When the Beach was Hot
After a long dry spell, Miami Beach is once again the nightlife capital of America, a wide-open town with nonstop action, the playground of the Western world. The Euro-chics, the celebrated, and the simply rich, the emblems that guide the rest of the glitter-hungry world are pouring in: Gianni Versace, Bruce Weber, Paloma Picasso, Chris Blackwell, Prince Albert of Monaco, David Geffen. Like everyone else, they are driven by publicity and an itch for getting on the inside track to wonderland. A place where anything might happen, where everyone is young and beautiful, where life assumes a promise that it doesn't seem to have anywhere else. A town slightly out of control, where the normal rules that govern society always seem to be in a miraculous abeyance.
South Beach is the nightlife epicenter of the moment, but there was a time when most of Miami Beach was one big cauldron of flash and high-rollers. It began as early as the Twenties, during Al Capone's Star Island days, peaked during the era of gambling and big-name entertainers, and began to ebb during the Jackie Gleason period. The golden time, the years between the late Forties and the mid-Sixties, was the final great gasp of glitz before the bleak Seventies and early Eighties, when Art Deco was not yet a viable marketing concept. But there was never anything quite like the Beach in its heyday. Cuba was beautiful and offered perhaps more opportunities for dissipation, but it lacked the unique spin of Miami, a tropical but still familiar American landscape. Vegas at its zenith was too overloaded, too claustrophobic, too centered on gambling. Palm Beach was closed off to ordinary mortals. Miami Beach was, as it is now, in the right place at the right time.
In those grand old days, it was a town of unlimited potential, with a weird constellation of players that jelled into one big moment of American pop-culture history. From the start, the moneyed crowd liked it here: old-guard names, on the order of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Coleman DuPont; lots of imported royalty with pretension value A Lord Cromwell, the Marquis of Waterford, various European counts and princesses. The dead-ahead WASPS, solid citizens like Gardner Cowles of Look magazine and Elliott Roosevelt, cavorting at the Surf Club (known for hiring club fighters to entertain during dinner), the Bath Club, both on upper Collins. A society heavy with auto industry figures encouraged by pioneer developer Carl Fisher (who had made his fortune with Prest-O-Lite acetylene gas, used for headlights) to come down and join the party: Gar Wood, Albert Champion, James Allison, Harvey Firestone. And the money, as always, attracted the fringe crowd: sports figures, gossip columnists, real estate hustlers, con artists, hookers, shop girls looking for husbands.
And mobsters, everybody from Meyer Lansky to Joe Adonis, men who had come down with Al Capone during Prohibition and moved into gambling and legitimate business. By the time of Senator Estes Kefauver's investigation of Miami's organized crime network in 1950, the city was known as "the winter crime capital of America." The infamous S&G Syndicate had bookies in every hotel, controlled the illicit gambling houses (places like the Colonial Inn in Hallandale and the Island Club in Sunny Isles), and ran whorehouses on Second Avenue in downtown Miami. When public pressure became too intense, they moved on to Las Vegas and Havana. And gradually some of the punch went out of the city.
But there was still plenty of juice around, and anybody who was anybody came through the Beach. A universe of legends out on the town, creating an alchemy of pure star power, making the clubs and restaurants jump, the place to be that particular night. Elvis cavorting with the Rat Pack A Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop A at the Fontainebleau. Maurice Chevalier dining with his wife at Le Parisien on 41st Street. Jimmy Durante laughing with singer Jerri Pollak, now a Miami stockbroker, at the Eden Roc. Martha Raye holding down the fort at the Five O'Clock Club, the legendary one-for-the-road joint on 22nd Street. One block away on 23rd, the three graces of raunch A Belle Barth, Patsy Abbott, and Pearl Williams of Place Pigalle A at Patsy's Place. Marlene Dietrich and Nat King Cole dining together at the Eden Roc. Tennessee Williams and Gloria Swanson at the Embers on 22nd Street. Joe E. Lewis and Frank Sinatra nearby at Murray Franklin's. An all-star lineup A Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Tony Martin, Marie McDonald, Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Roberta Sherwood A on parade at the Latin Quarter. Jack E. Leonard and Uncle Miltie hosting a party for the Footlighters (an association of male comics), Berle mugging and grabbing his crotch for the cameras. An endless procession of the famous A Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny A dropping in on clubs with intensely atmospheric names: the Black Magic Room, the Neptune Lounge, the Copa.
