Miami: A hundred years young

The town of Miami Beach was created a century ago. Then the fun really started

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2015. Photography by Tim White)

Mac Klein isn’t doing too badly, all things considered. The owner of Mac’s Club Deuce turned 100 last September – which is remarkable for a few reasons.

Firstly, he almost didn’t survive World War II, spending a year in hospital after being shot by the Germans three times in France. He’s also the owner of one of Miami’s less salubrious institutions, which is really saying something in this town. Mac’s Club Deuce is filled with smoke, neon and a motley-if-friendly crew of locals and tourists – it’s Moe’s Tavern with a more colourful clientele and dirtier music on the jukebox.

“You know why I’ve lasted so long?” says Klein, sitting at an old computer in his cluttered office behind the bar, surrounded by bottles of liquor and wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt with a Sobe (South Beach) cap. “I gave up cigarettes and liquor 20 years ago, but it’s not that. It’s because I’ve had something to get up and do every day. That’s why no one carries me around.”

Klein is six months older than the city of Miami Beach, a 49km2 strip of land separated from the city proper by a causeway filled with man-made islands. Miami Beach was incorporated on 26 March 1915, and the story of the century since could fill a thousand books.

Klein calls the city of Miami Beach “the most changeable city in the world” – and his own life has seen its share of changes.

He was born to Russian parents in Brooklyn, New York, where the family of eight lived in two rooms. He only left to go to war and – like many would-be soldiers – did a portion of his training on the Beach.

“People call me crazy when I say this, but it was the war that made this place. Until then, people lived and died where they were born. The war made people leave and experience different things – for me, I saw the beauty of Miami Beach.”

The Miami Beach that Klein saw during his training bore little resemblance to today’s hedonistic carnival, but it made an impression on Klein, who would serve in the US Army for five years before being wounded three times during 1944’s Operation Dragoon, when the Allies invaded southern France. At one point the doctors doubted Klein would live.

When they let him out of the hospital after a year, they advised him that his wounds would heal faster in warm weather. So he wound up in Miami in 1945, with US$27 in his pocket. “I got the best education you can get,” he says. “The one on the street, which is 20 times better than you’ll get in any school.”

Klein came to own four clubs in South Florida, as South Beach was starting to experience a revival driven by the relatively wealthy Jews who had poured into the area after the war, as well as the half a million Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution after 1959. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Klein would often drink at the Deuce, which had been open since the end of Prohibition in 1926, and was owned by his friend, Harold Schwartz (it was called the Deuce for its number: 222 14th St). In 1964, after the birth of his daughter, Klein came to the Deuce for a beer, only to be told that Schwartz had died and the bar was closing. So he contacted Schwartz’s wife, who he knew well, and within days it was Mac’s Club Deuce.

Klein got rid of the singer and pianist that Schwartz had hired, and installed a curved 360-degree bar which meant, in his words, “you can see everyone except the person two seats away”.

Otherwise, he didn’t change much about his favourite bar. “If you find a beautiful woman, you don’t want to change a hair on her head,” says Klein. “If you were here 50 years ago and came back now, you’d think you were 50 years younger. That’s how little has changed in here.” There’s still the same black-and-white tiled floors and dusty push-button cash register, even if the old cigarette machine has gone (you can still smoke, though). The borderline lurid neon signs are a remnant of the Miami Vice wrap party held here in 1989.

But while Mac’s has stuck to the same formula – cheap, strong drinks, the legendary 11-hour happy hour, a jukebox and friendly staff that Klein says are “like family who never leave” – the clientele has changed with the world outside.

“When we started it was older Jewish people around here,” he says. “Then it was club people, then Cubans, the gay crowd, the Cocaine Cowboys, which was a dangerous time – now South Beach is like a country within itself. A big turning point for me was Miami Vice in the ’80s – people saw the beauty, the beach and the colour of the buildings, even as they were seeing the grimy back alleys. From then, it’s been up and up.” Many scenes in Miami Vice were filmed at Mac’s, and Klein fishes around unsuccessfully for a letter from the cast thanking him.

While the Deuce is very much an Everyman’s bar, a world away from the velvet-roped glitz of much of South Beach, it’s had plenty of brushes with celebrity, from Sinatra to Keith Richards, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Diaz. Food critic Anthony Bourdain called it his favourite bar in the world, and Kate Moss was allegedly once turned away for being too drunk.

“We’ve seen ’em all,” says Klein. “But you know, if nations and cities met in bars rather than conference rooms, we’d sort out a hell of a lot of mess in this world.”

