Ocean Drive looks back at a century of history—from the ambitious pioneer to the celebrities to the scandals, plus all the food, real estate, art, and nightlife that have made the beach what it is today.
PART I: The First 50 Years
An overhead view of Ocean Drive, Lummus Park, and the beach, circa 1935.
One hundred years ago, the Miami Beach we know today was merely a dream. Carl Fisher, an eccentric millionaire with an affinity for fast cars and wild parties, was vacationing in Miami when he looked at the barren barrier island from across the bay and saw its potential. Maybe he even envisioned an old-time version of what everyone who visits Miami Beach today experiences on a daily (and nightly) basis—the beautiful models splashing around the Atlantic Ocean, the millionaires reveling at the grand hotels. Today, a century after Miami Beach was incorporated, on March 26, 1915, it’s safe to say Fisher’s dreams came true, and then some.
There had been great men before Fisher: Henry and Charles Lum, T.J. Pancoast, the Lummus brothers, and of course John S. Collins all had big hopes for the strip of beach, but it was Fisher who came in, funded the completion of Collins Bridge in 1913, and turned mangroves and farmland into a vacation getaway. “Fisher had a great vision,” says Paul S. George, a Wolfson historian at HistoryMiami and a history professor at Miami Dade College. “He wanted to create a great playground for the affluent, so he took on projects that were big and costly, but for him the sky was the limit in terms of imagination.”
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From the start, Fisher sold Miami Beach with wild promotions. He had earned his fortune by selling cars and manufacturing the first bright headlights, and his fame by building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ultimately creating the Indy 500. He also loved a good spectacle. Fisher gave away land to anyone willing to build a home, and brought in circus elephants, beauty queens, and President Warren G. Harding to promote the city. “This was a man who walked on a tightrope between two buildings to promote his car dealership, so the elephant thing was really small potatoes for Fisher,” says George. “But that’s what he brought to Miami Beach—a craziness.”
The city as we know it today began to take shape almost immediately. The Browns Hotel (currently home to the famed Prime 112 restaurant) was said to be Miami Beach’s first hotel, and the Jungle Inn, located in what was then literally a jungle at 67th and Indian Creek Drive, was the first speakeasy. But it was Fisher who opened the $2 million Flamingo Hotel (located where the rebuilt Flamingo apartments are today) on New Year’s Eve in 1920 with a soirée that rivaled any of today’s holiday fêtes, setting the stage for the Beach to be America’s party town.
In those days, the wealthy owned cars, so Miami Beach quickly developed a system of drivable roads, with other services following. “People were coming down here and they needed tires,” says Barbara Katzen, 80, whose parents moved to Miami in 1924 and opened both the Norton Tire Company and eventually the first car rental company in Miami Beach. “Cars were always status symbols; there were a lot of chauffeur-driven cars where the madam would shop and bring her packages back to the cars.”
Fisher laid the groundwork for what Lincoln Road would become by building a hotel on the famous street. His actions jump-started a tourism boom that saw more than 50 hotels, replete with beachfront bathing facilities, dining, and dancing, open their doors. Places such as Smith’s Casino, Hardie’s Casino, and the Miami Beach Casino began to thrive. “The Roney Plaza was the big hotel of the ’30s where they had tea dances every Sunday afternoon and all the dignitaries and stars stayed,” recalls Doradean Wilcox, 91, who moved to Miami Beach as an infant in 1923. “Once they built the causeway, they added a street car that went from Miami’s bayside to the beach. It was a beautiful ride. You could feel a marvelous breeze as you got about halfway, and smell the oleanders on either side.”
From day one, Miami Beach was a boom town, and though the nation suffered from a stock market crash and the Great Depression, Miami Beach was experiencing a hotel building boom by the mid-1930s. Unfortunately, Carl Fisher lost his fortune (and eventually his life, when he died of a gastric hemorrhage in 1939). But the beachside city he loved bounced back.
Art Deco design took over, and as the Ocean Drive of today began to form, the party returned. “The high school had fraternities and sororities, and each summer from 1938 to 1941, we would rent out a hotel on the beach and have a house party that lasted two weeks,” says Wilcox.
