Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach
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From the acclaimed bestselling author of Philistines at the Hedgerow comes a remarkably revealing profile of the Miami Beach no one knows–a tale of fabulous excess, thwarted power, and rekindled lives that will take its place among the decade’s best works of social portraiture.
Created from a mix of swampland and dredged-up barrier reef, Miami Beach has always been one part drifter-mecca and one part fantasyland, simultaneously a catch basin for con men, fast-talk artists, and shameless self-promoters, and a Shangri-La for sun worshippers and hardcore hedonists. In Miami Beach it’s often said that "if you’re not indicted you’re not invited." But the city’s mad, fascinating complexity resists easy stereotyping.
Fool’s Paradise is more than just a present-day profile of a dark Eden. Gaines journeys back into the city’s social and cultural history, unearthing stories of the resort’s past that are every bit as absorbing–and jaw-dropping–as those of its present. The book begins with a snapshot of the city’s current excess (this is, after all, a sun-washed hamlet that boasts, on a per capita basis, more bars–and breast implants–than any other place in America), then plunges into the Beach’s origins, chronicling the audacious rise of such hoteliers as the Fontainebleau’s Ben Novack and the Eden Roc’s Harry Mufson, the sharp-elbowed tactics of Al Capone and Frank Sinatra, and the Mac-10 shooting sprees of the Marielito and Colombian drug lords.
From there, the narrative shifts to two wildly eccentric souls who gave their lives to preserving the city’s architectural dazzle and creating its color palette, introduces us to "the Most Powerful Man in Miami Beach," and arrives finally in the modern day, where we meet, among others, a kinky German playboy who once owned a quarter of South Beach and publicly flaunts his sexual escapades; a fabulously successful nightclub promoter whose addictive past seems to have given him a portal into the night world’s id; and a gaggle of young sexy models, dreamers, and schemers on a mission to achieve significance.
Evoking the Beach’s surreal blend of flashy Vegas and old Hollywood glamour, as well as its manic desperation and reckless wealth, Gaines persuasively demonstrates that though the Beach is–in the words of its most famous drag queen–"an island of broken toys . . . a place where people get away with things they’d never get away with anyplace else," it casts an irresistible spell.
From the Hardcover edition.
; January 2009
288 pages; ISBN 9780307452214
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Title: Fool's Paradise
Author: Steven Gaines
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Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.
EVEN IN A CITY WHERE RESTRAINT IS NOT CONSIDERED A VIRTUE, AMBER RIDINGER'S BAT MITZVAH PROMISED TO BE SOMETHING SPECIAL.
It was a balmy Saturday night in November, with air so soft and sweet you could almost taste it, and a big, chalk white moon hung over Miami. Outside of The Forge restaurant and Glass nightclub on Arthur Godfrey Road four klieg lights on the back of a flatbed truck were making loopy pink circles in the sky, part of a pastel halo that seemed to float over the city like the aurora borealis. Miles out to sea, the light show was visible to the thousands of passengers aboard the city-size cruise ships that had disembarked from the port of Miami an hour or so before, all in a line, bow to stern, heading off to the Caribbean like a string of diamonds on a navy sea.
The pink spotlights were part of the hoopla heralding the thirteenth birthday party of Amber Ridinger. At a cost of over $500,000, it was said to be the most expensive coming-of-age celebration ever held in Miami Beach, and the biggest party of its kind since Henry Ford's coming-out gala for his daughter at the Bath Club. More than two hundred guests were expected to attend, including New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and his wife, former Playboy Playmate Alicia Rickter, who'd given Amber a $10,000 Cartier Pasha white-gold watch for her birthday. Even that largesse was surpassed by the singer and actress Jennifer Lopez, a family friend of relatively recent acquaintance, who presented Amber with the most lavish birthday gift of all--a $100,000, 30-carat diamond bracelet. Rap stars Ja Rule, Omarion, and Marques Houston were expected to entertain, and Amber herself was going to provide divertissement by introducing her own line of clothing called Gossip in an elaborate runway show. The music would be supplied by the superstar disc jockey DJ AM, best known to readers of Us Magazine as Adam Horowitz, the studly serial dater of Paris Hilton's posse. The bat mitzvah girl was also going to introduce her own signature fragrance, Amber No. 13, packaged in custom-designed crystal bottles with Amber's personal logo, each gift-wrapped in pink bows and placed on every table for the guests to take home. The New York Post's gossip column, "Page Six," which doesn't do much bat mitzvah reporting, ran an item saying that Amber, an eighth-grade student at Miami Country Day School, was expected to wear a $26,000 purple-and-silver Dolce & Gabbana gown to her birthday party.
