Judging by the media tributes that accompanied the death of President George H.W. Bush in December, we buried a near saint. Perhaps he was, compared to some of the figures who succeeded him in the Oval Office, but there was also a side to the senior Bush that received almost no mention in his many obituaries.
An exception was Tim Weiner, writing in The Washington Post, who hinted at what some researchers have long suspected—that Bush’s connections to the American intelligence community went far beyond his brief term as CIA director in the 1970s. Wrote Weiner: “He was the only president who ever ran the agency and the last president who truly believed in its Cold War code: Admit nothing, deny everything.”
That seemed like an odd comment, for the senior Bush served as CIA director for just a year. That is a puzzling short time to develop such an intense commitment to the agency. That is, unless Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize winner and authority on the FBI and intelligence operations, knew that the ex-president may have been a CIA asset long before he took the top job. President Bush appears to have been connected to our intelligence apparatus at crucial and controversial times in its history. There was even a book written about his clandestine past. It contradicts the portrait of Bush as an example of a kinder, gentler political era.
It goes back to 1953 before Bush became politically active. He formed Zapata Oil with a partner who had recently resigned from the CIA. Oddly enough, that partner later returned to the CIA during the period of anti-Castro activity in the 1960s. Researchers have discovered documents indicating a subsidiary of Zapata Oil used offshore drilling facilities in the Caribbean as a listening post to monitor Cuban activities. Zapata Oil may have been a legitimate oil exploration company, but it also appears to have been a CIA front. More than a few companies active in Latin America were.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Declassified government files led to the discovery in July 1988 that on Nov. 23, 1963—the day after President Kennedy was assassinated—“George Bush of the CIA” was given an oral briefing by the FBI. Now, what was that all about? When asked at the time, Bush first joked it off. Then the CIA suggested it was a different George Bush. There was another George Bush in the CIA at the time, but he was a low-level analyst and signed an affidavit saying there was no way he ever had an FBI briefing. President Bush’s office said it would not dignify the report with further comment, and to the best of our knowledge never made one these last 30 years. Admit nothing. Deny everything.
This snippet of history interests us because of Gold Coast magazine’s long interest in the Kennedy assassination, and the fact that our former partner, Gaeton Fonzi, has gone down in history as the author of one of the most important books on the subject. It was a book that began as two long articles in our magazine in 1979. “The Last Investigation” was the result of three frustrating years Fonzi spent as a Florida-based investigator for two government committees that reopened the investigation into Kennedy’s murder in the mid-1970s.
Fonzi was initially hired by Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, who recalled articles Fonzi had written in the 1960s for Philadelphia Magazine. One of them was an interview with Arlen Specter, the man who came up with the “magic” bullet theory to show how a lone gunman could have killed the president. Specter astounded Fonzi by stumbling in trying to explain his own theory. By 1975, Schweiker, having studied Lee Harvey Oswald’s strange defection to Russia and mysterious return, was convinced that the accused assassin had “the fingerprints of intelligence all over him.” He also thought a close look at anti-Castro figures operating in South Florida could be productive.
It sure was. Fonzi discovered that a prominent Cuban anti-Castro leader in Miami had seen his main CIA contact in the company of Oswald in Dallas just months before the assassination. It reinforced what others, including Sen. Schweiker, had suspected—that rather than being “a lone nut,” Oswald was a CIA operative who had been set up. A “useful idiot” to use a favorite CIA phrase. By then Fonzi was working for a second congressional committee, the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
He was excited in 1976 when Richard Sprague, a brilliant prosecutor who Fonzi knew well from Philadelphia, was hired by Schweiker to head the committee. Fonzi thought if anybody could solve this crime, it was Sprague. Fonzi was anxious to follow up on his Oswald CIA connection. But Sprague’s time in Washington was short. Sprague was literally forced out of his job after some indiscretions in his past were publicized way out of proportion. It turned out Schweiker’s enthusiasm for solving the Kennedy assassination was not shared by other government officials. When congressmen on the committee, who now appear to have been CIA friendly, threatened to shut down the whole investigation because of Sprague, he resigned.
He later said his problems in Washington began when he refused to sign an oath of secrecy requested by the CIA. “My problems in Washington began when I knocked on the door marked CIA,” Sprague said. His replacement was G. Robert Blakey, a well-intentioned man with impressive credentials (Notre Dame law professor) but one who did not believe the CIA would lie to him or his committee. He preferred to concentrate on organized crime figures as possible assassins, and there were some mob connections to be explored. He later regretted his naiveté. The bottom line was that the HSCA investigation, rather than being thorough and conclusive, was rushed under budget pressures and vague in its final report. It said there was evidence of a conspiracy, but gave you multiple-choice options.
