The Bell Tolls for Him

After years of playing Papa to Hemingway, the island of Bimini, and his own troubled brood, Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown is laid to rest

"We are shocked and saddened, but we will survive the passing of Captain Brown," Sir Turnquest noted. "This community will continue to benefit from all that he has done to make Bimini a fishing and hospitality leader. This community will continue to benefit from the steps he took to ensure its security. This church, which he loved passionately, will certainly endure this passing, but terrible, darkness. And from a life so bold, so rich, so creative, so enterprising, so industrious, so generous, we are left, strange as it may seem at this sad moment, with a gain -- with a profit.

"And so, as we pay our funerary farewells to the man, to the patriarch, to the justice of the peace, to the all-encompassing entrepreneur, to the father of the Bimini community, I can think of no more appropriate epitaph than that which was voiced by Marc Antony at the burial of Julius Caesar." Turnquest paused, his voice lowering and softening: "'His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.'"

Had Brown been alive he might have smiled, partly abashed but partly gratified. Funerals are for the living, and whatever else was true, every hotel room and boat slip on the island was rented and the rum would most certainly flow that night.

Neither Sir Turnquest nor Bishop Gomez chose to dwell on the private sorrows Brown faced during the last three decades of his life. They were serious, numerous, and entirely unexpected.

The sorrows began in 1970 when Brown's son Frank was electrocuted while working inside his father's power plant. (Soon after, Brown sold the generators to the government-owned Bahamas Electrical Corporation.) Last year another son, Ossie, died in a coma after being beaten with a lead pipe by a man who broke into his house.

The two horrific deaths were like bookends framing the problem of son number three, Julian. The details of his predicament are contained in a series of case files housed in a federal records depository in Atlanta, but the long and short of it is this: Soon after Frank's death, Julian traded in his lobster skiff for a 36-foot Cigarette boat with a lot of horsepower hung off the transom, and his name began to be known in certain business circles in Miami that had only an indirect connection to the fishing or hospitality industries.

By 1975 Julian had been indicted for smuggling cocaine and bringing undocumented Cubans to the United States. He was for a time a fugitive from justice and briefly retained the services of famous (and now imprisoned) Miami drug lawyer Mel Kessler. In the end, Julian declared himself guilty to reduced charges and showed up at the federal work camp at Eglin Air Force Base on June 16, 1976, to begin serving a four-year sentence. While there, Julian worked as a cook, went to church every Sunday, and became a star participant in the Toastmasters Club. According to federal records, he also worked as an informant for the DEA for several months before reporting to prison.

Biminians have always done what is necessary to survive, and smuggling is nothing new to the island. But Julian's involvement in the drug trade seemed like evidence of abject disdain for his father's favorite adage: "Slow dollar better than a fast dollar." It was during the Eighties that Harcourt Brown's work came to fruition and his wealth became apparent. At the same time, bales of cocaine and marijuana fairly rained out of the nighttime sky, to be taken by fast boat from the Bahamas to South Florida. Some wondered if the two phenomena were connected; after all, Harcourt Brown controlled Bimini's docks. "You don't become a multimillionaire on a desert island by exporting a few lobsters and renting hotel rooms," says a former smuggler in Miami. The rumors endured, and more than twenty years after Julian's first run-ins with the American authorities, a few people on Bimini will even speculate that Julian's high-stakes smuggling career had something to do with Ossie's murder. All of this, naturally, has bred a degree of defensiveness in Brown's survivors. During an interview with Alma Brown, the widow offered a sprightly but entirely unsolicited denial of any drug-money taint on the family holdings.

Aubrey Sherman, the septuagenarian bartender at the Harbour Lounge, is among those who consider the rumors complete poppycock. "Every family has its black sheep, and Julian's errors of youth were something people could seize on to criticize Harcourt. You see, there are people who are jealous that Harcourt could put his hand on anything and make it succeed. What they forget is the years of hard work that went into his successes."

Surviving sons Julian and Spence, whatever their considerable strengths, do not possess their father's charm. Both men can be abrasive, and the effect is to push people away instead of drawing them in. It was Ossie who had the natural warmth and subtle social skills that are crucial for doing business in a small place. At the time of his death, Ossie was managing both the Compleat Angler and the Bimini Blue Water Resort. His band, the Calypsonians, performed at the Angler virtually every night, with himself as lead singer and songwriter. (A placard on the porch offers an example of his verse: "When you're tired of catching fish/The Compleat Angler has the things you wish/Go up there and have a ball/Oswald welcomes one and all.") He served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and was a joiner of half a dozen civic organizations. In short, he was the beloved heir apparent to Harcourt's throne.

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