Glorious and Notorious
In its time there was nothing like the Mutiny Hotel, and today it lives on in hindsight like the afterimage of a hallucination, bright but blurry. The Mississippi Delta is said to begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis; likewise the Mutiny in its day defined Miami's psychic boundaries. It was the nerve center of the city's exploding cocaine trade, a favorite hangout of globetrotting spies, and a desperately popular watering hole for Latin America's nouveau riche. It was meant to be elegant, and was, but early on it became infamous and edgy, and reveled in the reputation. Its most decadent highs were a carnival barker's advertisement for the Seventies, and its decline was an early object lesson in America's S&L crisis.
"I did a movie called life, with actors that were real people," says Burton Goldberg, former owner of the Mutiny. "We had dictators, secret police, drug people, bankers, the international trade, gunrunners, and celebrities: Rod Serling, Senator Kennedy, Cher, Hamilton Jordan, Jacqueline Onassis, George Bush. Mimes and magicians! Naked dancers in very fine taste, not prurient! Music! Chairs with enormous arms!
"I was very proud of the rooms -- the Egyptian Suite with stained glass and hand-carved chairs, the Roman tubs. The mirrors over the beds came from a hotel in New Orleans. The amount of romance that was budding there was incredible! It was in the very center of the sexual revolution."
The Mutiny Hotel opened in 1968 and closed for good in 1989, after years of spiraling senescence. At its peak in 1979, the private Mutiny Club claimed to have 11,000 card-carrying members, to gross seven million dollars a year in food and beverage revenues, and to consistently sell more Dom Perignon than any other venue in America.
A decade after it closed for keeps and more than fifteen years after its heyday at 2951 S. Bayshore Dr., it has been reincarnated as Mutiny Park, a condo-hotel. But there are ghosts, many of them still alive and walking around with their memories. Some want to forget they lived part of their lives at the Mutiny; some of those quoted below were given fictitious names to honor their requests for anonymity.
Jack, retired smuggler: "I would arrive at the Mutiny at seven in the morning, have breakfast, and talk to the girls. Each table had its own phone. You snapped your fingers and they'd bring the phone, plug it in the jack at the base of the table, and tell you what the number was. I would drink coffee till about noon, interspersed with a couple Heinekens. Then I would switch from the patio area to the glassed-in dining room for lunch. Barbara would seat me at my table and I'd meet with financiers for the films I was trying to produce.
"The afternoons were drinking martinis between one and five. Back to Scotch at five, calling assorted girlfriends, calling the front desk, ordering assorted theme rooms -- the Jungle Room for one type of girl, the Valentine's Room for another, always with a Jacuzzi. Plus ordering a nice supply of champagne and cocaine -- a gram, an eighth, whatever. The nights were basically about trading coke for sex. You plied women with coke, champagne. You would throw down 500 bucks and say buy some clothes, some nice earrings, here's my beeper number, I'll pick you up tonight.
"The Mutiny was the meeting place between North and South America. Both types of governments, both sets of dealers, both groups of spies and law enforcement people. You could conduct business, you could party -- there was really no reason to leave, and after a while I didn't. I lived there for weeks at a time. I left when I went to prison.
"Multimillion-dollar drug deals were being done at the tables on any given night. The DEA was there pretending to be dealers, trying to suck in the real dealers. The girls that worked there knew the clientele; they knew the cops, DEA, and all the major players in the drug business. You would think that a place with drug dealers and cops in the same room there would be a lot of tension. There was no tension at all. The girls would say, 'Jack, those four guys over there, they're heat.' But they didn't need to tell me. Those guys had the beards, the jackets, the shorts, whatever, but they always had the wrong shoes. That was the dead giveaway, always."
Mitzy, day waitress: "Being a Mutiny girl was sort of a status thing. Your makeup had to be perfect, you had your nails checked every day. We were all in our twenties, and we were all lookers in our own way. I had to go for three interviews before I got hired, and for the third interview I dressed a lot less conservatively.
