, performed April 1, 1983, remember its shamanistic quality and the transcendental mood created by the beams of light and the silence. They frequently invoke Smith's performance piece as an example of the spirit of enchantment that wafted through South Beach prior to its metamorphosis into a tourist playground and commercial gold mine.

It took a special sort of imagination to perceive possibility among the deteriorating Art Deco hotels that lined Ocean Drive at that time. Although the area had won designation in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, only the Cardozo and Carlyle hotels, repainted in soft pastels and containing the first Deco-themed cafe and restaurant, intimated the promise of renewal among the grime-encrusted, three-story retirement lodgings that proliferated along the street. A motley crowd of artists, writers, and performers attracted by low oceanfront rents and the free-wheeling atmosphere at the Cardozo were among the few who dreamed of reviving the area.

Whiling away the days outside the Cardozo, chatting with the late preservationist Barbara Capitman and her son Andrew, who was part-owner of the hotel, members of the group and passersby who joined them would turn to an aged palm-reader who frequented the hotel's front porch and ask her to predict the future. Although Marie Zimmer's readings were at times suspect --early every unattached woman in South Beach was advised she would be married by Christmas --he 83-year-old soon became a touchstone for believers in the spell cast by South Beach.

"She had this magical twinkle in her eye," recalls artist Sidney Smith, who met Zimmer when he began renting a room in the nearby Oceanfront Apartments in February 1983. Although Smith had originally come to Miami to work on a short-term project, he found himself seduced by the area's decrepit charm, and was inspired to compose a trio of public light sculptures to be presented April 1, May 1, and June 1. While hanging out at the Cardozo, he also hooked up with Bulgarian-born sculptor Christo Javacheff and agreed to organize nighttime security for Christo's scheme to drape Biscayne Bay's mangrove islands in pink polypropylene.

Now the technical director of the Miami Film Festival, Smith recalls that while considering the site of the third and final sculpture, a rainbow directed him to the appropriate location. Then, just as the performance got under way, a thunderstorm struck, surrounding the area with lightning on three sides but withholding its downpour. As the performers finished, the moon rose out of the water behind them. "Because of the response to that piece, I decided to stay," Smith says, wonderment creeping back into his voice nearly twelve years later.

Such portentous interpretations of natural phenomena and historical incident are common among the original circle of Cardozo regulars, who united around their passion for Deco architecture and a romanticized vision of life. But no story is so strange, nor so closely aligned with the rebirth of the Art Deco district itself, as that of palm-reader Marie Zimmer.

Initially pitied as a poverty-stricken eccentric who eked out a living by interpreting the fates for the young and hip, Zimmer took pains to project an image of decayed elegance, adorning herself in moth-eaten raiment evoking bygone glamour. But in the same way that declining Art Deco hotels concealed untold riches in real estate profits, Zimmer's rags camouflaged her personal financial fortune. Not that it would have mattered to the starry-eyed dreamers on the porch of the Cardozo. They were looking for romance, and they found it in equal measure among the surrounding architectural fantasies and in Zimmer's mystical readings.

Then developers began to pick up on their enthusiasm and a different sensibility emerged on Ocean Drive. Investors from Pennsylvania, rumored to have vague links to the Philadelphia mob, bought the Cardozo and the Carlyle, and interest in illusion shifted from oceanfront terraces to businessmen's backrooms, where accounts might be juggled and bankruptcies made to disappear. Ocean Drive became the funhouse and Zimmer an attraction.

Born in 1900 in Russia, the daughter of devout Jews, Zimmer and her family later settled in New London, Connecticut. She rebelled against her tradition-bound father, who wanted her to marry a Talmudic scholar, and ran off to New York City when she was a teenager. According to friends and family members, Zimmer was trained as a nurse and worked in the employ of a series of wealthy New York families until her retirement, when she moved to Miami to care for her ailing mother and father.

Her parents died in the early 1960s, and little is known about Zimmer's life in Miami for the next twenty years. But as the Eighties dawned, she began appearing at meetings organized by local preservationists seeking to safeguard the area's historic status.

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