Fonzi, who had constant frustration trying to work with shadowy CIA figures in South Florida, was depressed. His magazine articles were in effect a dissenting opinion. We might add that we saw all this up close; Fonzi sometimes worked out of the Gold Coast magazine office (he was still contributing occasionally to the magazine) and sometimes used our phones. We never billed the government.
What does all this have to do with the late President Bush? Timing. Bush became CIA director in January 1976. Richard Sprague was hired to run the JFK investigation in October 1976. Although Sprague did not resign until March 1977, his problems with the CIA began soon after he was hired, and came to a head in early January 1977 when Bush was still CIA director. The obvious question: what did President Bush know about the CIA’s pressure to oust Sprague? As CIA boss, he certainly should have known something. And did he have anything to do with a decision, which turned out to have wrecked the last serious attempt to solve the murder of a president?
When Fonzi wrote his magazine articles in 1979, the strange FBI memo naming George Bush in connection with the Kennedy assassination briefing was not known. Fonzi did not make any reference to the above timing, but when his articles became a book in 1993, he included the mysterious memo. He did not, however, link Sprague’s downfall to the timing of Bush being CIA director.
By then Bush was president, and questions about the Kennedy assassination had greatly intensified. Jim Garrison’s book that inspired Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” had been published. We asked Fonzi at the time why Bush would have denied the 1963 FBI memo, even going to the extent of the CIA saying it was a different man with the same name. Fonzi replied that in 1988 Bush was running for president, and any suggestion of a relationship to the Kennedy assassination, no matter how remote, could have been devastating to his election chances.
Fonzi died in 2012. If he were alive today, we think he would reflect on the Richard Sprague episode in 1977 with great interest. What, if anything, President Bush’s role was in that event may never be known. He took that information with him.
Admit nothing, deny everything. To death do us part.
As this article was being prepared, there came an announcement that members of the Kennedy and Martin Luther King families were among those who signed a petition asking Congress to reopen the investigations of the murders of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The list of those signing the petition is a veritable who’s who of prominent figures (those still alive) that have long challenged the official government versions of the JFK assassination. Notable among them: G. Robert Blakey, now in his 80s, is the same man who thought he could trust the CIA when he took over as head of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977, and whose committee issued a report saying JFK’s death was a conspiracy but left us guessing by whom. Stay tuned.
Longtime Fort Lauderdale entertainer and broadcaster Frank Loconto received a well-deserved tribute last fall when he was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 33rd annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival dinner. It was presented by his friend of many years, Connie Francis, a co-star of “Where the Boys Are,” the 1960 film that helped put Fort Lauderdale on the map as a spring break destination. The plaque shown above details his interesting career, beginning with singing with the Lane Brothers in Boston in 1955. He still performs as a soloist at South Florida events.
He launched a second career in broadcasting, and for 35 years has hosted Becon TV’s “Countyline” show, interviewing celebrities and leaders far and wide. Wearing his trademark vests, he calls upon his experiences and contacts of more than 50 years in South Florida, with an interviewing style that is informal, yet always interesting.
For several years Frank sang on Sunday afternoons at Mangos restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard, sometimes joined by former Mangos owner John Day, who also began his career as an entertainer. The restaurant was sold and has been closed for renovations. It is scheduled to reopen very soon as Piazza Italia, a dramatic change of format and cuisine. Frank expects to resume his Sunday afternoon performances under the new ownership.
We made a New Year’s resolution to not waste this valuable space with anything as banal as critiquing sports uniforms. But that was last year’s resolution, which we proudly kept, and this is a brand-new year and some of the 2018 violations of the uniforms code of athletic duds have been so egregious that we must go on record. This is particularly motivated by the results of recent football bowl games, and the coaching shakeups of the last month, all of which relate to some awful uniform decisions by persons who should know better. Please do not think this is an opaque subject. Check the internet. Sports uniforms rank second in internet searches only to President Trump’s sex life.
Let us start with the bowl games. History will show that Notre Dame got blown out by Clemson on Dec. 29, but the truth is they lost that game on Nov. 17—the day they played Syracuse in Yankee Stadium. They won easily that day, 36-3, but in a larger sense, they lost. For that was the day they decided to honor the New York Yankees by wearing the football equivalent of the Yankees’ classic pinstripes. They may make great baseball suits, but they looked awful in football, especially to the 40 million New York Irish fans who turned out with their families to see the Irish in their traditional unadorned gold helmets and pants.
