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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    Big Bosses
    Working for James Deering at Vizcaya


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

    “Keeping the Partridge Table” provides a glimpse into Vizcaya’s history, inspired by archival materials and objects in the collection. One of the goals of the initiative is to give readers a new perspective of Vizcaya and to parse objective facts while rendering a feeling of the estate’s splendor based in truth. With this in mind, when a new document is revealed that enhances our understanding of the estate––in this case wrapped up in a beautiful story––we emphatically trumpet its importance.   

    This new document consists of a browned stack of typist paper with the name Mrs. Althea Altemus inscribed in a strangely tentative box script. Her signature is the only timid thing Althea Altemus left behind, as the manuscript itself is an eccentric and confident romp through her life. Titled Big Bosses, it describes Altemus’s career as a private secretary––she describes herself as “neither beautiful nor dumb”––to wealthy and eccentric men. The book also tells the story of her struggle as a single mother during the 1920s and ‘30s working to better the life of her son, a little boy she calls “Tidbits.” Altemus’s husband was an incurable alcoholic, and throughout the book her foremost concern is Tidbits’s care. Alongside all this, Big Bosses is also a delightful Jazz Age memoir that describes Vizcaya and the style of living it offered.

    Big Bosses was most likely written in the 1930s, although the action opens in Miami circa 1922. Altemus came to Miami in late 1917 or early 1918, which leads us to understand that truth is malleable and that the book itself is a work of near fiction. The memoir is based in some degree of truth, but ultimately cannot be read as history. Altemus wrote the text, but did not publish it during her lifetime. Her decision is not fully understood, but was possibly meant to protect her son’s professional career, due to the sometimes scandalous nature of the text. The manuscript was uncovered by Altemus’s grandsons Donald and Robert Altemus, who donated it to Vizcaya in 2012. Big Bosses was finally published in 2016, fully edited and annotated by Robin Bachin, the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History and the Assistant Provost for Civic and Community Engagement at the University of Miami.

    The book opens in Miami with the character of James Deering, who is renamed Beau Brummell in reference to the eponymous nineteenth-century British dandy and fashion icon. The Beau of Big Bosses made his money from Teaser and Reaper, Inc., a gag on the Deering family’s International Harvester Company. Vizcaya is called Eden, a paradise on the bay, which is surely how Altemus saw it. Many other figures from Vizcaya’s history are referenced throughout: artistic director Paul Chalfin is referred to as a “ladylike old dear,” artist Robert Winthrop Chanler a “monstrous goof,” and John Singer Sargent  as “the great portrait painter,” whose paintings the Altemus character admits she does not like. Other characters clearly based on individuals whose presence at the estate cannot be confirmed today also appear, such as “a big publisher whose name was something like ‘William Bamdolf First,’” an obvious nod to William Randolph Hearst. Also included is the famous Miami-based aviator Glenn Curtiss, who developed the city of Opa-locka in a Moorish style inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. Completed in 1926, Opa-locka was conceived as part of the budding interest of constructing an identity for Miami that never really became a reality.  

    Some of the book’s character names were changed for the sake of propriety, and certain events described either cannot be confirmed by Vizcaya’s archives or can be actively disproven. For example, at one point an extravagant party is thrown at Eden, where the guests hedonistically indulge for a week or two in food, drink, and one another. Afterward, Beau is hit with hungover remorse, and complains of the money spent. He even expresses a fear of being kidnapped, and declares Eden “a lonely place.” This potential insight into Deering’s personality was most likely fabricated to add drama.

    What we can and cannot glean as truth from Big Bosses is fascinating for Vizcaya scholars, but deconstructing these moments and comparing them with the known facts may not be particularly interesting to the casual reader. There is also an argument that the text should not be read in this way, especially since Vizcaya’s archives do not offer much with regards to the social aspects and day-to-day minutiae of life in the great house. Taking in the general feeling of life on the estate from Big Bosses is a rare blessing.

    It is particularly interesting to see Altemus’s list of the five different types of correspondence that Beau, or Deering, receives: “business, social, love, foreign and miscellaneous.” A disconnect between fiction and reality persists, as no social or love letters are preserved in the acid-free boxes housed in the archive. Altemus provides tantalizing details about secret love letters received by Beau which, if true, we can only wish had survived. Whatever the reality, reading Big Bosses as a student of Vizcaya is a joy, with Altemus’s humor bubbling abundantly throughout. One anecdote describes how Beau ran the fountain with the express purpose of making one of his distinguished guests, the famous actress Olga Petrova (dubbed Madame Detrova), need to urinate. The intention was to get her away from him because she was talking too much, and he wanted to be alone, if only for a few minutes. The book depicts Beau, and by extension Deering, as a man with a rich sense of humor. These moments allow us to actually break through into the past and experience the estate as it was during Deering’s time.

    The twenty illustrations that accompany Big Bosses are by Phineas Paist, the renowned architect who assisted at Vizcaya and built several projects in Coral Gables, such as the Venetian Pool. The very first––and most elaborate––drawing depicts Altemus sitting at the desk beside Deering’s in Vizcaya’s Sitting Room, where she would have performed her daily employment tasks. The drawings are curious, since Altemus must have actively collaborated with her fellow employee on the project. It is impossible to know the precise character of their relationship, but it appears to have been close. Moreover, Paist further assisted Altemus by helping her build a house in 1920. Paist’s pictures add charm, with their lighthearted presentation and confident lines, and the playful feeling of the sketches echoes the tone of Altemus’s writing.

    The Altemus character ultimately tires of Miami and moves on to work for other “Big Bosses” in places like Chicago and New York. Miami and Eden are mentioned fondly during her travels, always with a sense of yearning to return. The figure of Beau looms over all the others described in the book, and it is to him that Altemus consistently compares the rest of her employers. The book concludes with her return to the tropical paradise of South Florida, right before the Great Hurricane of 1926 and the subsequent economic downturn from the first major land boom and implosion of real estate prices. Near the end she describes her desire to return to Miami: “Guess you know the old story about ‘Once you get Florida sands in your shoes’––well, it’s true.” The poetic language used to set the scene shows Altemus’s true love for her Florida home, and with her return to Miami the narrative comes full circle.

    Big Bosses, much like the Vizcaya estate itself, is a platonic love story to the city of Miami. They are supremely different in character; one is rendered on paper and lay untouched for many years, while the other was shaped over a decade by countless people and has sat on the bay in largess for a century. Each remains an homage to Miami’s splendor––beautiful and representative of its maker.