22 Sep 2017

The Epicenter of Miami’s Vice

Roben Farzad—author, public radio host, and special correspondent on PBS NewsHour—talks about his new book, Hotel Scarface, and the lasting allure of 1980s Miami


Dan Morrell: The dark neon of late 70s and early 80s Miami has long been one of pop culture's favorite settings, from Miami Vice to Grand Theft Auto. Roben Farzad (MBA 2005), author, Public Radio host, and special correspondent on PBS Hour dug deep into the scene's underworld and found that all roads lead to the Mutiny, this glitzy hotel in Coconut Grove that was a hub for celebrities and the epicenter of a global drug trade. Farzad spoke with the Bulletin's associate editor, April White, about his book Hotel Scarface, which chronicles the Mutiny's rise to prominence, explains how its fall mirrored the end of an era in Miami.


April White: So I don't think I'm going to give too much away if I ask you to start all the way at the end of your book and to tell me a story about a frozen lemonade vendor that you introduced there.

Farzad: Oh, gosh. No, you're giving it all away if you do that.

White: OK. No spoilers, I promise. We'll just say that you and this young frozen lemonade vendor have a lot in common. And just before he left for college, he was attending an event near the ruins of the Mutiny club, which was for a time the center of the universe for drug smugglers and celebrities in Miami.

Farzad: I left to college in 1994. I grew up in Miami. I was born in Iran, we came to Miami just on the eve of the Iranian revolution because my aunt was in medical school there. And I led a very typical kind of immigrant, drink milk, stay in school, don't do drugs lifestyle. And I watched Miami Vice in the 1980s with everybody else on Friday nights. And everything that happened in downtown Miami was just Hollywood, as far as I was concerned. I was on the straight and narrow, on the up and up.

And when I left and I went to college up north, this story found me, literally months before I swore off the city for good. And since that time, let's say, 23 years ago, I have been back countless amounts of time and it sparked a fascination. And I've traveled the world to find this story. I mean, once you realize the possibility of that story is there, it just haunts the heck out of you. And you finally have to say, OK, I'm putting it together in a book proposal and forcing myself to do it.

White: What was it about the story that grabs you? What was it that made you look at this ruin of a building and think, I need to figure out what happened here?

Farzad: That swath of land near Biscayne Bay in the heart of Coconut Grove, it just surfaced in too many police reports and too many historical records. And even going back, something that was not even in the book was that there was this legend of a pirate—believe it or not, you can look him up—named Black Caesar, who was marauding across Biscayne Bay in the Caribbean and was an escaped slave who was rumored—legend had it that he docked his boat there. And here you have, maybe a century, two centuries later, a pirate-themed hotel, a den of iniquity right there in the heart of Coconut Grove, where all of these Miami characters legal, illegal, international celebrities went through and it just wasn't a coincidence.

White: That the pirate story didn't make the book is just a testament to how many amazing stories you had to tell. Keeping this relatively PG-13, can you tell me what it would have looked like if I'd wandered into the Mutiny club during its heyday?

Farzad: So you're looking at the hotel, the Waterfront Hotel across the street. There's a marina and all of these sailboats and these yachts that are being docked and celebs coming there. And meanwhile, on that street, South Bayshore Drive, were all these Lamborghinis and Masserattis and Porsches and Benzes and limos. And people called the pride of place to tip the valets to kind of box out the scene and make sure your car is front and center, so that all the party people see you getting out of it.

And there's this enormous line that's snaking by the pool side entrance to the club. The club is the first two, three floors of the hotel. It's just varying levels of exclusivity. Who do you know? Is the doorman going to let you in? A lot of times, the manager would make people wait for an extra hour to make the scene look even more aspirational.

So to the extent that you could get in, to the extent that you had a sponsor, a king pin or a celeb who said, you know what? She's with me. If you go in there, there's Dom everywhere, people sending bottles left and right, people dancing, just a gorgeous display of things going on. At midnight, there were these tasteful nude dancers, if you will, a man and a woman brought in to kind of wrap around a pole. The owner brought them in from the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. There was a mime climbing on the balconies. You might remember him from the movie Scarface, he got shot up in it.