Amber was in "Page Six" because the bat mitzvah also had a publicist, Tara Solomon, of Tara Ink. Ms. Solomon, who hailed from Fort Myers, Florida, was herself a local celebrity and nightlife fixture, a bosomy version of Gidget gone awry, who also wrote an advice column for the Miami Herald called "Advice Diva." Ms. Solomon alerted the gossip columns and sent out press releases about the bat mitzvah, one of which was headlined butterflies and bling--it's a bat mitzvah thing! The press release noted that "a limited number of escorted cameras will be allowed inside the venue," which is why the night of the bat mitzvah there was a wolf pack of jostling television news cameramen, reporters, and paparazzi in front of the faux eighteenth-century French facade of The Forge, attacking en masse every time a stretch limousine or lollipop-colored muscle car pulled up to the VIP carpet to disgorge guests, mostly local Miami Beach celebrities such as Dr. Jeff Kamlet, the town's busiest addiction doctor; Thomas Kramer, Miami Beach's scandal-plagued Bad Boy real estate developer; Michael Capponi, the nightlife uberpromoter and his model girlfriend Erin Henry; Elaine Lancaster, a staple of the social scene and beloved drag queen who is over seven feet tall in her wig; pop singer Vanessa ("A Thousand Miles") Carlton; Irv Gotti, the formerly indicted CEO of Murder Inc. Records; and stylish hip-hop impresario Damon Dash and his wife, fashion designer Rachel Roy.
Inside The Forge restaurant the bordello-like decor had been feebly disguised in keeping with the bat mitzvah's theme as an Amberland of "Butterflies and Bling." From the restaurant's ceiling in the Dome room hung what looked like a swarm of glittering bugs but were in fact synthetic butterflies, dangling on filament thread above the heads of the guests, along with a purported 42,000 sparkling Swarovski crystals, which supplied the bling. The walls had been draped in white satin, pink flower petals littered the floors, and the restaurant's $20 million wine cellar had been turned into a "Candy Land" where two Little People dressed in munchkinlike white overalls and wigs stood on a table spread with candies and sweets as well as a fountain spouting warm chocolate in which to dip strawberries. The Little People grinned gamely at the guests, who grinned back.
Around 9:30 p.m., Amber Ridinger herself arrived, emerging from the back of a stretch limousine in a flurry of strobe lights along with rap superstar Ja Rule and the platinum-selling singer Ashanti. Amber had dark eyes, pale pink lips, and dark hair piled on top of her head, a few strands of which escaped from under a diamond coronet and fell in her face. There was an endearing awkwardness to the thirteen-year-old as she made her way up the VIP carpet in her ill-fitting $26,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown while photographers shouted "Amber! Amber! Look this way!" like she was a movie star.
Inside The Forge, Amber's beaming parents were watching her arrival on a live video feed being shown throughout the restaurant on flat-screen televisions. "The party was really just meant to fulfill Amber's every vision and every dream," Loren Ridinger, thirty-eight, told a reporter. Mrs. Ridinger was dressed in a low-cut red print dress with spaghetti straps, and her husband, James "JR" Ridinger, fifty-five, was wearing a white tuxedo jacket with a white satin collar and a white shirt open at the neck. The Ridingers both had very white teeth, in contrast to their deep suntans, and they looked years younger than their ages.
