Miami Book Fair

This decadent hotel helped redefine Miami, but few know what happened inside — until now

Nelson Aguilar (left), a cocaine dealer who was tight with late singer Rick James (right), seen here at The Mutiny in the 1980s.
Nelson Aguilar (left), a cocaine dealer who was tight with late singer Rick James (right), seen here at The Mutiny in the 1980s. Berkley/Penguin

Roben Farzad, author of a new book about the Mutiny Hotel, ground zero of Miami’s drug culture, didn’t have much experience with cocaine despite growing up in the city that was rebuilt on blow.

“The most cocaine touched me was as a North Miami Beach honor student,” said Farzad, host of NPR One’s “Full Disclosure” and a correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.” “I was with my cousin, and we were fishing in the mid ’80s. I saw what I thought was a kilo of coke float up. I immediately remembered seeing on the news: ‘If you see news in the making call 7 News.’ So I got a long net and a gaffe. Holy s---! I’ll be famous. I even imagined Mrs. Boone having a parade for me. I imagined getting a guest starring role on ‘Miami Vice.’ I’m not even 10. But I found the coke. So they pull it up, and it was a pillow from a cruise ship. That, and ‘Miami Vice,’ was the extent of my dalliance with cocaine in Miami.”

Still, the subject of Miami’s drug culture looms large in the Iranian-born writer’s life. Farzad is the author of “Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami” (Berkley/Penguin; $26), which he’ll talk about Nov. 19 at Miami Book Fair at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus.

Hotel Scarface book cover
“Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami” was published in October 2017. Berkley/Penguin

The book relays the history of The Mutiny, once located at Sailboat Bay at 2951 S. Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove. The boarded-up building had intrigued Farzad for years, from the time he graduated from North Miami Beach High in 1994 and continuing for decades after his graduation from Princeton University.

Putting the conflicting accounts of what went on inside The Mutiny into a narrative anyone could follow was the writer’s Rubik’s Cube. But the exercise gave Farzad a familiar title for his book, one that references film director Brian DePalma’s bloody, set-in-Miami remake of “Scarface” released in December 1983, a few years before The Mutiny faded.

“So many people were telling you that ‘Scarface’ was based on them and then you realize there’s something to it,” Farzad said. “You look back, and Miami did not want ‘Scarface’ there. They tried to get Burton [Goldberg, Mutiny’s late founder] to let them shoot scenes there. We know that Brian DePalma was there. But no one wanted that production there after the hell that was experienced with Mariel and the McDuffie riots and the murder rate in 1981, so they went to L.A.”

To guide readers, “Hotel Scarface” features a two-page cast of characters that includes Cuban-born Miami high school dropouts-turned-$2 billion cocaine lords Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, and Nelson Aguilar, a young cocaine dealer who was tight with “Super Freak” singer and frequent Mutiny guest Rick James and members of the Miami Dolphins. Lisa Plotkin
Roben Farzad, author of “Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami.” Lisa Plotkin Berkley/Penguin

What Farzad found about that Bayshore Drive building through his research was a setting in which cocaine cowboys and the feds who were chasing them watched each other with a wary eye over steak and lobster and free-flowing Dom Pérignon. The Mutiny drew ’80s celebs like Philip Michael Thomas of “Miami Vice,” whose $30,000 per episode salary was pocket change compared to the dealers at the next table over.

Hard-partying rock acts like the Eagles checked in while recording “The Long Run” album next door at the now defunct Bayshore Recording Studio. “Waitresses gossiped about which member tipped — and bedded — the best,” Farzad writes.

South American drug dealers “who slid into the banquettes and hid guns in their baskets of dinner rolls,” as Esquire magazine reported in a 2014 feature story, conducted business there. So did politicians like Ted Kennedy, rich kids, hit men, narcos, the CIA, snitches, party girls, local TV anchors and Latin America’s nouveau riche. Upstairs there were themed fantasy suites with names like Gypsy Caravan, Hot Fudge, the Bordello and Outer Space, where marathon orgies were Olympian in execution, according to Farzad’s book.

The Nautical Suite inside The Mutiny. Berkley/Penguin Random House

The music of the Bee Gees, Blondie and Donna Summer at the private Mutiny Club, which boasted 11,000 card-carrying members and reputedly sold more Dom Pérignon than any other venue in America at its peak year in 1979, gave Miami its own feverish version of Studio 54. Bumps of coke marinated many a brain here.

