COMING TO MIAMI BEACH
One hundred and ten years before the home invasion, Ben Novack Jr.’s paternal grandfather, Hyman Novick, first arrived in New York from Russia, seeking a new life. The poor Jewish teenager, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish, married a girl named Sadie, who was six years his junior. Sadie was first-generation American, born in New York from Russian parents.
The young couple settled down in Brooklyn, and Hyman, a cloth cutter by profession, opened a clothing store. In 1903, when Hyman was twenty-five and Sadie nineteen, they had their first child, Miriam. A year later they had a son they named Joseph, followed in 1905 by another daughter, Lillian. Two years later, Sarah gave birth to Benjamin Hadwin, who completed the family.
Between the 1910 and 1920 censuses, Hyman Novick lost his clothing shop and was reduced to driving a New York City taxi cab. Sadie was a homemaker, but their eldest daughter, Miriam, age seventeen in 1920, supplemented the family income by working as a stenographer. According to the 1920 Census, twelve-year-old Benjamin and his older siblings could all read and write.
A few years later, Hyman moved his family to the Catskill Mountains and went into the resort hotel business. He and Sadie founded and operated the Laurels Hotel and Country Club on Sackett Lake, five miles from Monticello, in the heart of what would soon become the “Borscht Belt.”
All the Novick children helped out with the hotel, which was soon thriving. They worked in various capacities, with Ben at the front desk and his big sister Lillian in the kitchen.
As a young boy, Ben almost drowned in the Laurels outdoor pool, an incident that resulted in his having to wear a hearing aid for the rest of his life.
After their father died in the mid-1930s, Ben and his elder brother, Joseph, took over the hotel. But they argued and soon split up, with Ben moving to New York City and going into the retail haberdashery business with a man named Kemp.
The handsome Ben arrived in the city in the midst of the Great Depression. To get ahead, he Anglicized his name to “Novack.”
He and Kemp opened a clothing store on Sixth Avenue called Kemp and Novack, but it was short-lived. Brusque and arrogant, Ben Novack soon fell out with his partner, and the two sold the store and went their separate ways.
It was during this time that Novack first met a young retail store designer named Morris Lapidus, who would later play a pivotal role in designing the Fountainbleau hotel.
“I believe [Ben] was also in the black market tire business,” said Lapidus’s son, Alan. “But my father never elaborated on that.”
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Two thousand years ago the Tequesta tribe first settled South Florida. They stayed until the sixteenth century, when explorer Juan Ponce de León arrived, claiming the land as a Spanish colony. In 1763, Spain handed Florida to Great Britain in exchange for Havana, Cuba. Twenty years later, Britain returned Florida to Spain in return for the Bahamas and Gibraltar. After the American War of Independence, Spain ceded Florida to America as part of the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, making it part of the United States.
Seventy years later, a rich Cleveland widow named Julia Tuttle bought 640 acres on the north side of the Miami River. In 1895, Tuttle persuaded Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler to bring his railroad to Miami and build a new town with a luxury hotel. On July 28, 1896, a few months after the railroad arrived, the City of Miami was officially incorporated.
If Julia Tuttle was Miami’s mother, Carl Fisher was undoubtedly the father of Miami Beach.
Born in Indianapolis in 1874, Fisher made a fortune co-inventing Prest-O-Lite, the acetylene gas used in car headlights for night driving. After selling out to the Union Carbide Company for millions, Fisher devoted himself to the new sport of auto racing, buying the Indianapolis Speedway in 1909 and making a second fortune.
Three years later, Fisher moved to Miami, coming to the rescue of a New Jersey avocado grower, John Collins, who had begun constructing a two-and-a-half mile wooden bridge between mainland Miami across the causeway to Ocean Beach, to bring his avocados to market. Unfortunately, when the bridge was only half finished, Collins ran out of money. So Fisher struck a deal to lend him the $50,000 he needed to finish, in return for two hundred acres of uninhabited swampland Collins owned on the island.
Thus, on a handshake, was Miami Beach born.
Jane Fisher would later claim that the first time her husband set foot on the beach, he picked up a stick and drew a diagram in the sand, declaring that he would build the world’s greatest resort on that very site.
Although the conditions were daunting (horseflies, snakes, and rats), Fisher’s vision knew no bounds. He purchased another 210 acres and, over the next few years, set about taming the wild, primeval terrain. First he drained the swamps, pouring in acres of sand to form solid new ground on which to build. His motto: “I just like to see the dirt fly.”
