Authors: John Glatt
Whenever Frank Sinatra played the Fontainebleau’s La Ronde Room, there was big money to be made.
There would be long lines of fans in the lobby, desperate for tickets, and the only way to see the show was to discreetly tip the headwaiter $100.
“He’d make five thousand dollars a night when Sinatra was here,” said hotel bellman Floyd “Mac” Swain, “and he had to split the cash with security and Novack.”
Frank Sinatra was the engine driving the Fontainebleau, and whenever he was in residence, the money flowed.
After the show, the action moved upstairs to the Sinatra penthouse suite, where anything could happen.
The singer would party with his Mafia cronies Joe Fischetti and Sam Giancana, calling room service to send up the most beautiful girls from the Poodle Lounge, along with buckets of the best champagne.
“God, did they spend money,” Ben Jr.
later recalled admiringly.
The wild nights often finished with a drunken Frank Sinatra and his Mob pals in hysterics, throwing cherry bombs off the seventeenth-floor balcony.
* * *
Soon after JFK’s inauguration, two writers who were working with Frank Sinatra on a film script arrived at his penthouse to discover him locked in the bedroom.
Just before their arrival, the star had raised the silver salver that Room Service had delivered to his room to find a fully skinned lamb’s head.
A shaken Sinatra viewed it as a warning from the Mob to use his influence to have President Kennedy tell his brother Robert, then attorney general, to stop waging war against organized crime.
The scene would later be immortalized by Francis Ford Coppola in
* * *
In the summer of 1961, Ben and Bernice Novack vacationed in France, dropping Benji off in New York to spend a couple of days with his aunt Maxine and cousins Meredith and Lisa, before going off to summer camp.
“Bernice asked me to take him,” said Maxine.
“Buy him some shoes and see him off to camp.”
During the boy’s brief stay, Maxine was shocked to see how socially inept and maladjusted the five-year-old appeared to be.
Talking to her nephew, she was alarmed at how little he knew of the real world outside the Fontainebleau, and how lonely he was.
“He really was the little Prince of the Fontainebleau,” said his aunt.
“When he wanted his parents, he couldn’t just go down and call for them.
They were with presidents, diplomats, Sinatra, and the rest.
This kid was stuck in a penthouse.
He would make a few friends on the holidays, and then they would leave the hotel and he was alone again.”
Despite his cousins’ attempts to befriend him, Benji preferred to stay in his room and play alone.
On his first night there, the little boy ventured out to the kitchen, helping himself to ice cream and anything else in the freezer that took his fancy.
He then left numerous open food containers littering the counter, as if expecting Room Service to clear up after him.
“He had everything open on the counter,” Maxine remembered, “and my husband, David, and I had to tell him that we have to go to the store, pick out the food, buy the food, bring it home, and put it in the refrigerator.
We don’t just call down and say, ‘Bring it up.’
We told him that oranges don’t come squeezed.
I said, ‘Benji, we’re not a hotel.
So if you want the ice cream, let me know, but don’t open them all.’”
The next day, Maxine’s husband David took Benji out on his boat, which was moored in a slip.
He first warned him not to play on the slippery hull, in case he fell over the side.
“It was filthy water,” Maxine recalled.
“Everybody relieves themselves there before they go out sailing.”
Benji would never take orders from anybody, and before long he was up on the hull.
Then he slipped, falling headfirst into the polluted water.
“David had to jump in and pull him out,” Maxine said.
“Benji was a mess.
He smelled to high heaven.
We had to take him home, and David put him in the shower and shampooed his hair.
David told him, ‘When you’re told no, it means no.’
And something about that made them close.
He bonded with my husband in a way he never did with his father.”
was shaken up.
Later that night his aunt came into his bedroom to read him a story.
“I put him on my lap,” she said, “and he kept snuggling and went to sleep.
He’d never had that kind of affection before, and he was a changed kid.
We had that kid straightened out.”
The next morning, they dropped him off at the summer camp, where Maxine introduced him to another boy.
“I found a little friend for him,” she said.
“I said, ‘You can be friends and if you get along, you can add people.’”
One week later, Benji called his parents saying he hated the camp and wanted to come home.
“He couldn’t get along with the other kids … he was arrogant,” said his aunt.
“So his father came up in a helicopter and picked him up.
Oh, that’ll win you friends.
One week and you pick the kid up in a helicopter.”
* * *
After the Fontainebleau put Miami Beach on the map, it spawned a string of new upscale, Art Deco–style hotels all over town.
There was the Americana, Deauville, Doral, and Carillion, each trying to outdo the others in glamour and luxury.
In August 1961, Ben Novack upped the stakes by announcing that after Thanksgiving he was closing his hotel to the general public, to reopen it as a private club and health spa.
“I’ve always wanted to give a little more to my guests,” he told the
, “to improve facilities.
Not only will this help the hotel but it will help the general Miami Beach area.”
Bernice would later complain that the Fontainebleau had become part of the Miami Beach sightseeing tour, attracting busloads of gaping tourists who weren’t even staying there.
