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02.12.09

Bright Nights, Shady City

Steve Gaines’ Fool’s Paradise delivers a full diet of South Beach lore and other Miami vices.

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There’s this to be said for wretched excess: Like Champagne, it never goes out of style. It can present itself in the form of Marie Antoinette or in the form of the woman in front of me at Dean & DeLuca, emporium of the excessively priced, who picked up a $50 package of kona, medium-blend coffee just the other evening. Nevermind that we keep being told the very rich and self-indulgent have adopted a new ethos of sobriety and are cutting back in keeping with the deflated spirit of the times, there will always be people who sail above such efforts at fellow-feeling in favor of pursuing the best and the priciest.

Read an excerpt about the Versace murder from Steven Gaines’ Fool’s Paradise

This, at least, is the impression I have gathered after reading Fool’s Paradise, Steven Gaines’ louche history of life among the rich, bronzed, and egregiously vulgar inhabitants of Miami Beach. Much as he did in his close chronicle of the culture of the Hamptons, Philistines at the Hedgrerow, Gaines has immersed himself in the cacophonous goings-on of that wedge of real-estate—a tiny island unto itself—at the tip of Florida that has been simultaneously a joke (“Miami Beach,” Lenny Bruce observed, “is where neon goes to die”); a legitimate haven for Cubans and other exiles; a gangster’s refuge ever since the 1920s when parimutuel gambling was legalized and Al Capone took an interest in the place; and one long hot party.

Indeed, Gaines’ book begins with Amber Ridinger’s bat-mitzvah, “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.” The year is 2005, the tab for the event is $500,000, and Amber’s purple-and-silver “ill-fitting” Dolce & Gabbana gown costs $26,000. Gifts to the birthday girl include a $10,000 Cartier Pasha white-gold watch and a $100,000, 30-carat diamond bracelet from Jennifer Lopez. There are more salacious details where these came from: the theme of the bat-mitzvah is “Butterflies and Bling” and the décor included walls draped in white satin, floors covered in pink flower petals and one of those fountains spouting warm chocolate in which to dip strawberries that I myself have never seen but know to exist from watching reality TV shows.

As Gaines tells it, through the decades-long sagas of competing hoteliers and battling nightclub owners, Miami Beach has re-invented itself several times since it was literally built from the ground up out of 410 acres of “nearly primeval” swampland and “otherworldly” tropical undergrowth by one Carl Fisher—who envisioned it as becoming “the Riviera of America”—during the 1910s and ‘20s. After first draining the swamps and then pouring 16 acres of sand from Biscayne Bay over two-foot long palmetto stumps, Fisher went on to construct everything else that was required to sustain his vision: “mansions, nightclubs, and polo and yacht clubs.” His piece de resistance was Lincoln Road, at the end of which he built his own mansion and which rapidly filled up with a brigade of New York’s best stores, including Silka, Peck & Peck, and Lily Dache, the Fifth Avenue milliner. In 1940, when the rest of the country was still feeling the aftereffects of the Depression, Miami Beach blithely lived up to its reputation as an “escapist playground” and what its mayor described as “a unique US phenomenon” in a cover story in Time.

Beginning in 1935, Miami Beach rapidly filled up with hotels to accommodate the surging tide of tourists; in 1940 alone, 41 new hotels opened. The Beach’s modern era of “glitz and ersatz glamour” was heralded by the 246-room Saxony Hotel, the first hotel on the beach to be completely air-conditioned, built in 1948 for a then-astronomical $5 million. Its sovereignty remained uncontested until Ben Novack, in pursuit of his dream of becoming a hotel impresario nonpareil, unveiled the Sans Souci a year later. From this he went on to realize his vision of building “the world’s most pretentious hotel”—on December 20, 1954, at a party for 1,600 people, Novack opened The Fountainbleau, whose yawning central lobby was paved with marble and filled with faux French Provincial furniture under an 18-foot ceiling that was home to four half-ton crystal chandeliers. In keeping with his scheme, The Fountainbleau functioned as a self-contained universe well before this concept would hit Steve Wynn. It had its own furniture repair shop, an industrial-size laundry plant, and an in-house post office, not to mention seven restaurants and more than 30 retail shops, where you could buy anything from Dior evening gowns to $2,500 lace tablecloths. Not to be outdone, Novack’s former partner opened The Eden Roc in 1955, designed by Morris Lapidus, the same guy who concocted The Fountainbleau out of a hodgepodge of styles and colors.

Fool’s Paradise follows the arc of Miami Beach from its first 30-year heyday through its nosedive in the 1970s on up and through its resuscitation in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the arrival of Bruce Weber and his supermodels as well as the gentrification of South Beach. (Reading the book, I was reminded of my own de rigueur winter-vacation trip to the kosher Nautilus hotel on the decaying end of Collins Avenue as a high-school student in the mid ‘70s, participating in a very mild, rabbinically approved version of Girls Gone Wild.) Gaines’ structure does not have much rhyme or reason, except that it races ahead when the gossip goes dry and always makes room for what used to be known as colorful characters. We learn in perhaps unnecessary detail, for instance, of a former shipping clerk-turned-aspiring model named Matt Loewen who comes to Miami from Vancouver by way of a “contemplative” Internet photo that has caught the attention of a booking agent and of a Mob apparatchik named Chris Paciello, whose specialty is beating people up for fun and who opens a nightclub named Liquid with Ingrid Casares, of Madonna fame. The scenes shift rapidly from one interior to the next—now in the red, S&M-friendly bedroom of a crazed German-born real-estate tycoon named Thomas Kramer, now at the Vix, “the swanky restaurant” at the Hotel Victor, now at a club cunningly named Snatch—and intersect with dizzyingly brief patches of history about “narcodollars” and the rise of the AIDS epidemic.

Gaines’ role is that of a conspicuous fly on the wall (he sometimes refer to himself as “the visitor”) and his tone vacillates unpredictably between wide-eyed and sniffy. For much of the time, I was seriously disoriented as to what year we were in and whose destiny we were following but none of it seemed to really matter because this isn’t that kind of book and Gaines isn’t that kind of writer.

What is on hand instead is a lot of painstakingly annotated material about a bunch of high-flying and disconcertingly amoral creatures who have gathered together for fun under the sun. Fool’s Paradise makes for the kind of guilty pleasure that reading about over-the-top egos and runaway consumption always induces, allowing one to vicariously experience the druggy, glitzy abandon of it all while at the same feeling morally superior. Whether this is the right time for this kind of entertainment is open to question but there is no doubt that the newly renovated Fountainbleau, at a purported cost of $1 billion, will bring a fresh influx of tone-deaf people happy to splash money around and catch some rays even as the economic climate continues to cast a long, chilly shadow.

Daphne Merkin is a cultural critic who was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle.  She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.