Lunch with Lydia: Meet the cultural maven behind South Beach’s Betsy Hotel

WELCOMING THE ARTS: Deborah Briggs, whose family owns the Betsy Hotel, is the force behind the unique cultural salon environment the hotel in Miami Beach.
WELCOMING THE ARTS: Deborah Briggs, whose family owns the Betsy Hotel, is the force behind the unique cultural salon environment the hotel in Miami Beach. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There’s such rich language floating on the breeze outside the Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive this month. No, it’s not coming from a barely dressed wannabe model, the kind who hawks two-for-one mojitos and spiritless seafood pasta to tourists parading past Art Deco hotels. The Betsy doesn’t play like that.

It’s live poetry that’s coming from its elegant veranda, powerful rhythm and rhyme spilling onto one of Miami Beach’s most jacked-up party streets. It’s National Poetry Month, after all. And through the end of April, the Betsy, South Beach’s improbable Algonquin on the Ocean is presenting its Soap Box Poetry series in conjunction with the annual O, Miami Poetry Festival.

Swing by the Betsy, at 14th Street and Ocean, any weekday at 5 p.m. to hear a little poetry out front, read by local poets. Or RSVP for the free Poetry Paella event on April 28 and feast on the Spanish dish and readings by award-winning poets Gerald Stern, Major Jackson, Ann Marie Macari and Carlos Pintado.

“Miami is an exquisite place with exquisite attributes. But there can be such a focus on external beauty here,” says Deborah Briggs, in charge of all things cultural and philanthropic at the posh Betsy, which is committed to operating both as a luxury boutique hotel (it has a four-star rating from Forbes) and as an artistic salon.

“Before I came to Miami, I spent my life focused on a different type of beauty, the beauty there is in the way the arts bring people together,” she says.

At 3 p.m. this Sunday, a collective of local veterans shares its experiences in a spoken word piece, part of a project by theater artist Teo Castellanos. At 7 p.m., the Betsy presents its annual Holocaust Commemoration event, featuring poetry and music, in conjunction with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. (Events are free but require RSVPs.)

Briggs and her brother, Jonathan Plutzik, who owns the Betsy and reopened it in 2009 as a haven for a different sort of South Beach tourist, both wanted a place that catered to upscale guests, but also to the arts and its power to build community.

“We wanted the Betsy to be a place where people talk about things that matter. It’s not a judgmental statement about everything else that happens on South Beach,” says Briggs, a conservatory-trained singer who had a long career in the social sector before taking on the hospitality world. She also directs her brother’s Plutzik Goldwasser Family Foundation, based in New York.

“But we wanted a place that wasn’t about schmoozing and idle chatter, which doesn’t amount to much in the end.”

One day, you might pass through the lobby and be treated to live jazz by master musicians. Another day, arias by professional opera singers. You could spot a photographer happy to talk about the show he’s hanging in the hotel. Or you could run into a famed novelist, say Amy Tan or Michael Ondaatje, as they’re slipping out of the coveted Writer’s Room to hit the beach across the street.

The gleaming white, 61-room Betsy, originally the Betsy Ross, stands apart from the Art Deco hotels even from the curb — it’s the only example of Florida Georgian architecture on this stretch, complete with a grand four-column portico and shutters on the windows. A big expansion that takes over The Carlton next door is expected to be finished in 2016.

Nothing beats the Betsy’s rooftop deck, with its wide view of Lummus Park and the Atlantic. Another hotel owner might have handed it over to party promoters to throw up velvet ropes and draw hipsters bent on a Kim and Kanye sighting. You’re more likely to see a concert pianist here, a performance artist, a literary star.

The Writer’s Room, featuring soundproof walls and a cozy New York-studio vibe (the only bed pulls out of the sofa), hosts working authors for as long as a week. You don’t get to hunker down for long, but at the least you get a tropical change of pace. In exchange for the room, stocked with soft drinks and espresso, plus a daily stipend for meals, authors agree to do a reading or a talk during their stay. Writing Room guests use the desk that belonged to Deborah and Jonathan’s father, the late poet Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

“The staff knows a writer is in residence and they go out of their way to make sure they’re treated like VIPs,” Briggs says. “We do ask that they do an outreach event. But we try to bring in an audience that will create a network for that writer so that they have something to reach back to in Miami.”

What the Betsy does best is what Briggs herself does best — facilitate contact and connection. After just few years in town, she has emerged as a figure to know on South Florida’s maturing cultural arts scene. The list of local and national organizations she has partnered with to bring events to the Betsy is extensive: Tigertail Productions, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Miami International Piano Festival, Sundance Film Institute, GableStage, Miami Light Project, Florida International University.

In March, the Betsy presented Escribe Aqui (Write Here), an IberoAmerican literary festival Briggs plans to put on annually, done in partnership with the online literary journal SubUrbano Ediciones and Books & Books.

“One of the things we feel most proud of is that we look at diversity as a way of being, not a way of box-checking,” Briggs says. “I am continually looking at who is left out. We’re very glad to be doing more Spanish-language programming. And I’m really interested in the trans movement now, probably because the gay and lesbian space is a little more embraced today. We’re planning on doing a trans arts project in the summer.”

The Betsy received a grant from the Knight Foundation for its writer-in-residence program and sometimes works with groups who bring partial funding for events. But there are plenty of programs the hotel underwrites completely.

How does putting together a chamber music concert, and providing the public free cocktails and eats, help the Betsy’s bottom line?

“The causes we believe help create the kind of marketing we want for the hotel. If you’re staying here, you might come down and get to take in a great jazz performance or a reading by a nationally recognized poet. That’s an unexpected experience you don’t forget about,” Briggs says.

A guest might also encounter a great read while staying at the Betsy. Each room comes equipped with a mini library, put together with the help of Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books. Among the offerings are Apples from Shinar, a book of poetry by Deborah and Jonathan’s father; The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin; A Mad Desire to Dance by Elie Wiesel. There is only one trashy beach read kept in each room, offered with irony: The Betsy by Harold Robbins.

“I can’t tell you how many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey have been left behind, in a lot of different languages,” Briggs says. “We always take it out of the libraries. Not because we’re offended that someone would be reading it, but because our collection was very carefully curated.”