Sin, Strippers, and Sonny Liston

Show Biz, the Mafia, and Exotic Dancers in 1960s South Beach

“I got my nickname ‘Miami Jack’ when I was a teenager” he laughs. “One summer I had a job working at my uncle’s Cuban restaurant in Boca Raton. Everyone one else there was a local white Jewish kid, I was the only Cuban from Miami. My friend Seth who I met working there came up with the nickname and it just stuck with me through the years.”

Miami Beach 1960

“In the beginning of my jai alai days back in the 50s, there was an elegance to the crowds that came to see us. It attracted a certain class of people with money, but over time that changed. There was always gambling on the matches, but early on it was more about the sport. The women were beautiful and the men were sharp. It was a magnificent time.”

Santo Trafficante

“I only met Santo one time. Anthony took me to a party on Trafficante’s yacht — it was a few weeks after I went to work for them. Santo took me aside on his boat and asked me a few questions about myself like where I was from and what my family did. He was a big fan of jai alai and knew about me having been a professional player, so we ended up talking about that most of the night.”

“Zorita was an older dancer who had started in burlesque back in the forties. Her on stage act was performing with two snakes. By the time I met her she already had her own club called Zorita’s Show Bar and was booking all of the top dancers that passed through town. And believe me, they ALL passed through town at some time or another. South Beach had an energy all of its own in those days and for showbiz types and even all of the wannabes it was a must destination — particularly in the winter when things were really hopping. Zorita became like my big sister and we became very close friends. I was her confidante and she was mine. It was a great time for me and I look back on it with a smile. The city then was full of opportunity and I was connected with the right people at the right time.

Not long after I first started spending time at the Show Bar, I got involved one of the top dancers that performed there… Lili St. Cyr. She had her own stage act too, bathing in a tub on stage with soap suds while semi nude. People loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. She was one of the most famous burlesque performers in the country. Very much big time… in magazines, films, and television. She was so different from any other woman I’d been with, I’d known show girls and exotic dancers before but no one like her. Lili was a free spirit and my guess was that she had a man in every town she worked in but I didn’t give a damn, it meant nothing to me. When she was in South Beach she was mine and that’s all that mattered. I found her world to be so intriguing and exciting… dangerous too. I know she’d been arrested several times for breaking public moral laws, she was still fighting a court case to stay out of prison and was always talking on the phone to her lawyer in Chicago. For me that just added to her allure.”

“What people don’t understand now is that in that era the life of a dancer like her was so outlaw, so on the fringe of regular society. Yet compared to what the strippers of subsequent years would soon be doing on stage… dancing totally nude, Lili’s act was so tame. Men I knew fantasized about her, and women I knew admired her for running her own life and career. And on top of it all, she was a star! People would recognize her on the street because of the films she had appeared in and all the publicity from her court cases around the country. Her engagements at Zorita’s always drew the biggest crowds. She believed that what Bettie Page did was pornography, and what she did was art.”

Sonny Liston fights Cassius Clay in the ring at Convention Hall, February 1964

“Yeah I had to work the gambling line for the Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay fight. There was big money on that one, and people even now still assume that Liston was on the take, and that he threw that fight. But here’s the deal… he didn’t, Clay flat out beat him. The New York mob and many of the bigger gamblers wanted Sonny to throw it, so my job for the weeks before the fight was to negotiate all that business between everyone and keep the peace between the different gambling factions. It was tricky and difficult to pacify everyone’s interests, particularly the New York guys.

I never met Cassius Clay, but I got to know Liston a little. He had a rep as a thug but he was actually a sweet guy and fun to be around. He couldn’t read a word, he couldn’t tell what any contract he signed said, but he was street smart and very savvy. He’d done prison time for killing a man I think, at least that’s what the word on the street was back then. The mob had bankrolled his entire career so he knew they’d want him to take a dive in a fight down the road and he did just that a year later in his rematch with Clay. Their Miami fight was legit — he just got blindsided by Clay’s quickness, he’d never fought anyone like him before… no one had. The public was always against Sonny in his fights and he was always the villian. He was always the nasty bad ass guy with the steely eyes, I think he scared them with his intimidating persona. I also think that Sonny didn’t train hard enough for the Miami fight and that caught up with him.

Oh, and The Beatles. Yeah, I saw them at the Deauville the night they came to South Beach for the Ed Sullivan Show. Couldn’t hear much, all the young girls were screaming. Truthfully, I didn’t much care for them. My friend who worked at the hotel talked me into going with him. Not my kind of music back then, I was listening to mambo. And I still do.”