Plenty of celebrity firepower, and lots of laughs and sex, the essential components of nightlife. Rumors of "buffet flats," South Beach hotels with different sex shows on each floor. As with the modern epoch, the Beach had a considerable number of gay bars, the clientele favoring suits and ties rather than Spandex shorts: the Charles in the Charles Hotel on Collins Avenue, where female impersonator Charles Pierce started out; the Echo Club on Collins at Tenth; Billy Lee's on Alton Road at Dade Boulevard, with a notorious back room that was periodically raided. Then as now, people tended to get carried away on the Beach. John Jacob Astor VI, an incorrigibly decadent playboy, was known to hire a half-dozen women at a time for his lavish private parties. Even at the elegant Surf Club A run by Alfred Barton, a former Hollywood art director who counted Noel Coward among his friends A an incident of sorts was provoked when the actor Clifton Webb became infatuated with one of the pool boys.
The Fifties may have been the last great American era A a country powerful, generous, and sure of itself A and Miami Beach was (and still is in many respects) a place that belongs to the Fifties. When Jackie Gleason rolled into town in 1963 to tape The Jackie Gleason Show, traveling with assorted showgirls and bartenders on twelve Pullman railroad cars, it looked as if the party would never end. But Gleason only made the obligatory public appearances, Miss Universe pageants and such, and kept to himself in the evenings. Not a great club man. In fact, the show was rube stuff, played to the chumps. Package tour groups began infesting the Beach, the hotels started to put in their own nightclubs, and nightlife became more insular. Tourists could come down for a week and never leave the hotels. By 1965, the 50th anniversary of Miami Beach, things were starting to slide.
The clubs died off gradually, and now the past is being chewed up and reinterpreted, made into something that George Raft would never have understood. The Embers became Club Nu. The Charles has become Sinatra Bar. The venerable Miami Beach Kennel Club, the dog-racing track, was torn down and replaced with Penrod's. The old Cinema Casino became Paragon. South Beach, the low-rent section in those days, is now the center of the known party universe.
Miami Beach was undoubtedly more glamorous then, but more than likely it was also a stupefyingly vulgar, thoroughly corrupt resort town. (More or less as it is today.) But it was also an interesting vulgar resort town. The old publicity photos, the reminiscences of prominent local nightlife veterans A clothing designer and social pro Jay Anderson, publicist Charlie Cinnamon, photographer Ray Fisher, Rose McDaniel of Joe's Stone Crab, Joseph Nevel of Wolfie's, impresaria Judy Drucker A make it all come back again, strong and clear. And amid the mysterious workings of nostalgia, the past seems more compelling and, curiously, more alive than the present.
"I used to shoot social stuff for some of the local publications that were around in the late Forties, the social giveaway magazines, Panorama and such, where you'd go and take pictures of some restaurant or nightclub owner shaking hands with celebrities. I shot just about everywhere, except for the Brook Club [in Surfside] A that was operating illegally, with gambling and everything, and they wouldn't let photographers in.
Money was different then; it meant more and there weren't the taxes we have now. There were much less people, and hotels and apartments were cheaper. You didn't feel like you could get in any real trouble; this was well before Kennedy was assassinated. Most of the hotels had a bookie operating out of one of the pool cabanas, but the streets felt safe. Everything was looser then. None of this PR and entourage stuff with celebrities, trying to get approval to photograph them. You'd just go up and take their picture.