Those fans were crushed, and so was God, who takes Notre Dame football personally. God was already upset a couple of years ago when Notre Dame came out in bilious, green outfits, looking like praying mantises for a game against somebody or other. God was further annoyed earlier this season when ND wore their novelty green jerseys— except the green was not a vibrant Kelly green, but rather an insipid avocado, made even uglier by dark numbers. God vowed to punish them, and it happened against Clemson. There was no Irish luck on replay calls that day. Had they not sinned in New York, they still might not have beaten a very good Clemson team, but at least they would have covered.
Closer to home, the Dolphins fired their coach after several disastrous seasons of wearing teal, a very feminine color, as opposed to aqua green, which might be considered ladylike, except the original Dolphins studs went undefeated with that shade. The current Dolphins made it worse by wearing teal pants with white jerseys and helmets. No symmetry there. Dark pants (think Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears) are only acceptable with dark helmets and white jerseys.
Even worse was the University of Miami where coach Mark Richt, a classy young talent, had no choice but to resign after losing his mind and letting the Hurricanes wear black uniforms in 2017. One of the most visible logos in sports, the orange and green “U” on the team’s white helmets was totally lost against the black helmets. The team never recovered from that diabolical uniform. Back in Howard Schnellenberger's championship days at Miami, the Hurricanes had a great look. When he started a new program at Florida Atlantic, he patterned the uniforms after UM and took the program big time in a hurry. Alas, in recent years FAU has changed its uniforms so many times you don’t even know what the school colors are. They dressed to lose and did.
There are numerous examples of teams with no sense of tradition, but let us replay to the positive. It was no accident that the four teams in the college playoffs all have a strong sense of their identity—at least on the football field. Alabama has almost never broken from its successful look, even with numbers on their helmets instead of a garish logo. Notre Dame, despite the aforementioned crimes, usually looks like it did back in the era of Johnny Lujack in the 1940s. We have not studied Clemson as much, but they seem to stick to a predictably orangy style although we are not fond of solid orange uniforms, or all any color for that matter. Except for white. Oklahoma looks very much like the uncomplicated uniforms it wore when we saw the Sooners play Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1959.
Speaking of Texas, they are an iconic pacesetter, either in all white, with a minimum of striping, which looks great, or switching to burnt orange jerseys at home. They have always worn horny helmets. That elegant taste was rewarded as they handled Georgia, who also dresses quite well, in the Sugar Bowl. It was a case of good dressing losing to better.
This is being written with the championship game a few days away. Based on history, we must pick Alabama, especially if they wear their crimson home jerseys. On the other hand, if Clemson wears orange jerseys and white britches, we respect their chances. Especially if they score more points.
There are very few businesses that can claim to have been in Gold Coast magazine’s first issue 54 years ago. Maus & Hoffman is one of them. In fact, that high-fashion clothing store was on Las Olas Boulevard 25 years before Gold Coast was born. The firm is pushing 80 years in South Florida. William Maus and Frank Hoffman came down from the summer resort town of Petoskey, Michigan, in 1939. After finding locations in Miami too expensive, they opened on Las Olas a year later. Among Las Olas institutions, only the Riverside Hotel (1936) is older.
William Maus became a legendary pioneer on Las Olas. At one time a dozen stores from northern Michigan had followed his company to Las Olas or nearby cities. Las Olas was far less elegant than today’s venue. Among the neighbors was a gas station and auto dealership. Maus was the man who backed the boulevard’s first good restaurant, the recently closed Le Café de Paris. Today Fort Lauderdale’s center of nightlife has numerous fine restaurants, serving the massive influx of new downtown high-rise offices and apartments. Maus & Hoffman expanded around the state years ago. Today, it has locations on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and stores in Naples and Vero Beach.
William Maus died in 1980, but all five of his children became active in the business. The family jokes that “Maus” means mouse in German; thus “a mouse in every house.” Bill Jr. still works in Fort Lauderdale, as did his late brother Tom. Their brother John, president of the company, runs the Palm Beach store. A sister, Jane Hearne, was in Naples before retiring. Tom Maus Jr. now runs the Las Olas Boulevard store. There is even a fourth generation in the organization. Ted Maus, son of Bill Maus Jr.’s son Arthur, works in the catalog fulfillment division in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Although it began as a high-end men’s store, it has enlarged its offerings to include women’s clothing. And, as of last month, Maus & Hoffman has a new and appropriate location—in a sense a marriage with the Riverside Hotel. Its old location just a half block away was sold, and the new store has the advantage of an entrance on Las Olas next to the high-traffic Riverside, plus a second entrance in the back from the hotel’s lobby.
