Miami Beach: 'Paradise,' at a price

Miami Beach has more tattoo parlors than libraries, more spray-tan salons than public schools. So says Steven Gaines, who has exposed naughtiness and greed in New York's Hamptons and now writes about the history and underbelly of the decadent Florida playground. USA TODAY's Kitty Bean Yancey chats with him about his just-published Fool's Paradise (Crown Publishers, $25.95).

Q: What a history! I never knew Miami Beach once made people of color show passes proving employment to get on the island and allowed signs in hotels in the '40s saying 'Gentiles Only; No Dogs.' Shocking.

A: Back then, it was a Southern city. Even after they took down the signs, there were hotels that didn't want Jews. It wasn't until the '50s that Miami Beach became popular with Jewish vacationers. And once, famous black entertainers couldn't even stay at the hotels where they entertained. Lena Horne headlined at the Fontainebleau, but wasn't allowed to sleep there.

Q: You devote a lot of space to the Fontainebleau, which hosted Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Frank Sinatra. You write about claims that it was owned by the Mob in the Rat Pack days.

A: It's never been proven, but a lawsuit against The Miami Herald (which wrote that) was dropped.

Q. What a scene the Fontainebleau was: Women in gowns and jewels posing on a stairway made for that. I heard they kept the AC up so ladies could show off furs in the tropics.

A: My grandmother and mother did that. There was even a furrier in the hotel who decided to stay open till the small hours. Men would get drunk and buy their wives or girlfriends mink stoles.

Q: The Fontainebleau has been through ownership changes and just had a major face lift. Did you check out the redone version?

A: Yes, it's very glamorous. Like a Vegas hotel, very slicked out. But it has lost the charm of the (original) version. It has no heart.

Q: What about South Beach? How is it faring?

A: In the '90s, you couldn't walk down Ocean Drive without bumping into the pretty people. That scene is pretty much gone. There still is some modeling, but the business is off tremendously. The location got overexposed (in ads). People you see on Ocean Drive now are drunken frat boys or people in those cheap sweatpants outfits. It used to be a gay mecca. Now there are only a few gay clubs. If you look at (new) condo buildings at night, you see empty ones with a few lights on.

Q: What do you think of Miami Beach as a destination?

A: It was built as a sandbox for rich people, and it's still all about going out at night and eating, drinking and dancing. It's a hedonistic society. People say they come to see the Art Deco District, but they come for free sex. But it certainly is not cheap anymore (to stay there). I still think it is a great, happy place to go. There is serotonin in the air.

Q: What are some of your personal recommendations?

A: I love The Raleigh hotel. It's owned by (hip hotelier) Andre Balazs and is still a terrific place after all these years, absolutely gorgeous. Prime 112 steakhouse has the best food; it's full of sports people and locals. The Wolfsonian museum has exhibits you don't see elsewhere, such as Hitler's silverware and a collection of political propaganda from around the world, including Mein Kampf in Braille.

Q: What about the future of Miami Beach?

A: "South Beach" has become such a huge brand that still has allure. It is a place to have mindless good fun and people can get there relatively inexpensively (vs. the Caribbean). But I do think the resort needs to reinvent itself. Gambling has been proposed, but I don't think the residents want it.

Q: After years of visiting, how do you — a New Yorker — feel about Miami Beach?

A: I always feel good there. Part of it's the tropical climate and that there doesn't seem to be any kind of seriousness. It puts a smile on my face.