Probing the past of the seemingly impenetrable Mutiny — its late founder Burton Goldberg sold its original incarnation in 1984 for $16.8 million — turned personal.

“Miami and I are going back to take a second look at 1980; it was traumatic for both of us,” Farzad, 41, said. “Maybe that’s the psychological reason why I’m fixated on that area. So many roads led back to this address.”

Mutiny front
Coconut Grove's Mutiny Hotel as it appeared in 1989 after its sale and conversion to condos. Miami Herald File

And not just for Farzad. The city’s skyline changed dramatically after The Mutiny’s 16-year run from 1968 to 1984. The massive infusion of cash the Cocaine Cowboys pumped into the area helped build a new Miami and rivaled the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

The story of the Mutiny also ensnared the attention of two Miami teenagers who were born in 1978, toddlers during The Mutiny’s peak: Rakontur filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, who wrote the forward for “Hotel Scarface.”

More: Read the obituary on Burton Goldberg, The Mutiny’s founder

Corben, who will appear with Farzad at the fair, and Spellman were inspired to make their 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” after reading a Miami New Times cover story on The Mutiny in 1997, Spellman said.

Matchboxes with The Mutiny’s pirate logo. Rakontur Berkley/Penguin Random House

“This hotel was the crossroads, the place where dealers and agents and smugglers and lawyers mixed after hours like the DMZ zone. … ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ came to be our fascination with that era, and Roben’s interest was piqued by that,” said Spellman, Farzad’s school chum at Highland Oaks Middle.

“That’s the other trick. There were no photographs taken — or very few. There are not a lot of home movies because of a lack of contemporaneous reporting, other than [former Miami Herald crime beat reporter] Edna Buchanan’s daily homicide reports in the Herald. There was not a lot of feature-type reporting, synthesis reporting of what was happening in Miami. That made it difficult to report this era out 20 to 30 years later. We relied on indictment and police records, but when you go to smugglers for their side of things there’s memory puffery. It becomes a hall of mirrors at some point. So Roben had to spend years digging into this and verifying accounts and finding family trees — and he did it expertly.”

Spellman believes “Hotel Scarface” will become an important historical document as it tracks a key era in the development of the city and remains relevant as the country continues to debate immigration issues that Miami wrestled with in 1980.

“This book is another chapter in Miami history in the same way ‘The Corpse Had a Familiar Face’ or the collection of Carl Hiaasen columns or Joan Didion’s ‘Miami’ book have a place in our city’s history at a critical time,” Spellman said.

Yet few believed in Farzad’s long-gestating book. He was told the story was too provincial. There were too many characters. He was too flip.

“But I’m glad I did it for my sanity and for my city,” he said. “I’m touched all these people let me into their lives. It would have been easier to fictionalize this. Make it a roman à clef kind of thing. But the story was crazier than anything I could fabricate.”

His wife and two children are supportive. “My 8-year-old is a great reader and keeps trying to pick up the book, but I’ve got to keep it away from him. Every fourth word is an F-word,” Farzad said, laughing. “My wife hopes I never write a book again, and I don’t have to tell her I’m going to the Everglades to meet a doper.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

If you go

What: Miami’s Days of Decadence: ‘Hotel Scarface’ discussion with author Roben Farzad in conversation with filmmaker Billy Corben

When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19

Where: Miami Dade College, Room 8201, Building 8, second floor, 300 NE Second Ave.

Information: 305-237-3258

A Night Inside The Mutiny

Want to party like it’s 1980 inside The Mutiny Club? Here is a playlist that features songs that were in heavy rotation by Mutiny DJs in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Some of the songs are cited in author Roben Farzad’s “Hotel Scarface.”

▪ “Ride Like the Wind,” Christopher Cross.

▪ “Last Dance,” Donna Summer.

▪ “Hot Stuff,” Donna Summer.

▪ “Born to Be Alive,” Patrick Hernandez.

▪ “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” Bonnie Pointer.

▪ “Steppin’ Out,” Joe Jackson.

▪ “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” Barry White.

▪ “Pedro Navaja,” Rubén Blades with Willie Colón.

▪ “Young Turks,” Rod Stewart.

▪ “Rise,” Herb Alpert.

▪ “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer.

▪ “Heart of Glass,” Blondie.

▪ “Le Freak,” Chic.