It is a union made in history heaven—Las Olas’ two oldest institutions. We wish Maus & Hoffman and the Riverside another 80 years of success.
Do you remember what you were doing the last time you turned 100? Nella McNally does. The Fort Lauderdale mother of three, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of nine, is being honored for her artwork both locally and by her Ivy League alma mater.
Ms. McNally’s full name is Ellen Carley McNally, but she goes by Nella, and that nickname goes back a long, long way. She celebrated her 100th birthday in August. The Galt Ocean Mile resident has been painting most of her life and works at it almost every day. That in itself is a story, but a better one is her unique connection to her old school—Yale.
She is a 1945 graduate of Yale’s School of Fine Arts, the oldest of its kind in the country. There she learned a form of painting that had been largely lost for hundreds of years. Egg tempera uses egg yolk as its base and was a common technique in Europe before oil paints were adopted in the 15th century. It was characterized by fast drying and exceptional durability. Just ask Michelangelo. It lost favor over the years, although some prominent artists, including Andrew Wyeth, preserved the medium.
There was a professor at Yale who taught tempera painting to McNally. The teacher is long gone and Yale dropped the course from its curriculum. It had largely forgotten his contribution until McNally’s work was called to its attention. That was done by another Yale alum, retired Fort Lauderdale lawyer Laz Schneider. He is a friend of the artist’s son, Phil McNally, also retired from banking. Not surprisingly, many of Nella McNally’s relatives and acquaintances have added the word “retired” to their resumes. But she is far from retired.
The artist will be part of “Yale 50/150” marking 50 years of Yale University admitting women and 150 years of their granting women art degrees. The event will run from March until November. Yale’s art gallery obviously is a major part of the celebration, and McNally will serve as a link to its past. The school made a two-hour video of McNally’s painting technique. The gallery is also adding one of her works to its permanent collection as an example of the egg tempera technique.
The centenarian artist is not without recognition at home. She was grand prize winner two years ago at the Bonnet House annual juried competition, and recently received a special mention for her more recent work.
The painting chosen for the gallery is a story itself, going back to 1960. McNally was asked by her sister to do a painting of a nun who taught at a now closed small Catholic college in New Hampshire. She was known as Sister Mary Margaret. The relative planned to give the painting to the order to which the nun belonged. The order, however, refused it, terming it “vainglorious.” They must have been humble nuns indeed. Today, no one knows Sister Mary Margaret’s real name. The painting was damaged by water and then restored and was in the home of McNally’s daughter in Connecticut. Now Sister Mary Margaret at last will have a permanent place in one of the world’s great universities. So much for vainglory.
The latest intelligence about accidents involving the fast, new Brightline train between Palm Beach and Miami is that it may be unsafe to sit on the tracks as a train going 79 mph bears down on you.
This astute perception stems from a recent report in The Palm Beach Post of a news conference in which relatives of people killed at crossings claimed that the new high-speed train is unsafe. One of the families was that of a man who police say was actually sitting on the tracks. He was not in a car trying to beat the train, which is the case of some of the other incidents at rail crossings.
Suicide by train is not all that uncommon, unpleasant as it sounds. Even though it has almost no grade crossings, the Northeast Corridor has seen its share of such grisly deaths. Those tracks are fenced in, but victims access the tracks by way of the numerous commuter stations along the route. According to Ali Soule, spokesperson for Brightline, eight of its 10 fatalities over the last year are being investigated as suicides.
The relatives, of course, do not think their kin committed suicide. They call for more safety features to prevent such incidents on a railroad that for years had slow-moving freight trains that encouraged people to take chances at grade crossings, knowing the odds were not that bad. Now, they are. Among the suggestions are more signs, voice warnings, etc. Those ideas, however, collide with the wishes of residents near the tracks who want the loud horns of the train silenced.
While we are a fan of Brightline and consider it long overdue, we concede the families complaining have a point. A train going almost 80 miles an hour at grade level through a busy city with numerous street crossings is inherently dangerous. All it takes is a little absent mindedness to find yourself stopped in heavy traffic on or near the tracks as the gates go down.
Brightline hopes to eliminate the few genuine accidents with simple advice. “We ask people to pay attention,” Soule says. “We ask them to avoid stopping on the tracks or going around gates. You don’t have to beat the train. Just follow the law and don’t take chances.”
