"My, aren't you a cutie!" She leaned closer to me and took a drag off her cigarette. As she exhaled, her ample sunburnt breasts, spilling out of her black fishnet one-piece, bobbed up and down against my face. Dressed in my blue blazer, bow tie, khaki shorts, and freshly shined Buster Browns, I was, at six years old, an irresistible magnet for drunken middle-aged women looking for love. Mom always insisted that if I were going to sit at the bar and drink that I at least be well dressed.
I was at my favorite bar, the kind that was very popular in the 1950s throughout the Caribbean: below ground with a big picture window looking directly into the front of the pool. For hours I would watch would-be Esther Williams types engage in aesthetic swimming routines or drunken couples attempting to make love in the shallow end of the pool completely unaware that some of us had a front-row seat.
At the moment, the hotel's live mermaid was doing her aquatic show while sucking on an air hose. I lived for the mermaid. She was my fantasy come true a sleek woman in a tight flesh-colored bathing suit, wearing very red lipstick, who did artistic somersaults and blew bubbles at you through the window. For some reason, possibly due to the Gulf Stream or immigration, mermaids did not exist back in my hometown of Miami. Mermaids were strictly a foreign phenomenon.
Being a gentleman, I restrained myself from telling this aggressively drunk woman that her breasts were blocking not only my view of this very important show but my air passages as well.
The Bahamian bartender gave me a wink and a smile. I was a regular, and he had witnessed my powerful little-boy charm on women many, many times. I was the Cary Grant/Hugh Hefner of my first-grade class suave, debonair, and just a bit naughty when necessary. I knew the difference between Manischewitz and Bordeaux.
He poured my third drink: a planter's punch packed with dark rum. Delicious. On these weekends away, my parents would often park me at the bar. What better babysitter than a bartender and an open tab?
At the time, I spent many of my weekends in tiki bars throughout the Caribbean, accompanying my mother and father on business trips. Nassau, Havana, Port-au- Prince, Kingston, and the Caymans were each just a short hop from Miami. In 1958 round-trip airfare to Nassau was around twelve dollars. Sometimes we would fly over for the day just to bring back duty-free liquor for one of my parents' parties.
Pop was an internationally known interior decorator who, through no real effort of his own, specialized in making pretty for Caribbean dictators, prizefighters, minor celebrities, assorted mobsters, and just plain rich folk. Because Miami did not have a great demand for decorators, my father's clients existed largely outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Wherever there was offshore banking, Pop seemed to have clients. Once they had quietly exchanged one passport for another, his customers would discreetly retire to their Lew Smith-designed villas, usually the kind with an ever-ready seaplane parked out front. In the fifties, the only thing those Miami rednecks knew about decorating was driving the wife over in the pickup and grabbing whatever piece of colonial furniture with brown plaid upholstery was on sale at Sears during the Midsummer Spectacular.
When my parents visited Havana, Mom would usually step off the plane and head straight for the casino, from which she would often emerge the next morning after beating the pants off every English expat at blackjack. With her gold cigarette holder, emerald earrings down to her shoulders, and style for miles, Mom was a brilliant gambler and always walked away with a win. Gangster Meyer Lansky regularly bought her breakfast after a night at the tables; he was probably hoping to recoup some of the house losses with a little snuggle behind the bar. While Mom was shaking the dice, Pop was doing business with President Carlos Prio or sugar mogul Willie Lobo. President Prio had given my father his signed personal calling card to keep with him at all times as his passport against any type of trouble. With just a wave of the card, Pop could slip right past the gauntlet of bodyguards packing plenty of heat who thought nothing of icing a potential political rival. The card magically opened every door not only throughout Havana but also in Miami after Prio fled. Pop often visited the ex-presidente at his home on one of Miami Beach's exclusive private islands to make Prio comfy at his palace in exile.
