By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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During her stays in Miami, Marge Odom met William Brickell, grandson of the man who established the trading post, and they married in 1947. They had one child, Butch, and traveled widely. Their life together was one of leisure, Marge says; she spent a lot of time on the Riviera Country Club golf course, where she became club champion. Recently she dropped the clubs and took up tennis, looking for a little excitement: "For 40 years I played golf and there was never a scandal. I went over to the tennis courts and everybody was talking about who was living with whom. Very exciting!"
Several years ago Butch inherited a sizable portion of the Brickell holdings -- or what was left of them: Over the years the family has sold off most of their turn-of-the-century purchases. Today Butch Brickell's property includes the Northern Trust Bank building on Brickell Avenue, several lots along the south side of the Miami River, and a couple of parcels on SW Eighth Street. He and his mother manage the properties. "My son runs the business," Marge clarifies, "but you know me -- I gotta butt in." (Butch, an easy-going man who speaks in a flat, near-mumble, puts it another way: "Oh, she does whatever she wants. I just kinda say screw it. I'm not gonna argue with her.")
Marge fills her days fretting over the business of the Brickell properties, particularly Brickell Shipping, where she rents dockage to small cargo vessels, leases office space, and rents out location space to film crews. Scenes from several feature films have been shot there, including True Lies ("They were here for six months," Brickell comments. "It was such a dumb movie") and The Specialist ("You know, Sly Stallone was in that one -- he's the most conceited man I've ever met; he's crude and rude").
In a short time Brickell has developed a reputation as something of an imperious, whimsical micromanager. Several former tenants and others who have done business with her were hesitant, or refused outright, to discuss her and her management style. "She's really hard to get along with," says Charles Berndt, Jr., who managed Dawson Marine for 25 years until it closed in 1994. "She came along and tried to take over the world." Berndt will not elaborate further.
Patricia Sykes had her own tussle with Marge Brickell; their rift marked the end of Big Fish. When Tommy Sykes retired in 1992, he sold the restaurant to his waiter. But shortly before he died, Sykes told Patricia that the waiter, Eric De Los Santos, hadn't paid him. He signed over to his daughter a promissory note that designated her the recipient of the assets, but she was never able to find a lease agreement or any formal documentation of ownership. "I think it was all done on a handshake," Patricia surmises.
Big Fish remained open for a few weeks after Sykes's death in February 1995, but the following month Brickell and De Los Santos got into a dispute: She says he owed her a lot of money. "I locked the bathroom doors!" she declares triumphantly. "My lawyer said, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Like hell I can't.'" She also posted a sign that said "Reopening in May." Later that same day, Patricia got a call from a homeless man who used to camp out on the Big Fish property after dark; he reported that De Los Santos was vacating the premises with the microwave oven and the stereo system.
Sykes dashed over and took what she could, including two Connie Chung photos. Other items "went missing" during the evening as well, and the "reopening" sign got pulled down. The culprit? Sykes hunches her shoulders and raises her eyebrows in an exaggerated expression of ignorance. "Wind comes off the river pretty bad," she suggests.
At about midnight Sykes went back to pry off the Big Fish sign. She had successfully removed the G in BIG, and the I was dangling by a screw when Brickell pulled up. "It was ugly," Patricia recalls. "I said, 'I have every right to be here.' Not only had I lost my father but I lost everything he had worked hard to get. I got right in her face and shook my finger at her and said, 'How dare you, how dare you! You're going to take his equipment and his name and build on that!' And I walked away. She said, 'Don't you turn your back on me!' I kept going."
Patricia consulted a lawyer, who told her that Brickell's lien against De Los Santos superseded hers and there was nothing she could do. She gave up -- the struggle was tarnishing her father's legacy, she concluded. "The restaurant wasn't about work, it was about fun. I had to drop it." De Los Santos sued the Brickells in small-claims court for contract violation; the suit was settled out of court on undisclosed terms. De Los Santos, who never paid Sykes any money, died earlier this year.
This past April Marge Brickell finally returned two personal items that had belonged to Tommy Sykes: a series of mounted photographs showing Tommy and Patricia at Big Fish, and a plaque honoring Sykes for his role in founding the Key Biscayne Fourth of July Parade. For her part, Brickell accuses De Los Santos of making off with all of Sykes's other personal stuff. "I was trying to be helpful," she says.