“Guests from other hotels would bring their lunch in brown paper bags,” she told
magazine, “and eat it in the lobby.
They’d steal ashtrays, stationery, anything that wasn’t nailed down.”
Bernice hoped that making the Fountainbleau private would stem the flood of unpaying guests, but Ben Novack had an ulterior motive: Under new IRS rules, if a businessman was sent to a health spa by a physician for medical reasons, he could write it off as a business expense, and his wife could go along as a medical necessity.
By privatizing, Novack hoped to lure business travelers to his resort, in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
But soon after Novack took the Fontainebleau private, there was such an outcry that he was forced to allow the public back inside again.
“It was a bad move,” said
The Miami Herald
of the privatizing, “almost carny.”
* * *
That fall, Benji Novack Jr.
started classes at the Miami Country Day School.
Every morning he would be chauffeured to the private preparatory school in North Miami, and then driven back at night.
He was a very bright boy and a good student, but he would make few friends during his seven years there.
THE PRINCE OF THE FONTAINEBLEAU
On January 19, 1963, Ben and Bernice Novack threw a lavish seventh birthday party for their son.
As Benji had no friends his own age, a few children staying at the Fontainebleau were rounded up to join in the festivities.
During the party, the hotel’s publicity man organized a photograph of Benji on a horse, alongside his smiling parents.
Ben Novack Sr.
looked unusually casual and relaxed in a slightly unbuttoned shirt, his jacket bursting with his expanding waistline.
Bernice looked radiant in a white scarf and a plain white dress, and the birthday boy wore a wide grin as he sat in the saddle, the center of attention.
To celebrate her son’s birthday, Bernice Novack commissioned a portrait of him on the beach by the Fontainebleau.
The oil painting would become one of her most treasured possessions, prominently displayed wherever she lived.
That summer, a movie crew took over the Fontainebleau swimming pool to film the waterskiing scene for the new James Bond film,
The hotel’s distinctive exterior was also prominently featured in the tracking aerial shot over Miami Beach during the movie’s opening credits.
Benji Novack eagerly watched the filming from the edge of the set, and was later introduced to Sean Connery.
“He knew all these stars,” said his future wife Jill Campion, “from the time he was a little kid.
He just ran around that hotel and was like the golden boy.
Couldn’t do anything wrong.”
Beneath all the glamour and luxury, however, Ben Novack Jr.
was a very lonely little boy, extremely self-conscious about his debilitating stutter.
It was especially hard for him at school, where he was mocked by the other children.
“I know that the stuttering frustrated him,” said now-retired Miami Beach police officer Joe Matthews, who moonlighted as a Fontainebleau security guard and befriended young Benji.
“He would body-talk.”
Even at Halloween, Benji was on his own, being sent off trick-or-treating around Miami Beach in his father’s chauffeured limousine.
“That was terrible,” said his aunt Maxine.
“He was a little king, but this poor kid didn’t get any love.”
* * *
Although the Novacks may have presented the image of the perfect American family in publicity photographs, they were anything but.
Ben Novack Sr.
was always on the lookout for beautiful young girls, and there was no shortage of available ones at the Poodle Lounge for his pleasure.
“Girls were there everywhere,” said Dixie Evans, a retired burlesque dancer who worked the hotel switchboard.
“For men with the money, there were plenty of girls around.”
During his marriage to Bernice, Novack had numerous brief affairs.
Over the years, he and his wife grew apart, eventually leading separate lives.
“Ben cheated on Bernice,” said Estelle Fernandez.
“I mean, she was aware of it, but she put up with it.
He still showed her respect, let’s put it that way.”
Eventually, Ben Novack moved into his own bedroom in the penthouse, and Bernice asserted her sexual independence by seducing a string of handsome Latin bandleaders who played the hotel.
Miami Beach was in the middle of a Latin boom during the 1960s, and the mistress of the Fontainebleau became a fixture at the weekly “Mambo Nights” at the Fontainebleau’s popular Boom Boom Room.
In 1960, Cuban bandleader Paquito Hechavarria had joined the Boom Boom Room’s seven-piece house band, and over the next few years he often accompanied Fontainebleau regulars Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
Hechavarria recalled in 2001, “Can you believe that you had to wait in line to get into the [Boom Boom] room on a Tuesday.
The Beach was full of dance teachers, teaching the Americanos how to dance cha-cha, mambo, tango, and the beginnings of bossa nova.”
Hechavarria told the
Miami New Times
that he was just one of several Latin band leaders seduced by the beautiful Bernice Novack.
“Let me tell you,” he recalled, “she was a beautiful woman.
She was hard to say no to.”
Bernice also had a fling with the handsome Cuban bandleader Pupi Campo.
When Ben Novack found out, he had the musician savagely beaten up and thrown out of the hotel.
“Pupi Campo,” Fontainebleau manager Lenore Toby said, sighing.
“That’s the one that created the big scandal.
That’s when they split.”