In addition, Pop's services were sought after by plenty of legitimate clients foreign developers with funny-sounding names and even funnier accents who were building new beachfront hotels throughout the Caribbean. These guys usually gave my father free rein on any project. Their attitude was "just fix it," as if designing a tropical-themed resort was basically a plumbing problem.
Back then, Miami was not much more than a big ol' cracker swamp due east of the Everglades. Dixiecrats, blacks, and coral snakes summed up the population, in that order. Miami was still the Deep South. Tropical apartheid ruled. The local A&P on Bird Road had three bathrooms upstairs above the meat counter: one for men, one for women, and one for coloreds. All that back-of-the-bus, separate-drinking-fountain, Woolworth's sit-in stuff that everybody thinks was limited to the redneck South of Alabama was alive and well in Miami correctlypronounced at the time as "My-am-uhhh." If you were black and found walking along the pink sidewalks of Miami Beach after 5:00 p.m. without an official permit or a letter from your employer, you were immediately thrown into the back of an intimidating black-and-white police car and escorted off the island.
However, blacks weren't the only ones whose access was restricted on Miami Beach. Entire islands, such as Indian Creek, along with the various social clubs such as the Bath Club, the Surf Club, and the Indian Creek Club, did not welcome Jews. Guards and property associations kept them at bay. Additionally, many of the best hotels and apartment buildings were for "restricted clientele" some by implication, others by not-so-little signs on the front lawn that clearly stated NO DOGS, JEWS OR IRISH ALLOWED. Mom, who had lived her entire life in New York City, had never seen anything like this before.
Occasionally, for sport, Mom loved walking into a hotel, registering, and then telling the guy that she was Jewish. She stood there until they either broke out laughing or threatened to kill her. She usually got off easy due to her emerald-green eyes, Nordic nose, and blond hair, all of which confused the desk clerk as to whether this was a Candid Camera event or the real thing. It was not unusual for her to be met with a forceful shove from a foul-mouthed cleaning lady telling her to get out or else. Pop, never one for confrontation, quickly put an end to her freedom-fighter routine for fear that she would end up dead in the back alley of one of the hotels. Most of the hotel owners had mob connections and thought nothing about making a quick phone call to rid the premises of a pesky little Jew.
Just as my mother and father started their new life in Miami proper, Miami Beach was about to enter yet another one of its many incarnations as it began to cater to the movers and shakers of the day. Rather than flappers and polo players, certain sections of the Magic City, as it was touted in tourist brochures, were now becoming the winter haven for the Rat Pack and the newly emerging Jewish middle class. Mobsters and elderly Jews began to soak up the sun at hotels promising some crass class, such as the Roney Plaza, the Shore Club, and the Delano.
The Carillon, Deauville, Eden Roc, and Fontainebleau with their sweeping, audacious curves and free-form pools eventually grabbed the high-rolling clientele just waiting to have their names announced poolside: "Paging Mr. Sy Bernstein. Paging Hy Lefkowitz please report to the main cabana for an important phone call." After each announcement on the PA, heads would turn to see who was the VIP from Brooklyn.
The exotic scents of suntan lotion, cigars, and kosher pickles mingled in the warm air. By the late sixties, Sy and Hy would be replaced by Manuel and Alfonso. The kosher pickles would be replaced by yuca and ropa vieja. However, the suntan lotion and cigars would remain constants.
In eighty-five-degree weather, wives of Jewish lawyers paraded around the lobby in smart little mink wraps to combat the "cool inside" frigid air-conditioning. Everybody came down during season, from Frank Sinatra to boxer Jake LaMotta. The joint was jumping, and the palms were swaying.
During the long summer months, when most of the city was deserted, the hotels would run unbeatable weekend specials in order to keep their doors open. Mom convinced my father that we should take advantage of these offers with three simple words: "Let them cook." Basically, we had the place to ourselves. I'd splash in the pool as the searing sun bleached the landscape and its inhabitants. At night Mom would sneak me into the Boom Boom Room for a whiskey sour and a floor show of "Live from Las Vegas: Girls! Girls! Girls!" It was very important to her that I understood and embraced sophistication, so as not to end up as another Jewish schlub accountant but rather a jet-set playboy who intimately knew the likes of Paris, London, and Havana.
