Hotelier Saul Tamen, who brought kitchens to South Beach hotels, dies at 105

07/31/2014 6:08 PM

07/31/2014 8:21 PM

Saul Tamen was a brilliant hotelier.

Sure, Miami Beach had the ocean. Flamingo Park. Top-name entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason who performed in the city regularly in the 1950s and ’60s.

But Tamen, a resident of Miami Beach who died Wednesday at age 105, knew that to coax people like snowbirds to stay here longer, he had to help them fend for themselves — specifically, to be able to cook their own meals in their hotel rooms. Dining out every day at fancy spots like The Forge on 41st Street or the former Wolfie’s diner on Lincoln Road was expensive.

So, after World War II, when the military pulled out of the small hotels where soldiers had stayed while training, Tamen, his wife Lily, whom he married in an outdoor ceremony on the Beach in 1940, and her sister Rose pooled their resources and bought the Beach Park Hotel, a 90-room establishment at Ocean Drive and Sixth Street.

“My Aunt Rose was charismatic and loved everybody, and everybody loved her,” said the Tamens’ son Frank. “She was a good business partner with my dad. He kept the place running, and was always looking to make things better.”

PULLMANETTES

“Among his achievements was being the first in Miami Beach to provide a kitchen area in his hotel rooms,” Frank Tamen said. “He called it a Pullmanette, after the Pullman trains. That innovation transformed the small hotels in Miami Beach into seasonal units.”

As Frank Tamen’s wife, Joan, explained, “He used to rent the small room by the week. My father-in-law had the idea that if you had a small kitchen facility in it, people could stay longer. So he started with tiny hot plates and made a small kitchen in the units so people could prepare their own meals. Now people were staying three weeks, four weeks, a season.”

REAL LIFE ‘FIDDLER’

Fiddler on the Roof could also tell Tamen’s story. The famous Sholem Aleichem tale, which turned into an enduring Broadway production and 1971 film, was his favorite movie. He watched it endlessly.

“Remember watching Fiddler on the Roof?” he would ask his children Harriet and Frank, and grandchildren David and Jonathan, who survive him. “That’s how we lived.”

Born Saul Tugentman in 1909, the youngest of 13 children of a religious family in a Jewish shtetl in Skierniewice, in what is now Poland, Tamen endured the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, which had prompted several of his older siblings to emigrate to the United States at the turn of the century. But World War I delayed his parents, and the four youngest children, including Tamen, from leaving.

In 1919, Tamen, his parents and sisters finally moved to New York, and the family, save one sibling who stayed behind and died later in the Holocaust, were reunited. “I remember the ship coming into New York. I was so excited to be in America,” Tamen had said.

Within months, he spoke English with no accent, and graduated from Pace University in New York with a degree in accounting in 1929 — the same year Wall Street crashed.

“Nobody had any money to count, so my brothers and I decided to buy a foreclosed farm with cows and bungalows in the Catskills and try to make a business,” Tamen told his family years later.

The farming venture lasted through one New York winter. “It was so cold that my mustache had ice in it in the morning. We sold the cows and we discovered Miami Beach,” he said.

LEGACY

Tamen and his brother David started off by managing a small hotel that catered to lower- and middle-class retired Jewish New Yorkers who similarly fled the cold for sunny South Beach. They called these visitors the “ Yiddeshe Mamas.”

Soon, he would call one of them his wife. Tamen met and married a math teacher named Lily Balglau, a daughter of immigrants from Hungary and Latvia.

Tamen served as a staff sergeant in the Army during World War II. At war’s end, he’d have his hotel, his kitchenettes and a legacy.

By 1978, with South Beach in decline, Tamen sold the hotel and retired to travel with his wife. She died in 1984.

Tamen split his time between mid-Beach in the winter and spring and summers in the Catskills. Even into his 100s he refused to use a wheelchair at the bustling airport. “Walking was good exercise,” he insisted.

Son Frank, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, said his dad attributed his longevity to daily walks, good genes and a stringent diet — “and he liked a shot of Scotch in his whiskey sour.”

Tamen became a grandfather late in life, at 95, and taught the boys his beloved chess. “He was a true patriarch of the family,” Joan Tamen said. “Whenever they pick up a chess piece, they will think of their grandfather.”

A service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Mount Nebo/Miami Memorial Gardens, 5505 NW Third St., Miami.

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