MIAMI BEACH’S FLAMINGO HOTEL: A PRESIDENT, A PACHYDERM, AND A PUBLICITY HOUND: PHOTOGRAPH ALBUMS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION
It was New Jersey nursery owners and farm machinery suppliers, John Stiles Collins (1837-1928) and his son-in-law Thomas J. Pancoast who first began to clear the mosquito-infested mangrove swamp covering much of the desolate barrier island within sight of the burgeoning town of mainland Miami. But in beginning this transformation, Collins and Pancoast aimed to transform the wilderness into a garden of sorts, an agriculturally productive farming community. It was left to automobile aficionado and promoter, Carl G. Fisher (1874-1939) to envision and create a very different future for the island of Miami Beach—a playground for the rich and famous.
Having made a fortune in the automobile business, Fisher had promoted the first trans-continental highway, and then used his considerable influence to promote the Dixie Highway from Indiana in the North and ending in Miami Beach in the South. Snubbed as “nouveau riche” by the wealthy elites that wintered in Palm Beach, Carl Fisher and his young bride, Jane, sought to establish their own winter refuge for others like themselves. Fisher immediately recognized the island’s potential as a billion-dollar sandbar. After investing in John Collins’ bridge project, Fisher began buying up lots, dredging and pumping in tons of sand, and working to attract his rich associates down to Miami Beach by building a swimming pool casino, tennis courts, tea gardens, golf courses, and polo fields.
Fisher also organized sailing and speed boat regattas and races.
While local ministers expressed shock over the scandalous bathing suit of his young bride—(immodestly bereft of stockings and sporting a skirt hiked up to her knees!)—Fisher unabashedly used such images of “scantily-clad” bathing beauties to promote his properties (including The Flamingo Hotel) in Miami Beach.
Fisher also used a rather full-figured gal as a publicity gimmick to promote his real estate schemes. Having received an elephant named Rosie from a former circus owner, Fisher shamelessly had the pachyderm photographed by the press clearing land, helping in construction projects, pulling kiddie carts, and otherwise promoting his real estate ventures. (Much like television’s Lassie, there was more than one elephant in Carl Fisher’s stables, including one named Carl II !)
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF: THE MIAMI BEACH CITY HALL ARCHIVE
When Fisher learned that President-elect Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was contemplating a trip to Florida in the winter season of 1920/1, “Mr. Miami Beach” made it his personal crusade to entice the chief executive to his own luxurious Flamingo Hotel, scheduled to open for the New Year holiday, 1921.
Fisher lobbied some friendly senators to put in a good word for him with the president, offered a free suite of rooms in a couple of the Flamingo Hotel’s cottages (for security and privacy), talked up the opportunities for golf and deep-sea fishing, and even dispatched Ann Rossiter, his attractive secretary (and mistress) armed with drawings and blueprints for her personal pitch. Apparently Fisher’s persistence paid off. Not only did President Harding make a stop at Fisher’s Lincoln Hotel for lunch and a round of golf that January, but Carl prevailed upon him to stay overnight in one of the Flamingo Hotel’s bungalows.
Fisher rarely left the president’s side as flash bulbs popped throughout the presidential visit. Fisher took Harding for a dip in the Roman Pools, for drinks at the Cocolobo Club, and even took him aboard his yacht Shadow VI for a couple of days of sport fishing. The good-natured president even agreed to be photographed with Rosie the elephant as his caddy on the golf course!
COURTESY OF: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/25664
President Harding was quoted in the press as praising the “attractiveness of Miami and Miami Beach,” and expressing his desire to “come here again” as the “beach is wonderful” and “developing like magic.” The positive press that followed Harding’s glowing endorsement generated great publicity for the Flamingo Hotel and Miami Beach as a winter resort. As Fisher had hoped, in the wake of the presidential visit, Miami Beach property prices and sales soared, souring only after the great hurricane of 1926 brought a swift end to the Florida land boom.