If you’re like me, New Year’s Eve is the one night a year that deserves some kind of sparkle. Well, this past year’s celebration promised even more than a good bottle of champagne and a chance to put on my sequined jacket. December 31st offered a rare evening of intrigue. We were in Miami. Generous friends invited us to tag along to a party. Friends of theirs had acquired a swank Palm Island property, overlooking Biscayne Bay, with a compelling history. We'd ring in the new year at the former sunshine retreat of gangster Al Capone.
For most people, the location would arouse curiosity. For me, the experience would be riveting.
I’ve long had a sort of morbid fascination with gangsters. If I think back, it must have all started in my early university days when I was studying French in St. Pierre and Miquelon. During the prohibition years of the 1920s and 30s, the islands became the gateway for smuggling booze into North America. SPM became known as a gangster’s paradise. St. Pierre’s Hotel Robert has an interesting piece of history from that time, a stylish hat left by a frequent visitor and rum runner - none other than Chicago’s notorious Al Capone.
I’ve seen all the flicks the gangster genre has to offer. The Big Heat, all The Godfathers, Carlito’s Way and Donnie Brasco to name a few. I’ve seen Goodfellas more times that I can count. Many of these movies are works of fiction, of course, but Al Capone was the real deal and because of his actions, sadly, real people died. The most famous example was Capone’s ordering of the Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 that led to the deaths of seven men. Back in the day, the Chicago Daily Tribune, linked the deaths of 33 people to Capone. He was known as a vicious criminal but like many gangsters, Capone was also known for enjoying the finer things in life like custom suits and costly jewelry and his extravagant waterfront residence in Miami is more proof of his lavish lifestyle.
We arrived after dark and 93 Palm, as it’s now called, was bathing in romantic white light. After we met our gracious hosts, they insisted we make our way to the dock area to get a view of the water where some guests were arriving on a luxury yacht.
We strolled around the property made up of three parts: a main villa, a gate house and the most luxurious feature of the estate, the pool and pool cabana.
I pictured Capone there, leaning back in a lounger, taking sun. After an evening dip he would have scaled the spiral staircase to his wonderfully spacious and beautifully tiled shower room. I imagine he’d have rinsed off and put on a plush robe before he returned poolside for a cigar and a Templeton Rye from Iowa (his liquor of choice). As we enjoyed the charm of the scene, warm wind billowed in from the bay through decorated archways. Yes, this place definitely had the air of a wealthy gangster’s getaway.
Inside the main house, there’s a comfortable living room with a fire place. Is this where he sat in a recliner and discussed shipments of liquor from St. Pierre, I wondered? If only the walls could talk.
In true Miami style there’s an Art Deco powder room on the main floor with black and gold tile and original brass fixtures. Who did Capone see when he looked in that mirror? A criminal? A ruthless killer? Likely not. When people raised questions about his activities he was often full of justification. "I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want. All I do is satisfy a public demand.”
Not everyone agreed and eventually Capone’s “business” led him to jail. I’ve visited Alcatraz, one of the prisons where Capone did time. He spent four and a half years there. Did he lie awake at night in his cell, full of regret, wishing he was feeling the breezes of Biscayne Bay?
It was while he was behind bars that Capone became symptomatic from syphilis. It’s believed he had been carrying the disease for years. After he was released from prison in 1939, Capone returned to Miami. He eventually died in his Palm Island home from complications of syphilis in 1947. Capone was a young man at 48 years old.
Capone is said to have purchased the estate in 1929 for $40,000. Capone’s wife, Mae Capone, sold it to a Cleveland realtor in 1952. Since then there have been a handful of owners including an energy company founder and a Delta airlines pilot who bought the mansion for $56,000. In 2014, the property sold for almost $8.5 million. The Miami mobster's playground is now used as a venue for exclusive photo and video productions. There's also the ocasional party, like I attended, with free flowing champagne. Al Capone would, no doubt, approve.
Until next time,