Swelter 29

Let's jump right in and confront the important, chew on the big issues: art, life, illusion versus reality, truth, sex, class chaos, and whatever else may be grist for the short-order sociology mill. It's a world rich with blessings and beatitudes, everything intersecting at the nexus of nightlife, the gilded gutter that unites the universe. And there's always the mirage of Miami, the demon seed of the collective unconscious, city of the conceptual.

For once, it might be illuminating to start at the top of the cultural pyramid: Tobacco Road, and there's the English writer Alexander Stuart, reading from his upcoming Doubleday book Life on Mars: Gangsters, Runaways, Exiles, Drag Queens, and Other Aliens in Florida A another installment in the evolving Florida-as-dreamscape story. Stuart, author of The War Zone and other dark works, doing what he calls his "James Michener on Ecstasy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Beowulf" number on the Sunshine State, covering club kittens, Ybor City, and curiosities of the fringe. All of us opened our hearts, minds, and wallets, and now the stranger from the strange land has written a book. Talk about nerve.

As it happens, the Englishman abroad has been an occasional beneficiary of my hookedupness, nightlife tours with Micky Wolfson and such. Stuart nailing my being in a brief but poignant passage, apparently taking notes during an impassioned harangue about the surrealistic ingratitude of others. No misquote there. Two entire chapters devoted to Wolfson, rightly enough, although using former Miami club promoter John Hood as the book's central character may be arguable. Hood, now lurking around the after-hours demimonde of New York City, does make good warts-and-all copy, though, from his early doorman days to the TV glory of simulating an unconvincing cartoon pimp on Geraldo. The Hoodian chapter heading, culled from his long weekend in the slammer, is a true dazzler, with an irate relative not buying into the pressing issue of bail: "If I ever told you one thing, I told you never to call me from jail."

The most pernicious constraint -- the imprisonment of the self -- coming up in the visual arena. The Wolfson Galleries at Miami-Dade Community College commissioning New York conceptual artists Hilary Leone and Jennifer MacDonald for a project called Passing, a mixed-media effort documenting the strange brew of Miami, home to the all-American talent for re-creating one's identity. High-minded stuff, the subjects include Haitian emigres, Holocaust refugees, homosexuals pretending to be straight in the workplace, and a doped-up club girl having her lips pierced and sewn shut. And there I was, videotaped for posterity as part of the exhibit: the consummate mongrel, a blue-collar child aping blue-blood manners, ready to go anywhere and be anything you want for a drink, a kind word, or just a chuckle or two. Comfortable in any world, mixing with celebrities, charlatans, and the criminal classes, as well as with the filthy rich, heroin addicts, deviants, and Middle Americans at large. An unsteady and studiously vague sexual orientation, and yet at home with every possible strain of carnality. In a few more years the whole issue will be a matter of complete indifference. Nothing human is foreign, no one's really anybody, and there's a certain succor in discovering the contemptible within oneself.

On to the art of the weekend, the naked city alive with legends of the plug. Cheetah Club hosting a spate of promotional dinners, David Goldman, a Boston- and Boca Raton-based businessman, recently taking the lease on the space. Goldman's personal chef Bernard Goupy cooking up a storm there for the next few weeks, the establishment shooting for the carriage trade. In other breaking nightlife news, Union Bar morphing into Club Melao. Michel Kadosh, owner of the Harrison Hotel, opening the club Bugatti right next door to Bar None, no doubt hoping to snag passing celebrities.

On the Hollywood rounds, Cindy Crawford, Billy Baldwin, and producer Joel Silver of Fair Game back in town, proving elusive to the local media, even though we're the ones who stalked and paid homage during the film's production in Miami. Cher dining at China Grill, and afterward pleading fatigue, politely declining to cross the street and attend Demi Moore's Striptease cast party at Bar None; Whitney Houston -- sans bad, bad Bobby Brown -- showing up. In or out, Cher's the real thing: Once a star, always a star.

In other vital fame news, Gianni Versace, without whom no party is ever complete, flying in for a frolic or two. MTV's The Real World scouting for locations suitable for a chosen group of young South Beach types willing to live together and run a business. Beauties are no problem, but the work angle might be tough. A tip coming in about visiting O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden hanging out with Bo Griffin of Power 96 and hyped as a celebrity bar patron. He's famous enough to pursue, God knows, but there's no percentage in meeting people you respect. As if on cue, some promoter relaying an incident from O.J.'s minor fame days, the Juice standing on the roof of a South Beach club, inhaling the breakfast of champions off his clenched fist and yelling to the multitudes below, "Just point me to the women." Class all the way, that O.J., and an instructive lesson in the importance of choosing one's heroes wisely.

Saturday night, busy all around on the local front, but I opted for a black-tie dinner party in Manalapan, tucked in at the home that gossip built. Paul Pope of the National Enquirer fortune celebrating his 28th birthday at his mother's oceanfront estate, the elegant Lois Pope living a short drive away from Enquirer headquarters in Lantana. The Pope family has long since sold America's favorite tabloid, but the party -- like the Enquirer itself -- put out plenty of everything, the wonders never ceasing in an enormous back-yard tent. In the foyer, a photographer creating keepsake lapel pins adorned with pictures of happy couples. An adjacent petting zoo -- chimps, albino raccoons, and snakes -- vying against the topiary deer on the front lawn. The chimp making an exploratory mission into the crowd at one point, but for some reason the little scamp snubbed me.

After cocktails the celebrants entering the canvas ballroom through a high-disco Plexiglas-and-neon tunnel, the younger set Braved shots -- Blowjob, Screaming Orgasm, et cetera -- on silver trays. Thirty or so violinists encircling the dance floor, plinking away at everything from "Bye, Bye Blackbird" to "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, with the band Survivor -- of "Eye of the Tiger" fame -- rounding out the musical lineup. Each table adorned with revolving celestial-theme centerpieces, "Planet Pope" being the party theme, smoke machines and mirrored balls contributing additional ambiance. Truly an affair to remember.

The guests, all of whom seemed to drive convertible Rolls-Royces, ranged across the human landscape: Miami Beach historical curio Al Malnick; prominent West Palm Beach attorney Robert Montgomery; haute society figures such as antique car collectors Peter and Janet Tigges; models, model-aholics, and various flotsam from South Beach. And then there was the special instance of beauty-maintenance expert Deborah Koepper, of Palm Beach's Koepper Thomas salon. A rare breed indeed, Koepper actually refused to reveal anything about her former client, Nancy Reagan, beyond the polite, "She's a lady's lady." Vexing discretion, but then again there might be definite Mrs. Austin possibilities there. After all, everyone has secrets.

Back to the planet of clubs on a wing and a prayer, cruising the streets and taking in the costumed revelers of Halloween, the sacred rite of artifice, an all-too-brief reprieve from everyday reality. There's nothing better than being someone else. The Warsaw block party proved to be particularly lively, a wondrous tableau of drag queens, faux sluts, and playful monstrosities -- the perfect stylistic balance. In the end, clubs are the ultimate public art, embracing the mighty and low alike. Every night is a different conceptual installation, and nothing but a memory by dawn. Everyone, across the board, is afraid of appearing to be less interesting -- let alone less fabulous -- than their public projections. It's both over the top and reassuringly mundane, grounded in larger truths that may or may not mean anything: an interactive Rashomon where no one ever stands on firm footing. It's a nasty land but a beautiful one as well, a palace of air steamy with dreams and illusions. One day it may all seem like a lie, but in the meantime there are moments to be seized.

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Tom Austin