The Jockey Club's Wild Ride

For two decades it was a chic hangout for South Florida's most well-to-do. Now it's a money pit with a sordid story to tell.

Walter Troutman's two-story penthouse atop the original Jockey Club high-rise, which he designed specifically for himself when he built the place in 1968, is anachronistically opulent, with its spiral staircases, panoramic view of the Intracoastal, and indoor pool on the upper level. Still, with all the plaques, magazine covers, snapshots, and photo collages grinning down from its walls, the place also has a museumlike air.

Troutman himself is the dominant character in the decor, albeit as a younger version of the Georgia-born investor: a tall, dashing, auburn-haired playboy with a winning smile, mugging alone or in the company of a galaxy of stars from Jackie Gleason to Don Shula. The Jockey Club's original visionary, seated behind the desk of his modest paneled office on the lower floor of his penthouse, still has brick-red eyebrows and an easy Southern charm, but his white hair attests to the years that have passed since both he and the Jockey Club first appeared on the Miami social scene. (Troutman is vague about his age but seems to remember that he was born in 1921.) The name "Jockey Club" refers to not only the condominium towers, of which there are now three, but also to the once-chic social club facilities: the restaurant, four bars, three swimming pools, fifteen tennis courts, fitness center, marina, and fourteen hotel rooms that later became a separate entity.

"It was a hot club," Troutman says of the good old days at 11111 Biscayne Blvd. "We were jam-packed every night, and we had quite a few thousand members. It was everything we had dreamed of it being."

Though Troutman was the impetus behind building the club, he was not the only dreamer involved in the nascence of the Miami hot spot. Among the original investment group were developer Harper Sibley and an old friend of Sibley from Rochester, New York, Jack Herman.

But it was Troutman whose name, face, and personality came to embody the Jockey Club. "A club like this is a personal situation," he emphasizes. "In other words, you really have to take care of it personally. If you've got one member or umpteen thousand members, they more or less look to you. So from that standpoint it's sort of a fun thing, but it's also a trying thing. All day long you're talking to people. You get tired of people congratulating you," he proffers with a slight smile.

"I can hardly name the celebrities that I didn't have here at one time or the other. And I concentrated on it, highlighting the club with celebrities, with special situations, things that really turned people on. You have to sort of be part of it and have it in your system. If you don't, you don't do too well."

After eating, breathing, walking, and talking the Jockey Club for a decade and a half -- during which he and another of the original partners gradually bought out the others -- Troutman decided it was time to get its business operations out of his system. He remembers selling his stake in the club facilities to his partner in the early Eighties.

After he had abdicated his official position with the club, he was able to look down from his lofty perch on the ownership changes, bankruptcies, and foreclosures that bedeviled the club through the mid- and late Eighties. "The people who were running the club then didn't know how to make it happen," he opines. "They didn't know how to give it the ambiance, the flair. You run into any ex-Jockey Club members now, most of them get into, 'Gee whiz, what a great place this was. What happened?'"

Jack Waxenberg, president of both the Jockey I condominium association and the homeowners' association encompassing all three condo towers, has lived in the building since it opened. He recalls fondly the original incarnation of the club that was just an elevator ride away. "It was like going down to your living room," he recalls. "It always seemed there was someone there who would buy you a drink, or you'd want to buy them a drink. The dining room was excellent. It was a good place to be. In those days, you belonged to the Palm Bay, Turnberry, and here."

Though he sold his shares of the Jockey Club in 1972, Jack Herman still feels a sense of pride about the club in its heyday. "We provided the membership with a way of life that was unparalleled as far as the world was concerned," declares the 81-year-old Herman. "People came from Europe, South America, the main cities in the United States. It was the most prestigious club in the country. It was international in scope." He rattles off a list of luminaries who would see and be seen in the restaurant and bar: Hubert Humphrey, Van Cliburn, Jackie Gleason, Bebe Rebozo, Joe Robbie, Pierre Salinger, Chet Huntley, Eva Gabor.

Jack's wife Bobbie Herman remembers personally taking care of a couple of Australian tennis legends of the Seventies. "Tony Roche and John Newcombe were the wildest, craziest, sweetest guys," coos Bobbie, now 70 years old. "They'd be out drinking all night, then at five in the morning they knew they couldn't play if they didn't eat. So where did they go for their steak-and-eggs Australian breakfast? To Bobbie's door."

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