Whenever a favorite singer or comedian came to town during the season, Pop would take Mom to one of the hotels, such as the Eden Roc or the Carillon, for dinner and a show. At intermission some sexy blond photographerette would temporarily blind the happy couple with the flash from her maximum-sized Graflex camera. Several drinks later Manhattan for him, whiskey sour for her, usually with small, brightly colored paper umbrellas imported from Japan perched jauntily in the fresh-fruit garnish Pop would reach for his wallet to purchase the black-and- white souvenir of their evening. These documents show my father in a sharkskin suit and my mother in a little black cocktail dress and pearls, smiling actually beaming for the camera. Pop was delighted with his beautiful little blonde, and Mom was thrilled with her dashing decorator husband. After the show, Mom would screw up her courage and ask the star to autograph whatever was available: a napkin, a business card, or the drinks menu. When she got home, she would wake me from my sleep, tell me all about the show, and present me with the latest autographed treasure for my scrapbook.
While my parents were enjoying their drinks, listening to Dean Martin or laughing at Shecky Greene, farther up the strip at the cheesier hotels, brilliant but naughty comediennes like Belle Barth (whose famous live album was titled If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends) would sit at the piano in smoke-filled rooms, tickling the ivories and telling bawdy jokes with a studied finishing-school innocence for the entertainment of lower-middle-class patrons munching fat cigars and getting plastered on cheap scotch. Bloated salesmen and young studs on the make stimulated by the toilet vaudeville usually had two or three blondes on their arms, waiting to "go back to the room." Nearby, at Place Pigalle, Belle's competitor, Pearl Williams, "Direct from New York's Lower East Side," told jokes like, "Did I tell you the one about the drunken cop who fell off his whistle and blew his horse?" Her live routine was captured on an "adults only" album titled A Cruise Is Not a Trip Around the World, which was quite a mouthful back then and can still shock today with its clever and scandalous innuendos. And then there was Tubby Boots, an obscenely overweight nerd in thick black glasses who dressed in shiny purple boxer shorts with tassels pasted on his nipples, which he could swing in wild syncopation to the beat of the swing band that accompanied him.
The real miracle of Miami which still exists to this very day was the opportunity for anybody from anywhere to suddenly show up and reinvent himself. Supposed Guggenheims, du Ponts, and Rockefellers, as well as princes and princesses, were always washing up on the social scene only to end up convicted of fraud, embezzlement, or, more often than not, murder. There is a radiant quality to the light that makes people feel as if their past and their soul have been completely sanitized. All is forgiven. They are suddenly swept clean of any personal history and wholly convinced that they have always been who they now say they are. The fabled Miami light encourages even the most humble man in the street to start again, or at the very minimum to mythologize the past.
Countless Cubans who were once sweeping the streets in Havana or serving fufu and arroz con pollo in some shack on the outskirts of town now publicly bemoan the loss of their sugar plantations, summerhouses, maids, and chauffeurs with the arrival of El Comandante. They swear on their beloved mother's grave who, by the way, happens to be buried in the "good" section of the Havana cemetery, near the mausoleum created by Lalique (far away from the section for both Arabs and Jews) to one day overthrow Fidel and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Only in America, and, especially, only in Miami.
It was in this miraculous light that my father was able to convince the ultrarich that he was just the man to fluff their pillows, hang their drapes, and ease them away from their addiction to anything rococo or European baroque. In no time at all, he was designing tropical-fantasy interiors that combined the best of Oriental splendor and high-style fifties moderne.