"High season pretty much followed the racing season at Hialeah, January 15 through March 15. But there was always plenty going on. The Beachcomber and the Copa A which later became the Copa City A on Dade Boulevard [near Alton], had every major star: Danny Kaye, the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Maurice Chevalier, the Xavier Cugat orchestra, Milton Berle. During intermissions at the Copa, they had mambo orchestras, the musicians all in frilly sleeves. You'd catch the last show at the Copa and then go to this place called Mother Kelly's [at Alton Road and Dade Boulevard] A they had thumb bits, little pieces of steak for snacks A and acts like Julie Wilson and Gene Baylos. Mother Kelly's attracted a real late-night crowd.
"South on Alton Road you had Kitty Davis's Airliner Lounge, this place that had an aviation motif, propellers spinning inside the club, that kind of thing. There was Papa Bouche's in Hallandale, half-nude showgirls, a bunch of entertainers who hadn't become stars yet. The Paddock Bar on Washington Avenue [now WPA], Lenny Bruce played there, and this 300-pound guy called B.S. Pulley, who went on to appear on Broadway in Guys and Dolls.
"Arthur Godfrey did a broadcast from the Kenilworth every day, where he'd schmooze and play the ukulele. Walter Winchell stayed at the Roney during the season and broadcast on Sundays from the old Herald building; you'd see him in restaurants with people like J. Edgar Hoover. Winchell also knew most of the gamblers. They all fed on each other: People would come up to Winchell like he was the Pope or something. I saw him at one of the conventions, '68 or '72, and it was really sad; nobody knew who he was. He barely got press credentials. A lost soul.
"Down on First Street, near the old dog-racing track, there was the Playhouse Bar on Ocean Drive. On Collins and Fifth, a place called the Circus Bar, where you'd see second-rate comics and singers. The Cinema Casino, on Twelfth and Washington, it was originally a casino and then became a movie theater. The Latin Quarter on Palm Island was very lush, owned by Lou Walters, Barbara Walters's father. Judy Drucker appeared there once when she was very young, singing the quartet from Rigoletto, in this act she did with the Ziegfeld comedian Willy Howard, his brother Eugene, and a blond showgirl. Judy was the only real singer in the group; the rest of them did a parody of the song. The showgirl was wearing a low-cut satin dress, and when the audience applauded, everyone bowed, and Willy Howard would encourage the audience to applaud more, so he could mug and look down her dress.
"Martha Raye took over a place called the Five O'Clock Club on 22nd Street. They had a gimmick of buying a free round, either at 5:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m. Near the current Herald building there was a club called Danny and Doc's Jewel Box, which had female impersonators. Jennie Grossinger from the Catskills had a hotel on the beach at 30th and Collins, and there was the Lord Tarleton down the block, where they also had a lounge with entertainers. Place Pigalle [on 20th Street], strippers and comedians. Jack Dempsey was a partner in a hotel on Twentieth Street called the Dempsey-Vanderbilt. There was a nightclub in the hotel called Pago Pago, where you'd sometimes see Ed Sullivan and his wife. Not laugh-a-minute people.
"The Beach was full of great characters. Swifty Morgan, the inspiration for that Bob Hope movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, who went around selling ties in the clubs. Kingfish Levinsky, a punch-drunk ex-fighter who also sold ties and watches as well. He supposedly tried to sell J. Edgar Hoover a hot watch one time for a hundred bucks, claiming that there was a reward on it for $250. Harry the Hipster, this jazz musician who used to hang out in the jazz lounges. And of course John Jacob Astor, who was really the black sheep of the family. One of his divorces was so bad they sealed the court records so it wouldn't leak out to the press.
"It was just a whole different kind of town. Anything could happen. I remember one day on the Beach in high school, walking down the street with three or four friends. This guy and his wife pulled up in a big Buick convertible and offered us a lift. Who would give a ride to a bunch of teenagers now? But it was Miami, and that's just the way it was."
A Photographer Ray Fisher, now living in South Miami "It was a very different time; Miami Beach was very elegant, very chic. At the Brook Club everybody would be in black tie having a gorgeous dinner and watching a show, while gambling went on in the back room. I think it was run by the S&G Syndicate. The Latin Quarter had glittering, ostentatious stage productions, the kind of thing you might see at Radio City Music Hall. And all the larger clubs had big orchestras with wonderful musicians.