For another view of Miami Beach’s colourful history, we seek out Calvin (Cal) Zook, a 77-year-old Jew, originally from Chicago, who runs Art Deco tours around South Beach. Zook is the character that Woody Allen wishes he’d written – he’s about 5’3″ and talks dime to the dozen, yet just about everything that comes out of his mouth is worth paying attention to, whether he’s talking about a classic L Murray Dixon Art Deco building or getting stuck in an elevator with a 140kg woman (“Why does this crap only happen to me?”).

His wonderful tour is not so much a tour as a series of orders – “C’mon!” “Look at that!” – and along with the history you get a commentary on your tour guide’s bladder (“I gotta go tap a kidney – What? It happens at my age”).

Quips aside, Zook – who has lived in Miami for more than 50 years – knows the staff at just about every hotel and is a goldmine when it comes to uncovering the rich story of the Beach. Sitting in the Art Deco Hotel Astor, he recounts the early history so quickly and breathlessly that it’s hard to keep up. To paraphrase…

It all started in earnest in 1870, when father and son Henry and Charles Lum purchased the entire uninhabited oceanfront for 25 cents an acre, well before the 1896 railroad that marked the start of Miami’s real development. Their plan was to open a coconut plantation in what was then a swamp infested with mosquitoes, alligators, rabbits and rats. Despite importing 400,000 coconut trees from Trinidad, the plantation wasn’t a success, and the Lums left in 1894, eventually leaving the plantation in control of John S Collins, a Quaker farmer from New Jersey.

While his attempts to grow potatoes, avocados and pineapples met only limited success, Collins started to see the development potential of the area. When he formed the Miami Beach Improvement Company in 1911, it was the first recorded use of the term Miami Beach.

Soon, others got involved. In 1912, the Lummus brothers, two Miami businessmen, acquired 160 hectares from 1st to 14th street; and in 1913, Carl G Fisher – an Indiana native who’d made millions on a patent for automobile headlamps – bought up the land between 14th and 19th street, and loaned Collins money to complete a game-changing bridge from the beach to Downtown Miami.

In March 1915 – a year after the first road and hotel were built on the Beach – Collins, Fisher and the Lummus brothers got Miami Beach incorporated as a town, later to become a city in 1917. Elephants cleared out the mangrove swamps, Fisher imported 10,000 cats to try and clear out the rats, and the trio began building islands between the beach and Downtown. The good times were on their way.

Fisher, in particular, was one of the great early American marketing men, and in many ways a quintessential Miami character. It was indicative of his impulsive character that he fled his society wedding aged 35 and instead married Jane, a 15-year-old who he’d known for just a day.

His publicity stunts during the Miami Beach boom in the early 1920s included speedboat races, beauty pageants and a baby elephant called Rosie. “I’m going to get a million dollars worth of advertising out of this elephant,” said Fisher, who sent shots around the US of golfers using Rosie as a caddy and teeing off from her head.

America had a glamorous new winter retreat, with wealthy visitors flooding in from across the nation to gamble at Collins’s casino and stay in hotels like the Floridian, the Fleetwood and Fisher’s fancy Flamingo, which had an adjoining golf course and a rooftop dome with revolving lights.

But the fun couldn’t last. In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane virtually flattened the beach, and was swiftly followed by the Great Depression. Fisher, who’d made a $120 million fortune and been dubbed “Mr Miami Beach”, lost it all, and died just about penniless in a cottage by the beach in 1939. Collins got roads and bridges named after him; the Lummus brothers got an oceanfront park named after them. Carl G Fisher, who in the end considered his life’s work a failure, got nothing.

“It’s a good story, huh?” says Zook, who has barely paused to take a breath for about 15 minutes.

After a short break, we head out into the Florida sunshine to look at some Art Deco buildings, as Zook explains how the movement started. “It started in 1968. You think I’m kidding?” That year, it turns out, was when British historian Bevis Hillier applied the term to what we know today as Art Deco – but really, it all began in Paris in 1925, at the touchstone expo L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (the name eventually got crunched to Art Deco).

The architects on Miami’s South Beach got the message, especially Henry Hohauser and L Murray Dixon, who went about creating streamlined curves, “eyebrows” for windows, and prominent neon signs (neon was another relatively new creation) all along the beach. That pair are behind many of Miami’s most famous buildings, from Hohauser’s Colony Hotel (1935), with its iconic neon frontage, to Dixon’s imposing but beautiful design for The Ritz Hotel (1940).

While much of Miami’s Beach’s North Shore is all condos and beachfront blocks – parts look not dissimilar to Varna or Magaluf – the South Beach is still an architectural gem. A lot of the credit for that goes to Barbara Capitman, a design enthusiast who moved to Miami in 1973, and in 1976 saw an Art Deco hotel getting hauled down by developers. “She went crazy,” says Zook. “She wouldn’t let it go, and screamed to everyone she could, including the local government.” By 1979, Capitman and her son John had created the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District, which contained 960 Art Deco buildings and was America’s first 20th-century Historic District. The result was that any development of an Art Deco building had to retain the original façade.

