Glorious & Notorious

Glorious & Notorious
Casablanca had Rick's; Vegas had the Stardust; Miami's cocaine jazz age had the decadent Mutiny Hotel

By Sean Rowe
Dig the scene, little sister: Burton Goldberg, owner, standing in the back doorway of the members-only Mutiny Club, canary-yellow kerchief in his breast pocket, eyes scanning the room. At the corner booth: cocaine kingpins Ricardo "Monkey" Morales, Carlos Quesada, and Francisco Condom-Gil, drinking $90 Dom with three girls in cocktail dresses. Quesada's half out of his chair, yelling, throwing dinner rolls at Monkey. Across the blue shag carpet at a bend in the bar: Sgt. Raul Diaz, Metro Intelligence, nursing a Scotch, taking notes with his eyes. A pinlight spot illuminating one perfect orchid in the corner near the terrace. Over by the tiny dance floor: Esmeralda Ochoa playing the harp, wearing a G-string and no top, glitter mascara, long fingers working the strings.

Dig further: Barbara "Bubbles" Esposito, hostess, adjusting her hat, coming up the front stairs with Ramon Perez Llamas, reputed Puerto Rican hit man. Some Caracas oil money getting up and brushing past Llamas on the way to the john, Llamas giving him the hot eye. Ex-fed prosecutor Jerry Sanford walking in, noting the Buffalo Boys, upper New York state grass smugglers. Walter Elmore, general manager, crossing the room to speak with the maitre d', who's getting ready to send Fernando Puig, bouncer extraordinaire, out to the airport in a Rolls to pick up what's coming in from Seattle, the only place left in America tonight willing to ship 30 cases of champagne and aguardiente express freight. Pete "the Count" Baraban, dope lawyer, looking up from a baked potato wrapped in gold tinfoil, noticing the Villaverde brothers, Raul and Rafael, sitting down with CIA agent Edwin Wilson, all three men in white suits.

Dig: Upstairs in room 1020 -- the $140-a-night Bordello Suite -- two low rollers use twenties to light Q-tips dipped in alcohol and cocaine, throwing the lit bills into the Jacuzzi, onto the circular bed, up in the air at the mirrored ceiling. One man crawls across the floor, dropping his chrome-plated .44, throwing up, inching his way over the rail of the balcony, the other screaming incoherently and following on all fours. The two wackdoodles make their way down the front of the 138-room hotel, shirtless, climbing balcony by balcony, tumbling onto the second-story awning, spilling coke out of their pockets and on the head of the doorman. Upstairs and down the hall -- the Sahara Suite -- a thief kicks in the door and steals jazz star Herbie Mann's flute, solid silver. It's 10:00 p.m. on June 23, 1980, at the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove.

Or it could have been. Michael Borkin and Charles Pfeiffer did in fact climb down the Mutiny's twelve-story facade on that date, leaving behind them a pile of smoldering cash, a supply of cocaine, marijuana, and magic mushrooms, and a handgun. Monkey Morales, Carlos Quesada, and Francisco Condom-Gil were habitues of the hotel's smoky, second-floor Mutiny Club, and so was Pete "the Count" Baraban. Sgt. Raul Diaz may have stopped on his way home from work and ordered Scotch, but he can't remember for sure. Someone did steal Herbie Mann's sterling silver flute from a room at the Mutiny Hotel, but it was four months earlier, October 16, 1979. The Villaverde brothers partied at the Mutiny, and they hung out with shadowy CIA man Edwin Wilson, but accounts differ as to whether they ever did both at the same time. Did a Venezuelan oil tycoon bump into Ramon Perez Llamas on the way to the bathroom on that particular night, and did Llamas glare at him? Perhaps. Llamas can't remember now because he's dead, and so is bouncer Fernando Puig, and so is Monkey Morales, all three killed by gunfire in separate incidents.

Fact always did blend with fiction at the glorious, notorious Mutiny Hotel. In its time there was nothing like it, and today it lives on in hindsight like the afterimage of a hallucination, bright but blurry. The Mississippi Delta is said to start in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis; likewise the Mutiny in its day defined Miami's psychic boundaries. It was the nerve center of the city's exploding cocaine trade, a favorite hangout of globetrotting spies, and a desperately popular watering hole for Latin America's nouveau riche. It was meant to be elegant, and was, but early on it became infamous and edgy, and reveled in the reputation. Its most decadent highs were a carnival barker's advertisement for the Seventies, and its decline was an early object lesson in America's S&L crisis.

"I did a movie called life, with actors that were real people," says Burton Goldberg, the former owner. "We had dictators, secret police, drug people, bankers, the international trade, gunrunners and celebrities: Rod Serling, Sen. Kennedy, Cher, Hamilton Jordan, Jacqueline Onassis, George Bush. Mimes and magicians! Naked dancers in very fine taste, not prurient! Music! Chairs with enormous arms!"

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Rowe