How "Discovering a Deco Dowager"
led to a 
WWII Miami Beach Veterans Reunion
Dr. Judith S. Berson

Like many newcomers to Miami Beach, I knew very little of its history. Although a resident for 25 years, I had grown up in New Jersey and what I knew about my new hometown was limited to the depiction of Charles Grodin's honeymoon at the Fontainebleau Hilton in "The Heartbreak Kid."  During the 1980s, while a major revival of the Art Deco District was going on, my attention was elsewhere.  All that changed when my husband and I became partners in the Hotel Edison and I decided to write a book about the hotel's history.  My original intent was to gather a few interesting facts and print little pamphlets for the hotel guestrooms.  Thus, I began the research phase of my project. 
The Internet provided a wealth of information and leads, including Miami Herald archives where I searched for any articles that mentioned the Edison. I quickly found that the hotel's architect was Henry Hohauser, one of the most prolific of the South Beach architects of the Art Deco era, and I learned the names of a few of the hotel's previous owners. In this way I began to piece together a bit of the history of our Deco dowager. 

After visiting local branches of the Miami-Dade Public Library, I continued my research at the main branch where there is an extensive archive on microfilm and the Romer Collection of historic photographs.  My visit there yielded articles from early newspapers and copies of original photos of the Hotel Edison in the 1930s that I immediately purchased to include in my publication and display in the hotel. 

A Herald article by Allison Klein recalled the World War II years when most of the South Beach hotels and apartment buildings were taken over by the military for housing and training headquarters.  Thousands of men, including matinee-idol Clark Gable, invaded 
Miami Beach and took over 70,000 hotel rooms. 
By the time the war ended, one-fourth of all Army Air Corps officers and one-fifth of the enlisted men had been trained at Miami Beach.  Klein described a millenium reunion being planned by a group of the vets who had been stationed in South Beach.  Forrest Clark was quoted in the article as saying he remembered drinking rum and Cokes at the Hotel Edison. 
I was able to locate Clark and learned that he had actually been stationed in the Hotel Edison before being shipped overseas.  In 1998 he and his wife had returned to celebrate their wedding 
anniversary and stayed in the same room that had served as his "barracks" more than 50 years earlier.  In an email message Clark shared the following poignant memory:

On my final night of WWII training in Miami Beach I walked down to stand in front of the Edison Hotel and to say a farewell to the beach.   There as I stood before the hotel on Ocean Drive I could look out over the beach at the moonlit water of the ocean beyond.  I thought of soft gentle things as I knew we were about to go into a hellish war that would carry me many miles away around the world into battle.

    Our ensuing correspondence reminded me that my own 
father had also been stationed in Miami Beach, although my mother could not recall the name of his hotel/barracks.  When she died last year my nephew Jordan inherited the family photo collection.  On a recent visit to New Jersey, we searched through hundreds of  photographs until we hit pay dirt.  In a well-worn photo album we 
discovered a carefully prepared chronicle of my father's army days in Florida.  My mother had lovingly collected photos of their early lives attaching each photo with photo corners (so we could still read the inscriptions on the backs).  There, in my mother's beautiful penmanship, she had inscribed in white ink on the black pages the following humorous caption "And so they were married, and honeymooned in Gainesville, Las Vegas [NM], and Miami courtesy of the U.S. Army Air Corps."

This was how I discovered that the hotel that had served as my late father's "barracks" in May of 1943 was the Sheldon, located only a few blocks from the Edison on the corner of Washington Avenue and 7th Street.  He had sent home one photo of troops marching in formation in front of his "barracks," one in front of the old stores and restaurants on the 600 block of Washington Avenue,

In 1935 the entrance to the beach was directly across from the Hotel Edison
(Photo courtesy of the Romer Collection)

and another of him in uniform posing on a bridge over  Collins Canal.  According to Carolyn Klepser, a research assistant for the City of Miami Beach Planning Department, 300 hotels and apartment buildings were used by the military.  Klepser estimates that nearly 200 are still in existence. 
While I was searching for Hotel Edison anecdotes, I learned that the WWII reunion committee was in desperate need of local support and a headquarter hotel.  Their wish was immediately a reality.  I offered discounted rooms at the Edison, agreed to help them arrange a welcome reception, told them I would assist in contacting city officials, and asked

my nephew to compile a tape of the music of the period to be piped into the lobby during the reunion.  Thanks to assistance from Bruce Singer of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a long list of willing committee members, we are now planning a major event for December 3-7, 1999, to honor the WWII Vets and the City that opened its doors during those bleak years.  The Chamber has created a website for the reunion, participating WWII hotels and buildings will display banners to welcome the returning vets, and ceremonies followed by a parade are planned for Pearl Harbor Day.

Cars on the beach in front of the 
Hotel Edison in 1937
(Photo courtesy of the Romer Collection)

Forrest Clark, a retired journalist, and the driving force behind the reunion, eloquently describes its significance:

   Miami Beach is the place where we left youth and 
innocence behind and departed on the bloodiest greatest war of history. Miami Beach is the place where sunshine and ocean left a bright spot in our minds as we carried on the battle in the blood and sand of the South Pacific, in the deadly skies over Europe and Japan, in the arctic cold of the Aleutian Islands and on the beaches of Normandy.
   The meaning of all this is that never again should youth be asked to give up its life of dreams and ambition to fight in wars.  The meaning is that men and women of peace must triumph or we will forever be in the cycle of war and death.
Miami Beach is a symbol of this hope, this dream for 1000 years of peace. That is what Miami Beach means to us.  It does not mean merely bright sunlight, pastel colored buildings, art deco designs, warm ocean water and tropical breezes.  It does not mean only Collins Avenue, Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive, the models and the discos.
   It means we return to pledge our faith in the triumph of youth over death. It should be a place of renewal, rebirth and rededication to the ideals of peace, harmony and compassion.

 I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to my father's memory than for this
 daughter of a WWII Miami Beach Vet to help organize the return of the
 Veterans for the pre-millenium reunion they have been hoping for and the
 following year as well.  Had my father lived longer than his 46 brief years,
 he would be celebrating his 80th birthday this year.  It is still hard for me
 to believe that the young men who "got sand in their boots" during that
 dreadful period of our nation's history are now elderly men in their 70s, 80s
 and 90s.  The reunions were outstanding successes and the vets have asked
 that it become an annual event.  The Edison Hotel is in all its glory as the
 reunion headquarter hotel, filled with returning veterans and their families
 who receive special VIV (Very Important Vet) rates.