"There was a lot of legitimate money -- millionaire Mexican chicken farmers, rich Venezuelans, local lawyers and businessmen -- but you also had the drug dealers throwing money around. They loved the girls, they were all showing off, and they all wanted to date us. We did very well. I can remember someone saying, 'Sweetheart, get me a pack of cigarettes' -- cigarettes were a dollar a pack then -- and they'd give you a hundred and say keep the change. To work three hours a day, three days a week, and clear $500 a week, that was a lot of money.
"Some legitimate people liked rubbing elbows with the not-so-legitimate people. Guys like Willy Falcon, his group was in there. He liked the corner booth the best. The dealers would come for lunch and order martinis and just keep going and going. There would be huge backgammon games, a lot of serious gambling. There would be four guys on the patio doing lines off the table and no one paid any attention -- you just pretended you didn't see it.
"I only worked nights a couple times. It was completely different from days, like the animals came out. I felt like I was in a jungle. A lot of leather and gold jewelry, a lot of diamond-faced Rolexes and gold coins on chains. Night was more intense, more pressure. There are some people who want to forget they even worked there. Some of the girls wound up marrying very wealthy men."
Mitchell, law enforcement consultant, ex-FBI: "I knew this Cuban immigrant, a very bright guy; he arrived in Miami and got a very menial job making about 50 bucks a week. He came upon a couple guys who asked if he knew how to use a walkie-talkie and binoculars. He says sure. They drive him to the Keys and put him on a bridge and said if you see any police, either in cars or boats, get on the radio and let us know. He spends the whole night there scared to death and never saw a thing. No one showed up. The two guys pick him up in the morning, mosquito-bitten to no end, and two weeks later they showed up and gave him $10,000 in cash. One thing led to another, and the next thing he knows he's one of the biggest dope dealers in Miami. The highlight of his pissing-it-away days was this: He had a confirmation party for his daughter at the Mutiny Hotel. It cost him $30,000.
"Colombian drug dealers really didn't understand the U.S. because they didn't live here. They relied on Cubans to do their dope importation and distribution. The Mutiny became a central point for Cubans involved in the drug business to hang out and be seen.
"These were otherwise normal human beings who all of a sudden fell into so much money it was unfathomable. It was like hitting the lottery every Saturday night. And the Mutiny just seemed like the place to be. Miami Beach had become a pit. There were no clubs for these guys in Lauderdale, because they were Cuban. There really was nothing else but the Grove.
"Drugs were relatively new to the FBI, so I said, Well if I'm in Newcastle, I'll mine coal. The first thing I saw was that it was a very fluid environment. Allegiances shifted all the time. You would be partners with three other people on a load, but the next day you weren't. If you were sitting at the Mutiny and had access to X amount of dope that was arriving, you then needed access to storage, offload spots, shrimpers, trucks; so you would hook up with your partners of the moment there at the bar."
Lazaro, private detective, former Metro-Dade Police undercover narcotics officer: "Miami was crazy in those days. It was fun but it was also very dangerous -- all those sensationalistic hits, the shootouts down U.S. 1. For a long time you had some local American guys involved in grass smuggling, and they were happy-go-lucky, sort of mellow types. Then the fishermen started getting into cocaine and had all of this money, and then the Colombians started coming in the mid-Seventies. After that, cocaine started getting really heavy and it was a more violent type of world. The cocaine types were more vociferous, more aggressive.
"In the middle of all this mayhem, the Mutiny was like a no-man's land, sort of a sanctuary. There weren't very many fights because everybody was armed. I remember Monkey Morales sitting there one night. A couple of people came in who he didn't like, so he asked for a basket of bread, and in the basket of bread he had put his weapon. That's how he did it. So if the police searched him, he was clean, but he had his gun close at hand."
Monkey Morales -- stocky, scary, possessed of simian features -- began his career the same year the Mutiny opened and eventually reigned as king of a court that included colorful top-flight drug traffickers such as Rudy Rodriguez, Carlos Quesada, and Francisco Condom-Gil. In 1968, after defecting from the Cuban secret police, Morales was arrested for the first time in Miami. But instead of going to jail, he became a paid FBI informant, testifying later that year against fellow anti-Castro zealot Orlando Bosch, who was caught at the Port of Miami trying to shoot missiles at a Cuba-bound Polish freighter. Throughout the years, as he became one of Florida's most successful cocaine importers, Morales informed on virtually all of his Mutiny drinking buddies, who, oddly, continued partying with him.
