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​.thanerosen​baum​.com/.

Relat­ed Content:

Thane Rosen­baum is an essay­ist, nov­el­ist, and law pro­fes­sor. His arti­cles, reviews, and essays appear fre­quent­ly in The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Los Ange­les Times, CNN, The Dai­ly Beast, and oth­er nation­al pub­li­ca­tions. He serves as the Legal Ana­lyst for CBS News Radio, and mod­er­ates The Talk Show” at the 92nd Street Y, an annu­al series on cul­ture, world events, and pol­i­tics. He has been invit­ed to give pub­lic lec­tures around the world. He is a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor at Touro Col­lege, where he directs the Forum on Law, Cul­ture & Soci­ety. Rosen­baum is the author of Pay­back: The Case for Revenge, and The Myth of Moral Jus­tice: Why Our Legal Sys­tem Fails to Do What’s Right, and is the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Law Lit: From Atti­cus Finch to The Prac­tice: A Col­lec­tion of Great Writ­ing about the Law. He has also pub­lished five nov­els includ­ing The Golems of Gotham and Sec­ond Hand Smoke.