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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    Booze and Bacchus at Vizcaya

    Revelry Yesterday and Today

    Presented by Nathaniel Sandler, Writer,
    with Gina Wouters, Curator

    According to the laws of the land set forth by the Mother of Miami—Julia Tuttle herself—Miami was to be a dry town. Perhaps it’s absurd to consider now, but the sale, purchase or manufacture of alcohol was prohibited, with the sole exception of the saloon in Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel—and that was only in season. Miami remained that way from before the city’s 1896 incorporation until 1900, two years after Tuttle’s death, when her son, Harry, loosened the rules, leading to a cottage industry of saloons around town. According to historian Paul George, by 1910 there were eight saloons. Three years later the temperance zealots and moralists of the day had seen enough lascivious behavior in the streets of fledgling “Miamuh,” and voted the town dry. The Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition Act in 1919 made it official across the United States. This means booze was illegal throughout Vizcaya’s early years, from when the estate’s owner, James Deering, took residence until his death (1916–1925).  In other words, the whole time Deering lived at Vizcaya, he was technically drinking illegally. Fortuitously for Deering and his guests, from early on the law has been flexibly interpreted in South Florida. With a watery landscape ideal for smuggling and a penchant for rampant local corruption, Miami basically ignored both local and national prohibition. There was always a drink to be had for the right person, and more importantly, the right price.

    Adjusted for inflation, the $27,000 dollars that James Deering spent in 1915 on the initial order of alcohol for Vizcaya is approximately $637,900 in 2015. This number is staggering. Today, investing that much in alcohol (without any particularly rare or notable bottles) seems borderline insane. However, when Deering’s artistic director, Paul Chalfin, submitted the request on Deering’s behalf, the money was sent immediately, no questions asked.

    Leading up to this massive order, lawyers were consulted for their opinions “on wet goods.” Judge Atkinson, a Miami pioneer, appears to have created a report (since lost) on how to handle the first delivery, demonstrating that local authorities were complicit in the deal. Booze was described in the ship’s manifest for that first massive delivery as “household articles” to avoid suspicion. This was not the only euphemism for liquor; Vizcaya’s archives reveal constant nitpicking over how exactly to refer to the alcohol. In an early letter, from 1915, Chalfin chided landscape architect William Sturrock, advising him to be more “guarded in telegraphing about wine rooms” because “Mr. Deering does not desire that an exaggerated idea of this matter should get into the public mind.” This is not the only mention of Deering’s concern for appearances regarding alcohol. The words “secret cellar” were deemed problematic due to worry they would draw suspicion.

    However, this enthusiasm and attention to detail seems to have been overlooked in the actual design of the house. Quite soon after the shipment was arranged came the realization that there was not proper cooling in the “moist storage vault,” given the South Florida climate, for the liquor to stay fresh. After a great deal of handwringing and some finger pointing, a refrigeration method was installed. Unfortunately, at the end of 1917 the cooling mechanism failed and a good deal of the “wet goods” spoiled. In discussing the damage, Deering wrote Chalfin that “by the vicissitudes of the year during which these wet goods lay in Florida more or less theft and more or less spoiling came to them,” claiming many of the bottles also ended up stolen. Apparently the door to the secret cellar wasn’t much of a secret.

    In the lead-up to the National Prohibition Act, Vizcaya’s archives reveal increasingly tense correspondence between various staff members. In January 1918, Chalfin’s secretary, Louis Koons, wired colleague August Koch to “SEND CAMOUFLAGED SIX BOTTLES HAIG AND HAIG IMMEDIATELY.” Liquor by then was referred to as simply “H.O.,” for “household objects,” and at one point bottles were comically hidden in comforters for transport. After national temperance passed at the federal level in 1919, mention of booze or any of its nicknames used by the staff of Vizcaya all but ceased. It appears that temperance extended to the written word. This by no means signifies Deering gave up the drink, but it was a clear move towards propriety in the face of federal law.

    Deering’s proclivity for alcohol can be found in Vizcaya’s aesthetic presentation as well. Visitors need look no further than the massive Bacchus sculpture in the Entrance Loggia. Bacchus, Roman god of wine, welcomes Vizcaya’s guests to the great estate. The sculpture is carved in the style of Praxiteles, a fourth century B.C. Greek master whose work is barely extant today. Praxiteles was active during a time in which a Cult of Dionysus existed and worship of the god of wine was celebrated by a dedicated few. The Romans had their own decadent celebrations, or Bacchanalia, festivals of Bacchus, though much remains unclear about these gatherings. Due to secrecy, exactly what the rites entailed has yet to surface.

    Chalfin created the Bacchus sculpture from elements of multiple antique statues purchased through Italian dealers. He referred to the statue as “a composite—such as the Roman amateurs delighted to put together in the period of their great villa building.” The statue incorporates a Greek torso with seventeenth century changes, as well as a late Roman basin on top of antique African marble. The composite was a favorite approach of Chalfin’s at Vizcaya, and in this description he was clearly linking himself to the Romans he admired so much. During Deering’s time, orchids and other exotic flowers grew in the basin, which, along with the flowing water, would have given the sculpture vibrancy and life while drawing in visitors both visually and aurally.

    The marble statue’s genital area is covered for modesty with a grape wreath, and there is an animal skin draped about the body. It’s no coincidence that the piece greets visitors immediately upon entrance; it is a stunning welcome, beckoning revelry. The god of wine’s iconography at Vizcaya does not end there—references to Bacchus pervade the estate. Another Bacchus stands in the gardens and there are Bacchus reliefs on urns in the gardens and the Main House as well as Bacchanalian processions on the many sarcophagi found at the estate.

    That spirit extends to today—as guests walk through the estate, the omnipresent spirit of Bacchus is ever looming. Bacchanalia at Vizcaya occurs through regular events, such as White Parties, the Halloween Sundowner, and the decadence of weddings on countless days throughout the year, all while imposing iconography points to an intended function of the estate. If there was ever any doubt, Vizcaya was a home for entertaining.
    But the footprint of alcohol is not only evident in the extraordinary art. High-end crystal glassware with the “J.D.” monogram, possibly Baccarat Crystal, was purchased through Tiffany’s. One can envision a drink being poured into the crystalware while Deering relaxed in his Sitting Room. The collection also includes silver bar tools, an oversized cocktail shaker, and goblets, all on display in the villa’s pantry and used primarily on Deering’s yacht, the Nepenthe.

    Even some of Deering's booze remains. Most of the alcohol was rebottled and recorked after Deering’s death, but according to museum records 184 bottles of gin and bourbon remain intact. The labels are brands now unrecognizable, among them J.H. Cutter Bourbon, Booth & Co. Old Tom’s Gin and Spring Hill Whiskey. And just so you know, despite countless requests, the collections and conservation staff will not allow a stiff bourbon pour from one of those bottles into a J.D. monogrammed crystal glass. Apparently, the booze may be toxic.

    —December  2015

    For more information on the series “Keeping the Partridge Table,” contact