"I started singing in clubs when I was fifteen, around 1948. I lied and told everybody I was eighteen, and hid it from my parents until I got caught. I used to sing Broadway show tunes, Spanish songs, and occasionally arias from operas. The first club was the Pago Pago, show tunes from Carousel, things like that. Fifty bucks a week, a lot of money for a high school kid then. After that I went on to the Brook Club, the Copa, and the Latin Quarter, when I was seventeen or so, starting college. There was talk about going on to Broadway, but then I got married at eighteen and a half, and that was that.
"The Latin Quarter came about when Hank Meyer came to our school, looking for somebody to do a publicity stunt with the singer Lenny Ross. They wanted somebody who could sing opera, which I'd been studying since the age of fourteen, and I did a routine with him, and later Willy Howard.
"Once we did a whole operatic production number based on the second act of La Boheme, the Cafe Momus scene. They had a tenor, I sang the role of Musetta, and they added showgirls. I'd sing a couple of arias and there'd be a couple of mostly nude girls walking around. After awhile they were just part of the scenery. Life backstage was an eye-opener, too. We had these two showgirls, the Wyland twins, Winnie and Twinnie, who'd stand on the side of the stage with nothing on but a white fur muff, both carrying chihuahuas. Thirty years later I was in a box at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and I saw this blond woman on top of a ladder taking pictures. It was Winnie, working as the chief photographer at the Met.
"Usually there'd be two production numbers and then the star would come on. We did two shows a night, and I'd study for school between numbers, and go home around 3:00 a.m. Then get up the next morning at 8:00 for classes. It was a good experience in not sleeping. I tell everybody now I hire somebody who sleeps for me.
"A lot of those clubs died when the hotels, places like the Fontainebleau and the Deauville, put in their own nightclubs. Tourists stopped going out as much. There really aren't any parallels between that time and South Beach now. We're getting back to it, the Beach is alive and moving again, but it was much more glamorous then. Now it's a younger crowd. A Latin Quarter today would be packed, though. The time for it has come back."
A Judy Drucker, head of the Concert Association of Florida
"The late Forties to mid-Fifties A those were the days. No cocaine or crack, and you really didn't have to lock your doors. It was a golden age after the Second World War. There was always gambling, at places like the Royal Palm Club [on Palm Island], which went on well after the Kefauver committee hearings. There weren't too many charity balls, or an opera house, but plenty of wonderful theme galas at the Bath and Surf clubs: beautifully dressed elegant people, not tacky in any way. In season you had the royals and their crowd. Lucy Cotton, a former silent-screen star who married the Russian Prince Eristavi Tcherine A everybody called her Princess Lucy. Prince Rospigliosi, an Italian nobleman, and his wife Elizabeth. The General Motors bunch, the Detroit ladies, wore big hunky jewelry. No one was afraid of being robbed, although I do remember driving up to Hollywood one night in an open convertible and some thugs actually did try to pull us over. I was traveling with a society lady wearing a huge diamond necklace, and her boyfriend, who was an accountant with the Chicago mob. But we got away. No real traffic then, either, and it was nothing to go to all the slumming bars in downtown Miami A you'd take off just like that. It was a sweet town.
"The Latin Quarter had revues with cancan girls shrieking and lifting their skirts. I still remember one acrobatic act, Darvus and Julia: This woman would climb up a ladder, jump, and do a split on top of a glass floor. Then there were all the gambling clubs up in Golden Beach and Hollywood A Tony Martin would play up there sometimes. The Roney was chic then, and Alfred Barton threw elaborate, sky's-the-limit parties at the Surf Club, with elephants and tigers and circuses. When he died, the whole thing fell apart. The Brook Club, where they had gambling, was very high-class A long gowns and white dinner jackets. Some of the private parties in homes around town were very decadent, but everyone was well behaved, even when they had too many drinks. John Jacob Astor had a big house on Pine Tree Drive, and he'd have huge parties, everyone in formal wear, with various entertainments: female wrestlers in bras and panties, rolling around on slick canvases.
