That South Beach memoir, revisited

Last month, on hearing the news of Gwen Cooper’s forthcoming Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves: The Memoirs of a South Beach Party Girl, I slapped up a disdainful little post: “Miami awaits seminal South Beach novel, gets star-fucker memoir.”

A few weeks later, Cooper emailed me. She was about as thrilled by the post as I was at the prospect of her book, but she passed along the text of her prologue, saying:

I realize that, in so doing, I am inviting possible additional scorn, well-founded scorn at that, based as it would be upon an actual sample of my writing. But I feel that I would much rather earn your scorn on my own merits than be dismissed as the latest in a long line of those who woke up one day, firm in the conviction that what the literary world was really missing was another poorly-written paean to her own thwarted sense of entitlement.


I’ve read the pages she sent a couple of times, now, and I have to concede that my characterization was probably unfair. (I say “probably” because I’ve read a small, introductory fraction of a much longer story, and the book could yet devolve into star-fucking.)

Unlike many 90’s SoBe scenesters, Cooper grew up in Miami. Her prologue nimbly evokes the city of her childhood and the dizzying speed of the South Beach revival — she’s about my age, and the first burst of gentrification happened while both of us were away at school — and the strange mix of people who gravitated there to party. That club scene never appealed to me. I preferred the desolate, seedy version of the place, and had in any event become used to a very laid-back Gainesville existence. The decadence and vapidity of the new South Beach, the glossy model wannabes preening in lines behind ropes, turned my stomach.

But there are few published stories about my hometown, and I’m hungry for other people’s memories of it. So despite an occasional, unfortunate tendency toward mass-market chattiness, and the danger that the superficiality of 90’s South Beach will be glamorized as much as it is excoriated, I’ll pick up Cooper’s book when it appears. As a fellow former Miamian, I can’t help being curious about the story of an articulate girl who embraced the things Miami Vice tried to convince us we wanted.

My own best memories of South Beach date from the late 80’s and very early 90’s, when all the Deco hotels lay in disrepair and the area had a reputation for danger. You could walk up and down the beach at night with a full bottle of vodka, pouring liberally into cartons of OJ, and never see a cop. (Not like Key Biscayne’s Hobie Beach, where three police cars with flashing lights always managed to materialize at the precise instant that somebody finally showed up with a keg.) Sometimes you’d have to fend off hawkers — one summer night, some drugged-out dude happened upon me and a paramour in mid-, er, amour and tried to sell us a filthy blanket — but mostly people kept to themselves.

In the summer of 1990, Lili and I used to cruise by her married lover’s apartment four, five, maybe twenty times a weekend, the sunroof of her old CRX propped open, the wildest songs from Sinead O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra blaring so he’d guess it was us.


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