Longform

Jerry Powers, the man behind Ocean Drive, refuses to surrender

Jerry Powers strolls the sidewalk outside the stately Biltmore Way entrance to Coral Gables City Hall. An impish 23-year-old New Jersey native with a shaggy black mop top and mutton-chop sideburns, he carries a newspaper bundle under his left arm. It is the ninth issue of the Daily Planet and Miami Free Press, a fledgling underground newspaper he founded four months earlier.

Around 10 a.m. August 25, 1969, the muggy air causes his dark polyester slacks to cling to his legs. But the stifling heat does not deter him.

Near the Mediterranean-revival building's front door, Powers hands a newspaper to a heavyset, silver-maned man, who unfolds the tabloid to reveal a front-page spoof of the City of Miami's plans to annex Coconut Grove. Powers gives copies to three other passersby.

He's daring the cops to arrest him.

Inside city hall, Coral Gables City Attorney Charles Spooner addresses a gaggle of reporters crowding his desk. The well-groomed lawyer with a Brylcreem pompadour and a tightly knotted tie says the Daily Planet is obscene and has no place in Dade County. Eight merchants who carry the twice-monthly publication have been threatened with arrest. "Perhaps we are a little bit more backcountry than a big city like San Francisco," he says. "From reading [the Daily Planet], I don't know how it meets the social needs of our community."

Powers presses on as four Gables cops approach. A tall one wearing Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses takes a copy of the Daily Planet, peruses it, and then abruptly grabs Powers's right arm. "You are under arrest for distributing obscene material," he announces while walking Powers to a squad car. The fledgling publisher sits comfortably in the back seat, his right arm hanging out the window. A reporter asks if the arrest was a surprise.

"We sort of expected this to happen because the people in Coral Gables are used to burning books," Powers declares. "The city attorney, by the way, and this is a fact and I have documentation, is on a mailing list [for] sex literature. I think [this is] his motive for causing this arrest."

"Move away," the cop barks. "No one should be talking to this man."

As the patrol car pulls away, Powers extends his index and middle fingers in a peace sign and cracks a smile.

That battle against authority, caught on film, "was among the first of many arrests" Powers recalls during a recent conversation inside his $1.4 million Sunset Island estate with a gun-metal gray Aston Martin convertible parked in the driveway. "There was also a time when the cops used a battering ram to get into my house because they thought I was dead from an overdose."

Today the long black locks and heavy sideburns are gone. Sitting on a cream-colored sofa in his wood-floored Florida room, the 63-year-old recalls a life spent narrowly avoiding disaster. Born just months after his parents emerged from Nazi prison camps, he escaped the fury of racist bullies in the '50s and survived angry mobs in the '60s. He also beat felony charges for writing bad checks and avoided prison time for not reporting his taxes in a timely manner.

"I was definitely part of that culture that did a lot of drugs," Powers reflects. "And you do a lot of stupid things when you are on drugs. I was lucky to get out of that mess."

He hasn't done drugs in years, but he's still getting into trouble. After 15 years as publisher of one of America's best-known glossy magazines, Ocean Drive, Powers was recently pushed out by the new owner, Niche Media. Now he's at war with his former partners. On one front, he has sued Niche in federal court for illegally trying to silence him. And in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the widow of former Ocean Drive investor Derick Daniels has accused Powers of swindling her out of millions of dollars.

It's all in a day's work for the man who, more than anyone else, molded Miami Beach's glamorous lifestyle.

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Frigid air stung Blanche Sandler as she slogged through snow-blanketed Bydgoszcz, a small town in northern Poland. The Red Army only hours before had liberated her from the Bromberg-Ost women's concentration camp. The emaciated but still pretty 16-year-old weighed less than 100 pounds. By the time she was freed January 16, 1945, she had lost her entire family.

Three days later, while on the way to a village doctor, she bumped into a 22-year-old refugee named Henry Pulwer, who had also narrowly escaped the Nazi death chambers. "He had a wonderfully handsome, long face," she says in a thick Yiddish accent muffled by soft sobs. "He escorted me to my doctor, and we just grew close from that moment on."

Henry and Blanche (who dislikes sharing memories of the numbers tattooed onto her arm or life in the camps) soon married and relocated to Tirschenreuth, Germany. On June 9, 1946, she gave birth to their only son, Jerry Michael Pulwer. "He was the first baby born in that town after the war," 79-year-old Blanche attests. "He was a gorgeous boy."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.