Lifestyles of the Rich and Paranoid
In the few maps that record South Florida before the era of dredge-and-plat, Indian Creek Village survives as an obscure speck of land off the northern tip of Miami Beach. Originally earmarked to become part of a much larger manmade island, the islet was instead remodeled into a free-floating country club during the roaring Twenties.
Its topsoil, once sprinkled with mucks and peats, was reseeded in the fashion of an English countryside. A red-tiled clubhouse, designed to emulate a Spanish castle, came next. Rounded into a dainty fingertip and hemmed by concrete, the original plat, still in use, carved 41 bayfront lots from the horseshoe of land surrounding the golf course. A single, two-lane road connected Indian Creek to the outside world.
The island's exclusivity proved fatal to the original development company, which went bankrupt during the Depression-lean Thirties. But a few brave homesteaders, men like meat-packing baron John Swift and Wall Street wizard Harold Matzinger, coveted the property's fortresslike geography and built mansions near the club. In 1939 word spread that neighboring Surfside was preparing to annex the 300-acre island. Frantic to defend their privacy, residents seized upon a now-defunct state law that allowed any congregation of 25 or more people to form a municipality. On May 17, 1939, the Florida legislature passed an act incorporating Indian Creek.
From its inception, the village served as a paragon of gracious living, a refuge from Miami Beach's otherwise gaudy, celebrity-clogged landscape. "It was quite a beautiful place in those early days," remembers Joan Vandemaele, stepdaughter of charter member Matzinger. "There were dances held on the club's patio. I was only a child, of course, and the prevailing feeling was that children should be seen, not heard. But it was all quite charming."
Life revolved around the country club, which covers 80 percent of the island, and membership was de rigueur for those who settled during the post-World War II boom. Nor was wealth enough to merit entry into this fiercely guarded Eden. One also had to exhibit the intangible markings of proper breeding. Tourist guides took to describing Indian Creek as "the most exclusive island anywhere," the wintertime home to Woolworths, Hoovers, and a dozen other brand-name millionaires.
As is often the case among the super-rich, municipal affairs were organized along somewhat monarchal lines. For many years Matzinger served as unofficial king of the island, despite the maintenance of a police force and the regular election of a council. "Matty," as he was known, called for an end to the infamous rat infestation of the Fifties, for instance, by placing a dead rodent in the mayor's mailbox.
As founders have died off or moved away, the chummy bond between the privately owned club and the municipality has disintegrated. Increasingly the impregnable village has become a magnet for wealthy foreigners A such as singer Julio Iglesias and Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz A who have little in common with their WASPish predecessors.
The spirit of reclusiveness, however, has hardly diminished. Ironically, though, the very decision to incorporate, which spared islanders a merger with the mainland, has forced them to endure the rude mandates of the public domain. Over the years, residents have suffered the indignity of political scandal after scandal, the unfortunate spawn of squabbling among various volunteer council members.
The lone thoroughfare also has been officially classified as a public roadway, leaving it open to anyone (anyone!) who should happen over the island's hoary bridgehead. Ten years ago, in fact, a group of renegade police officers used this very argument in a short-lived campaign to cease blocking the entrance. (Current procedure calls for police to ask visitors their purpose on the island. Should the interlopers remain intent on entry, officers are required by law to lift the toll bar, then A by policy A to tail them.)
Given the exorbitant number of newsmakers who have resided in Indian Creek Village A including Miami Herald general manager Jim Knight A remarkably few articles have been written about the place. The residents' attitude toward the press was perhaps best illustrated by the appearance of a newspaper photographer at an April 20, 1983, council meeting. No sooner had the first shot been snapped then two of the five council members evacuated the town hall. Other residents hurled threats at the intrusive shutterbug while the village attorney merely shook his head and muttered, "It's a public meeting."
Today residents still balk at any sort of press attention, outside the social pages. Not even Suzie Linden, Indian Creek's ranking socialite and author of an achingly dull 722-page memoir, cares to recount her salad days. Instead she summarily hangs up on reporters. Twice, if necessary.
Clark Hastings, general manager of the 400-member Indian Creek Country Club, greets the specter of media coverage with the same frosty paranoia. "What are you doing here?" Hastings barked recently upon spotting two unfamiliar visitors to his club, one carrying a camera. "Are you with some sort of publication?"
This delightful brand of insularity has not only helped Indian Creek escape the headlines, it has allowed the island to virtually defy the history books. The Dade County library system contains but two tomes that mention the village, both in passing. Aside from maps, the Historical Museum of Southern Florida offers nothing. Even Dade's foremost historians admit to being stumped when it comes to Indian Creek. "Man, that place is shut off from the world," marvels MDCC Social Sciences professor Paul George. "You could ask me about almost anything else, but that I can't help you with." George's only suggestion: "Try the tour boat operators. They may know something about that place."
Or not. In fact, none of the guides New Times contacted knew the first thing about the island. They did offer an excuse, however. Some years ago, it seems, the village's marine patrol cops received orders to shoo away any sightseeing boat that should drift into territorial waters.
The most extensive account of the island to date is, in fact, Herbert Kastle's 1972 novel, The Millionaires, a fictional tribute to the folly of affluence based on Indian Creek Village. "That sure kicked up a fury," notes Mary Jane Hardwicke, a long-time country club member. "But then, the rumors are always flying in Indian Creek. That's how I make it through the cocktail parties there, now that I don't drink. I just tell them, 'I'm on chapter five,' and everyone scatters."
Hardwicke, a resident of Surfside, says she rarely visits the village these days. "Never even considered moving there," she adds. "A fella named Woolworth, who lived there in the Forties, used to tell me: Mary Jane, never, never, never get yourself behind a gate.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.