So what he created was this fantasy land where amid the chaos and the hell of everything that was happening in Miami between, say, years 1979 and 1982, you had this paradise within a boutique hotel with this club that not many people could get into.

White: So you describe in the book a lot of the hedonism of the Mutiny club, but once you subtract the bathtub of champagne, you really are actually telling a business story, which is your background. Can you describe a little bit about the business of drugs in Miami in this time period?

Farzad: You have to imagine—we talk about gross margins and profit margins. And in a business, you're happy to clear double digit margins. If you had a connection in Colombia or Peru or Bolivia and you could get your mitts on a hook up of cocaine base in the jungle for anywhere from $500 to $5,000, you could cut it and dilute it. And by the time it makes it to Miami and you chopped it and put baby laxative and all this other stuff into it, it would be worth $80,000 a kilo at its height.

Now. Imagine, that kind of money, that kind of power, the externalities of something like that, the fact that everything was being paid for in cash, the fact that you had all these banks popping up on Brickell Avenue, which is known as kind of the Wall Street of Miami, that were just there to take dirty money. You would pay people before money laundering statutes to just cart over several boxes of cash and deposit it. And this is at a time when banks were paying you a ton of money to get money. Miami had a $5 billion cash surplus.

So, yes, it does actually go back to the bathtubs full of champagne. The fact that you could show up at a place like this. You might remember Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street in 1987 talking about Fox and saying, liquid, do you know what it's like to be liquid? I mean, these guys defined liquidity. Money was not an object. They were buying houses, they were buying horses, they were literally pouring money down the drain of the rooms, the suites of this hotel. And cocaine, it was just so ubiquitous.

And that was the money that corrupted this city. Money bought law enforcement, money bought the protection. I mean, even people who worked in this hotel, like the one waitress, the hostess who I interviewed, she might have been paid $2 an hour, but she was getting paid $10,000 tips in cash for chauffeuring these drug dealers.

So the point that you make really clearly is that for all of this amazing money that was pouring into the city, the drugs—which were coming with it—were really damaging Miami. Is that something you witnessed as a child?

My vintage in elementary school was the whole Nancy Reagan dare to say no to drugs type thing, which now doing this book and reporting, I realize the sheer hypocrisy of the administration. At the same time that you're suborning the contra situation and looking the other way while cocaine is traded for arms shipments.


You know? You're having Nancy Reagan and George Bush travel the country and telling you that there's a war on drugs. I just remember my one experience with it was I was fishing with my cousin at her house on Biscayne Bay sometime in the mid-80s. We saw what I swore was a kilo of cocaine float up. And so I got the big telescoping net and I held it up against the seawall.

And I urged her to go and call the Channel 7 news truck. I remember that that ad that said, if you see news in the making, call—whatever it was— 777-NEWS. And she did. And I just felt like my arm was going to come off or I was going to fall into the water. And finally, I looked behind me 40 minutes later, and these two news guys are running in with cameras above their shoulders and they're like, the kid says he found cocaine, and everything, like, give me that net, give me that net. They bring it up. Long story short, it's a pillow from a cruise ship.


But we were always—you know? We were always told that this does happen.

White: So you hinted at something there that I certainly wasn't aware of at the time, but the things that were underneath the drug trade, the geopolitics, the covert CIA actions. What else was fueling the insanity of the Mutiny club beyond drugs?

Farzad: I didn't realize the extent to which our kind of misadventure in Cuba, the United States, what happened between years 1959 in 1962, led to the cocaine explosion in Miami. You had a lot of people who were really ticked off that there was never a true rematch to go into Cuba and take out Fidel Castro.