Pop brought an enlightened sensibility to his clients, introducing them to current styles and educating them to new possibilities. When he sketched a room, and no such furniture existed in the market, he quickly designed it and had it custom fabricated. Everything from high-style, free-form modernism to Zen-inspired minimalist furniture began to fill the better homes in South Florida. His commercial work for restaurants, bars, hotels, and even hairdressing salons tended to be more adventurous and experimental than anything else seen at the time. For one Miami Beach hotel, he created a prepsychedelic black-light lounge where his mobiles were painted fluorescent glow-in-the-dark colors along with the eye-popping murals. Drunken patrons appeared as Martians bathed in the purple light.
As often as possible, he hired local artists to produce large works and sculptures for these public spaces. Pop felt an obligation to generate commissions for starving artists and believed that their work contributed an important creative twist to his projects. One artist in particular, Jon Keller, created bizarre murals, screens, and sculptures for his interiors. Jon, whose skin was so thin and ethereal that you could see the blue veins running through her face and arms, lived in a wooden shack on stilts in the black section of the Grove. She was married to King Louie, a Chinese man who worked as a waiter at the local Formosa restaurant. King was never around much, so Jon focused on her surrealistic-inspired work, which seamlessly blended Fellini and Dalí into a classical yet alien aesthetic of floating ghosts, Minotaurs, and busts of patrons with dramatically rearranged physiologies.
Often my parents would leave me at Jon's shack for babysitting while they went out on the town. Jon was oblivious to the aggressive wildlife of snakes and daddy longlegs that would try to make friends with me as I slept on her floor. Eventually Jon's barbiturate-induced fantasy life superseded her reality, and she killed herself. Back then suicide had a kind of shocking chic, akin to martyrdom, that it does not carry today. Jon was typical of the tortured yet wildly creative souls with alternative visions of reality who surrounded my father at the time.
In addition to the Caribbean, Pop's other happy hunting ground for clients was Palm Beach, a galaxy away from Miami. PB's star-studded social life was often covered in the Miami Herald's "For and About Women" column, where reporters breathlessly gushed, "Under a mammoth canopy of silk in flamboyant sunset hues and in an atmosphere of Oriental, eye-popping splendor, Society with a capital S danced the hours away Sunday night at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse Celebrity Room. It was the fifth annual Polo Ball for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Honorary chairman, the Duchess of Windsor, never looked prettier. She and the Duke danced with a number of different partners to the music of the Marshall Grant and Guy Lombardo orchestras. Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy laughed and chatted with the Duke, Elsa Maxwell was everywhere. Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine were introduced by emcee Walter T. Shirely. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert A. May were there, and so was Mrs. May's movie-star daughter, Dina Merrill. Bearded Joshua Hecht, star of Fanny, threw back his head and sang songs from Broadway musicals. The entire crowd sang 'Happy Birthday' to Frank Hale, and the Playhouse president blushed. Pastel blonde Cee-Zee Guest was at the same long table with the Duke and Duchess, the Sanfords, the Mays."
Unlike Pop's glamorous clients, we lived in an area forgotten by the tax collector, known as "unincorporated Dade County." Anything called "unincorporated" told you all you needed to know; the area was more jungle than suburb. Located just a few miles outside of the city proper, our neighborhood was basically raw land filled with miles of poison ivy, saw palmettos, deadly coral snakes, and night-vision possums that slept like bats, hanging upside down in poinciana trees. Wild lime and kumquat trees dotted the landscape, sprouted from seeds dropped by migrating birds. After the summer monsoon rains, rickety old trucks passed through the barely paved streets, spewing acrid smoke filled with DDT, shortening our lives while trying to eradicate the population of skeeters the size of black widow spiders.
When we first moved there, we had no telephone for the first year, as the phone company just plain forgot to run a line out to our neck of the woods. The water was undrinkable, so that, just like women in Caribbean countries, Mom spent most of her time boiling our drinking water because our well had been polluted by one of several hurricanes passing through, along with the constant decay of the natural sulfur in the rocks.
