The Betsy Hotel - A Brother and Sister Combo in Miami's South Beach
“Poetry is the beginning point of all we do,” says Jonathan Plutzik. An odd comment for the owner of a hotel in Miami’s South Beach, we think. But then again, even though this is only our first morning at the Betsy –we checked in rather late the night before -- already we sense this is not your typical Ocean Drive property. For one thing, the building’s facade has none of the curves and colors of the Art Deco style so prevalent in hotels facing the oceanfront. Rather it looks like an antebellum mansion of creamy white stone with a pillared arcade across the front and the name “The Betsy Ross” emblazoned just below the roofline. Step into the wide, open lobby and the impression of a southern plantation is enhanced by rays of sunlight slipping through the slats of venetian blinds, low-hanging ceiling fans turning slowly, and huge potted palms positioned beside conversation areas across a gleaming terrazzo floor.
A tall man with a genial air and warm smile greets us as we approach the restaurant entrance and invites us to join him for breakfast. It is Jonathan Plutzik who, together with his wife, Lesley, bought the Betsy in 2006, closed it the following year, and in March 2009 opened a totally new product which has become not only one of the hottest hotels on the Beach but a concept property that lends it a remarkable identity.
Over fresh Florida orange juice, scrambled eggs, coffee, and the Betsy’s original and inimitable “popovers” (which we subsequently requested accompany our every meal), Jonathan tells us its story which begins far from Miami in the cold regions of upstate New York.
“At the time of our father, Hyam Plutzik’s death in 1962, the University of Rochester, with the support of the then CEO of Xerox, Joseph Wilson, created a poetry reading series in his name,” Jonathan begins. “My father, a professor of poetry and rhetoric and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry just before his death, was deeply devoted to the public reading of poetry. The Plutzik Reading Series, now in its 52nd year, has welcomed many Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award recipients and Nobel Laureates to share their work with the Rochester community. Our father’s work and the impact of this series had a profound impact on my sisters, brother and I growing up.
“Then when I bought the Betsy, my sister, Deborah Briggs, and I talked about establishing a Series here. We could see it as a serious place for writing. During the years of renovation, we worked on developing the concept, and by the time the hotel opened, the Poetry Series was part of the Betsy experience.”
He describes the routine: “We invite poets. Most come alone, stay for approximately five days. We have them sign a contract with a single obligation: a public event which could be teaching a master class in a high school, or conducting a salon, or being part of a reading. We want them to touch the community. and they all become willing partners in that outreach.
“We added a dedicated writer’s room (betsywritersroom.com) to the hotel for them; it was the last room to be finished. We had the walls lined with cork – it’s silencing, and also it provides a space where work can be put up during the creation process. They bring their own technology – often a laptop, although some will bring an old typewriter.”
Jonathan smiles and leans back in his chair: “We may be a long way from the Algonquin, but we are doing this.”
What this brother and sister combo are doing, we will soon discover, is lending the hotel a singular identity. Their motto is the Matisse quote: “Creativity takes Courage.”
At the Betsy, there is no shortage of creativity. One sees it throughout the ground-floor area where portions of the lobby, bar, restaurant, and various adjacent spaces are often turned into salons for lectures, panel discussions, cultural events, showings and performances. It is also visible in guest accommodations which are luxurious and, at the same time, married to such practical features as open shelves, a walk-in closet, a safe located at a comfortable standing height, and a shower designed to be turned on and adjusted to the right temperature before one gets wet.
“The cultural aspect of the Betsy is wrapped into our mission which revolves around PACE, our program of Philanthropy, Arts, Culture, and Education,” Managing Director Jeff Lehman tells us over Mojitos (the rum-based drink everyone on South Beach seems to crave). It is late afternoon, and we are stretched out on chaise lounges on the sundeck/solarium atop the hotel, looking out to a splendid view of the rooftops of Miami Beach in one direction, and to the opposite side of Ocean Drive where people are heading back from a beautiful day at the beach (for the fortunate Betsy guests, there is no schlepping of umbrellas and chairs -- they are part of the resort package) on the other while indulging in the unexpected treat of spending time with Jeff, an old friend whom we remember so well from previous Miami Beach stays.
“I actually walked into the Betsy once, in 1994,” the still youthful hotel exec confesses. “At the time, I thought it was just another dump of a hotel. There were a lot of them back then, and as a hotel guy, I enjoyed seeing old dumpy hotels and looking right through the grime and neglect to imagine what they once had been.