The National, The Tides South Beach, and the Royal Poinciana Hotel were among the new hospitality hot spots at the time, and places like the Pig Trail Inn—an open-air car hop serving all night—began popping up around town. The Forge, which was an actual forge in the ’20s, where estate owners would bring their horses to get shoes, also morphed into a late-night social scene. “In the late ’30s and early ’40s, it was an illegal casino where they used to gamble upstairs and serve drinks on the patio downstairs,” says Al Malnik, who purchased the 41st Street restaurant in 1968 and turned it into a celebrity haven.
Clark Gable entering officers’ candidate school in Miami Beach, 1942.
The fun came to a screeching halt during World War II when roughly half a million troops were sent to Miami Beach for training. The Beach still had celebrities, as Clark Gable was one of the more recognizable servicemen marching around town, but the hotels were turned into soldier housing and training quarters. “You’d see them training at the park and on the beach,” says Kenneth Roth, 74, who as a kid went fishing off the empty lots on Rivo Alto Island where his family built a home. “We had an icebox in our house, and the Royal Palm Ice Company delivered ice to homes in a horse-drawn wagon. The driver would get out at every home, throw a leather blanket and an ice block over his shoulder, walk it into the house, and throw it into the icebox. We did a lot of sweating in those days.”
What would seem like a disaster for a tourist-driven town, the war actually helped grow Miami Beach as a residential city. A post-war economic boom led many soldiers to return to Miami Beach because “the military got sand in their feet and they saw what a great place this was,” says Roth.
Miami Beach became the place to be in the late ’40s and ’50s. Department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller drew shoppers to Lincoln Road, while show hotels like the Sans Souci, Casablanca, the Algiers, and the Saxony, and clubs like Copa City and Ciro’s, bustled with celebrities such as Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. “Back then, the men wore tuxedos to places like the Casablanca, and women would put on mink stoles to go shopping,” says Florence Linden, 89, who moved to Miami Beach in 1950 and whose late husband, Irv, sang and played saxophone and clarinet for Sammy Kaye’s dance band. “A lot of big acts came down here. My husband played with Sammy Davis Jr. and in the Miami Beach Symphony, which performed in Flamingo Park before moving to the Miami Beach Auditorium. It became a real entertainment town.”
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Miami Beach, like the rest of America, wasn’t perfect. There was anti-Semitism dating as far back as the Fisher era and segregation up through the ’50s and early ’60s. “There were top entertainers who had to go through the service entrance of hotels, and they weren’t allowed to spend the night,” Linden recalls. “They had to be put up in Liberty City.”
Gangster Al Capone relaxing in his Palm Island vacation home in 1930.
There was also illegal gambling and a mob scene first led by the S&G Syndicate, which would show up at the hotels and take bets long before offtrack betting existed. Then Al Capone and his group of mobsters came in and took over all the illegal activity. “Capone’s gang muscled in and stole it,” says George. “The S&G guys were more finesse than thugs.”
Miami Beach changed with the times and, for the most part, found itself on the right side of infamy, most notably in 1954 when hotelier Ben Novack opened the Morris Lapidus-designed Fontainebleau hotel. It was the largest hotel in Miami Beach with 554 guest rooms in an 11-story resort that featured a 17,000-square-foot lobby with its signature bow-tie marble floors, Russian and Turkish baths, and 250 cabanas surrounding a gigantic pool. It was fantastic enough to be used as a backdrop in Goldfinger, and to welcome talent like Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Judy Garland, and so many more. In 1960, Sinatra filmed a television special at the hotel alongside Elvis Presley as the country welcomed the King home from a stint in the military.
“Everyone in the country was talking about the Fontainebleau and how Miami Beach was now this exotic place just a short plane ride away,” says Toby Udine, who honeymooned at the Fontainebleau in 1964 with her husband, Morey, before eventually moving the family from New Jersey to South Florida permanently. “The pool was amazing, and the weather was fantastic. For a couple of young kids in love, it was the perfect getaway. And 50 years later, we returned to celebrate with our three kids and nine grandchildren, and it brought back all of the memories.”
That year, 1964, was a big year for Miami Beach: A 22-year-old underdog by the name of Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in the heavyweight boxing championship at the Convention Center; the Beatles landed on the beach, splashing around at the Deauville Hotel before filming a second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show at the hotel; and Jackie Gleason moved his television show here all that same year.
