by Mike Vogel
Updated 5 yearss ago
The super wealthy enjoying parties, accommodations and luxury. It's celebrity Florida, all right, and it dates back to the 1890s in St. Augustine, where Henry Flagler built his Ponce De Leon Hotel.
The hotel, today the centerpiece of Flagler College, became Florida's first great winter luxury resort and anchored Flagler's Florida empire. It played host to Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding, entertainers Will Rogers and Gary Cooper, authors Mark Twain, Henry James, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder and barons John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller Jr. And Joseph Pulitzer.
Some of the magnates stayed. Rockefeller settled in Ormond Beach. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford built estates in Fort Myers. Chicago businesswoman, philanthropist and socialite Bertha Honoré Palmer, widow of retail, hotel and real estate baron Potter Palmer but a force in her own right, began wintering in Sarasota in 1910. She accumulated enormous real estate holdings and played a key role in making Sarasota a destination for the well-off.
One of the biggest early celebrities to visit Florida was an African-American, says Florida historian Gary Mormino. Booker T. Washington, the most famous black man in America, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, brought his southern educational tour to Florida in 1912 and attracted throngs as he traveled by train — staying overnights in his railroad car because of segregated hotels — to Pensacola, Quincy, Tallahassee, where 5,000 met the train, Lake City, Ocala, Tampa, Lakeland, Eatonville, Palatka and Daytona before ending in Jacksonville, where he spoke to 2,500 blacks and whites at the city's Duval Theater.
Celebrity visitors have always run the gamut from the upper crust — the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and later Prince Charles in Palm Beach — to low-born jocks. Babe Ruth is but one of a long list of star athletes to come through Florida. Notorious criminals, then and now, found Florida a new frontier. Al Capone died at his home on Palm Island. Charles Ponzi, out of jail, came to Jacksonville and launched a land scam.
Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams took up living in the Keys, part of a continuing line of celebrated authors to find Florida comfortable for writing.
In World War II, Florida's party-hearty reputation drew critical national press. Reporters were appalled that as the nation sacrificed, the stars, elites and the rich kept right on cavorting in the sunshine. "This became a national scandal," says Mormino.
As air travel became convenient, the celebrity locus shifted south to Miami and Miami Beach. The 5th St. Gym, under Chris and Angelo Dundee, drew famous boxers — Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Archie Moore and Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali — and those who liked to be around such a place. Visitors included the Beatles, Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone and Malcolm X. The gym still is in business but no longer at its first, famous location. The University Press of Florida has a book in print about it by Ferdie Pacheco.
The television age brought even more celebrities here and made Florida itself a celebrity.
Popular entertainers Arthur Godfrey, in 1953, and Jackie Gleason, in 1964, began doing their shows from Miami Beach. (Gleason, averse to flying, came down from New York on the train.) Florida became the setting for "Sea Hunt," "Flipper," "Gentle Ben" and "I Dream of Jeannie."
Film was kind, too: Where the Boys Are and The Yearling, for example. Elvis Presley came to Citrus, Marion and Levy counties in 1961 to film the Follow That Dream movie. He met an 11-year-old local named Tom Petty and inspired him into music.
Later generations of TV shows and films highlighted grittier, less seemly aspects of Florida: "Miami Vice," "CSI: Miami," "Burn Notice," Scarface and Monster.
No discussion of celebrities in Florida is complete without mentioning the National Enquirer. Generoso Pope Jr.
Brought the paper to Florida in the 1950s, focusing its coverage on sex, violence and scandal. In the 1960s, he reoriented the paper toward celebrity coverage so he could sell it in supermarkets. The tabloid's owner, American Media, moved its headquarters from Lantana to New York in 2005.
New generations of celebrities keep coming, but fame, as always, is fleeting. No one was bigger in the 1940s and early 1950s than Godfrey, whose variety show in Miami Beach did so much for tourism that city fathers added "Arthur Godfrey Road" as a co-name to 41st Street. Last year, however, a city commissioner proposed deleting his name as no longer relevant.