South Beach LGBTQ Icon Henrietta Robinson Dies of COVID-19

photo courtesy of Miami Beach Pride / photo by William Riera
Left: Former Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower with Henrietta Robinson (center) and Commissioner Michael Góngora. Right: Robinson and Tiffany Fantasia.
South Beach is mourning its matriarch.

For six decades, Henrietta Robinson was a beloved Miami Beach socialite and South Florida LGBTQ icon. Her signature old-Hollywood style and blond bouffant established her as a universally recognized presence around town and in South Beach gay bars. Twist nightclub on Washington Avenue was considered her second home, where the same seat at the bar was always reserved for her. "Mother of Miami Beach," regulars called her.

Robinson, who is widely regarded as among the first out transgender women in South Florida, died Friday after being diagnosed with COVID-19. After undergoing an unrelated procedure, Robinson was being treated at Mount Sinai Medical Center, where she's believed to have contracted the novel coronavirus. She was 79 years old.

Arriving in Florida ten years before Stonewall, Robinson moved from Milton, Massachusetts, to South Beach in 1959.

"Dressing up was illegal back then," she once told New Times as she reflected on life in 1960s Miami Beach. "If you so much as wore eye makeup or even a woman's scarf in a club, it was right to jail."

But by 1991, South Beach's nightlife scene was beginning to surge, and the city Robinson loved was emerging as a queer mecca.

"The Beach," she said in an interview at the time, "is coming back better than ever."

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora, who was the first openly gay person elected to the city commission, recalls navigating the city's LGBTQ social scene in the early '90s when he was in his 20s. By then, Robinson had a commanding presence in queer nightlife. Her distinctive updo and elegant rhinestone-studded ensembles made her impossible to miss.

"She kind of was the godmother of all of us," Góngora says, "always somebody happy to lend a smile, a nice comment, or word of advice."

Beyond being ever-present in South Beach's club circuit, Robinson prided herself on her baking and culinary skills, which made her an expert dinner-party host. Her favorite cuisine was Italian. She even catered her own 77th birthday party, hosted, of course, at Twist.

"She liked to tell the story of how she had made her famous lasagna for Gianni Versace," Góngora says.

Tiffany Fantasia, a drag performer at the Palace, remembers celebrating the anniversary of the club's opening in the mid-2000s. It was a small, intimate gathering, and Robinson cooked for the special occasion. "Her meatballs were so good," Fantasia says.

Previously, Fantasia used to host a Sunday drag brunch at Señor Frog's in Miami Beach. Anytime Robinson attended, Fantasia, in a grandiose gesture, would announce the matriarch's presence at the brunch. One Sunday, Fantasia overheard someone snicker at Robinson behind her back.

She's a legend, Fantasia warned them. "Respect your legends."

And even the city made sure Robinson was paid her respects: In 2011, then-Mayor Matti Herrera Bower presented Robinson with a special commendation on behalf of Miami Beach.

"She was so open at a time when it wasn't popular to be as open as she was," the former mayor tells New Times. "She made you feel comfortable all the time, and I think that's one of her greatest gifts."

In the days following Robinson's death, Miami Beach longtimers and Twist regulars shared dozens of photos of Robinson. You'd be hard-pressed to find a photo where she wasn't in the center of the frame, smiling and brandishing a drink while surrounded by admirers.

"As we continue to live through an unprecedented pandemic that affects our entire world," Miami Beach Pride organizers said in an April 3 Facebook post, "locally, our LGBTQ+ community has suffered heartbreaking losses of many incredible people. One of those beautiful souls lost was Henrietta Robinson... [She] was always there for those who needed a hug or comforting embrace. Rest in Peace, Henrietta, your light will not be forgotten."