There was a homesteading feel to the place. All the houses were on sprawling rural plots of land oriented to catch the tropical breezes, with large open areas protected by metal screens that were annually blown away by the first winds of any hurricane. Everybody, except us, had Florida rooms, a kind of screened-in porch where you sat out the worst of the summer with slightly rusty fans and a pitcher of ice water. We had a curious house built in the shape of a pentagon. All of the rooms opened onto an enormous Japanese garden with a small waterfall, shrimp plants from Hawaii, and a pond stocked with large gold and black koi. The garden, my father's idea of Bali Hai, was designed by a Mr. Kobyashi, who on Easter Sunday, just a week after completing the garden, was shot in the head during a robbery that netted the thieves all of two dollars. According to the report in the newspaper, "Kobyashi was murdered by three Negro bandits, who, after holding him up in his Northwest section nursery and florist shop, became irate because of the small amount of money they found on him and shot him."
Our neighbors, whom we hardly ever saw and made every effort to avoid, were good old rednecks who drove beat-up Ford pickups with gun racks on the back window and Confederate flags fluttering from the antenna. They all had long-drawn southern accents and deeply rooted beliefs as to the God-sanctioned inferiority of Yankees, Jews, and blacks. We fit the first two categories. In our neighborhood, Klan membership outnumbered subscriptions to Life magazine by about twenty to one. Guaranteed, we were that one and only Life subscriber for miles. Given our geographical and religious liabilities, there was no chance in hell that we would ever be invited next door for some deviled eggs or a cool beer out back under the pines. We did not mess with our neighbors, and they didn't mess with us.
I'm not sure that the Carters next door could even read. Sometimes at night I saw Mr. Carter leave the house in a shimmering white gown as he headed off to his Klan meeting. His lanky son, Billy, with a perfect blond crewcut, had dropped out of high school and never seemed to do a lick of work. There was a lemon-yellow trailer parked at the rear of the property. Presumably, this was the spaceship that brought these aliens down from Loxahatchee or whatever hick planet they were from. Billy locked himself in there day and night. Young blond cheerleader types came and went with great frequency. I knew something naughty happened in there. Annie, his first-grade sister, would set pinecones on fire and tell me she was "burning the chocolate babies."
Me? I was a happy little kid running around in the backyard, climbing almond and banyan trees, picking wild bananas, and watching the stars that seemed just a few feet away. Pop was fascinated by the fecund nature that surrounded us and at times overtook us. It was not unusual that strangler vines, enormous frogs, blackbirds, and assorted moths the size of your hand would find their way in through cracks in the screen and start to take over our home.
Pop loved to watch the garden snakes spiral up the rake handle as he worked in the yard. The pretty ones, like coral snakes, were the ones that killed you fast. He made me memorize each name and picture of all the poisonous snakes from his pocket-size snake identifier book. At least once or twice a month, I would wake up and find some stray garden snake crawling in my bed. How they got in was a mystery we could never solve. But they liked my warm bed a lot more than the dew-soaked late-night earth out back. Like a good scout, I trapped them in a brown grocery bag and threw them in the garbage. In the morning, Pop opened the can and released them back into the wild. To him all life was precious, even a snake's. Sometimes for entertainment he brought them in the house so he could watch them slither along the cool terrazzo floor. Mom would run screaming into the bedroom.
Science, nature, and invention always fascinated my father. Pop used the backyard not only to explore nature but to look toward the heavens. For years, he would take me outside at night and we would scan the starry skies with an old pair of binoculars. Over time I learned all the constellations and would get excited when we would spot planets such as Venus or Mars. I remember one night when Pop became silent as he slowly tracked a moving object for several minutes. He had never seen anything like this bright light traveling across the sky. For someone born in 1904, witnessing a man-made object sail through space was a miracle he could never have imagined. Night after night we would watch Echo, NASA's first experimental communications satellite, which was not much more than an inflated Mylar balloon, silently letting the world know that significant changes were about to arrive.
