Meet the late, great Mac Klein

By http://www.peoplewemet.org

I met Mac Klein in February 2015, whilst doing a story on a hundred years of Miami Beach, with art director Rickard Westin and photographer Tim White. While I usually write these stories in the present tense, I’ve written this one mostly in the past tense, as Mac passed away in March 2016, aged 101.

With its lurid neon signs, barely visible through the smoke from the motley locals, Mac’s Club Deuce makes for an unlikely sanctuary. But, when we visited in early 2015, that’s what it was.

We were in Miami to tell a story about the century since Miami Beach had been incorporated as a city, and it had been an inauspicious start. We were staying in a soulless Miami Shores apartment within walking distance of nothing, and there’d been a misunderstanding at the venerable Joe’s Stone Crab, where we’d ended up footing a monstrous bill for six people.

After a weird dinner, our hosts had recommended the Fontainebleau hotel (think lobby prostitutes, Maserati lineups and fiercely overpriced drinks) and a club called E11EVEN that was advertised on Miami taxis, a strip club-cum-nightclub, filled with men in white trousers and booby, dead-eyed women, in a space that looked like a laser tag arena. We’d thought: We’re in Miami, what the Hell? We’d woken up feeling almost as empty as our wallets.

The next day wasn’t much better, with heat, hangovers and beachfront establishments charging us eye-watering sums for plastic-y sandwiches whilst assaulting our eardrums with Latin house music. An uncanny number of our Uber drivers had tales of failed business ventures and dodgy investments in Ponzi schemes (and zero knowledge of Miami Beach’s history). One tour guide, hawking standard Art Deco strolls around South Beach, wanted to charge us by the minute for an interview. We were getting nowhere.

And then we found Mac’s Club Deuce, an oasis of dark, smoky, air-conditioned relief on 14th Street, a few blocks back from South Beach. It was a relief that the drinks were cheap (and two-for-one before 7pm); that they were playing dad rock from the old jukebox, and showing basketball on the TV. It was a relief, curiously, that the locals round the 360-degree bar weren’t much to look at.

The lovely bartender was the first person we’d met who seemed to have real time for us, an irony given that the beers she was serving us were at least five times cheaper than at the Fontainebleau. She told us, around beer number three, that Mac, the owner, had just turned 100, making him a few months older than Miami Beach itself. We’d found a home of sorts, and a story.

Pinning Mac down wasn’t easy. We had to come back a few times, which was no great hardship, and the the first time we’d arranged the interview, he didn’t make it down to the bar. (We ended up being loudly accosted at the bar by a man who was on the third day of a cocaine binge with an older woman he’d just met, despite starting a new job in two days’ time. We’d arrive at a fancy hotel on South Beach two days later to find him at the check-in desk, all faux-politesse and desperate non-recognition, but that’s a different story.)

So when I finally sat down with Mac, in the cluttered office behind the bar, surrounded by boxes of booze, there was a certain amount of anticipation, and a touch of trepidation. He had a Brooklyn accent and a sharp wit, and I felt very aware that I was in his space. He was wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt and a cap that read Sobe (South Beach). He told me he had 20 minutes.

My first question was broadly: How have you lasted so long? Here, of all places? “I gave up cigarettes and liquor 20 years ago,” he told me. “But it’s not that. It’s because I’ve had something to get up and do every day. That’s why no one carries me around.”

He went on to tell me his story. He was born in September, 1914, to Russian parents in Brooklyn, where the family of eight lived in two rooms. He only left to go to war and – like many would-be soldiers – did a portion of his training on the Beach. “People call me crazy when I say this, but it was the war that made this place,” he said. “Until then, people lived and died where they were born. The war made people leave and experience different things – for me, I saw the beauty of Miami Beach.”

The Miami Beach that Klein saw during his training bore little resemblance to today’s post-Versace carnival, but it made an impression on Klein, who would serve in the US Army for five years before being shot three times by the Nazi forces during 1944’s Operation Dragoon, when the Allies invaded southern France.

With wounds in his arm and stomach, the doctors initially doubted Klein would live, and he spent more than a year in various hospitals. When the doctors finally let him out, they advised him that his wounds would heal faster in warm weather. So he wound up in Miami in 1945, alone, with 27 dollars in his pocket. “I got the best education you can get,” he told me. “The one on the street, which is 20 times better than you’ll get in any school.”

Klein was a survivor, and came to own four clubs in South Florida, as South Beach was starting to experience a revival driven by the relatively wealthy Jews who had poured into the area after the war, as well as the half a million Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution after 1959. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Klein would often drink at the Deuce, which had been open since the end of Prohibition in 1926, and was owned by his friend, Harold Schwartz (it was called the Deuce for its number: 222 14th St).

In 1964, after the birth of his daughter, Klein came to the Deuce for a beer, only to be told that Schwartz had died and the bar was closing. So he contacted Schwartz’s wife, who he knew well, and within days it was Mac’s Club Deuce.