"It was the beginnings of Dorothy Dey, who was a gossip columnist for the Hearst Syndicate. She and John Jacob Astor both survived the sinking of the Titanic, when Dorothy was a kid, and then she went on to start the "Suzy" column. Into the Sixties, it was a wide-open town, and Dorothy was the first nationally known gossip columnist based here. The column was called "Night and Dey," and she knew everybody in American society A celebrities, phonies, everybody. She'd dish them, but she wrote a bitch column like a lady. I really miss her.
"Society was a real melange then. Helen and her brother John were both on Pine Tree, the Firestones right on the beach where the Fontainebleau is now, and then there were all the enormously rich Cubans, like Julio and Jorge Sanchez A two sugar barons who lived on Star Island. On all the private estates, people entertained lavishly: sit-down dinners for 200 or 300, with party tents and orchestras. There were religious differences, of course, but people like Audrey Ruxton Love A a Guggenheim A were members at the Surf Club, for instance.
"When I was financially able to, I had my own parties for 200 or so at my place in the Venetian Islands. Before he moved to Star Island, Dan Paul had a three-and-a-half-acre waterfront estate on Key Biscayne, the old Matheson place. He always had wonderful parties. I still remember one of his New Year's Eve things on Star Island. People don't entertain like that any more.
"And there was always Cuba on the weekends. I remember going down to visit Doris Hedges in Havana A her husband Burke was ambassador to Brazil at the time A and going to the Barletta cräme-de-la-cräme wedding, when she married Count Somebody or another. There was a beautiful party on her estate with the Havana Symphony playing dance music. It was right before Castro took over, and all these guards with machine guns were crouched in the bushes.
"Everything has changed, the elegance of the private clubs, the parties. When they ended gambling, the chic people went somewhere else. I still have fun, though. Waking up in the morning and still being alive A that's fun to me now."
A Clothing designer Jay Anderson, retired and living in Coconut Grove "I came down here in 1940. I've owned Wolfie's for eight years. At that time the Roney was the northern end of civilization; there wasn't much above 23rd Street. In the Wolfie's space was a neighborhood bar called Fan and Bill's. They took over the club next door and made it into a really grand nightclub, also called Fan and Bill's, with singers and shows. Everybody went there. Then it became Chandler's restaurant, a very elegant supper club. Wolfie Cohen took over this space in '42 or '43, and it was popular from the start, lines around the block, 24-hour service. Tourists, locals who'd come by after the fights at the Fifth Street gym, and every major star. In our celebrity room we have pictures of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn. People would show up in chauffeured limousines. It was quite a scene."
A Joseph Nevel, current owner of Wolfie's restaurant "I moved down from New York, where I'd been involved in theater, in the late Fifties, and started handling the Empress Hotel at 43rd and Collins. I just sort of fell into being a press agent. Then I went to work for Patsy Abbott, who had a club called Patsy's Place. It was hot, sophisticated, and rocking. One night Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd walked in. The newspapers had room for that kind of stuff then, and every night photographers and columnists A Herb Rau of the News, George Burke from the Herald A would travel around the clubs looking for material. George didn't drive, and did the whole route by bus. I'd be dropping photos off at the papers and I'd see him waiting on Collins Avenue in the middle of the night and wind up giving him a lift somewhere. Then you had the smaller papers, the Post Mortems and Antennas of their day, working the same turf.
"Usually I'd try to set up interviews with celebrities, or get one of the roving photographers to come over, or have my own guys shoot stuff. It was still very hard to crack the columns then, a real achievement. The press would come by, try to catch a celebrity misbehaving, schnorrer around, get a free meal. Just like today, I guess.