At first Fisher couldn’t even give his Florida real estate away, as nobody wanted to live there. So he staged a whacky publicity stunt to turn Miami Beach’s fortunes around.
In 1921, president-elect Warren Harding was vacationing in Miami Beach when Fisher arranged to have a baby elephant named Rosie be Harding’s golf caddy as a photo opportunity. The press loved it, and a picture of the smiling future president and his pachyderm caddy on Miami Beach made the front pages coast to coast. The shot caused an immediate sensation, transforming Miami Beach overnight into “a place you had to see to believe.”
Fisher also persuaded his eclectic circle of friends—which included mobster Al Capone, newspaper publisher Moe Annenberg, and racehorse owner John Hertz—to build spectacular winter homes on the beach.
From 1920 to 1925 there was an unprecedented land boom in Florida, with Miami’s population almost quadrupling. In 1925, Fisher’s estate was valued at $100 million, and he celebrated by constructing Lincoln Road as the jewel of his Riviera resort.
The following year, Fisher turned his sights on replicating his success in Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. But this endeavor never took off and, along with the Great Depression, virtually wiped him out.
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By the time Ben Novack arrived with his new wife, Bella, in February 1940, using the $1,800 he had received from liquidating his and Kemp’s New York clothing store, Miami Beach was thriving. The rest of America might have been struggling in the Great Depression, but Miami Beach had become the winter retreat for the rich and famous. In 1941 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor vacationed there, attracting worldwide publicity in the wake of Edward’s abdication from the British throne. Other famous regulars included Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Miami Beach had recently been dubbed “the ultimate Babylon” by influential New York Tribune columnist “Luscious” Lucius Beebe, and Ben Novack was determined to exploit it for all it was worth. But, initially, he was uncertain where to begin.
Legend has it that he started out selling expensive watches to the wealthy tourists and snowbirds now flocking to Miami Beach in the winter. He also dabbled in the import-export business, reportedly running a fleet of banana boats to and from Cuba. Before long, he gravitated back to the hotel business he had grown up in.
With his silver tongue, Novack easily persuaded some business partners to put up $20,000 for a one-year lease on the Monroe Towers on Collins Avenue at Thirtieth Street. He then spent a year fixing up the 111-room hotel, while Bella worked as a chambermaid.
Then everything changed.
World War II broke out, making Ben Novack rich beyond his wildest dreams.
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In February 1942 the U.S. Army took over Miami Beach, using it as a basic training center for troops before they were shipped off to Europe. With its perfect weather conditions, Miami was the ideal place to train pilots and rehearse the Normandy invasion.
Almost overnight, an estimated hundred thousand men from the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy invaded Miami Beach, and nearly two hundred hotels were requisitioned to billet them. The U.S.government generously compensated hotel owners up to $10 a night ($141 today) for each room, not including food.
“Boy, did my dad clean up,” Ben Novack Jr. told author Steven Gaines in 2006. “He raked in the profits, and he did so well that he got another hotel and did the same thing, and then another hotel with an army contract.”
Ben Novack used his profits to buy a share in the Monroe Hotel before snapping up the Cornell Hotel and then the Atlantis, which became an army reception center. Over a five-year period, he bought up five hotels.
Of Ben’s housing soldiers, Novack’s future sister-in-law, Maxine Fiel, remembered, “He told me, ‘I don’t have to feed them. I don’t have to give them anything. Just a bed.’ And that’s how he made his money.”
As he prospered, Novack carefully cultivated his own unique sense of style, becoming rather a dandy. He began wearing elaborate bow ties and draping custom-made brightly colored suits over his lithe five-foot, six-inch frame. Every morning, his personal barber trimmed his thin mustache the French way.
Novack took great pride in his appearance. It would be the same approach he would later bring to his hotels.
At the end of the war, Novack went into partnership with Harry Mufson to build the Sans Souci, boasting that the new hotel would “wow” guests. Novack envisioned it as the last word in elegance on the ocean, with its own restaurants, shops, and a penthouse nightclub with fabulous views. Its French name, Sans Souci (meaning “without care”), he felt, would add a touch of class.
Ben Novack saw hotels as pleasure palaces straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical. He dreamed of transforming Miami Beach into an unparalleled paradise, like no other place in the world.
In the spring of 1945, his ambitions knew no bounds when he strolled into Manhattan’s La Martinique nightclub and first set eyes on top photographic model Bernice Stempel.
Copyright © 2013 by John Glatt