Meanwhile back on earth, life couldn't have been better. Slowly my mother was transforming herself into hostess with the mostess. Mom took to cutting out the latest recipes from House and Garden and Vogue for her nights of entertaining. Small and incandescently beautiful, she did modern dance, read the society column, and entertained poets and homosexuals. You get the picture: Gertrude Stein meets Hee Haw.
On Sundays, with great regularity, she gathered Miami's best and brightest, often as many as forty people, for champagne and lobster Newburg served in a copper chafing dish. Tiki torches lit up the backyard, and couples gathered in the shadow of the black smoke from the hurricane lamps burning kerosene. Mambo and calypso music played from the stereo system. Japanese paper lanterns illuminated the lanai.
Probably 80 or 90 percent of the guests were decorators. Since my father was the only heterosexual decorator in Miami (and quite possibly in the entire world), my parents' parties tended to be large gatherings of gay men. At the time, there were no gay bars in Miami, and "the boys," as my mother referred to them, had to meet somewhere. That somewhere was either my parents' house or the Coconut Grove Pharmacy, known locally as the Coconut Grove Fagacy, where on weekends men in tight white jeans would sit around the U-shaped soda fountain counter seductively sipping chocolate milk shakes with red straws while keeping one eye cocked on the men's room to see who went in but did not come out.
At our Sunday afternoon get-togethers, the men always cooed about how adorable I was, which drove my mother insane with both fear and pride. I am sure she had visions of me being raped out back by the gardenia bush. On the other hand, who better to appreciate her darling, witty, and charming offspring (as she called me) than Miami's most talented and tasteful homosexuals? They always brought me imaginative presents, such as never-before-seen seashells with strange twists and spikes in vibrant colors and exotic Japanese Kabuki dolls in glass boxes. What I really remember is that all the men seemed to wear plaid pants in a rainbow of colors. One man in particular not only specialized in a diverse collection of patterned pants but also loved to steal one of the many hats that my mother wore during the party. After a few drinks, he would rip the hat off her head, place it ever just so on his head, and for the rest of the evening tiptoe around as if he were wearing high heels. Often, after everyone had left, we found him in one of the bedrooms either dancing by himself with his eyes closed or collapsed on my bed sobbing about some lost love. Such were my male role models at the time.
Perhaps one of the boys whispered something in her ear, but Mom suddenly got the brilliant idea that I should audition for TV commercials. I guess she decided to lay the early groundwork for my future stardom plus, she figured, the extra cash from the residuals wouldn't hurt, either. My mother clearly entertained the idea that all of us should be in the public eye and live off of our assorted talents. I don't know what product she thought I was going to sell, but she truly believed with all her heart that I was camera worthy. However, my performance was less than stunning. During the screen test, I couldn't remember my name. Whenever they asked me questions, I stuck my entire hand in my mouth, swiveled back and forth, and made bathroom noises. Sadly, her career as a stage mother was disappointing and short lived.
Not wanting to totally let her down, I surreptitiously entered the Channel 2 children's Christmas card contest. My hand-drawn menorah drowning in glue and expressionistic glitter tied for first prize with some girl's prim drawing of a Christmas tree. My passionate desire to be an artist was quickly surfacing. The night that the television station called to announce my prize was the first and last time I ever won any contest. I probably won not because of artistic merit but because mine was the only Hanukkah card submitted. I'm sure my mother felt that maybe, just maybe, public acclaim was right around the corner. My father was pleased that I was showing signs of artistic promise. For him, being an artist was one of the most important things anyone could do with his or her life. The ability to transcribe invisible sensations into tangible works of art was nothing short of a miracle, even if it had to start with a glitter menorah.
The holiday card winners were to be featured on an after-school television special to discuss the artistic themes of our festive creations. This was my first brush with stardom and major media exposure. Unfortunately, auditioning for commercials did not do much to improve my lackluster television persona. During the broadcast I stared at the floor and talked to myself while the little blond girl in the nice party dress smiled and stole the show.