Sound advice, but no more likely to be heeded than asking people not to drive 60 miles an hour in a 25 mph zone, or routinely bust red lights, or text while driving. Fatal accidents from such conduct are daily occurrences that make railroad mishaps seem rare.
There is only one real solution to Brightline’s problem: rebuild the railroad. If that sounds ambitious, it is, but it would obviously be a long-term project. There is a fast way to start. Eliminate some grade crossings. This has already happened. There are several streets in downtown Fort Lauderdale that were closed off years ago. A recent one was done to make room for the station just north of Broward Boulevard. The same thing happened in Palm Beach.
Closing off major streets is impractical, although bridging some is feasible where there are no major buildings or businesses that would be seriously affected. But there are dozens or less used crossings in Broward and Palm Beach County, which could be closed without bringing on the end of the world. It might seem that way to some neighbors, who would bring up the usual arguments about delaying emergency vehicles, etc. Those would be countered by homeowners on both sides of the tracks who would find their neighborhoods more private and free from a lot of traffic, eventually enhancing property values.
There are sections of track that run a considerable distance with only a few crossings. One example is from State Road 84 through the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, as far as Griffin Road—a distance of more than two miles. There are similar sections, especially in the less populated areas. If some crossings were eliminated, and the track fenced in, speeds up to 100 mph could be safely attained on those unobstructed stretches. That could permit trains to slow down a bit in congested cities and still maintain fast schedules. It would require an exemption from the 79 mph maximum limit, but that has been done on sections of the Northeast corridor where unobstructed main lines make it safe not just for the high-speed Acela, but also some conventional commuter trains.
Postscript: The train hasn’t even reached there yet, but some of the strongest criticism of Brightline has come from the Treasure Coast. The complaints about safety have reinforced the fact that the train had not planned to stop between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Ali Soule advises that Brightline is addressing that problem, exploring sites for stations in Martin County (Stuart) and Indian River (Vero Beach). That should not only silence some objectors but also greatly add to the usefulness of the service.
Once upon a journalistic time—the 1970s—South Florida newspapers were among the most successful in the country. The Miami Herald, owned by the Knight Ridder company, had a statewide presence with several bureaus, and had influential readers in most major Florida cities.
In Broward County alone it had a staff of 70 based in an office on Sunrise Boulevard. Its Broward circulation was an impressive 75,000. This was despite the fact that it competed with a very strong Sun-Sentinel, which at the time was one of two dailies in the same organization. The Fort Lauderdale News was the larger evening paper; the Sun-Sentinel was morning. There was also the Sun-Tattler in Hollywood, which had a respectable 50,000 circulation. The Herald also had competition in Miami from the small but feisty Miami News (ceased in 1988), which had some of the top talent in the area, and (until 1971) the Miami Beach Sun.
In terms of its Latin American coverage The Herald enjoyed the kind of respect the Washington Post does today in the nation’s capital. Knight Ridder owned 31 other papers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, which it turned from a disgraced paper under former owner Walter Annenberg into one of the best in the country. Although largely forgotten today, the company also published the small The News in Boca Raton, which it used as a training ground for its promising young reporters and editors.
R.H. Gore, a tough and highly competitive businessman who sold his company to the Chicago Tribune, had owned the Fort Lauderdale News and the Sun-Sentinel for years. The News was one of the most profitable evening papers. Gold Coast magazine detailed its clout:
“Figures for the first eight months of 1973 show the Fort Lauderdale News running first in total advertising lineage among all the evening papers in the country.” The only papers with more advertising were all morning sheets.
It later became a morning paper and the name Sun-Sentinel was adopted when the two papers merged in 1982. Serving a fast-growing market of Broward and south Palm Beach County, its Sunday circulation reached more than 300,000.
The Sun-Sentinel did not have the journalistic clout of The Herald, but it did a good job on the bread and butter news, such as local politics and high school sports coverage.
The Palm Beach Post was also a very successful product, although its growth was stunted by competition from the Sun-Sentinel, which moved aggressively to dominate the southern half of Palm Beach County, and papers on the Treasure Coast, which limited its growth to the north.
Those glory days are long gone. As Dan Christensen recently reported on his Florida Bulldog blog, all three papers continue to lose circulation. Although located in high growth markets, the papers are losing readers faster than the national average. Virtually all newspapers are suffering. The pain began in the 1990s and has gotten worse year by year, as the internet and expanded television news have made print publications relevant to far fewer people, and have virtually destroyed the profitable classified advertising sections.
