Recently, I received an email announcing that my old alma mater Miami Beach High School, Class of ’57 is planning a 75th birthday party. Ah, yes, the kids are 75 years old now.
Beach High has been educating local children since 1924. The impressive list of well-known alumni includes Barbara Walters, actors Mickey Rourke, Andy Garcia, and actress Kim Hunter, Robert Rubin, 70th U.S. Secretary of Treasury under the Clinton Administration, Judge Gerald Kogan, Chief Justice for the Florida Supreme Court and many, many others in music and the arts.
Coincidentally, this year I revisited Miami Beach in its heyday in my latest novel The Duchess of Cypress. The scenario looks in on a group of charming octogenarians gathered in their condo lobby waiting out a fire alarm and they’re schmoozing about the two Grande Dames of Miami Beach on the 50’s, the Fontainebleau Hotel and the Eden Roc.
‘I was at the Eden Roc on my honeymoon and saw Nat King Cole sing ‘Unforgettable’ in the hotel’s supper club, The Pompeii Room. He couldn’t even stay at the hotel because he was black.’
‘When my Moe and I were young marrieds, we saw The Rat Pack perform at the Fontainebleau. It’s true that in those days the Blacks had to be out of Miami Beach before the sun went down but no one was going to tell Frank Sinatra that his Sammy Davis couldn’t stay at the hotel. And we can all thank those guys for desegregating America.’
I was born and bred in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I lived in the same neighbourhood, ringing doorbells and running away with the same friends. In the summer I went to Camp Hiawatha in the Laurentians, sixty miles north of my home. I wore my dark blue school tunic and my laced Oxford shoes with pride until I was twelve years old. In 1951, all that changed because my parents decided we were going to spend our winters in Florida. My father manufactured ladies-ready-to-wear clothing and had organized his companies in a way that afforded him the luxury of leaving Montreal in winter to paint and play golf in warmer climate.
Our Miami Beach home was in the area of 41st Street, which to the outrage of many, was later changed to Arthur Godfrey Road because of his star power bringing tourists to Miami Beach when he broadcasted his variety show Arthur Godfrey Time from the Kenilworth Hotel in 1953. The allegation against Mr. Godfrey and his Kenilworth Hotel was that it had a sign out front that read no Jews or dogs allowed. The hotel commonly used phrases like Gentiles only-restricted clientele. There is talk today that the street be changed back to its original name. The 41st Street area is not unlike little Jerusalem.
Food Fair Super Market on 41st Street where they gave Merchant’s Green Stamps for every 10-cent of purchases was my mother’s favourite grocery store. She would lick ‘em and stick ‘em in her special saver books, daily thumbing through the catalogue showcasing the merchandise which was available at the time to be traded for her stock of books. Every year when we returned to Montreal for the summer, she would lug her green stamp books to the bank and put them in her safety deposit box in case, God forbid, a hurricane destroyed our home while we were away.
The move was very difficult for me. It was fine for my brother who is 8 1/2 years younger than I am and didn’t have any roots in Montreal yet. He became friends with boxing legend Jake LaMotta’s two sons. Jake was the middleweight boxing champion of the world from 1949-1951 and retired to Miami Beach after he got the beating of his life by Sugar Ray Robinson around the same time we moved there. Jake’s wife Vicky was 16 years old when they married. She used to come to pick up her boys from our house. She was gorgeous, sweet and friendly. She loved to tell us stories about her family. ‘Can you believe my mom is a grandmother at 36 years old?’
The LaMottas divorced after only eleven years of marriage. Martin Scorsese’s 1980 movie ‘Raging Bull’ is based on the life of Jake LaMotta and Vicky (played by Robert DeNiro and Cathy Moriarty) and is considered to be one of the top 10 films ever made.
In 1998, both LaMotta sons died tragically. Jake, 51 years old, died of liver cancer and his brother Joe, 49, was killed in the Swissair plane crash over Nova Scotia. Vicky died after heart surgery in 2005, two days after her 75th birthday. She had posed nude for Playboy Magazine when she was 51 years old. Jake who is 90 years old at the time of this post, is getting married for the 7th time.
The first school I attend was Nautilus Jr. High School on Michigan Avenue around the corner from 41st Street. I did not fit.
The fashion in the 50’s was stiff petticoats (fun to twirl in) tight wide waist belts, cardigan sweaters with feminine cotton collars and Papagallo ballet type shoes. My style was oversize men shirts worn outside of my jeans and golf cleats on my feet. I was way taller and wider than everyone and they called me Amazon. My classmates even had fun with the way I spoke.
‘Hey, Canuck, what does ‘EH’ mean, eh?’ ‘Oot and aboot, aboat,’ ha, ha, ha.
This was South Beach in the 1950’s. Little old ladies used to sit on their chairs all day and watch us walk by. Beach High was around the corner on Drexel and 14th Street.
Our unpretentious winter home faced the third hole at Bayshore Golf Course. My dad introduced me to golf and I immediately fell head over heels in love with the game. Each day after school, I’d walk across from our house with my shag bag of balls, some clubs and I’d practise until the sky got dark and my hands were blistering and calloused. By the time I was 14 years old, I was shooting in the low eighties regularly and was picked to be a member of the Beach High golf team. We were two girls and ten boys and I was in good company. The owner of the Eden Roc Hotel Harry Mufson’s son Eddie was on the team and so was my friend Lenny Yaras. Lenny’s father Dave was Al Capone’s right hand man. I adored Lenny. In 1985 he was murdered as he was getting into his car in Chicago. He was 44 years old.
At 14 years old, I was the Bayshore mascot. Often while I was practising I had onlookers watching me smash tee shots past the 200 yard marker. Thwack, thwack, what an intoxicating sound. On any given day I was hitting shots shoulder-to-shoulder with former tennis champ Bobby Riggs and ‘the Fat Man’ Marty Stanovitch, two of America’s most famous Hustlers who made their living playing golf in high stake golf games.
In my memoir Sam’s Will (2005) I wrote that one of my favourite people at Bayshore Golf Course was Joe Louis, the Heavy Weight Boxing Champ of the World 1937-1949. Joe loved the game of golf and he loved to bet. He was the most gentle, soft-spoken man with the largest hands I have ever seen in my life. We would see each other on the course practise putting green on the weekend and he would always challenge me to a putting match for a quarter. The story was that the boxing champ lost all of his money on the golf course.
My love for the Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Team in the 50’s was a smidge stronger than my love for golf. When Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson (still be my heart), my favourite players, took time out from spring training in Vero Beach to shoot a few rounds of golf at Bayshore, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
And then, one day, they came no more. And also gone was my putting partner Joe Louis. These men were black and the blacks were suddenly not welcome to play at Bayshore.
I’m Canadian. One cannot imagine how shocked I was to learn that Bayshore Golf Course exclusivity was based on race.
Racial restrictive covenants were (and perhaps still are) agreements entered into by property owners in a neighbourhood binding them NOT TO SELL OR LEASE to specify groups because of race, creed or colour. The Town apparently had passed a bylaw stipulating that only Miami Beach home owners could play golf on Miami Beach’s Bayshore Golf Course. Property owners in Miami Beach were prohibited from selling to the blacks in the 1950’s.