After my television debut, my proud parents took me out to a swanky adult restaurant with pink lighting and an aquarium filled with slow-moving lobsters. There was a Shirley Temple for me, a whiskey sour for Mom, and a double Manhattan with two cherries for Pop. Having finally gotten her son on TV, I'm sure Mom was hopeful that I was headed toward the bright lights and the big city.
Soon after the broadcast, Mom decided that we needed to maintain some semblance of northern decorum around the house while curing me of my recently acquired cracker accent. During my formative years in nursery school and kindergarten, I had been taught by single women from Tennessee. As a result, I had become completely unintelligible to my parents as I slurred my words in that southern kind of way. Even today I unconsciously slip into "yes ma'ams" and "y'alls" more often than I care to admit. After two drinks I can begin to sound like some Confederate who never left Pensacola. Mom was growing increasingly concerned that I would end up living in an old plywood shed out by the Everglades, raising chickens and goats and eating fresh-caught rattlesnake for dinner. So she shipped me off to the Playhouse Country Day School in the hope that the stern Bible-thumping principal and his wife would erase the bluegrass influence and get me ready for some smart prep school in the Northeast.
At the Playhouse, I was surrounded by boys and girls whose Baptist and Methodist parents, unlike our neighbors, spent their Saturdays doing something else besides shooting coons. I met church mothers who ran bake sales and fathers who owned gas stations or sold insurance. Since my parents were both self-employed in the style industry, I had no idea that such exotic people existed. These kids had fathers who looked like the ones I saw on TV. Their mothers were demure and acted like good wives preparing pitchers of Kool-Aid and getting the Slip 'n Slide or the Water Wiggle working in the backyard. Ignoring such standard maternal duties, my mother could often be found cha-cha-cha-ing with the best of them till 3:00 a.m. in some dive off Collins Avenue.
Mom also loved anything calypso. We had a stack of steel drum and Harry Belafonte albums. Often, I would come home from school and put on my all-time favorite song, "Mama Look A Boo Boo," from Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. I would sing and play rhythm on one of the brightly painted voodoo drums that several years earlier Pop had brought back from Haiti.
The story of Pop's trip to Haiti was one of Mom's favorites. During her dinner parties, after the plates had been cleared, she would open a fresh pack of Camels, screw a smoke into her cigarette holder, flip open her Dunhill lighter, and take a long drag. She was now ready to entertain her guests with this epic.
One afternoon, as she often recounted, she came running into my bedroom, threw some clothes on me, and scooped me up in her arms. I was around three years old at the time. Mom put the top down on the convertible as we drove Pop to the airport for yet another "client meeting" in some sun-parched, impoverished country surrounded by water the color of glass. This time, the country was Haiti, land of forbidden voodoo and Barbancourt rum.
Just a week before, Pop received several phone calls at the office from the Haitian ambassador to the United States and from the commercial attaché. The president of Haiti, Paul Magloire, needed the public rooms of the palace freshened up ASAP, since he was expecting a visit from U.S. vice president Richard Nixon to review the troops. What that really meant was that Dick was going to drop a pot of foreign-aid money on Magloire, which would never see the light of day after it landed silently in his Swiss bank account. What they didn't tell my father was that the Haitians had already gone through one decorator, an Italian. Seems the poor guy was unable to get the job done in time and, as a result, had disappeared without a trace. His body was never found. Rumors circulated that he was either killed by the president's secret police or was the victim of some pretty powerful voodoo. Most likely it was a combination of the two voodoo first and murder later. It would have been helpful if my father had been informed of this minor detail before he agreed to take the job.
Given the fact that the palace redo was a top government priority, the Haitian ambassador sent an old Pan Am prop plane with the interior ripped out to pick up my father in Miami and fly him to a barely paved landing strip known officially as Port-au-Prince International Airport. My father's presence at the palace was a matter of utmost urgency. Met by a solid-black Cadillac and whisked through customs without even opening his suitcase, Pop was personally greeted by the smiling president back at the palace. President Magloire spoke to him in heavily accented English, a gesture reserved only for those foreign guests of great importance. My father took a look around and realized he needed a few basic things, like a tape measure, pins, electric sewing machines, and a few hundred yards of the best French silk. Pop sent a telegram to my mother with a laundry list of items needed to get the job done. With barely any phone service, a telephone call was out of the question.