▪ “Let’s Groove,” Earth, Wind & Fire.

▪ “September,” Earth, Wind & Fire.

▪ “Boogie Wonderland,” Earth, Wind & Fire featuring the Emotions.

▪ “Best of My Love,” The Emotions.

▪ “You Should Be Dancing,” Bee Gees.

▪ “Stayin’ Alive,” Bee Gees.

▪ “How Deep Is Your Love,” Bee Gees.

▪ “Night Fever,” Bee Gees.

▪ “Disco Inferno,” The Trammps.

(Oh, just go ahead and throw the whole “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack on there. Its music was a fixture inside The Mutiny.)

▪ “Life’s Been Good,” Joe Walsh.

▪ “Thunder Island,” Jay Ferguson.

▪ “Makin’ It,” David Naughton.

▪ “What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers.

▪ “Bad Girls,” Donna Summer.

▪ “Native New Yorker,” Odyssey.

▪ “I Love the Nightlife (Disco ‘Round),” Alicia Bridges.

▪ “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” Tavares.

▪ “Those Shoes,” Eagles.

▪ “The Long Run,” Eagles.

▪ “September Morn,” Neil Diamond. Mutiny founder Burton Goldberg “liked to hum ‘September Morn,’ according to staffers,” Farzad said.

▪ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” Rupert Holmes.

▪ “Rock With You,” Michael Jackson.

▪ “Do That to Me One More Time,” Captain & Tennille. “Was played during mic and speaker check. Dopers hated it!” Farzad said. “They despised the Beach Boys. It’s what the DJ would play at 3 a.m. to clear out the upper deck.” The Captain, Daryl Dragon, and his now ex-wife Toni Tennille, played in the Beach Boys in the early-1970s.

▪ “Call Me,” Blondie.

▪ “Shame,” Evelyn “Champagne” King.

▪ “Turn the Beat Around,” Vicki Sue Robinson.

▪ “Brick House,” The Commodores.

▪ “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” A Taste of Honey.

▪ “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor.

▪ “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club.

▪ “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper.

▪ “Miss Me Blind,” Culture Club.

▪ “The Coffee Song,” Osibisa.

▪ “Todo el Mundo con la Lengua Afuera,” Hansel y Raul.

▪ “Fly Robin Fly,” Silver Convention.

▪ “Please Don’t Go,” KC & the Sunshine Band.

▪ “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Queen.

▪ “Ring My Bell,” Anita Ward.

▪ “Boogie Nights,” Heatwave.

▪ “New York Groove,” Ace Frehley.

▪ “Don’t Bring Me Down,” Electric Light Orchestra.

▪ “Dr. Beat,” Miami Sound Machine.

▪ “Chase,” Giorgio Moroder.

▪ “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” Billy Joel.

▪ “I Go Crazy,” Paul Davis.

▪ “Ron y Coca Cola,” Julio Iglesias.

▪ “Lowdown,” Boz Scaggs.

▪ “Baby Come Back,” Player.

▪ “In the Bush,” Musique.

▪ “Every 1s a Winner,” Hot Chocolate.

▪ “Get Down on It,” Kool & the Gang.

▪ “Funkytown,” Lipps Inc.

▪ “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” S.O.S. Band.

▪ “Runaway Love,” Linda Clifford.

▪ “Let the Music Play,” Shannon.

▪ “Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty.

▪ “Night Owl,” Gerry Rafferty.

Gerry Rafferty’s songs, Farzad said, inspired him through the writing and editing process of his book. The late Rafferty reputedly decamped to Coconut Grove to get away from music industry pressures in England and Los Angeles after disbanding Stealers Wheel in the mid-1970s. According to Farzad’s research, the incognito singer played Frisbee at Peacock Park near The Mutiny during this time. “All roads lead back to The Mutiny,” Farzad said.

▪ “How Much I Feel,” Ambrosia.

▪ “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins.

▪ “Too Much Time on My Hands,” Styx.

▪ “I Love a Rainy Night,” Eddie Rabbitt.

▪ “Mutiny,” David Crosby & Graham Nash.

David Crosby and Graham Nash recorded the 1976 tribute song to the hotel, but when a disheveled, drug-using Crosby turned up at the door years later, he was turned away by owner Burton Goldberg. “They were worried a hobo was trying to get into the front,” Farzad said. Goldberg “had exacting standards.”