It’s a balmy night. The Rum Old Fashioned in Casa Marina’s Penthouse Lounge make it even sultrier. From this perch, lively with the hubbub of a suntanned crowd, I marvel at the sunset on Florida’s Jacksonville Beach and eavesdrop on the last few dances of the glamorous wedding in the hotel’s 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 admire its Spanish Mediterranean design. It also was the area’s first fireproof building which ensured its survival through several fires as nearby hotels burned down. I’m wondering who else has sat right here listening to the waves.
Al Capone did. Prohibition was a boon time in Florida. Jacksonville was known as “the playground for the rich and famous” attracting 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 32-foot powerboat Flying Cloud, Capone ran rum from the Caribbean. The Casa Marina was where he rendezvoused with the 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. At his funeral, 1,500 people mourned him. A local told reporter Ennis Davis from the Jacksonville Metro, “He was a good Joe, ya know? So he ran some shiner around these parts. Folks gotta survive…”
There’s a bullet hole in the breakfast bar at the Casa Marina. No one is telling me why.
Just up the beach is The Jacksonville Beach Lifesaving Corp. 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 Jean or the 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 this 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 U.S. a while, in order to learn how to blend in undetected. But their plot was discovered by soldiers, perhaps those staying right in the rooms here, and they were later sentenced to death.
When WWII ended, 50,000 people filled the boardwalk and pier to celebrate Independence Day. There were dances, beauty contests and parades. 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 today for being the venue for over 100 weddings a year. It’s such a romantic setting with its intimate beachside ceremonies and the oceanfront bridal suite. The wedding tonight was elegant. The joy radiated all the way up to my penthouse viewpoint. There’s the new couple now, walking hand in hand on the shore. She’s still in her wedding dress. They’re kissing as the waves wash around their ankles.
For more information, visit casamarina hotel.com.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours of Charleston, as well as more far flung locales. Go to peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com for more.