Back in Miami, Mom headed over to their office on fashionable Lincoln Road and began throwing bolts of fabric and boxes of tools out the window to the waiting Haitian army officer downstairs. The ambassador called Pan Am and had them bump everybody off the next flight back to Haiti and fill the plane with the necessary materials for the palace makeover. Like a pro, Pop worked around the clock and completed the job in less than a week despite the country's erratic delivery of electric power, which made sewing somewhat difficult.
With the job finished and the palace sparkling, the president held a celebratory dinner in honor of my father. After the guests had finished their first glass of wine, Mrs. President announced her vision that with a proper palace she could become the reigning Queen Mother of the Caribbean basin. She invited Pop to stay on and redo the place, top to bottom. No thanks, he said, got to get home to my wife and kid back in the States. Smiling in a way that only madam dictators can, she said, "Oh, but you must." At that moment the president's elite team of thugs and murderers swarmed the dinner table, and my father found himself looking at twelve American-made machine guns. Backup arrived with machetes drawn. He was taken hostage, bound, gagged, and pistol-whipped until he agreed to make the palace the shining star of the Caribbean. Threats against my mother and me were also uttered with "We have people back in Miami that can do great harm to your family." Until that moment, he had no idea of the serious occupational hazards and risks of being a decorator. I seriously doubt that anyone in the high pantheon of interior decorating, from Billy Baldwin to Sister Parish, was ever pistol-whipped over a job that is, unless they wanted to be.
Never one to let a few machine guns or guards keep him down, Pop waited until his personal guard was asleep, and, just like in the movies, climbed out the bathroom window. He hailed the first local donkey to come along and paid the owner to get him to the airport pronto, where he boarded the next flight to Miami. While the plane's three propellers (one wasn't working) spun furiously in preparation for takeoff, my father's gun-toting friends from dinner suddenly stormed the plane and once again pointed their weapons at his head. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into the backseat of a waiting army jeep. It was back to the palace for several more months of sewing, measuring, and making French fantasia.
Back home, Mom was preparing for widowhood as weeks turned into months with no word from her hostage husband. There was not the usual phone call asking us to pack our bags and join Pop that afternoon by the pool. Nor was there the sudden knock at the door from some rich person's representative telling us to be ready in ten minutes for our ride to the airport. There was nothing but silence from the great republic of Haiti.
Mom spent the next six months pleading with the U.S. State Department, the FBI, and the U.S. embassy to launch a search-and-rescue mission for her husband. For some reason, hunting down a missing decorator was just not one of the government's top priorities. Every U.S. agency slammed its door in her face. I was constantly asking annoying and unanswerable questions such as "Where's Poppa?" Mom did her best, inventing countless explanations as to why my father wasn't around. I was beginning to get used to the idea that I was now a fatherless child.
Under the watchful eyes of armed guards, Pop made Mrs. Magloire the most splendid palace imaginable. Marble and mahogany, silk and brocade were flown in from all over the world, thanks to an unlimited budget that magically appeared in the poorest country of the Western hemisphere. The palace renovation was a testament to the critical importance of American foreign aid. Rest assured that our tax dollars purchased the finest-quality draperies and silk ottomans that money can buy.
Finally, when every inch of that palace had the divine Lew Smith touch, the president shook my father's hand, gave him a glass paperweight containing his official portrait as full and final payment for services rendered, and sent him back home.
Having secured his freedom from decorator detention, Pop returned to his daily routine of satisfying the needs and fantasies of the mega-rich. I was content growing up in my own private jungle, chasing wild rabbits in the backyard. Life, for the very last time, was completely normal. Copyright © 2008 by Philip Smith