Stanley Whitman's Wonderful Life

He was born to wealth, he built the wildly successful Bal Harbour Shops, and he always seems to get what he wants -- no matter what

Stanley was born three years later, during a family visit to Evanston, Illinois. He was greeted by parades in nearby Chicago. The celebrations weren't for him (the United States and its allies had just claimed victory in World War I), but they were a portent of the charmed life that lay ahead.

Whitman considers himself a native Floridian and jokes that his Illinois birth was an indiscretion on his mother's part. “If she had waited just a few weeks,” he cracks, “I would have been born down here.” He grew up in an oceanfront mansion on 32nd Street and Collins Avenue, sharing the house with his parents, two brothers, a downstairs maid, an upstairs maid, a cook, a gardener, and a chauffeur. “We were pioneers,” he says. “We had the second telephone ever on Miami Beach.”

South Florida society in the Teens and Twenties consisted largely of transplanted Midwestern industrial kings who made their money in automobiles and mechanized farming, people like Carl Fisher, Harvey Firestone, and James Deering. The Whitmans fit right in. Stanley remembers playing as a child on the grounds of what eventually became the Firestone Estate at 44th Street and Collins Avenue. (The Fontainebleau Hilton now occupies the property.) And no Whitman birthday party was complete without a visit from Rosie, Carl Fisher's pet elephant. Fisher, a leading developer and booster, used the beast to advertise the area to tourists, photographing her alongside visiting politicians and celebrities. “Every time one of us kids had a birthday, we got to ride Rosie,” Whitman remembers.

William Whitman, Stanley's father, arrived in Miami Beach when reptiles still roamed Collins Avenue
Photos courtesy of Stanley Whitman
William Whitman, Stanley's father, arrived in Miami Beach when reptiles still roamed Collins Avenue
Another day, another shop: Whitman (far right) and others with Neiman Marcus president Lawrence Marcus (far left) breaking new ground in 1969, the company's first store outside Texas
photo courtesy of Sandra Luckow
Another day, another shop: Whitman (far right) and others with Neiman Marcus president Lawrence Marcus (far left) breaking new ground in 1969, the company's first store outside Texas

In Florida William Whitman launched a second career in real estate development, building both an apartment house and a hotel in the vicinity of his Collins Avenue mansion. “The first hotel built on Miami Beach after the 1926 hurricane,” recalls his son. He also developed Española Way, the Spanish village on South Beach, and, according to Stanley, at one time or another owned most of the ocean frontage between 29th and 44th streets.

Stanley's mother Leona, though 30 years younger than her husband, had a mind and will of her own, especially when it came to real estate. William Whitman warned his young wife to stay in her place when it came to business. She respectfully disregarded this advice. “And she made a killing!” her son reports with relish. “I think she was a better investor than any human being I've ever met.” And a shrewd investor until the very end: “For the last ten, fifteen years of her life [she died in 1983], she would drive down ... and spend a lot of time on South Beach and come back and tell me: “Stanley, you should buy property there.'”

She, of course, had owned real estate there years before. In addition to their other holdings, William and Leona Whitman controlled a couple of prominent Lincoln Road properties back in the Twenties, when the street was still an open thoroughfare and one of the premier shopping districts in the nation. “Absolutely one of the highest-quality streets in the United States,” Whitman says. By “highest quality” he means the best stores, the best merchandise, and what members of a certain social background used to refer to as “the best people.”

Stanley left South Florida for college in 1936. He chose Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, for no other reason than it was the only school to recruit him. His father died during that first semester away from home, and Whitman recalls the characteristic straight talk he got from his mother. “Son,” she told him, “I don't give a damn about good grades. You just go there and learn about life. That's what you're going to school for.” Whitman admits, with the delight a man might afford himself after a lifetime of having and making money, that he took her advice too much to heart. “I didn't study. I never opened a book in four years.... I think the only reason I graduated from Duke University is because they needed the money and there was a terrible, terrible depression. I don't think there's any other explanation.”

Duke may have been feeling the impact of the Great Depression, but to Whitman, a child of privilege, it was a vague rumor. “I have no recall of seeing any distressed people,” he admits. “Nobody had any money then, we know that. The only one who had any money was my father. The only thing the Depression meant to him was that he could buy a lot more for a lot less.”

A big, likable kid, Whitman was elected president of his fraternity at Duke and eventually got the school's May queen -- “a beautiful girl, a nice girl” named Dorothy -- to go out with him. As luck would have it, they share the same birthday. They've been married 58 years.

In 1941 Whitman's seemingly easy journey through life was temporarily interrupted. With war spreading across Europe and the Pacific, he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was practical, if not particularly enthusiastic, about the decision. “The country was going to go to war,” he explains. “If this is the case, why wait to be drafted and be a private in the U.S. Army? It's that simple. The war was coming, so get in the service you want to be in.”

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