Posner’s fearless quest to take on controversial topics—from writing what many call the definitive book on the JFK assassination, for which he became a Pulitzer Prize-finalist, to tracking down former Nazi war criminals in South America—is what has made him a leading investigative journalist.
“It is all about your risk tolerance,” Posner told Bitter Lawyer in June. “I don’t smoke because I’m afraid of cancer. But I write about terror links in the Saudi Royal family and have no fear. Go figure.”
This time around, Posner didn’t travel the world to dig up dirt. Instead, he stepped outside his front door to uncover historical tales of sex, drugs, and jobbery. What emerged from Posner’s inquiry into his own city is Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, released today.
Stories of corruption (drug dealer who paid for a $400,000 home with $20 bills) combined with Posner’s lawyerly thoroughness draw readers in, providing a riveting account of sunny Miami’s shady history.]
Gerald, you normally write about events (like 9/11), political hot topics (the Saudi-U.S. Connection) or people (MLK, Jr. assassin James Earl Ray). But in Miami Babylon you turn your focus to a city. What made you decide to put Miami in your investigative crosshairs, aside from the fact that you live there?
Living here taught me that when Somerset Maugham described Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people,” he could easily have been describing Miami Beach. The book is not so much about the city, but about the amazing people who have called it home since it was first converted from a deserted sandbar to “America’s Riviera” in the 1920s.
The Beach has always been a mix of visionaries with chutzpah, gangsters, real estate speculators, cocaine kingpins and questionable characters who have moved to Miami to bury sordid pasts and start fresh. All compressed into one tiny island bordering the Ocean, it was too delicious a story to bypass.
Also, since the late 1970s, Miami Beach went from God’s Waiting Room—one of America’s poorest neighborhoods comprised almost exclusively of the elderly—to an uber cool resort brand; that’s a dramatic transformation that serves as a great backdrop for much of the story from Cocaine Cowboys to the latest real estate boom and bust.
Give us a little insider dirt on Miami. If we want a truly scandalous tour of the city, what are the three locations we absolutely must see?
2. The Fontainebleau Hotel (4401 Collins)
It’s been redone in a massive renovation, but the original, over-the-top Morris Lapidus designed hotel was mob central in the 1950s, where northern gangsters came to spend a winter holiday and hangout with Frank Sinatra, a Fontainebleau regular.
3. The Miami River
Just across the causeway from Miami Beach, stop by the Miami River. That’s where, in July 1985, eight policemen stole $9 million of cocaine from a boat docked there. The next morning, the bloated bodies of three of the smugglers were found in the river. It led to the unraveling of the Miami River Cops, one of the most corrupt police gangs, in a city that was swamped with corruption during cocaine’s boom days.
The mere mention of certain American cities like Chicago and Miami conjure up images of hardball politics, shady backroom deals, and widespread corruption. Why is it that some cities consistently lead the league in this kind of stuff?
It’s a combination of several things for Miami. First, the city is so new. At the turn of the century, it had less than 1,000 residents. It wasn’t even the largest “Miami” in America. An Arizona silver mining town with the same name had more people.
More than 250 years after the Pilgrims had landed, and at a time when New York teemed with 3.5 million residents and Chicago boasted 1.7 million, Miami played no noticeable role in the nation’s development. The fact that it has no deeply entrenched institutions that were there to foster civic responsibility and honesty allowed the city to develop as if the rules didn’t apply in South Florida. It’s why Miami was the wettest place in a dry nation during Prohibition. And during World War II, when Miami Beach was converted to a giant army-training base, the party continued with backdoor gambling and widespread prostitution.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, it was ground zero for the American cocaine distribution of Colombia’s Medellin cartel. And at only 35 square miles, the smallest land area of any major U.S. metropolis, Miami is the major American city closest to notoriously unstable Latin and South American tin-pot dictatorships, making it a natural Ellis Island for emigrants.
Periodic coups through the 1950s, primarily in Argentina, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, invariably led to spectacular flights of capital that flooded Miami, each successive arrival of the ousted ruling class subtlety changing the cityscape. After Castro took power of Cuba in 1959, the influx of Cubans forever changed the demographics.
Many of those who settled from Latin American countries, where corruption is sometimes endemic, brought that attitude to Miami. It all added fuel to the already combustible mix of “The Magic City.”
And as for politics, as one insider told me, “it’s a blood sport.”
Miami has no shortage of colorful, shady characters, and you certainly met a lot of them researching this book. Did you have a favorite-someone you shouldn’t have liked, but kind of did?
Bobby Weinstein. That’s the pseudonym he’s given in the book. He’s a former mid-level cocaine dealer who is now a prominent businessman in Miami Beach. Considering his drug-dealing past, I expected to thoroughly dislike him. But he was charming and had a winning, self-deprecating sense of humor that won me over. I still reported his story straight, but without the disdain that one might have expected.
You’ve put yourself in the middle of stories about drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and other rough elements (all of whom know where you live). Was there ever a time when you felt like you were in danger writing this book?
No. While working on the book, I think almost everyone tended to underestimate that this was going to be a work of real journalism. I always tell people I interview that I will be as fair and accurate as possible, but if they want to insure the book tells a story they will like, they have to write it themselves. But, if anyone looks at my past books, and realizes that I am the biographer of Josef Mengele, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray, they should realize that I’m not going to give them softball journalism.
Now that it’s published, some people dislike the way they are portrayed in the book. But after dealing [in previous books] with some real crazies in the JFK assassination, and some infuriated Saudi royals, this is OK.
What are you working on next? Any interest finding out how a guy like Bernie Madoff duped the world or how Marc Dreier built a powerful law firm on a house of cards?
Yes, Madoff and Dreier both interest me. But I already have a book under contract with Simon and Schuster. The business of the Vatican. Tentatively titled God, Inc. I fully expect that after publishing that book, I shall be spending eternity in hell. But that still beats practicing law.
Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach hits shelves today. Investigative pieces by Gerald Posner can also be found at The Daily Beast, where he is the site’s Chief Investigative Reporter. For even more, visit Posner.com or follow Gerald on Twitter.