The numbers are grim: Christensen reported the Herald’s daily circulation has dropped in the last decade from 164,000 to 53,000, although its Spanish language Nuevo Herald adds another 25,000. The Palm Beach Post just a few years ago reported a daily circulation of over 100,000; it is now around 53,000. The Sun-Sentinel is down from 100,000 to around 75,000.
Like papers all over the country, South Florida’s dailies have gone digital, which although increasing readership, provides nothing like the print editions’ income.
Shortly after Florida Bulldog’s report, Buddy Nevins, commenting on Christensen’s work, reported on his popular Broward Beat blog that the Herald and Sun-Sentinel were considering a merger, which would likely result in staff reductions (which have already been drastic) as well as lack of competition.
Christensen and Nevins, by the way, are friends. They both have strong newspaper backgrounds—Nevins at the Sun-Sentinel and Christensen at The Herald. Their work helps fill the void left by the newspaper's demise. Nevins continues the political commentary, which distinguished him at the Sun-Sentinel. Christensen’s investigative reports command a loyal audience, which has grown beyond South Florida. Notable has been his dogged pursuit of an apparent cover up of the 9/11 attacks—the possible involvement of members of the Saudi Arabian royal family who were living in Sarasota. They had been in touch with several of the hijackers, and left the country in a hurry, leaving cars and household furnishings behind, just before the attack. This suspicious information was never given to former Sen. Bob Graham, who headed the 9/11 investigating commission. He has worked closely with Christensen in the effort to pierce the secrecy surrounding that tragic morning.
Back on topic, Buddy Nevins’ rumors are usually pretty reliable, and if the two major papers do merge, the Miami Dade-Broward market, which in the early 1970s had six daily newspapers, will be down to only one. No wonder the term “low information” is being applied to so many of our paperless citizens.
When major political events, such as the one we are now enjoying, are taking place, most low information people don’t really understand what they are all about. That is, until Hollywood steps in and makes a movie about it.
That was the case with Watergate in 1972. People who never read a newspaper did not understand what the fuss was about and could not fathom how former President Richard Nixon had to resign over a burglary that he did not even attend.
But then came “All the President’s Men,” and people realized it was about Robert Redford meeting in a dark garage with a very spooky fellow named “Deep Throat.” He went back to his desk at the Washington Post, and with Dustin Hoffman, tried to follow the money. And all this time they had Jason Robards breathing down their necks to make sure they didn’t get their paper sued to death.
The same thing happened more recently with the film “The Post,” which dealt with an event even older than Watergate, and has remained a fuzzy situation ever since it occurred in 1970. But now, thanks to Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, we know it was about the publisher of the Washington Post worried to tears about her stock price, and not being invited to Washington cocktail parties—all because some unknown kid named Matthew Rhys had come up with Pentagon Papers that said the Vietnam War was a mistake, and Tom Hanks wanted to put it in the paper. Suddenly, after almost 50 years, it all made sense.
Many people don’t remember the real names of the people involved in these dramas, but they do recall who played them in the movie reincarnation. Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep become more real than Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham. And so it will be when the movie about 2018 turmoil is made.
To give Hollywood some help, we have begun casting the current episode, even as the first books are just appearing. It is, of course, tricky business, for we don’t know yet which of the dozens of figures whose faces are associated with current events will warrant a place in the movie when it all is put to bed. And we also have to find a role for some actors who are necessary to guarantee artistic success. Tina Fey, for instance, and Tom Hanks. Hanks should be easy to place, for he manages to look and sound like anybody he plays, and a number of figures in this film are reasonably close to his age and racial profile. Actors should bear some resemblance to people they play. Mickey Rooney would not be an ideal Shaquille O’Neal. Hanks could play most of the male roles in this drama. Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, for starters.
Bob Woodward is a must, since his new book has gotten so much ink, and most people recognize him. Although somewhat older, Robert
Redford played him the last time around and, at age 82, he can still remember his lines if called on to repeat his interpretation of the 77-year-old Woodward.
Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film star who alleges a relationship with President Trump, could be played by any number of blondes. We might title it “All the President’s Women.” We think Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has star quality and should have at least a small role in any film. If he had not died 33 years ago, Yul Brynner was born to play him. Maybe Yul has a grandson.
Robert Mueller, of course, is a given. He’s the “Deep Throat” of this saga. Jason Robards, who played Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” would be just right in his prime, but his prime ended with his life in 2000. In a pinch, there’s always Tom Hanks. With “Saturday Night Live” doing hilarious impersonations of public figures, Kate McKinnon owns the Jeff Sessions part, as well as that of Hillary Clinton, if the former first lady gets a minor role. In truth, Ms. McKinnon could play the entire cast.
