The Hard Fall
In 1818 the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley published "Ozymandias of Egypt," which describes how a traveler in the desert stumbles upon the enormous, broken statue of a great king. "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" stand next to a "shatter'd visage," Shelley writes. "And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away."
I thought of those words recently when I heard that Richard Bronson had just begun a two-year stint in prison. Bronson's short tenure on South Beach, where he attempted to establish himself as a pillar of society -- nightclub owner, fashion-magazine publisher, art collector, philanthropist -- was fed by ambition and fueled by greed. Now there's little left of the empire he tried to build. As the South Beach scene torques itself into a buzz of celebrity sightings and nonstop parties this season, it's an appropriate time to revisit Bronson's cautionary tale.
Bronson began his career as a stockbroker in New York, initially for legitimate operations like Bear Stearns but ending up at one of the most notorious brokerages of the Nineties, Stratton Oakmont, which the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1996 shut down for its long-running fraud. Before that, in 1992, Bronson had moved to Fort Lauderdale with another Stratton alumnus, Elliot Loewenstern, and bought the small trading house Biltmore Securities. Working with Stratton Oakmont, according to records, Bronson and Loewenstern turned Biltmore into a boiler room, a place where unscrupulous traders inflated the price of worthless stocks and sold them to unsuspecting retirees, in many cases depleting their life savings. The complaints piled up and in 1995 the SEC suspended Bronson for a year. By 1998 Biltmore had been banned from two states and censured in two more.
With time on his hands during his suspension, Bronson reinvented himself. He bought a two-million-dollar mansion in Golden Beach and began giving generously to the Miami City Ballet, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Miami Beach Police Athletic League. His largesse earned him a spot on the boards of the ballet and the museum. In other words, he used his tainted cash to buy respectability. Miami is a great place for this type of scam. We're a young community easily dazzled by flash and lacking a conservative old guard to vet newcomers.
If you're picking up the check, you're eagerly invited to play.
Sensing things were getting hot, Bronson took a couple of steps back from Biltmore and tried his hand at other businesses. He bought Shadow Lounge, a sleek South Beach nightclub on Washington Avenue. A year later he started Channel, a fashion and society magazine. Eight months after first publishing Channel, he opened a sister publication in Los Angeles, garnering articles in the New York Times and Mediaweek that marveled at his ambition.
In 1999 the karmic hammer came down. The SEC banned Biltmore, Bronson, and Loewenstern from the marketplace. Biltmore closed. Bronson sold Shadow Lounge to his partners and took out a mortgage on his Golden Beach manse to pay his share of more than seven million dollars in fines. A short time later he sold Channel, which then folded under its own turgid weight.
And there matters lay for a while. Bronson moved into Portofino Tower, the South Beach high-rise built by German developer, former nightclub owner, and accused rapist (but never convicted) Thomas Kramer. Fresh from plastic surgery, Bronson still held court in whatever lounge was the hot spot of the season, and he cast about for something else to do with his life -- and his money.
Apparently there wasn't as much of the latter as people thought. The magazine had cost him dearly. Early on he attempted to partner up with Ocean Drive publisher Jerry Powers, who refused to get involved. So Bronson became obsessed with turning Channel into the next Ocean Drive, and in the process futilely spent millions.
Keeping up appearances was beginning to take its toll. The $2000-a-month lease on his Mercedes convertible, the rent at Portofino -- all of it hemorrhaged money. He turned to real estate and explored selling extended auto warranties. None of it paid off. He was reduced to renting a Mitsubishi SUV, which he didn't return. Beach police arrested him in August for grand theft. He pleaded guilty and sentence was suspended. Meanwhile the feds, who were going after Stratton Oakmont and its affiliates, were closing in on him. Lawyers' fees were adding up.
In January 2002 the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York filed securities fraud and conspiracy charges against Bronson for his role in the Biltmore swindle. He pleaded guilty on October 30, 2003, and was sentenced to two years in prison and three years probation. His prison term began December 15.
By then he was broke. He had moved out of Portofino (some say he was evicted) and was calling around town trying to borrow money from friends and former business associates. This past November he called Gerry Kelly, who had worked for him briefly at Shadow Lounge and went on to preside over the successful mega-club Level. Bronson was now staying at the less expensive Roney Plaza. "I was approached by him to set up a public-relations firm," Kelly recalls. "He said he had been contemplating for many years what direction his life would take, and thought I was the right person to open a PR company that would cater to Fortune 500 companies. I declined."
A month later, insolvent and alone, Bronson reported to federal prison.
Not many places in the world do nightlife as well as South Beach. But the days of Bronson, petty mobster Chris Paciello, and their ilk seems over. A subtle yet powerful change has taken place: Big money has come to town. The Shore Club, the Ritz-Carlton, Setai, and national franchises backed by powerful corporations have set up shop on the Beach. The party promoters who've survived are the ones who work hard but keep a relatively low profile: Kelly, who just launched his new club State; Michael Capponi, who has allied himself with the Ritz-Carlton; Tommy Pooch, who quietly began a Sunday event at the Raleigh Hotel; the Milon brothers, who bought Level. Big money, the thinking goes, will not tolerate the bad press that accompanies scoundrels and scandals. And no one wants the "shatter'd visage" of the colossal statue to come crashing down on them.
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