The ProsenPeople

Flashback: Miami Beach, 1972

Wednesday, April 01, 2015| Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum wrote about how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The time and place of How Sweet It Is! was a novel just waiting to happen. It was during that year, 1972, when Miami Beach, such an otherwise small city, might as well have been the center of the world.

Yes, Miami Beach was only seven miles long with a mere 50,000 citizens in it—many of them senior. And the city was largely fading from the glory it once possessed like a stage actor with creaky knees from having taken too many curtain calls. The hotels had grown shabby; the swingers wore toupees, the divorcees appeared more desperate than dangerous.


Flip Schulke's photograph of a "member of the South Beach Retirement Community
enjoy[ing] the sun and sea air" in the early 1970s

South Beach was there, but without the fashion models and power forwards sipping cocktails on Ocean Drive well into the moonlit night. The Heat was measured in Fahrenheit, not NBA championships, and ladies depended on Social Security. None worked for Victoria Secret.

And yet the city that was sun-baked, unworldly and generally dull was also a bastion of colorful characters fixated on tanning their faces a singular shade of vigorous brown.

And all were waiting for a second chance.

The Jewish Mafia, led by kingpin Meyer Lansky, treated Miami Beach like an assisted living facility for wise guys. The better days of his crew had long past, too—the casinos in Havana were now nationalized by Fidel Castro, a man who idealized Vladimir Lenin, not Lucky Luciano. These men with their crooked noses went to synagogue on Saturdays and prayed that Miami Beach would legalize casino gambling and save the state from the trivial jackpots and general boredom of pari-mutuel betting.

The summer of 1972 featured the presidential nominating conventions for both the Republican and Democratic parties—the first time one city had hosted delegates from the right and left, the elephants and donkeys, the Dixiecrats and the northeastern aristocrats.


Democrats and Republicans in Convention in 1972

This was all set to take place just a few weeks after the Watergate break-in. Miami Beach was incomprehensibly designated as the city that was being asked to manage all this political infighting and social upheaval—the very same turmoil that resulted in rioting in Chicago four years earlier.

Anti-war fervor was as thick as the humid summer nights. Like centipedes wearing mood rings and chanting folk songs, the counterculture trekked down to Flamingo Park for their rowdy appointment with the American ruling class. There they would camp out, tune out, and utter words such as “far out” and “fuck off” to anyone over the age of 30 who they neither trusted nor ever wanted to become. Wearing nothing but love beads they made love in the outfield of Flamingo Park, nakedly invaded its swimming pool and then spent the day in fist-pumping public protest, demanding the end of the Vietnam War.

Jackie Gleason was the city’s favorite son, a fat man known the world over as the Great One. He maintained his princely stature on Miami Beach even though his Saturday night variety show, broadcast from a theater on Washington Avenue bearing his name, had already been cancelled. His Rat Pack friends, especially Frank Sinatra, still visited Miami Beach for the booze, the weather and Gleason’s munificent hospitality, even though by that time he spent as much time at Mount Sinai Hospital as he did on the racy Collins Avenue strip.


Jackie Gleason

Miami Beach was undergoing the early stages of desegregation while Muhammad Ali sparred on 5th Street at Angelo Dundee’s gym. Isaac Bashevis Singer scribbled on notepaper in Surfside, observing the mannerisms and mating rituals of these snowbird Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Cubans, many of whom were Jews, cursed Castro and, in retaliation, decided to turn Miami into a gleaming metropolis.

That city, during that memorable year, always had the makings of a novel. The silhouettes from that magic city just needed a little color and a splash of imagination to become real, once again.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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