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Through it all, the one constant in Miami Beach has been Joe’s Stone Crab, the world-famous establishment that is currently the second-highest-grossing independent restaurant in America. Joe Weiss started cooking at the bathing casinos in 1913 and opened his doors to Joe’s Seafood Restaurant in 1918, and it’s been a Miami Beach staple through booms and busts. “He wasn’t looking to change the world; he was just trying to make a living,” says Steve Sawitz, Weiss’s great-grandson and current COO of Joe’s Stone Crab. Weiss came to Miami Beach from New York on doctor’s orders to find a warmer climate to help his asthma, and here he created a legend. It’s why in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, under the leadership of the charismatic Jesse Weiss, J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Parr, Walter Winchell, David Brinkley, the Kennedys, and even Al Capone ate at Joe’s and why today everyone from Bill Clinton to Miley Cyrus is cracking crabs. “In a city where the newest, hottest place is always around the corner, there’s a humbleness to Joe’s and the people that work here, but it’s surrounded by the crazy fun,” says Sawitz.
And that sense of family mixed with the craziness is Miami Beach in a nutshell, or in our case, a crab shell.
PART II: The More Things Change...
Miami Beach seen from Indian Creek near 41st Street, 2010.
The 1960s were an American golden age, and by 1965, Miami Beach was an overripe landscape of wealth, fame, and power. Frank Sinatra was still king, playing the Fontainebleau’s La Ronde Room every season for free, a tribute to the juice of Fontainebleau regulars like Sam Giancana, Meyer Lansky, and Joe “Stingy” Fischetti. Sinatra even set 1967’s Tony Rome at the Fontainebleau, the same year the Miami Herald launched an investigative series on the hotel’s mob ties. In that era, the mayor of Miami Beach was Elliott Roosevelt, a high-rolling son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With screw-it-all frankness, Mayor Roosevelt once noted, “The mob doesn’t run Miami Beach—they just own it.”
Miami Beach remained a weird quark in the space/time pop continuum. In 1968, when Sinatra was warbling away at the La Ronde, the Beatles were dropping acid and San Francisco was still in its Summer of Love period. Feminists were fighting for women’s rights, but Miami Beach proudly hosted the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. At one point, the late pinup photographer Bunny Yeager—who immortalized model Bettie Page on Miami Beach—would send in free pinup photos of herself to be published in the official City of Miami Beach calendar (Yeager was a beauty in her own right).
America was reeling from the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the Beach was a particularly complicated maelstrom of race relations. A predominantly Jewish town faced anti-Semitism, yet also discriminated against African-Americans, just as Miami Beach’s old-guard WASPs did within their own enclaves. Ironically, the rise of Cassius Clay into the civil rights symbol of Muhammad Ali, a pivotal moment in American racial politics, occurred in a city where, until 1963, African-Americans were prohibited from spending the night at hotels, even when they headlined those very same hotels as entertainers. Ali, then Cassius Clay, could be spotted training at the 5th Street Gym.
Bunny Yeager during her pinup years, posing by a pool in Miami Beach, circa 1950.
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What gave Miami Beach a bit of an edge back then was the presence of Richard Nixon, the president angry youth loved to hate. Nixon, who had a house on Key Biscayne, was on hand for the 1972 Republican National Convention on Miami Beach; the Democratic presidential convention of that same year was held on the Beach as well—an alignment that made Miami Beach the center of American political protest. Some 3,000 anti-Vietnam War activists, many in death masks, turned up to protest Nixon’s re-nomination at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The 1972 conventions were also a kind of daily hootenanny for Dade County teenagers—you’d get stoned, protest, be tear-gassed, and dive into a slap of real life.
Mitchell Kaplan, now a cofounder of the Miami Book Fair International and founder of the Books & Books chain, had just graduated from Miami Beach High School in that year. He was a hometown boy who took the protest beat seriously. “That summer was the last gasp of the American counterculture, happening right in our own backyard,” Kaplan recalls. “Jane Fonda, the Yippies, and everyone else set up in Flamingo Park; I got a subscription to the Black Panther Party newspaper, and years later, asked [party leader] Eldridge Cleaver to sign one of the newspapers. Miami Beach had serious issues, like civil rights and poor, old people, but it was also a kind of fantasy land with a lot of affluence. It was a contradiction, a fading beauty queen that was falling apart. The summer of 1972 was a profound experience for a Miami Beach teenager, but I couldn’t wait to leave and go to college in Colorado.”
President Richard Nixon (right) and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew talking to supporters at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 1968.
