By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
It was a balmy night, and the rum Old Fashioneds in Casa Marina’s Penthouse Lounge made it even sultrier. From this perch, lively with the hubbub of a suntanned crowd, I marveled at the sunset on Jacksonville Beach and eavesdropped on the last few dances of the glamorous wedding in the courtyard below. Now I’ve come downstairs to the breezy patio where, in 1925, the hotel’s grand opening was celebrated. As they do today, guests admired its Spanish Mediterranean design. It was also the area’s first fireproof building, which insured its survival through several fires as nearby hotels burned to the ground.
I’m wondering who else has sat right here listening to the waves.
Al Capone did.
Prohibition was a boom time in Florida. Jacksonville, known as “the playground for the rich and famous,” attracted gangsters, royalty and tourists, many of whom took the new cross-country train to spend evenings strolling on the boardwalk and riding the famous Ferris wheel. Dashing along the coast on his 32foot powerboat, Flying Cloud, Capone ran rum from the Caribbean. The Casa Marina was where he rendezvoused with movie star Jean Harlow, who described her allure: “Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long.”
Capone’s Florida syndicate included the popular John B. Hysler, nicknamed “Liquor King.” He was gunned down by federal agents as he was picking up some illegal hooch, and 1,500 people mourned him at the funeral, where a local told a reporter: “He was a good Joe, ya know? So he ran some shiner around these parts. Folks gotta survive. Them Yankees pay real good money for that Cuban rum, I hear. Shoot, he even was bringin’ in some real classy folks – some of them Italians from Chicago. ‛Member that boss? That flashy guy named Al?’” (Ennis Davis, Jacksonville Metro).
There’s a bullet hole in the breakfast bar at the Casa Marina. No one is telling me why.
Nearby is the Jacksonville Beach Life Saving Corps. Its members have been saving lives and dispensing gallons of sunscreen to clueless tourists since 1912. I would have loved to have seen the looks on the faces of the lifeguards when Harlow or other movie stars sashayed by. Mary Pickford, Clara Bow and even Katharine Hepburn may have caught their eye. Jacksonville was the “winter film capital of the world,” with 30 movie studios in the 1900s.
During World War II, the Casa Marina was appropriated by the government for military housing. This cloudless night has me imagining the stealthy Nazi infiltrators creeping onto the beach with destruction in mind. In 1942, four German spies slid into the shallows by submarine and concealed explosive materials in the sand with the intention of crippling the production of aluminum and magnesium plants. The infiltrators had lived in the United States awhile to become familiar with the society and how to blend in undetected. But their plot was discovered by soldiers, perhaps those staying in these rooms, and they were later sentenced to death.
When World War II ended, 50,000 people filled the Boardwalk and pier to celebrate Independence Day.
There were dances, beauty contests and parades. I watched fishermen reeling in their catch along that pier earlier today, but a towering Margaritaville Hotel is rising where the Boardwalk closed in 1964. The pier still hosts a party each year, when Sterling Joyce, the Casa Marina’s debonair maitre’ d, holds a birthday party to benefit a local charity. People dance there as they have for almost 100 years.
The Casa Marina Hotel is most well-known for being the venue for more than 100 weddings a year.
It’s a romantic setting, with its intimate beach-side ceremonies and the oceanfront bridal suite – and the hotel’s rich history adds character. Tonight’s wedding was elegant. The joy radiated all the way up to my penthouse viewpoint.
There’s the new couple now, walking hand-inhand on the shore. She’s still
in her wedding dress. They’re kissing as the waves wash around their ankles.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hour’s drive of Charleston, as well as more far-flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments, please see www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.