Sonny Liston with fan.

“Rontana came to me one day and said Santo’s extortion racket was expanding into the burlesque clubs, the strip clubs on the Beach. These joints always made good money but they had taken off in the sixties when celebrities began going to them and the clubs started to get written up in some national newspapers. There were headlines like ‘Joey Bishop with His Wife Sylvia at Miami’s Club 23 Enjoying Daquiris’ in Earl Wilson’s gossip column in the New York Post, and instantly there were lines around the block to get into the place.All of the clubs played ball with us except for this one on South Beach so we had to burn it down. After the word got around about that there were no more problems with any of the others. My troubles began when I began to cut Zorita a break on her payments to Santo and I started skimming Santo’s extortion money from the Show Club. I never should of done that, it was a huge huge crazy mistake that I regret making to this day. We were greedy, stupid, and it cost us so much later.

Also about that time, I got in pretty deep with Lili. It started off very casually between us but after a few months it got deep… real deep. Deeper than I’d every been with anyone before or since. Together we explored the highest levels of intimacy between a man and a woman. Lili began flying down from New York to stay with me when she was off the road and not working. Eventually she got a penthouse apartment in South Beach and I moved in with her, it was a nice setup for us. She spent much of that winter with me and we became very serious, even discussing marriage later that year as soon as her divorce came through.”

“It all came down so fast, really in just a couple of hours. For a few days before, I had been sensing something was up with Rontana, but it was only a hunch. He was asking me a few more questions than normal about my money pickups at the various clubs. I have no idea who tipped those guys off about Zorita and I, because I hadn’t told anyone about what we were doing with Santos’ money. We were so fortunate that this connected guy who was Zorita’s friend told her that Rontana was on to her, otherwise we would both have been dead by that midnight. That connected guy didn’t have to do that but it saved our lives. To this day I haven’t connected the dots about exactly who knew what and how it all happened. I gave up long ago on that. I knew that’s how it worked in the business nd I knew that before I got into it. I’d seen what happened to the men that crossed Santo before. I also realized that I was incredibly lucky to walk away from Florida with my life.

Fortunately, Lili was on tour in Cleveland so when Rontana came looking for me at our place, no one was there. She didn’t know anything about what I’d been doing with Zorita anyway — not that it would have mattered to Trafficante, he was ruthless. By the time she came back to South Beach around four months later, Santo had moved on to other things and left her alone thankfully.

When I got to San Juan, I spent the next few months lying low. I was able to get my money out of my Miami bank right away before anyone could trace it or try to freeze it… Trafficante could have done that, he was that powerful a man. Those weeks in San Juan were tense, I was always looking over my shoulder as I knew Trafficante had people working for him that were there and were on the hunt for me. Lili had an engagement at the Gayety Theatre in Montreal early that December and when it ended she flew straight down to meet me in San Juan. She stayed with me a couple of weeks and it lifted my spirits and helped me get my head together. Finally, I felt things were starting to cool down that spring but I knew that I was finished in Miami and could never work there again.”

“I thought about staying in Mexico City and working with Zorita but I really wanted to get back to the States. I got in touch with some folks in Los Angeles who had said a year before they had work for me there if I wanted it. Southern California wasn’t as mobbed up so I took them up on their offer and moved to L.A. in November 1967. This was over a year after I’d fled Miami. My thoughts were that if I stayed away from the hot spots like Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, and New York I could float under the radar. Sure, we’d ripped off Trafficante but really it was small time stuff compared to the other crap he was dealing with. He was fighting mob wars with rival crime families where they were all murdering each other! My situation wasn’t a big money conspiracy or long con where’d I be stealing from him for years. Still, what I’d done was enough to get me killed if he felt like pursuing it. When I first arrived in Los Angeles I stayed away from the places that I knew were dangerous and I didn’t make any kind of social scene where I’d be discovered. I had a couple of close calls at first, but I figured it all out pretty quickly. I had to.”

Lili performing.

I saw Lili a few times in Los Angeles but we couldn’t get our romance going between us like it had been in Miami. She’d gotten involved with a much younger man who I met later a couple of times and didn’t like or trust… I felt he was using her for her money and manipulating her. She and I stayed in contact for a while but then she got into hard drugs. Her slow decline saddened me and was painful to witness. After my first couple of years in Los Angeles I no longer saw or spoke to her. But I’ll never forget her. I still think about her every day.”

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Phil Gammage

Artist, producer, songwriter, excellent Mexican food enthusiast, collector of assorted memorabilia.