When Novack accused Bernice of cheating on him, a huge argument ensued.
She then threw him out of their suite, saying she was getting an attorney and wanted a divorce.
It was soon the talk of the hotel, as staff wondered what would happen next.
“I do remember the scandal,” said Dixie Evans.
“Obviously something happened, because why would the rumor go round that Mr.
Novack had [Campo] beaten up?
Why would he just go out and beat up the head musician?
The show was great.
Everybody liked him.”
On Friday, August 14, 1964,
columnist Herb Rau ran a cryptic blind item in his widely read “Miami Confidential” column: “Rumors are flying that a prominent Miami Beach hotelier and his wife are on the verge of extremism in the pursuit of individual liberty.”
A month later, on September 7, Rau led off with another blind item: “It’s a serious matter between a Miami Beach hotel owner and his wife,” his column began.
“She’s been talking to her attorneys, and she’s bantering around a figure in the millions as a divorce settlement.”
On Tuesday, October 6, Bernice Novack sued Ben in circuit court, charging him with cruelty.
She also asked for custody of their eight-year-old son, Ben Jr.
The suit stated that besides being “a good wife,” she had always offered her husband “industry and services” to help him run the Fontainebleau hotel.
She also asked the judge to award her temporary alimony until the divorce could be heard in court, and that Ben Sr.
pay all her court costs.
That morning, the
carried the story with the headline “Novack Sued for Divorce.”
The following day, Herb Rau gloated in his column that Ben and Bernice Novack had “made the headlines” bearing out his previous two items.
After filing for divorce, Bernice moved out of the Fontainebleau, leaving Benji with his father.
Then father and son moved out of the Governor’s Suite and into a two-bedroom suite in another part of the hotel.
During the Novacks’ acrimonious split, Dixie Evans, who by then was the chief night switchboard operator, fielded many dramatic telephone calls between them.
“We used to listen in and pull our key back,” she recalled.
“No, we didn’t really eavesdrop … but as an employee you do kind of follow the trend.
And when a phone call comes in, you know who to plug up and ring.”
Maxine Fiel said that soon after they split Ben Novack desperately tried to win her sister back.
“When she broke off with him, he would send cases of liquor … the best steaks.”
Eventually, Bernice gave in, and in July 1965, just days before circuit judge E.
Schultz was due to make his final ruling, she dropped the divorce suit and moved back into the Fontainebleau.
But the couple appeared less than optimistic that things would work out, stipulating that if the divorce suit were revived within two years, Bernice would receive alimony of $17,500 a year ($120,600 in today’s money), and $7,500 ($51,600) in child support for Ben Jr.
Soon afterward, Bernice embarked on a passionate affair with Latin drummer George Rodriguez, whom she had met at the Boom Boom Room.
“He played drums at the Fontainebleau,” said Estelle Fernandez.
“She went with him when she was having a hard time with Ben.”
Once again Novack discovered Bernice’s cheating, but this time he took the initiative and sued for divorce.
“George was her lover,” said Guy Costaldo, whose partner was Bernice’s hairdresser, Emmanuel Buccola.
“And Ben had her followed, because he was terribly in love with her.
They had helicopters following her.
My lover Manny said, ‘It was a very exciting time—running this way, that, and the other.’”
Bernice later claimed that even while her husband was having her followed, he was seeing another woman.
“She was a bitch,” Bernice said many years later, “She used to come to the hotel while the divorce was going on.
She really pursued him, and I guess he fell in love with her.”
On Saturday, January 15, 1966—four days before Ben Jr.’s tenth birthday—Ben Novack filed for divorce, accusing Bernice of infidelity and of being a bad mother.
In the bitter suit, Novack charged Bernice with taking valuables and “letters of deep sentimental value” from his safety deposit box.
He also accused her of being “cold and indifferent,” and cheating on him with another man to cause him “mental anguish.”
He demanded the court give him custody of Ben Jr., claiming that Bernice had neglected the boy by failing to provide a religious education.
Three days later, the
reported the story, with the headline, “Ben Novack, Wife Back in Court.”
“Ben Novack, Fontainebleau Hotel operator, and his wife, Bernice, are back in divorce court,” the article stated.
Novack sought a divorce from him in 1964, but they kissed and made up.”
In her countersuit, Bernice Novack claimed that Ben had told her that he was bored with their marriage, that he drank excessively and cursed at her.
Years later, Bernice would tell author Steven Gaines that she had been unhappy for many years, and no longer wanted to live at the Fontainebleau.
“He would never buy me a house,” she complained.
“He was fooling around.
He was attractive and rich, and women were after him.
After all, he owned the world-famous Fontainebleau.”
Soon after the suit was filed, Bernice Novack moved into a separate penthouse suite at the Fontainebleau, amid Ben’s accusations that she had stolen valuable hotel furniture, art exhibits, liquor, and perfume.
The hotel corporation then sued Bernice in circuit court, demanding she return the hundreds of items that had disappeared from not only the luxury penthouse she’d shared with her husband, but also from the hotel.