Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Miami Beach, Mert Wertheimer, gambling and ...

By Jane Feehan

Mert Wertheimer, tagged as “one of the biggest gamblers in the entire nation” during the 1950 U.S. Senate investigation into organized crime, figured large in Miami Beach history.

Wertheimer came to Miami Beach during the 1930s and was  credited with introducing big time entertainment to the vacation city. As owner of the Floridian Hotel and the Royal Palm club – both gambling houses - he brought bandleader and singer Ted Lewis, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny south, paving the way for other celebrities who helped make Miami Beach an entertainment mecca in the 1950s. Wertheimer also opened the old Carl Fisher home at Lincoln Road and the ocean and named it the Beach and Tennis Club where entertainers headlined.

During those early days in the city, Wertheimer, also known as the Beach Baron, must have been quite familiar with the benefits of good public relations. Newspapers noted his community activities.  Wertheimer, along with movie star George Bancroft and entertainer Harry Richman, served on a committee in 1935 to select Miss Miami Beach, Miss Seminole Indian and Most Perfect Baby at the Roman Pools Casino. That same year, he served on a committee to host the Artists’ and Writers’ Annual banquet in Miami. In 1937, he spearheaded a campaign to raise $20,000 for the Ohio Valley flood victims.

Wertheimer brought his gambling expertise in the 1940s to the swanky Colonial Inn in Hallandale,* owned by mobster Meyer Lansky and the feds took notice. In 1950, he became operator of the plush Riverside Hotel Casino in Reno, Nevada, which he and his brother Lou bought for $4 million. According to his 1958 obituary, Wertheimer was one of the first Eastern gamblers to size up the advantages of social acceptance and big profits in Nevada’s legalized gambling set up. “He insisted on state control of gambling.”(Miami News, Jul. 21, 1958).

Testimony during the 1950 federal investigation into organized crime linked Wertheimer to the Chesterfield syndicate, a Michigan-based mob. The same hearings also highlighted Wertheimer’s connection to Meyer Lansky, Vincent (Jimmy Blue Eyes) Alo and Frank Costello of the New York mob. 

The Beach Baron died of leukemia in Los Angeles in July, 1958 at 74. His Miami obituary left out his mob affiliations and sang his praises. Wertheimer’s public relations paid off; his good deeds of the 1930s, , as far as Miamians were concerned, expiated his sins of the 40s and 50s.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan. 
* Not to be confused with the Colonial Inn on Motel Row in Miami.

Miami News, March 5, 1935
Miami News, Jan. 28, 1937
Miami News, Jul. 21, 1958
U.S. Senate Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, 1950

Tags: Organized crime in Miami Beach, gambling in Miami, Meyer Lansky, Miami Beach early entertainers, organized crime Miami, Florida mob history, film industry researcher, Miami Beach history