The Hell phenomenon, another strange story from the naked city. A mysterious German developer, Thomas Kramer, descending on the city out of nowhere and acquiring major-league properties with endless cash: socialite Jan Cowles's Indian Creek estate, attorney Dan Paul's Star Island home, acres of lower South Beach for a new little Hell town. The downtown jewel of the empire, the Leonard Beach Hotel -- formerly a brave Bohemian stronghold, much like Versace's Amsterdam Palace -- becoming a private stomping ground, a club called Hell. Instant easy-marketing possibilities, and indeed, the debut the most ballyhooed affair since the opening of Club Nu, covered by everyone from USA Today to MTV. Nine thousand people turning up for the satanic maelstrom, the valid and not-so-valid mobbing the front door, one drunken victim led away in handcuffs, actually yelling, "God, man, this is like hell." Inside, an Alice in Wonderland world of wildly fluctuating status, sucked into a universe of chance and random attitude. One moment a glittering vision of nightclub heaven, the dream of the ultimate private room, where life is always interesting and fun and nothing bad ever happens. An imperceptible shift, a trap door springs open, and it's back down to the purgatory of being just another schmuck waiting in line. Hell on Earth, or at least Miami Beach.

The hell/heaven analogy springing to mind constantly, along with other less appetizing associations. Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death, the poor and plague-ridden beseiging the king's last costume ball, the looming apocalypse adding a jolly edge to the evening's entertainments. A prison of fun, the club version of Stalag 17/Hogan's Heroes, where the inmates can leave freely but never return. Herr Kramer as the devil, presiding over the front door in the manner of Steve Rubell, making arbitrary and occasionally pitiless aesthetic decisions, accompanied by a Doberman pinscher chained to the pearly gates. Everyone behaving like marionettes in the devil's own Punch and Judy show, cyborgs on the loose, conducting themselves with the desperate urgency of B.F. Skinner's lab rats, pushing the feeding bar for cheap thrills to the point of oblivion and self-destruction. Struggling up to the light, to salvation, the Madonna suite on the third floor, where Madonna and maybe even the Antichrist himself are rumored to be hanging out.

Throughout, a parallel universe of entertainments. Nasty pile-ups at the stairs to the second circle of hell, normally sensible people groveling before a phalanx of security personnel, slipping through and leaving best friends and lovers behind on the lobby level. Outside, a gallery opening-style reception on the very pleasant patio, Bryan Norcross and assorted other catered guests, press, South Beach regulars, a few unlikely visitors like a true North Miami Beach duo, Saul Gersch and collagen-cream hawker Leslie Brody. Gersch in Gucci accented with a Moschino belt and a Sex Sells hat, Brody in a quilted gold Chanel ensemble: "I've been working out on the stairmaster. Hot pants are back now, right? You get older, your lips get vertical lines, your earlobes droop. Aging is a bitch."

The out-of-town press contingent, flown in for the festivities, ready, set, go -- right to irate. Richard Goff of Out reeling from being turned away at the door for wearing a T-shirt. Stephen Saban of Details having major doorman troubles: "They bring us all down, and then we get dissed by five-dollar-an-hour grunts. We have enough of that in New York." The Village Voice's Michael Musto doing a robo/downtown-man stint for the television cameras: "I'm allergic to the sun, and I can't swim, but Miami Beach is heaven. This is hell." One wag deeming the place Club Heck, Saint Patrick McMullen of Interview wondering if the Envy installation, a girl in white bra and panties lolling in a glass-enclosed room, had something to do with the fact that Lolita had the good fortune to be away from the smoke, noise, and attitude. David Adams, the Latin American and Caribbean correspondent for the London Times, never making the inner sanctum. New to town, and still unswayed by breathtakingly shabby behavior, Adams refusing to go upstairs without his wife Ines Lozano, brushed off as "that lady" by one of the doormen.

Being impervious to offense after more than two numbing decades in Miami, taking a sinful delight in every hot, disgusting, truly interesting moment. Confronting TV news cameras and discovering a worrisome knack for profoundly superficial glibness, loathing another friend who went national with the Current Affair crew. Celebrity spotting from the balcony, smoke pouring out over the dance floor in the shadow of a huge devil's face, the eyes rolling back and forth in a sinister way. No Norman Mailer sighting, unfortunately, but Gloria Estefan dancing, Dmitri of Deee-Lite playing records, Dan Paul and a Bible-bearing Micky Wolfson ("So this is where you live") making an odd late entrance. Baseball player Jose Canseco on the prowl, serving as a kind of spoor dropping for Madonna, who as it turned out, reportedly spent the evening in the Paragon private room with Versace, an appearance that Paragon co-owner Dennis Doheny declined to comment on.

The frenzy, the Central American whorehouse feel of the club, inducing new levels of gross unprofessionalism on the dirty laundry beat. Staying on till 4:00 a.m., guzzling Tattinger champagne from the bottle, side-stepping a psychotic drag queen flopping around the pool table like a freshly caught trout. Frolicking with three club kittens engrossed in pseudo-lesbo hijinks, brimming with an ugly itch for sensation. Madonna could have publicly gone down on Naomi Campbell and it still wouldn't have been enough. Attaching like a lamprey to the most important entourage in a futile attempt at the third circle of Hell, and then, at the last gasp of the evening, a trip to Nirvana with promoter Michael Jacobson, making amends with a security guy he'd openly called "a fucking prick." A few Euros in Kramer's private room, lit with votive candles, and two Love Connection/Howard Stern girls posing on the balcony: "We're just on vacation from L.A. No, of course we didn't have any problems getting in." A classic nightclub scenario bearing out Gertrude Stein's dictum: Ultimately, there is no there, there.

Back down to the club for less-ego-draining parties. The premiere of "Men In Hell," the Tuesday gay night hosted by John Herman, Diane Iannucci, and Louis Canales. An attractive crowd of A-gays, two leather men licking one another in the Envy room, Karen Carpenter in the portrait gallery, guests on the order of Andrew Tobias, financial writer and the pseudonymous author of Best Little Boy in the World. The following evening another debut for "Magazine, Fashion & Music Industry Nites" hosted by Erinn Cosby and Hell promotions assistant Nicky Narcis, a.k.a. Nicky the Party Boy. Julie Jewels of Project X magazine and Norma Jean Abraham hosting simultaneous soirees. At both events, drawn to the antique "God's Plan through the Ages" chart in the devil's sitting room, offering the historical perspective on the rake's progress from the vortex to the abyss. In the modern world, God's plan may be nothing but a cruel trick: leading his children onward to an atavistic, hopeless quest for the redemption of heaven, a journey continually undermined by the suspicion that hell is infinitely more compelling.

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Tom Austin