The Ridingers had been identified that week with a thrift of description by the Miami SunPost as "money-heavy socialites." They'd materialized about ten years earlier from Greensboro, North Carolina, where they created a company out of their garage that sold household products over the Internet called Market America Worldwide, Inc. In 2006, Market America was grossing nearly $300 million a year in revenues, with annual sales projected to reach $1 billion by 2010. The firm was so rich that the Ridingers reportedly had $100 million in cash just sitting in the company's accounts. Back in Greensboro, Ridinger had run into some trouble with the SEC when he created a shell company to take Market America public and then sold shares without disclosing he had an interest in the company. Soon after paying the SEC a fine, the Ridingers moved to Miami. Like so many others, they were looking for fresh horizons and beautiful sunsets over the Everglades.
Miami Beach is a city of neophiliacs where people are mesmerized by shiny new things, and the newcomers du jour quickly rose to the top of the social strata--at least someone's social strata. They built a remarkable $25 million waterfront chateau-style house on North Bay Road, one of the city's toniest streets. The house had a formal living room with a trompe l'oeil ceiling painted with chariots and angels, and there were crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf-gilded crown moldings, and a marble bust of Beethoven. The Ridingers also had their own ballroom, in which they threw galas for the other money-heavy socialites. Mrs. Ridinger owned so many expensive Judith Leiber pocketbooks that they were locked in a display case in her bedroom. There was a stable of eighteen cars, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom, an Aston Martin, and a Mercedes McClaren--one of only five in the United States--and a staff of thirty-one, including chauffeurs and yacht crew. The couple also owned two boats, a $6 million 20-footer and an $18 million, 156-foot yacht, the latter of which they took to Manhattan in the summers to escape Miami's tropical heat. They kept it berthed at Chelsea Piers while they lived in a penthouse suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The couple was also known for their generosity to charities and their friends. They'd befriended an impressive variety of A-list celebrities, including singers Jennifer Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony, and Madonna, who was wary of most people and hard to get to know, yet who felt comfortable enough with the Ridingers to use their six-room guest cottage instead of staying in a hotel when she was in Miami.
Tara Solomon hit a home run for the Ridingers in the press. Amber's birthday party made the front page of the Miami Herald and the cover of the Style section of the New York Times and was featured in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Amber's pink-carpet arrival was seen on the 11:00 p.m. news on several local TV outlets in Miami, and it was featured in segments on Inside Edition, Access Hollywood, and Geraldo at Large. MTV ran a news story about the party called "Torah Down the House," and on CNN, in a segment about expensive parties for teens, Loren Ridinger was seen saying to Amber, "You're a great kid and don't be mad at Mommy if everything's not perfect."
There was just one thing that wasn't perfect.
Amber Ridinger wasn't raised Jewish.
Her father had been brought up Methodist, and the family celebrated Christmas--but Amber's maternal grandmother, who died when she was only seven months old, was Jewish, which made Amber's mother Jewish, and in Miami Beach, that's enough to throw a bat mitzvah. Rabbi Zev Katz, thirty-four, who officiated at Amber's extravaganza, admitted he did not perform a bat mitzvah ceremony. The bearded and jovial Rabbi Katz was the quintessential Miami Beach Lubavitcher rabbi, who could be found weekdays with his "Chabad House on Wheels," a panel bus, which he parked at a crosswalk on Lincoln Road and used to solicit fellow Jews to lay tefillin. He didn't want to convert Gentiles, he wanted to bring Jews further into the fold, and so he'd embrace Jews or the nearest thing to it, like Amber. The eminently likable Rabbi Katz explained that Amber hadn't recited a haftorah, one of the most traditional parts of the ceremony, and that the event took place not in a synagogue but in the parents' North Bay Road chateau, and that Amber simply made a speech and Rabbi Katz blessed her.
But hey, this is Miami Beach.
