Yarns of Yesteryear

The Biltmore Hotel, known for its stunning Spanish architecture, its gargantuan pool, and its famous guests, is also renowned for something else: its ghosts.

Since the hotel's early days, visitors and employees claim to have witnessed ghosts and unexplainable occurrences. No wonder: During the Prohibition era, the thirteenth floor housed the Everglades Suite, favorite room of gangland chieftain Al Capone. It became a speakeasy, where another gangster was supposedly shot and killed. Capone's ghost, that of the murdered mobster, and specters of dead soldiers from World War II (when the hotel served as a veterans' hospital) are said to roam the halls.

These days storyteller Linda Spitzer perpetuates the hotel's supernatural side by recounting tales both spooky and historic every Thursday evening at the famous Coral Gables landmark. Spitzer's Ghost Stories at the Biltmore, a hotel staple for the past four and a half years, attracts listeners young and old who gather around the fireplace in the dimly lit lobby.

While Spitzer herself does not believe in apparitions, she thinks strange events happen. One of her listeners, a member of the film crew on the set of Bad Boys, told her about his haunted stay at the hotel. "He had a room to himself," Spitzer recounts, "and one day after he stepped out of the shower, written in the fog on the bathroom mirror was the word Hi, which he believed a spirit had written."

Spitzer, the founder and former president of the Miami Storytellers Guild, does more than just tell tales about the hotel's eerie inhabitants. She also coordinates storytelling at South Dade's Fruit and Spice Park and sets up three days of storytelling for kids at the Miami Book Fair International.

By studying the art at East Tennessee State University, she honed her ability to spin a good yarn. She learned the Biltmore's lore through research at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida and by reading Helen Muir's book The Biltmore: Beacon for Miami and Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn's Haunted Houses.

Many regulars attend Spitzer's sessions. One of them, Melanie Bermudez, first came alone to hear the stories. Later she returned with her children. "The way she tells her stories makes us feel like we are in the atmosphere of the story," says Bermudez. "It's like being in someone's living room."

Making storytelling more accessible to the public is Spitzer's motivation for working at the Biltmore. "There's a revival of storytelling going on, and I'm part of it," she explains. "I'm doing my best in Miami to keep storytelling alive."

-- Cori Jancko

Ghost Stories at the Biltmore takes place every Thursday from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-665-8429.

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Cori Jancko