Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literary Digs in South Beach at The Betsy

I just spent two wonderful days at the Betsy Hotel in South Beach. The Betsy sits on Ocean Drive across from Lummus Park in the Art Deco district. Recently renovated from the ground up, the Betsy is a historic property listed in the Florida’s State Registry of Historic Places. The pure white colonial facade of the Betsy shimmers among the crowd of art deco designs along Ocean Drive. Awnings and sidewalk umbrellas shade the street-side dining of celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak, where locals and guests dine on Angus beef and other culinary confections.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't gush about a hotel in this blog, I'd save it for my travel blog. But the Betsy is more than a hotel. It's a community in the making.

My room wasn't quite ready when I checked-in early at the Betsy. While I waited, account manager Livingston Alexander took me around the hotel and shared a bit about the philosophy of the hotel. The Betsy hopes to be more than just another place on the strip with rooms, beds and showers. Drawing from the legacy of historic hospitality, the Betsy aims to be a true public house, where locals mingle with guests for conversation, celebration, and cultural exchange.

This philosophy shows in the art that lines the interior walls. Currently on exhibit are photographs by renowned photographers Bobby Sager, Richard Bluestein, and a collection of prints from the Rockarchive. Large and luminous, the photos reflect the commitment the Betsy has with arts and literature. The Betsy welcomes non-guests to stroll through the hotel’s public areas to view the photographs.

Livingston walked me to my room on the second floor and showed me around. Most hotels of this class come with a mini-bar stocked with beverages and priced for profit. But how many hotels stock the bookshelves in the guest rooms with first-edition bestsellers? I went ga-ga when I saw this. He hinted at a writer in residence program under development.

Tingling with the thrill of a writer in residence program at this beautiful place, the next day I met with Deborah Briggs, whose title of VP Marketing and Philanthropy says it all. The EdD at the end of her signature reveals even more about her and alludes to the amazing legacy taking root in South Beach. Deborah is the daughter of the late Hyam Plutzik, a poet nominated for the Pulitzer shortly before his untimely death in 1962. She is a diva of ideas and is as passionate about education as she is about the arts and sees the Betsy as a place where ideas prosper with practice, life embraces art, and hospitality extends beyond the check-out date.

Deborah and I dined on Lincoln Avenue, at Da Leo Trattoria, the oldest Italian Restaurant in South Beach, where we talked about writing, art, music, our families, and our dogs. In between these topics, Deborah shared more about the philanthropic plans for the Betsy, which include the creation of a writer’s room at the Betsy and a writer in residence program to help writers birth literary projects. To commemorate Veteran's Day in November, the Betsy is bringing the Lennon Bus to South Beach for a school and community-wide tribute and educational outreach.

I promised to keep in touch with Deborah and herald news of the Betsy’s innovative ideas and philanthropic endeavors. The writer in residence program may not be fully operational as yet, but that didn’t keep me from writing while residing at the Betsy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Clar de Lune, Susan Boyle and My Mother

My novel, THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, yes, the one I'm still revising, draws much from my childhood. My father really was a sword swallower and my mother was a closet chanteuse who played piano and sang with a voice that rivaled the divas of her day. In fact, when I hear Susan Boyle, I think of my mother. She had that kind of voice, but zero confidence.

The photo at right is my mother playing and singing with my younger sister, Angie, who inherited Mom's voice and musical abilities. Sadly, Angie passed away from melanoma in 1990 at the age of 29. My mother has been gone since 2003.

Some of my fondest memories of my mother are when she played piano and sang. My Mother's Day tribute this year is a short excerpt from THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, all of which is true to the point of memoir, rather than fiction.


We returned from school that day to the sound of Mama pounding out “Clar de
Lune” on the piano. Mama’s piano playing was a barometer to her moods. When she
played and sang sad love songs, she was irritable. When she played upbeat show
tunes, we pretended we were the Lennon Sisters and joined in for fun rounds of
musical togetherness. Sometimes she played hymns, especially for Uncle Teddy,
who insisted she sing “How Great Thou Art” every time he saw her. But when she
played from her big, brown classical music book, she channeled the tension of
her life into the music, because when she closed the piano lid and stepped away,
her face was always relaxed and her voice as soft as a kitten.

After dinner that night, Aunt Cissy’s boyfriend, Ernest, pointed to the piano in the parlor adjacent to the living room. “Anyone play piano?”

My little sister jumped up, ran to the piano and began plunking out the right hand side of “Heart and Soul.” She turned and asked me to play the two-handed left side. I was not about to play this kiddy song in front of Ernest, so I declined, saying I couldn’t sit on the piano bench with a broken leg.

Aunt Cissy stuck her head into the room and said, “Ask Edie. She plays and sings just like Rosemary Clooney.”

Mama rolled her eyes, but I could tell she liked the remark. She had a repertoire of songs she would sing and play in the evenings when Daddy was gone out to wherever it was that he liked more than home.

“Really?” said Ernest, looking to Mama with more than a little interest. “Oh, please play something.”

“Play ‘Moon River,’” said Aunt Cissy. “That’s one of my favorites.”

Mama groaned and then opened up the piano bench and dug through a bunch of sheet music. With an “ah ha,” she pulled out a warn folio and spread it across the piano.

I loved it when Mama played and sang. When she put her hands to the piano keys her face changed. The harsh lines around her eyes softened and her shoulders relaxed enough to let her arms flow up and down the keyboard.

She could imitate the sound of just about any singer I’d ever heard. Sometimes Daddy would hang around after supper and ask her to sing for him. Her music soothed whatever it was that drove him away.

“Play Unforgettable,’” he’d say, standing behind her, close enough to touch, but never touching.

Other times Daddy would recline in his chair and smoke, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings while we ran around trying to catch them. Mama would play through her repertoire of pop songs while Daddy let us crawl over him. Those were memories I cherished. That was the Daddy I remembered, the Mama I wanted.

Seeing Mama unwind at the piano now lit a flicker of something I couldn’t wrap my heart and mind across.

From THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, copyright 2009 by Carolyn Burns Bass