It also turned out that Loren and JR Ridinger weren't exactly "dot com millionaires" as described in the press, although a portion of their company's business--mainly consumer polls about their products--was conducted online. Market America has been compared in the press to the Amway company model, which the Ridingers adamantly deny is a fair comparison. Purportedly, Market America has 100,000 "distributors" who pay $600 in start-up fees and about $150 a month to stay "active" in the company. Each salesperson is expected to recruit two more. Market America is so wildly popular that the company has been able to fill convention halls and stadiums as large as the Carnival Center in Miami for sales conferences, one of the highlights of which is testimony by the company's top earners to the riches and spoils Market America has brought them. In fact, Amber's extravagant bat mitzvah was an example of one of the tenets of Market America's marketing strategy--that the senior officers and top earners of the company conspicuously show off the rewards of their hard work--cars, homes, luxury goods--thus inspiring new conscriptees and making Amber Ridinger's bat mitzvah a possible tax deduction.
That same balmy weekend, across the still-warm waters of Biscayne Bay in Coral Gables, a wealthy suburb of the city of Miami, the condescending but codependent older sister of louche Miami Beach, there was another party of socialites taking place.
There were no paparazzi or sound bites or spotlights in the sky.
There was a photographer, hired by the hosts, who politely took posed pictures of guests during cocktails.
This party was a $1,000-a-seat black-tie gala at the elegant Biltmore Hotel to kick off a three-day celebration called "A Very Wolfsonian Weekend," marking the tenth anniversary of the Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum in Miami Beach. The honorary chairs of the event were Carnival Cruise Lines' vice chairman and COO Howard Frank and his wife Mary; Miami Design Center developer Craig Robins; and hotelier Andre Balazs. Guests included architects David Schwarz, Luis Pons, and Chad Oppenheim; publishing heiress Jan Cowles; high-end real estate developer Walid Wahab; photographer Iran Issa-Khan; artist and writer Michele Oka Doner; banker Enrique Carrillo; art dealer Marvin Ross Friedman; interior designer Pepe Calderin; and Modesto A. Maidique, president of Florida International University, who was being honored, along with Michael Holden, a vice president of JP Morgan, and the Wolfsonian Museum's founder, the remarkable Mitchell Wolfson Jr., affectionately known as "Micky."
Micky Wolfson is the scion of one of the most prominent families in Miami Beach's history. Mitchell Sr. built the Wometco chain of movie theaters in greater Miami--including the world-famous Capri on Lincoln Road. He also started the city's first television station, WTKK, which he built into a small network in southern Florida. Mitchell Sr. was also an inspiring civic leader during wartime--and the first Jewish man elected mayor of Miami Beach, in 1943, who patriotically resigned as mayor to fight in World War II. When Mitchell Sr. died in 1984, Micky inherited $84.4 million and began to use it to satisfy a lifelong craving: collecting.
Micky was a collector of things. All sorts of things, it turned out. It started with a collection of hotel keys when he was a child and turned into the Wolfsonian Museum, a trove of curiosities comprising 70,000 objects and 36,000 books, all from the period of 1885 to the end of World War II, each one of them with its own backstory, provenance, or significance in history. Much of the collection is identified as "decorative propaganda," which are curios relating to the Fascist and Nazi movements in Europe. It includes a "banned books" section that contains a 1941 copy of Mein Kampf in Braille; Hitler's silverware; a silver cocktail shaker from World War I shaped like a bomb; and Nazi wall hangings. The remainder of the collection contains eccentric pieces that can't be categorized: Queen Victoria's soup tureen; King Farouk's matchbook collection; and the massive finial that once capped the Woolworth Building in New York City. Another curious thing about this collection is that it's housed in a 56,000-square-foot, 1926 Mediterranean-style converted warehouse on Washington Avenue and 10th Street in Miami Beach, incongruously situated amid Cuban and Thai restaurants, slice-of-pizza joints, and sleazy storefront nightclubs with blacked-out windows. Wolfson used to pay to store his collection in this warehouse, but when he began to run out of space he bought the whole building in 1985 and renovated it into a seven-story museum and research facility.
From the Hardcover edition.