“But years later, after Jonathan and Deborah had bought the place, I came back. Now I was looking at what was right, not wrong. And I was very impressed. It was the first time in years that I was challenged.
He goes on: “From the start, I had a great staff to work with, an incredible staff, all of them aiming to provide a great guest experience. Customer Relations Management is a basic thing for me. I want guests to feel this is the only place they can go to. If there’s something wrong, I want to hear about it. You can’t think you got it right because in this business, it changes. We’re not in this for a season; we’re in it for years.
“Here at the Betsy, we have 61 rooms and a restaurant, and close to 200 employees. When you find a ratio like that it’s generally because the hotel has a giant catering situation. Our catering, on the other hand, takes place in small places. The restaurant is the focus.”
Jeff is speaking of BLT Steak. Founded by Chef Laurent Tourondel, ‘BLT’, with a flagship property on East 57th Street in New York and restaurants across the country, has come to define the modern American steakhouse. At the Betsy, however, there is something more: the celebrity chef was so smitten by the Miami Beach locale, he added a raw bar with a sushi/sashimi component to his operation, making oysters, clams, tuna tartar, even red snapper ceviche fresh from the Atlantic part of the menu.
BLT offerings are also available at the Lobby Bar, along with creative mixed drinks and a great range of wines by the glass to be enjoyed while music from a Steinway grand maintains the mood.
“Back when I started at the Palms Hotel years ago, there was one branded hotel on the Beach, and that was the Fontainebleau which was a Hilton Hotel,” Jeff says. “They’re all here now. The brands coming in and the global marketing that came with it were a major factor in the growth and development of Miami Beach. The Betsy is not a national brand but it’s a brand. What we do, what we are is unique. People try to emulate it, but nobody does it the way we do.
“PACE is what drives us,” he adds. “It’s not frivolous, not superficial, not staged. It all comes from an authentic inner place which is one of the things the Betsy environment teaches you -- that, and a commitment to the arts.”
It was an apt moment for a conversation about the arts. “Art Basel,” the premier international showing of Modern and contemporary art in the world, had just ended its annual run in Miami Beach a few days before, and evidence of the Betsy’s involvement could be seen in the paintings, prints, and lithographs on display – some part of the hotel’s permanent collection, others available for sale -- throughout the hotel. On the second-floor, an exhibit of rarely-seen photographs of the Beatles and Rolling Stones from the Bob Bonis Archive were so mesmerizing we lost track of time every time we walked from our corner suite to the elevator and back again.
Jeff had remarked how Miami Beach still has the glitter it had in the 1940s and 50s, all the components of an ultimate destination. “It has history; it has glamour, it has a sensibility,” he said. We experienced as much throughout but nowhere more meaningfully than in the B-Bar, one level down from the Lobby Bar. An intimate nightclub setting (somehow it brought back the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” from the 1950’s musical “Pajama Game” to one of us), with table set-ups and banquettes of purple and royal blue suede lining the walls, the B-Bar is a popular site for salon events and private parties. But to us, it will always be remembered as the place where we witnessed our first Poetry Series event.
This was the night Hyam Plutzik’s “Horatio,” a dramatic monologue in verse covering the fifty years following Hamlet’s death, was performed by actor, director and writer Nigel Maister playing Hamlet’s eponymous friend – as well as some secondary characters – in an attempt to fulfill his promise to “tell an unknowing world” of the events that befell the prince of Denmark.
It left us breathless. More than for the thrilling performance, we were stunned by the very conception of such a play, by the confidence demanded of an attempt to create a narrative that picks up where Shakespeare left off and then leaps from the printed page into the realm of orality where poetry truly lives.
Only later, upon reflection, did we come to understand the act of taking hold of this work and then seeing and listening to it being performed in a Miami Beach hotel is part of what the Betsy is about. “In our home, nothing was more important than music and the arts,” Deborah had told us. Clearly the lesson is still being realized in one of the many examples that enlarge the Betsy experience. During our short stay, we became aware of how this resort is cultural center as much as hotel, how this brother and sister pair have reached out to the larger community to include people of considerable talent (among them the renowned photographer Robert Zuckerman) to bring and participate in stimulating and edifying programs.
But perhaps what stays with us more than all else is how, at its heart, the entire PACE program is a tribute to a gifted father who died too young but lives on through his and his children’s work.
To quote Hyam Plutzik: “Expect no more. This is happiness.”
Photographs by The Betsy Hotel
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights reserved worldwide.