How the Beatles & Rolling Stones Met Betsy Ross on South Beach
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
As if a vortex of historical events had set down near Miami Beach, famed American flag maker Betsy Ross and British rockers, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, are mingling in eclectic wonderment at a restored colonial-style hotel saved from bankruptcy by a former Wall Street financier with an overpowering interest in the arts.
It may be serendipity that the ex-money manager, Jonathan Pluznik, tired of that trade, would buy at auction the failed Betsy Ross Hotel at 1440 Ocean Drive six years ago. After spending two years and millions of dollars on a total restoration, he turned the floundering business into the only Four Star boutique hotel in Miami.
The Betsy Ross, built in 1942, apparently got its name through war-related patriotic fervor, says Jonathan. “We still have Betsy Ross on top of the building,” he says, laughingly commenting, “Not the real person, of course.” During the upgrade, he was careful to retain original style points – even the tiny, mahogany elevators – though he changed the name to “The Betsy-South Beach.”
Arts, Culture and Philanthropy
Another element accompanied the resurgence of the only colonial-style building on a street where Art Deco predominates. Jonathan and his sister, Deborah Briggs, vowed to make the place a center for cultural arts and encouraged creative travelers from around the globe to engage in “things that matter.” Jonathan, the hotel’s chairman and principal owner, and Deborah, who arranges all the cultural events, said The Betsy’s artistic offerings include live music, art exhibitions, jazz nights, poetry readings, book signings, guest room libraries, poems placed on pillows at nightly turn-downs and, since 2009, a charitable collaboration with more than 200 service-driven organizations.
“I didn’t want it to be a place selling luxury rooms for a lot of money inside a protected bubble,” says the hotelier. Instead, he has created “a welcoming space,” one where visitors arrive by cab, limo or right from the beach to enjoy culture, most of it free.
Hotel Gallery for British Rock Stars
The search for media “that matters” reached north where Larry Marion, curator of the Not Fade Away Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., learned of the quest. The art center opened in 2009 after he acquired thousands of “lost” photos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones from Alex Bonis, son of the late Bob Bonis, road manager for the British groups during 1964-1966 U.S. tours. Bob shot thousands of photos as a sideline to his job as tour manager for both bands. Later, he tucked his memorabilia, including pictures, into a duffle bag.
“Alex’s dad died in 1992,” says Larry. “He kept the items until 2008 when he decided to sell them.” Bob Bonis, described as “a surrogate father” to the Beatles and Stones, never tried to make money from the pictures during his lifetime.
“These are the only photos I have seen that are from an insider’s point of view,” said Larry. “The Beatles and the Stones were the most photographed groups in history. But they are only seen in posed pictures or in concerts. Even the so-called ‘candids’ were really posed.”
These photos were different, capturing views of the boys preparing for performances and lounging about at a multitude of venues.
A five-person partnership that includes Larry and Alex opened the Not Fade Away Gallery to display the rare pictures. “We were overwhelmed by the attention it got. Keith Richards’ daughters were the DJs at the opening party,” said Larry. Two books of the photos have since been published.
Deborah and Larry met – and many photos soon flowed to The Betsy. Now, a youthful Mick Jagger stares down at diners at BLT Steak, the hotel’s elegant steakhouse. Another shows John, Paul and George sitting in a circle, tuning their guitars. Jonathan says the photos are on “long-term loan,” and are also for sale.
Jonathan and Deborah, two of four children, were born into a literary family. Their father, Hyam, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and professor, died when Jonathan was 7. He has brought dad’s desk to the hotel where it occupies the “Writer’s Room,” which can be used for five to seven days by a scribe in return only for a talk at the hotel or speech to students at a Miami-Dade school.
Another “Writer’s Room” is located in the former Carlton Hotel, just behind The Betsy, which Jonathan recently bought. It will offer longer stays to those with a facility for the written word – and more space to all manner of artists.
Based on Jonathan’s long-term plans for “cultivating the sights and sounds of art, music and literature” at The Betsy, Ms. Ross will likely be hanging out with the top “British Invasion” musicians for quite some time.