There were grown men who are trained by the CIA in the 1960s waiting every day to go back and take out Fidel Castro and execute the guy and take back their place. They never thought they were going to stay in Miami. But there was an understanding by the 70s and 80s that, look, this ain't happening, so you better take care of yourself. And first, they started trading pot. It was child's play for them because the CIA taught them all about evasion on the coastline. And then, cocaine becomes 10 times as profitable, so, sure, we'll move cocaine.

And what you had in this fantasy land, in this land of hedonism in the hotel was a bunch of people who were loving and hating life at the same time. You would order bottles of wine, Rothschild Lafite from years prior to the Cuban revolution. And love your life in Miami right now, but you would claim that I would leave this and go back to my mother country in a minute the instant Fidel Castro, that SOB, dies.

And so I think that there was a lot of cognitive dissonance about that. There were people who always had their minds in Cuba and were ready to leave and had their bags packed, but they never got to leave. And to this day, we only hesitatingly normalized relations with Cuba. And that was a big reason why we had the cocaine explosion. And to say nothing of what happened in 1980, where Fidel Castro allowed 120,000 refugees to just sluice into South Florida, tens of thousands, potentially, were criminals.

And that's just become part and parcel of everything else that happens subsequent to that. I mean, the race riots in Miami, the rise of crack on the east coast. I mean, I really am amazed looking back at this to what extent foreign policy had a hand in bringing this plague to the United States.

White: You talk about being obsessed with this scene in this moment, but you also reference Scarface and Miami Vice. This is really a shared obsession, a period of time and a scene that a lot of people consider to be a really iconic and defining moment. Why do you think that is?

White: It's so bizarre to have a modern day gold rush kind of you know wild west thing happen in modern history. After all, we're talking about something that happened, in this case, 35, 37 years ago. You can watch HBO's Deadwood and put yourself in 1870s gold rush South Dakota, that's one thing. But this happened in modern history. We had effectively a failed state on our hands.

And Hollywood, which is really smart, under NBC and Brendan Tartikoff was brilliant to come in there and say, we see this rising at the same time that MTV is rising, and they had this idea, I don't know if it's apocryphal for a story like MTV Cops. Can you add music to the beat of Miami? That pulse, that danger.

Everybody realized that in the wreckage and ashes of Miami after the race riots and the explosion of murders, that there was a real dystopian American story to tell about the American dream. We've told it in many ways in The Godfather and the Lower East Side, and the people that show up and kiss Don Corleone's hand and get sponsored. And this happened in parallel with the exiled community in Miami.

And to this day, I mean, go look up how many times has Scarface been re-released, how many times does it get quoted on SportsCenter. It was an influence in Breaking Bad, which was apparently pitched to AMC as Mr. Chips meets Scarface. I mean, it is amazing to me the tentacles, the legs, this franchise which was largely laughed at, Scarface, when it came out in December of 1983, continues to have 30 plus years after the fact.

You know that when you started looking into this story, it was largely undocumented. Why do you think this is not a story that's been told before now?

There were no cameras that were allowed into the hotel. People did not want the publicity back then. A lot of this happened simultaneous to the filming of Scarface, which was looked at as an affront to Miami. Miami had a huge case of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, with the race riots and the cocaine explosion and the Mariel refugee crisis in 1980 and 1981.

And people just didn't want to talk, but then you had Hollywood coming there. Now that several decades have passed, people really want to come out, they realized the statute of limitations has passed them. Many of these guys have spent half their lives in prison. And once you—and I spent a lot of time on this book negotiating and showing that I'm a discrete person that I'm not going to screw you, that I'm not going to make your life miserable. And once that word gets around, other doors are bound to open up for you.

And I had to do some crazy things to get this story, you know? One of these guys turned me down several times. And I was even ready several times. I told my brother, these are my GPS coordinates, I'm getting a rental car, and then, finally, I met him. He wanted to meet me at a cockfight in the Everglades. They wanted to see how strong I was to do this. So I really had to embed myself and show empathy and flexibility in order to get enough strength for this book to happen. I still can't believe I did it.

Farzad's book, Hotel Scarface, is due out in October. It is now available for pre-sale. Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2005, Section I
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