James Comey warrants major time, but presents a tall problem because of his height—he’s 6 feet, 8 inches tall. Back in the day, James Stewart (6 feet, 3 inches) would be a good choice, but alas he passed on in 1997. Looking over the lineup of tall actors currently alive, Liam Neeson (6 feet, 4 inches) stands out. Also 6-foot-3-inch Will Ferrell. He’s not too young for the 57-year-old Comey and he has a background in comedy, which could be an asset in this film.
Interestingly, in these kinds of productions a president does not need an actor. They tend to show up in actual film clips, or are viewed briefly from behind. Now, Melania is a different story. We need to get her in this flick, if only to justify the drawing power of Tina Fey. Unfortunately, her only part will be slapping her husband’s hand a couple times. No lines. Just like the original.
(Top) A young Bob Woodward with Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee during the Watergate era. Robert Redford improved his looks in the 1976 film, as did Dustin Hoffman for Carl Bernstein.
It appeared to be a perfect deal. Not only was the Down Under a successful restaurant, but it was an excellent investment for the handful of friends of Leonce Picot who backed him in what at the time was the most popular high-end restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. It also helped advance the careers of a number of people who were associated with it, including the young architect who designed it.
When Gold Coast magazine wrote about the Down Under in the 1970s, it wasn’t about the cuisine, which was excellent. It was about the deal, how well it had turned out for Picot, his investors and, ultimately, his loyal customers. What would seem to be a questionable location, almost hidden below the Intracoastal Waterway bridge at Oakland Park Boulevard, turned out, with the help of the name, to be an asset. It made Picot, who died at 86 on Aug. 24, seem to be a business genius.
Although the Down Under was the first of several successful restaurants (La Vieille Maison in Boca Raton and Casa Vecchia in Fort Lauderdale) owned by Picot, he was not a novice when he conceived his first venture in the late 1960s. He had grown up in Fort Lauderdale and had good business contacts, partly through his association with the Mai-Kai, which at the time was a hangout for a number of prominent business people. He was director of marketing for the restaurant, which had been successful since it opened in 1955. Picot had a good sense of what would make a winning formula.
His location was not his first choice. According to Dan Duckham, a young architect who was designing his first restaurant, Picot hoped to have a Las Olas Boulevard location. That was a logical choice, for in the ’60s there were not many restaurants on what today has become the leading entertainment venue in the area. But Oakland Park Boulevard was not a bad second option. Much of the town’s business was centered on Oakland Park and Commercial boulevards. Commercial was a particularly strong party drag. The late Jack Riker, a popular bartender known as “Turtle,” used to joke that he was working on a book called “How to see Commercial Boulevard on $1,000 a Day.”
Stan’s Lounge had shown that a waterfront location next to the Commercial Boulevard bridge was viable for a restaurant, but it still took a deft touch to make the Down Under the fast success that it was. Duckham created a beautiful design and Picot assembled a group of prominent backers. Part of the deal was free or discounted meals. His investors were there often, bringing friends. Then, as now, people attract people. As in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
Within a few years most of the investors had been bought out at a substantial profit, a pleasant bonus to the fact that they had eaten well and often and generally had fun. Dan Duckham, who went on to design almost 80 restaurants, was one of them. He had converted part of his fee into stock. Duckham, now in his mid-80s and still working in Cashiers, North Carolina, recalls: “I quadrupled my money, and we got a $3,000 dividend each quarter—$12,000 a year. The restaurant was going great.”
Indeed it was, and it continued that way for years, lasting under Picot’s ownership from 1968 until 1996. The Sun-Sentinel’s Mike Mayo, who wrote Picot’s obituary a few weeks ago, caught the flavor of the restaurant at its peak. He quoted Picot’s daughter, Laura Picot Sayles, describing busy Fridays when regulars arrived for lunch and were often still at the bar as the dinner hour approached. That may be an understatement. It wasn’t just Fridays. Some weeks it was that busy almost every afternoon. With time it earned the award of an abbreviation—regulars called it the DU. It also inspired some levity. There was a joke about a new cemetery in Plantation to be called the Down Under West.
Smart as he was, not everything Leonce Picot did was brilliant business. A longtime friend was as good a customer as any restaurant could have. His office was close to the restaurant and he was one of those who often went to lunch and was still around at the dinner hour. I don’t know how much he spent a week, but there were days when he dropped $50 on me, for lunch and lubricants. These were 1970s dollars. He entertained customers there all the time. One night he had a spontaneous office party for an employee who was getting married in a few days. He sent a staffer to the bar to get a bottle of Champagne from the bartender. Now, that is technically illegal; a restaurant isn’t supposed to sell stuff for takeout, but it happens all the time, especially for such a steady patron.