Klein got rid of the singer and pianist that Schwartz had hired, and installed a curved 360-degree bar which meant, in his words, “you can see everyone except the person two seats away”.

Otherwise, he didn’t change much about his favourite bar, which he sometimes referred to as ‘the Shangri-La of Miami Beach’. “If you find a beautiful woman, you don’t want to change a hair on her head,” he said. “If you were here 50 years ago and came back now, you’d think you were 50 years younger. That’s how little has changed in here.”

If you were here 50 years ago and came back now, you’d think you were 50 years younger. That’s how little has changed in the bar.

But while Mac’s has stuck to the same formula – cheap, strong drinks, the legendary 11-hour happy hour, a jukebox and friendly staff that Klein says are “like family who never leave” – the clientele has changed with the world outside.

“When we started it was older Jewish people around here,” he said. “Then it was club people, then Cubans, the gay crowd, the Cocaine Cowboys, which was a dangerous time. Now South Beach is like a country within itself. A big turning point for me was Miami Vice in the ’80s – people saw the beauty, the beach and the colour of the buildings, even as they were seeing the grimy back alleys. From then, it’s been up and up.” A number of scenes in Miami Vice were filmed at Mac’s, and the neon signs are remnant from the show’s wrap party in the late 1980s.

The Deuce has had plenty of brushes with celebrity, from Frank Sinatra to Keith Richards, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Diaz. Food critic Anthony Bourdain called it his favourite bar in the world, and Kate Moss was allegedly once turned away for being too drunk.

But, really, it’s the antithesis of a celebrity joint. In June, 1989, a Miami Herald article entitled All Kinds Make a Merry Mix At Mac’s Club Deuce, made up a joke about Mac’s which began: “A poet, an accountant, a cremation urn salesman, a carpenter, a nuclear physicist, a janitor, a yacht captain and a bus driver walk into a bar…” Those people, it turned out, were the real regulars. “I’ve been coming to this toilet for 26 years,” said the urn salesman. “It’s gone from good to bad to good to bad to good again. I was a bartender here in 1980 and we used to kick out more customers than we served.”

“Everyone is treated equally here,” Mac told me. “I always make sure that no one gets priority for being famous or anything like that, and that no one asked for autographs. I always wanted this to be a place where you can just be, whoever you are.”

There was a simplicity to Mac, which perhaps partly explains how he lasted so long. He had four main loves: his wife, Mary, his daughter Zina, his pet dogs, and his bar. “At my age, you just surround yourself with things, and people, that you love,” he said to me. “That’s what matters. A lot of people go home and count their money. I go home and count my blessings.”

A lot of people go home and count their money. I go home and count my blessings.

Mac lived a short walk from the bar, and his love of routine had implications for our story for the Norwegian inflight magazine. We’d planned to make him our cover star, shooting him on the beach in a (possibly crude) homage to the Swedish novel, The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared. There was just one problem: Mac hadn’t been to the beach, 150 metres down the road, for more than 30 years – and he wasn’t about to start now. In fact, he wasn’t prepared to go further than a block from the bar.

Photoshop would come to the rescue. We shot Mac against a wall outside his bar, and Tim the photographer would later shoot Rickard the art director on the beach (by an iconic lifeguard hut) with a suitcase, trying to look like a hunched old man so that the shadows would look accurate. Some Photoshopping later, we had a cover. There’s a touch of irony to the fact that we took a man with an almost pathological aversion to sand, and portrayed him on the beach. Still, it just about worked.

After going back inside for a few shots by the pool table, we bid adieu to Mac and watched him walk slowly back to that cramped little office out the back of his beloved bar, where he worked seven days a week.

He’d told me earlier that “if nations and cities met in bars rather than conference rooms, we’d sort out a hell of a lot of mess in this world” – and I felt in that moment like I could the bar as Mac sees it: not as some insalubrious freak show, but as a place of comfort, and love.

*******

In March 2016, I’d been touched to receive an email from one of Mac’s staff telling me he’d passed away, aged 101. Reading around, I saw that his wife and daughter had promised not to change the bar. “My family will continue to run the bar Mac’s way until the last pour and the Deuce no longer exists,” Zina wrote on Facebook, in response to a tribute from Anthony Bourdain (I’ve always found Bourdain insufferable, but am in total agreement when it comes to Mac’s).

When I returned to the bar, on a work trip in January 2017, that promise had been kept. There was still the same black-and-white tiled floors and dusty push-button cash register. The music was just as dirty, the basketball still playing, the happy hour intact. The regulars were no better-looking.

One of the barmen told me that people had brought copies of the magazine story I’d written into the bar, and that Mac had liked it, even if we’d deceptively transported him to the beach. It somehow meant a lot.

And Mac’s still felt like a sanctuary from the rest of South Beach. Even though the little bar has barely changed for more than half a century, it somehow didn’t feel like a relic. It felt accepting, real, and fundamentally, unfussily decent. A lot like the guy who ran it for so long.

 

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