Lazaro, the undercover narc: "Monkey had a table at the end of the bar, and sometimes he'd be sitting there with Carlos Quesada. I liked Monkey. Quesada, I didn't like him as much -- he was less intelligent, basically a silk-shirt punk. One day he's putting vinyl on people's car tops at a joint off Le Jeune and Eighth Street, a year and a half later he's driving a Rolls and a Mercedes. He wasn't in the same class with Monkey, but then again, he's still alive.
"Anyway, you had nights when you had the top drug dealers in town sitting with Customs, DEA, Metro, all drinking at the same bar. Beepers were a new thing back then, but sometimes you walked in there and it sounded like a symphony with all the beepers going off. There were nice ladies there from all walks of life, everything from hookers to corporate executives. Everyone was there to have fun. The worst you had in the way of violence was wives walking in on drug dealers with their girlfriends. Sometimes you'd go in the men's room and there'd be three or four guys sniffing and snorting. I never saw any selling, but I sure saw a lot of giving.
"Why was the Mutiny allowed to operate so openly for so long? Let me explain. It's like in espionage -- the government knows who the spies are, so they leave them in place. That way they can study them. At the Mutiny we knew who was hanging out with who. We left them alone because we wanted to study the genealogy. You did a lot of intelligence-gathering at the Mutiny just by going there. You would know who just brought in a load because they would be celebrating -- it was that open.
"We had a gentleman, Rudy Rodriguez, who we arrested with about $900,000 in cash at his home. In those days there were no money-laundering statutes. Rudy was on his way to the Mutiny when we came in, and here's what he was wearing: white shoes, white socks, a white frock, and a white top hat. His wife was dressed in white. There was a white Rolls Royce out in front of Rudy's house, with a guy named Sunshine Sammy playing a small piano, a keyboard, in the back. We found the dope, the money, but Rudy claimed it was income from his seafood business. The IRS eventually gave him half the money back, and he went to the Mutiny and put a bottle of Dom on every table."
Steven, attorney, former federal prosecutor: "Usually the people with me were other prosecutors or agents, and a lot of the time we were just there out of sheer curiosity. It was the height of the cocaine cowboy era, which a lot of people have forgotten about, and from the eyes of a federal prosecutor it had sort of a sinister feel. Maybe sinister isn't the right word. It was like being in the Wookie bar in Star Wars.
"You've got to put Miami in context. You can't really understand the place unless you knew it then, and if you wanted to understand it then, you had to check out the Mutiny. The Mutiny was beyond a hangout, it was almost a cult. A lot of undercover meetings took place there. In the old days this town was loaded with informants. The U.S. Attorney's Office was absolutely swamped. A lot of people came in from out of town on short-term detail to help us out, and the first place we always took them was the Mutiny."
Burton Goldberg was known to his employees as a petty tyrant and an overbearing perfectionist, but the Mutiny's long slide indisputably began in 1984, when Goldberg decamped, selling the hotel for a cool $17 million. The next year the Mutiny's new owners defaulted on their mortgage, and a bank named Sunrise Savings & Loan repossessed the property. At the time Mutiny general manager Bob Smith acknowledged that his efforts to clean up the hotel's druggie image had been a big mistake. "It was the downfall of the Mutiny in financial terms," Smith noted. "[Drug dealers] supported the club, and the club accounted for 65 percent of the revenues of the hotel."
In 1986 Sunrise Savings & Loan declared insolvency. To avoid widespread panic in the thrift industry, the federal government took control of the bank, thereby becoming the new owner of the Mutiny. For the next few years the hotel floundered along as the feds tried to find a buyer. In 1987 police arrested eighteen people at a cocaine-and-conch party in the Mutiny's Cappuccino and Santa Fe suites. On the surface it seemed the wild days were still on, but in fact the party was a low-rent affair and the Mutiny had lost its pizzazz.
A longer version of this story was published in these pages February 27, 1997.
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