Leonce wasn’t working that night, and the manager on duty saw the person leaving with a bottle. There was a confrontation. We don’t know what was said, and in those days nobody had a cell phone to record the incident. But the Champagne did not leave the restaurant, and when our friend arrived at his office the next morning, there was a message to call Mr. Picot before he came in the restaurant again. The conversation was apparently not pleasant, and our friend did not set foot in the place for about eight years. The man eventually did attend a function at the Down Under. When Picot saw him, he could not have been more cordial, the Champagne altercation all but forgotten. All’s well that ends well—to coin a phrase.
It has been 42 years since the World War II vintage P-51 fighter plane crashed in flames in the Mojave Desert of California. And almost that long since Gold Coast magazine assured the world that Ken Burnstine was really dead. He still is, 36 years later. And yet his legend lives on. Gaeton Fonzi’s book-length report, which appeared in three issues early in 1982, has proved to be the most enduring story in Gold Coast’s 53-year history. For more than a decade we have been getting requests for copies of that story. They usually come from someone with a personal interest in Ken Burnstine, an Ivy League educated, former Marine Corps officer, and prominent-developer-turned-big-time-drug-smuggler. How big? Burnstine died under mysterious circumstances while practicing for an air race, shortly before he was to testify against more than 70 associates in a massive drug running operation.
One of the requests a few years back came from a relative of a pilot who died in the crash of one of Burnstine’s planes. The man hoped the story might somehow show that his uncle was an innocent party, unaware that the plane he flew was a smuggling machine. Alas, he must have been disappointed. Burnstine’s pilots had to know what they were doing, loading up with drugs in the islands and Central America and flying at night on carefully planned routes to avoid radar and find secret landing spots around Florida. It was dangerous and illegal work, but they were well paid for it. And so were Burnstine’s investors, who doubled their money in a matter of days.
The most recent request, just this month, came from a man who said he was related to Burnstine. He is active military, suggesting he probably is too young to have known Burnstine. But he had heard about the articles and wanted to read them. Unfortunately, copies of those 1982 issues are few, but we had copied the pages for just such requests.
Burnstine was as colorful as the wildly painted P-51 he owned. That plane was his recreation. He had an enormous ego and loved attention, even bad publicity. He was often in the news for such things as keeping a lion in his home. Many people knew he was smuggling drugs for years before he got caught. Planes he owned were crashing filled with dope. People wondered how he got away with it. But at the time of his death he had been convicted and had turned government informant. His testimony at an upcoming trial could have sent dozens of South Florida people, some of them well known, to jail.
Fonzi’s story ended a myth that was even reported by the papers, that Burnstine had faked his death, that only a thumb was found in the plane’s wreckage, and that he was living the good life in Europe. Even today there are people who, if they remember Burnstine at all, suspect he evaded prison and is growing old somewhere with a missing hand. But Fonzi’s story quoted the coroner to the effect that more than just his thumb was found. His skull and teeth and the rest of his dismembered and charred body were also identified. Thus the title: “Ken Burnstine is
More dramatically, Fonzi revealed that there was a suspicion that his plane had been sabotaged with a motion activated bomb, which exploded when he showed off by rolling his plane at low altitude. Death prevented him from testifying against the many associates who backed his smuggling enterprise.
Moreover, Fonzi turned up information that even Burnstine’s closest friends did not know. He revealed that in the Marine Corps Burnstine was not a flier; he was a intelligence officer. Furthermore, for years he had some sinister CIA contacts. Fonzi, one of the best investigative reporters of his time, knew a lot about the CIA. He worked for five years for two government committees that had reopened the investigation of President John F. Kennedy’s death. He had connections beyond the scope of that work, which served him well when researching Burnstine’s murky past.
He learned that one man he was scheduled to testify against in the drug case was a supplier of arms to anti-communist Latin American groups. Fonzi wondered if one reason Burnstine avoided prosecution for so long was that he enjoyed protection by serving the government in some clandestine capacity. He interviewed Burnstine’s principal intelligence connection, who told him they had been good buddies, but had a falling out. It is obvious why. Burnstine could send him to jail. The connection also happened to be a specialist in sophisticated weapons, including devices designed to kill silently. Was one of those devices used to destroy an airplane and the notorious figure flying it?
We likely will never know. What we do know is that after 42 years, Ken Burnstine is still dead. And some people still care about his story. He would be thrilled.
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