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'Hotel Scarface': drugs, disco, and debauchery

HotelScarface_SundialBookClub.jpeg

One of Miami’s most iconic hotels today was once party central for the cocaine cowboys.

in the 1980s The Mutiny Hotel became the central base for the cocaine industry. That hotel is the main character in Roben Farzad’s book, ‘Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami,’ which is also this month’s Sundial Book Club pick.

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The filmmakers of the movie ‘Scarface’ reportedly wanted to film parts of the movie at that hotel but weren’t allowed.

“[The Mutiny Hotel] was an intensely private club. The owner didn't want anyone coming in there and caricaturing Cuban American gangsters. So if you go and look at the history of Scarface, they actually filmed the most of it in Southern California, and they saved the most violent part for Ocean Drive," said Farzad.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with him about the book. For Farzad, who has his own stories of growing up in Miami during that wild time, writing this book was a feat.

You can join the book club here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: You grew up in Miami during this time. What was it like?

FARZAD: I always remember at recess, at playground time, there was this acrid smell of smoke in the air. And it was during our period of kind of 1980 trauma and the race riots and everything going on with the McDuffie riots. And concurrent with that, the Mariel [boatlift] refugee influx. When I look back, it's kind of why I wanted to go back and reopen and revisit the early 80s Miami, why it was so important for me to do it as an adult.

I idolized my cousin Holly growing up, and she lived in Keystone Point in North Miami on Biscayne Bay. Once we were fishing together in the mid-80s, like peak Miami Vice moment and we saw this white bag stuffed float up. And I'm just thinking, oh man, I'm going to win an award for my principal for fighting drugs. I held this thing up against the seawall. I look behind me and there's this camera crew, and one of them says to the other, “the kid says he found cocaine” and he takes the net from me and he brings it up. And it was a pillow from a cruise ship. And that was the world we were living in, you know, “say no to drugs.” But other people, adults will tell you that they saw it, square groupers floating up everywhere in Miami in the 1980s.

Why this hotel?

I learned in my homesickness and in going off and becoming a journalist that this was the place that hosted the sexual revolution, the cocaine wars, the Cold War, the savings and loan crisis, CIA intrigue, Iran-Contra, all of those schemes and parties met and collaborated at this late, great hotel, which really preceded the South Beach social scene. It was really the big thing going on in Miami in the late seventies was this hotel in disco next door to an internationally known recording studio.

The late founder and owner of The Mutiny, Burton Goldberg, had kind of dumb luck in the early seventies of opening [what] was originally called the Sailboat Bay Apartments. He converted this sleepy condo office building into a swingers hotel and a club. And it was just positioned to cater to the fantasies of cosmopolitan, Pan-American men who had a ton of hot cash to blow and that traversed marijuana, money laundering, all of the schemes of the 1970s.

Is it true they wanted to film Scarface at The Mutiny Hotel, but they couldn't do it?

I went back and looked at the screenplay. They accidentally reference The Mutiny Club several times when it was fictionalized in the movie as The Babylon Club. It was an intensely private club. The owner didn't want anyone coming in there and caricaturing Cuban American gangsters.

They actually filmed most of it in Southern California, and they saved the most violent part for Ocean Drive as kind of an eff-you to Miami. So that's why we call it ‘Hotel Scarface.’

You’ve talked about the difficulties of writing this book. Do you feel that this book helped you find closure?

There was this inexorable pull [for me] to go back and reopen early-80s Miami.

One of the more gratifying things is once you win the trust of sources in the book and they actually parenthetically share their traumas with you, that's really what it's all about. As a writer, I didn't care if the book sold. I was so grateful that people let me into their lives and opened up with me and shared the backstories, the trauma, the phone conversations with their mothers when they were in detox, the horrific relationships, the AIDS scares, the serial killers and everything that was there. It was beautiful to me that I was able to share that with people and be discreet about it. I'm not a gotcha journalist. I'm not one of these National Enquirer people that wanted to get it and go and embarrass people. And certainly, many people had a lot to lose by going on the record in this book.

There could be a lot of pressure to depict this place as a whorehouse, as just a house of ill repute. And that's just not what it was. It was a cross-section of the various absurdities and excesses and traumas of Miami's coming of age.