"Over on 23rd Street there were the three clubs owned by Teddy Goldstein, who was tied in with that whole Birdland crowd in New York. It's a parking lot now, I think. They were all connected, but each of them A the Pin Up, the Grate, the Nite Owl A had a different ambiance. The Grate was a jazz lounge, thumb bits for snacks and great musicians A Chet Baker played there. The other two had jukeboxes, which were very important in those days. Mostly sentimental music, Judy Garland and Bobby Short. The Pin Up played a lot of Frank Sinatra. The Nite Owl was the last stop of the night, a real set-'em-up-Joe kind of place.
"Up on the 79th Street Causeway you had the Bonfire, a pick-up joint. Rip Taylor started out up there. At the Seagull Hotel on 21st Street there was a late-night disc jockey called Sleepytime Gal, operating out of one of the rooms. People would come by and talk to her, and she'd play Tony Martin records all the time. Martin was like an obsession with her. She was great, really ahead of her time.
"There was a hotel of the year, every year A the Eden Roc, Fontainebleau, whatever. The lobbies would blow your mind; people would go over just to look at them. What really ruined things was the American plan, which meant tourists ate three meals a day at the hotel and then stayed in for the shows at night.
"Miami Beach was the resort town in the winter. To be here in the height of the season meant you had money. It was really part of that borscht-belt circuit: summers in the Catskills, winters on Miami Beach. The Broadway Series is bringing a show down this season, Catskills on Broadway (the revue opened last week and runs through February 7 at the Jackie Gleason Theater) with all the comedians who used to play down here: Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence, Dick Capri, and Louise DuArt. People are still aching for that kind of humor.
"The excitement of those times was unbelievable. You never saw anything like the parade of jewels and furs. The town was full of high-rollers. It was all about eating, drinking, gambling, and getting a tan. And people definitely came down here to connect. You'd have women in the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau trying to find a rich husband. Some of those women married very well and are quite respectable now. The town was flamboyant, outrageous, and ultimately very glamorous."
A Publicist Charlie Cinnamon "Miami Beach in the Fifties was far better than now. Men wore hats and jackets, ladies all had mink stoles and gloves, everybody always dressed up for dinner. People even go to nice restaurants in jeans now. The whole country is more casual and downscaled than it was then.
"In season, stars were everywhere. You'd see Lana Turner and Susan Hayward shopping at Saks on Lincoln Road. At night they'd have the whole Rat Pack at the Fontainebleau: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford. Afterwards they'd all go to the clubs. There was Murray Franklin's on 23rd Street, where all the performers would come in after their shows. They had risque comedians, that kind of stuff. It was a riot, really sensational.
"The Patio Club on Dade Boulevard, I think it's a gas station now, was a little quaint after-hours place. I was in there one night when Frank Sinatra and Joe Di Maggio walked in; Winchell came in a lot, too. Joe and Ethel Stein owned the Jewel Box, and it was a very classy kind of place, absolutely gorgeous female impersonators, a mixed gay and straight crowd.
"The Saxony and the Sans Souci were the two largest hotels then. The restaurants were wonderful. Joe's, of course, was always crowded. Morris and Ruth Lerner had The Famous, where The Strand is now, and it was great: kosher food, kreplach and things like that, seltzer bottles on the table. The Park Avenue on Twentieth Street was a very nice steak house, and then you had the Embers, where Club Nu is now. They served delicious spiced apples with every dish. First class. Jacket and tie required. Then Wolfie's for deli food, all the waitresses in starched white uniforms with big pocket handkerchiefs.
"Lincoln Road was more upscale than lower South Beach, and it seems to me that you still had a lot of older people down there. I lived on Pennsylvania and Tenth. Unfortunately it was also a time of restricted hotels and apartments. The Kenilworth didn't allow Jews, as well as some of the buildings on South Beach. My husband couldn't get into many of the places we wanted to live.
"You still have celebrities from New York coming here, and royalty, but you don't get wonderful people anymore. They act differently than they used to. It seems like the whole world was more grand in those years than it is now." A Rose McDaniel, 30-year veteran of Joe's Stone Crab
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.