Capitman’s unlikely sidekick was a guy called Lenny Horowitz, a mustachioed hipster-before-his-time who had moved to South Beach from New York when his dad had discovered he was gay and cut him off. It was Horowitz who looked at the sea and the sky, and decided to paint more than half of the old Art Deco buildings in the peaches, periwinkles, purples and pinks that today define South Beach. “People saw the buildings and asked what he was taking – but he was proved right,” says Zook of Horowitz, who sadly died of AIDS in 1989.

Still, Miami Beach in the 1970s and early ’80s had lost some of its post-war mojo, with the wealthy Jews who had flooded the area after the war ageing. According to Zook: “I might be biased, but if you ask me the heyday of this place was the ’50s, when I first moved here. By the early ’80s it looked like God’s waiting room.”

Along with the retirees was another change of a very different order. The flood of immigrants from South America had, along with countless benefits, brought one unwelcome visitor – cocaine, which had replaced marijuana as a the import of choice. Colombia’s Medellín Cartel had turned Miami into the entrypoint for a $20 billion drugs trade, and by the early ’80s, Miami was the homicide capital of the US and the most violent American city since Prohibition-era Chicago. A Time article around the time dubbed it “Paradise Lost”.

Yet the Cocaine Cowboys had an undeniable aura of glamour, and the hedonistic Latin drug lords were in some ways cultural descendants of New York and Chicago’s Italian mafiosi. In 1983, Brian De Palma’s Scarface told the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban immigrant-turned-drug-lord, which borrowed heavily from real life – especially the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and mental health facilities, and 125,000 Cubans made their way to Miami by boat.

While the first wave of Cuban immigrants fleeing the revolution in the ’50s was made up largely of doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and businessmen, the 1980 vintage were of a slightly different – more Montana-esque – makeup.

“This place became Drug City,” says Zouk. “You could smell the stuff everywhere, and you certainly didn’t want to walk these streets at night.”

In 1984, narcotics, pastels and glamour all came together in a TV show that in many ways still defines the popular perception of Miami. Crucially, though, despite all the grit, Miami Vice made the city look sunny, beautiful and fun, like swoony (if sartorially dubious) lead Don Johnson.

“Those years were wild,” says Zook. “Suddenly the department stores had whole sections devoted to white linen pants and loafers. Don Johnson’s Ray-Bans sold hundreds of thousands. You’d see old guys with beautiful blondes dancing around them, and have no idea why.”

By the mid-’80s, the South Florida Drug Task Force – led by George Bush under President Reagan – had started to win the war against the cartels, and by the early 1990s Miami had calmed down slightly, even if the edgy vibe remained.

Enter, in 1992, an Italian designer called Gianni Versace, whose overstated glamour perfectly suited the more-is-more ethos of the Beach. Versace bought a mansion on Ocean Drive and 11th for $2.9 million and then promptly bought the Art Deco Revere Hotel next door, knocking it down against the howled protests of the Miami Design Preservation League that Barbara Capitman had founded.

“Almost overnight, Ocean Drive became a catwalk,” says Zook. “You could barely move for models from all across the world. High-fashion models, Brazilian models in dental floss bikinis, adult entertainers – you name it, they were here.”

Versace, as we all know, was shot dead on his doorstep in 1997 – from Fisher to Montana and Horowitz, it was another sad end to a colourful Miami character.

When we finally finish a fascinating if exhausting few hours with Cal, he gives us a few final words outside the charming oceanfront Betsy Hotel (L Murray Dixon, 1942, if you must know). “I only got one piece of advice for you boys – marry a rich woman. I’m serious.” And with that, he’s off to catch his bus home.

For one more entry point to Miami history, we head to one of the very few things – other than Mac Klein – that started life before March 1915.

Joe’s Stone Crab is an almighty institution – it takes up a whole city block, has a restaurant, takeaway and wholesale business, and is the second highest-grossing restaurant in America, after Tao in Las Vegas, with more than $35 million in sales in 2014. The restaurant can have up to 2,000 diners a night for dinner, and you might be in the famous queue (they don’t take reservations) for three hours.

It all started, though, with a simple fish stand. In 1913, with Miami Beach in its infancy, the Hungarian-born Joe and Jessie Weiss came to Miami for New York on account of Joe’s asthma, starting a lunch counter at Smith’s bathing casino that sold fish sandwiches and fries.