The photographer Gary Monroe grew up in Miami Beach and in conjunction with his partner in photography, the late Andy Sweet, set about documenting the Beach of the ’70s. “All these old retirees were slowly vanishing,” Monroe says of that pivotal time in the city’s history. “I shot quite a bit at the old Biscaya Hotel at Fifth Street and West Avenue, which had become a retirement home out of Fellini; now there’s a fancy condo on that site. I also photographed exercise classes on the beach and dances at the old band shell—those years were such a precious legacy.”
In the mid-1970s, the City of Miami Beach and—surprise—private development interests came up with a ruinous, grandiose, and ultimately failed scheme for the wasteland below Fifth Street. The plan was to create a neo-Venice complete with canals and water taxis; the residents, many of whom were Holocaust survivors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms, successfully fought the effort.
By 1980, South Beach was Florida’s poorest neighborhood, and the Mariel boatlift that year didn’t help matters; 140,000 mostly law-abiding Cuban refugees streamed into Miami, but many Cubans who had been dumped from Castro’s jails also ended up here, seeking out the cheap rents of South Beach. In 1981, Miami-Dade led the United States in murders. That same year, Time magazine devoted a cover story to Miami and South Beach with the headline “Paradise Lost,” as drug smugglers and dealers flooded the town with cocaine from Colombia’s Medellin cartel.
South Beach was ultimately saved by Art Deco, dime store masterpieces originally created for tourists in the 1930s. Two Art Deco activists, Barbara Capitman and Leonard Horowitz, went to the National Register of Historic Places and a state preservation board hearing in 1979. Typically, the City of Miami Beach sent representatives to fight against the historic designation, but Capitman prevailed, and the Art Deco District became the first 20th-century historic district to be added to the National Register.
Christo and Jeanne- Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, 1980–83.
In the beginning, Miami Beach symbolized many things—freedom, abandonment, and outlaw creativity—and it all jelled together in 1982, when the renovated Cardozo Hotel opened on Ocean Drive. The cast of regulars included artists Haydee and Sahara Scull (their murals are still up at Puerto Sagua restaurant), the writer John Rothchild, and Christo, who would create Surrounded Islands (11 islands in Biscayne Bay surrounded with pink polypropylene) the following year. Surrounded Islands was internationally acclaimed, the Art Basel of its day, and the 1984 debut of Miami Vice made Miami Beach a mass-market star.
In 1986, Bruce Weber shot the Obsession campaign for Calvin Klein on the roof of the Breakwater Hotel; Interview magazine put Miami Vice star Don Johnson on the cover and proclaimed the emergent allure of Miami Beach. Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba—the legendary Swinging London boutique with a clientele that included Mick Jagger and Twiggy—came to the Beach and designed Ron Wood’s nightclub, Woody’s. Hulanicki never left; she worked on most of Chris Blackwell’s hotel properties and is still designing hotels and clothes.
In the ’80s, the development set—from Craig Robins to the late Tony Goldman—tended to be a forward-thinking lot, but Kenny Zirilli, who owned the then-faded Raleigh hotel, was on a whole different level. Actor Rupert Everett lived on Miami Beach for years, and The Raleigh—“a place full of glamour”—figures prominently in his autobiography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. The book is full of evocative vignettes, from Anna The Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb dies; Gibb and his wife lived in Miami Beach for more than two decades. 2012 Nicole Smith parading “naked through the foyer” to the couple Kate Moss and Johnny Depp “looking like identical budgies.”
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The usual progress of gentrification begins with artists drawn to cheap rents: On Miami Beach, the art community of the ’80s and ’90s included Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers, Nam June Paik, Antoni Miralda, Mark Handforth, Dara Friedman, Fernando Garcia, Carlos Betancourt, and Carlos Alfonzo. Typically, gay pioneers seem to follow the first influx of artists, and in 1991, one of the world’s most famous gay men, Gianni Versace, discovered Miami Beach.
Gianni Versace at Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive in 1996.
Versace flew in for the reopening of the Versace boutique in Bal Harbour and set the wheels in motion for his Ocean Drive mansion, Casa Casuarina, an opulent palace that became a haunt for Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Elton John, and every known emissary of the glossy press. Versace launched the Miami Beach ’90s, which came to be defined by the Delano, Ian Schrager’s collaboration with Philippe Starck, and Madonna. The Material Girl set up camp in a mansion near Vizcaya, just down the block from Stallone. Red-velvet-rope culture was creeping in, but nightlife still intersected with the art world, with Kenny Scharf, Roberto Juarez, José Parlá, Craig Coleman (aka Varla), Howard Davis, and Tomata du Plenty creating nightclub installations.
