When journalist Joann Biondi began writing Miami Beach Memories, she knew she had a sprawling, extraordinary project on her hands. Her goal was to depict a full and clear picture of the evolution of Miami Beach into the SoBe we know today, and to reveal the star power that our sandy stretch attracted long before many contemporary stars were even born. "Edna Buchanan said to me, 'I'm so glad you're writing this book. I'm sick of these young whippersnappers thinking they invented this place.' She's right! Long before Paris Hilton, Puff Daddy, and Jennifer Lopez, there were celebrities far more famous coming here. Sorry, guys," laughs Biondi.
Biondi, who will give a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables Tuesday, interviewed a cross-section of the region's society, the haves and have nots of Miami Beach's formative years. "There were those who lived the good life, and those who paid the price for the good life. I needed to talk to the Irish-Catholics, the Jews, the African American workers who made Miami Beach what it is," the author explains. Many of the people she interviewed were open with their recollections, however painful. At least a dozen African American interviewees didn't want to discuss the Beach's racist past. "I interviewed a 98 year old woman who now lives in a nursing home here in Miami. She worked as a maid in the Thirties, and talked about how she cleaned the hotel toilets but was not allowed to use them. Instead, she would have to walk three blocks - even in the rain — to find a bathroom that said 'colored'," Biondi recalls. It's strange to think that the same SoBe that is a mecca for Jewish families and hip-hop celebrities was once so segregated. "There was a hotel on Miami Beach, The Fairview I think it was called... their slogan was 'Always a View, Never a Jew.' Jewish people weren't allowed north of Fifth Street," she says.
Among Biondi's many recollections of the fascinating people she met and talked to, she finds it impossible to choose a favorite. "That's like asking a mother who's her favorite child," she laughs. When pressed she mentions Honey Bruce Friedman, the infamous stripper who was known throughout the Fifties as Hot Honey Harlowe. "She used to be married to Lenny Bruce, she was there when he got arrested (for panhandling) on Miami Beach. She was this great old bird who had amazing stories to tell. There was such a joy about her, and we became good friends," recollects Biondi. Sadly, Harlowe died before Miami Beach Memories was released. Five of Biondi's original interview subjects have passed away since the book was completed. "I captured their stories just before they disappeared," she muses. Many of the others will be there at her book reading. "Judy Drucker will be there, and Bunny Yeager, who's on the cover, and many of the older and un-famous will show up to share their stories," Biondi promises. This should be an evening of affection and nostalgia for a place that to many, symbolizes the opposite of such warm and fuzzy emotions.
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