It was a success and, in 1918, they bought a bungalow at the southern end of South Beach and turned it into a restaurant, selling snapper, mackerel, pompano and a few meat dishes. Joe did the cooking and Jennie ran the place with an iron fist – throwing out men who were cheating on their wives, though famously letting Al Capone eat at Joe’s “because he was a gentleman” (in return, the mobster sent a truck full of flowers every Mother’s Day).

It wasn’t until 1921 – when Joe’s was already a fixture with Miami’s high-society vacation crowd – that the owner of a local aquarium suggested Joe serve stone crabs, a native South Florida crab that until then no one had thought to eat. Joe reportedly said that no one would buy them – but when he threw the crabs in boiling water and served them with hash browns, coleslaw and mayonnaise, they were an instant hit. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Joe’s is owned by Weiss’s granddaughter, Jo Ann Bass, and her son Stephen Sawitz. We meet Sawitz’s right-hand man, Brian Johnson, a suave New Yorker who has worked at Joe’s since 1980 and been the general manager for 19 years. When he first came to the Beach from the Big Apple, Johnson was paying $18 a week in rent and describes Miami back then as “Santa Claus in Bermudas”.

Now he’s responsible for “everything that happens under this roof”, which is a lot. For starters, there are the crabs. Stone crabs are one of very few shellfish that aren’t killed – after they have their claws removed, they’re returned to the sea, where most regrow the claws. Yet, occasionally, there aren’t enough – “A few years ago,” says Johnson, “there were virtually none. They just took a walk, and no one really knows why.” Luckily, there’s a second superstar at Joe’s in the form of Norwegian king crabs, which are imported on Norwegian flights.

Johnson’s main responsibility, though, is the 400 or so staff at Joe’s (there were 92 when he started), who are trained like the military. Just as Klein says of his staff at Mac’s, Johnson says of the team at Joe’s: “We are like a family – we stick together”.

To prove the point he heads out to the restaurant’s outdoor patio and points at a small plant. “See that. That’s where the ashes of the waiter who trained me are buried.” Other waiters, managers and friends of the family have had their ashes scattered around the place – Johnson is as-yet undecided if he’ll follow suit.
Back in the restaurant, he tells me that very few people leave. He calls over to another of the staff: “Hey Zippy, how long has Big Daddy worked here?” It turns out that Wat Allen, aka Big Daddy, has been at Joe’s for 49 years.

When he takes us back to the vast kitchen area, we meet Blue Jay, a Georgian who has worked at Joe’s for 45 years. “This place is like the church, the bar, the stripclub and the beach all rolled into one,” says Blue Jay in a thick Southern drawl.

Everything is on a huge scale – there are three crab crackers, who have to master the delicate art of softening but not splintering the claws; there are 19 dishwashers and 12 people in the in-house laundry. Most chefs just focus on one dish.

On a quick whizz round the kitchen, we meet Hondurans, Iraqis and Mexicans – Johnson says there are “too many nationalities here to count”, yet he seems to know everyone personally. There’s Esther Salinas, who started off as Joe Ann Bass’s housekeeper, but has now been baking apple pies at Joe’s for 30 years. In the shipping department, he says: “That’s Olanda – she divorced me and owes me alimony.” Olanda smiles sweetly.

It’s an awesome operation, but the proof is in the pudding, or the crab (though the Key Lime Pie here is also famous). Johnson says stone crab is “sweeter than lobster, and not as heavy on the system” – and the great and good seem to agree.

Obama recently ordered a few for Air Force One, and Johnson recalls Jeb and George W Bush “coming in here and goofing around on each other like naughty schoolboys”. “Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton… they all came here, and you’d be better listing the celebrities that haven’t been.” One of those is Lenny Kravitz, who was thrown out for wearing a tank top, a definite sartorial no-no (the strict dress code is on a large sign outside the restaurant).

“Back in 1921, Joe Weiss hit on a formula that works,” says Johnson simply. “We’ve got bigger and bigger, but the core of the formula has stayed. That’s why this place inspires so much devotion – ultimately, it’s still Joe’s.”

Walking along Ocean Drive, the beach is getting into full swing. The girls at The Clevelander hotel’s sports bar are strutting around in lycra hot pants and low-cut tops – possibly not thinking too much that their bar is named for the Clevelanders (William and Mary Brickell, and Julia Tuttle) who founded Miami proper. At the Delano pool party, they’re probably not thinking that the hotel was named after Roosevelt, and was the tallest in Miami when it was built in 1947 to house military personnel. Much of Miami Beach is shameless, glorious, slightly overpriced fun – but there’s a wonderful story behind so much of it. As for us, we’re simply thirsty, and want a quiet beer. Luckily, it’s happy hour at Mac’s. Some things never change.

(NB: Mac Klein sadly passed away in March, 2016. Still, as of early 2017, his bar had barely changed. I, for one, hope it stays that way.) 

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