At the time, gay dollars were already transforming Miami Beach—also the largest destination for gay men with AIDS. Many of those AIDS sufferers were on steroids and buffed up; Out magazine called Miami Beach a “palm-lined cliff that mighty buffaloes throw themselves over.” The late Pedro Zamora, a Miami kid whose parents came over in the Mariel boatlift, went out to the clubs of that era, and as a cast member on MTV’s Real World, Zamora, an openly gay man with AIDS, changed television culture with his fight for AIDS awareness on the show. His life story became an MTV biopic written by Dustin Lance Black of Milk and was introduced by Bill Clinton.
Throughout the ’90s, the City of Miami Beach was often at odds with the organic, steadily evolving sophistication of Miami Beach culture. In 1990, Nelson Mandela came to Miami Beach as part of a seven-city United States tour; he was officially snubbed by the City of Miami Beach thanks to his support for Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. Civil rights activists called for a national 1,000-day boycott of Miami Beach businesses, and the city lost millions. In the same era, Mayor Alex Daoud was doing unseemly favors for the old guard of Mid-Beach power brokers, people like bankers David Paul and Abel Holtz; in 1993, Daoud was sentenced to 18 months in prison for tax evasion, accepting bribes, and obstructing an investigation.
The narrative arc of the bohemian-meets-the-beach heyday would come to an end, symbolically, with the tragic murder of Versace in 1997, on the steps of Casa Casuarina. To usher in the new millennium, Donatella Versace threw an end-of-the-line New Year’s Eve party at Casa Casuarina, attended by Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Madonna. As guest Rupert Everett would have it, “la belle époque was officially over.” Madonna and Stallone sold their houses, but the party was just getting started; Versace’s death simply made Miami Beach more famous and even more marketable.
The man who connected all the dots in the ’80s and ’90s was Louis Canales, who worked with such clubs as Club Nu, Semper’s, and Bar Room. “In the early 1990s, New York magazine called Miami Beach the new St. Barth’s, and that article created so much energy,” says Canales, now creative director of KIWI Arts Group, which presents the work of such photographers as Warhol-stalwart Christopher Makos. “The scene of the early days was over; it was time for hedge fund managers and bottle-service clubs. You can’t hold on to what Miami Beach used to be—it’s like a high school football star at 40, still talking about the big game—but I’m grateful for the memories.”
In 2002, the launch of Art Basel in Miami Beach proved to be the party that united everyone, from the Mid-Beach crew of government officials and power brokers to artists and fashion designers. It was no doubt a game changer—the world’s biggest and best in the art world descending on our town, and ultimately opening the eyes of visitors who would soon want to become residents.
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The recent go-go years have had a few hiccups, such as the recession of 2008, but Miami Beach has come roaring back—money has poured in from everywhere. Just like the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s, when colossal properties were built every year to top one another, ever-grander hotels and condominiums are marching north up Collins Avenue, from Ian Schrager’s Edition to Faena to the Surf Club.
A New World Symphony Wallcast concert at the New World Center.
Artist Michele Oka Doner grew up as a child of privilege in Miami Beach; her father, Kenneth Oka, served as mayor in the ’50s. Oka Doner, who is currently working on the sets and costumes for Miami City Ballet’s 2016 production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has a true grasp of Miami Beach history. With Micky Wolfson, who opened the Wolfsonian museum on Washington Avenue in 1986, she coauthored 2005’s Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. (Wolfson’s father, Mitchell Wolfson Sr., served as mayor of Miami Beach in the ’40s.) “Just 50 years ago, this was a quiet, southern, white-bread kind of town,” says Oka Doner. “It’s a much more international city now, a unique mix that’s producing a creative cauldron.”
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On April 13, at Frank Gehry’s New World Center, O, Miami, the Miami-based poetry festival started in 2011, will host a Wallcast poetry reading with two artists of the highest order: former United States poet laureate Kay Ryan and Jamaal May, an emerging poet from Detroit. In honor of Miami Beach’s centennial, O, Miami’s P. Scott Cunningham is also presenting what he laughingly calls a “somewhat intellectual but super fun” nod to Miami Beach history. “At O, Miami, we’re always embracing every aspect of Miami Beach—high and low; the city doesn’t have to take itself so seriously anymore, or repudiate what’s considered ‘low’ culture. Good or bad, Miami Beach is now a completely legitimate city.”