Downton Abbey-Era Miami: Flappers, Mansions, and American "Royalty"

Categories: Film and TV

deering estate cottage small.jpg
Part of the Deering Estate, 1916
As Downton Abbey season three mania sweeps across South Florida -- and the nation -- we're all starry-eyed imagining the ins and outs of life at the turn of the century. And with the introduction of Cora's sassy American mother, more of that attention is aimed at our own shores.

Great Britain is one thing, but what was happening in Miami at at that time? Did life for Miami's upper crust bear any resemblance to that of the Crawleys? Would the Dowager Countess have had a heart attack over the scandalous ways of Miamians, even then?

To find out how the two disparate locales measured up against each other, we spoke with iconic Miami historian and author Arva Moore Parks. She talked to us about American royalty versus English, the sprawling mansions of the 1920s, and the Tiffany's Miami home.

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Cultist: Who were the wealthy living in Miami in the 1920s? Were homes lavish and sprawling like Downton Abbey?
Arva Moore Park: Carl Fisher, who developed Miami Beach and who had invented a car headlight and was very, very wealthy, he attracted northern industry types to Miami Beach. Firestone built a home, so did J.C. Penney. They certainly weren't royalty, but you could say that American industrialists in that era would have been considered almost like royalty.

The Grove had a few people too, on Millionaire's Row. On Brickell, Tiffany, the Tiffany, had a house. When you got down into the Grove you had Arthur Curtiss James and he was, I think, the sixth richest man in America and he had a home on Poinsettia Avenue. He owned all the land between Main Highway and Biscayne.

And of course James Deering, he was an international harvester. When his house was built half the town worked on it. He was one of the first. He bought the land in like 1912 and his house was built in 1916 or 1917, so that would have been certainly the leader of the pack. The Matheson family had several houses in the Grove and their money came from chemicals and he was an inventor, kind of like Fisher. A lot had homes in Long Island or in Chicago where the Deerings were from so they built these "winter houses." They were not year-round homes necessarily. And they did hang out with each other, the ones in Miami -- Brickell and Grove people.

James Deering, pictured at Vizcaya.
Did the wealthy generally employ the townspeople, as the Crawleys employ the lower classes?
We did have a group of very wealthy people here. They didn't interact with the hoi polloi. I think the Mathesons were and still are involved in the community, and were more a part of the community than some of the others. That was a very interesting family, one of the richest besides Deering. They would have had servants. They would have had a staff. Vizcaya had a large staff. He had a farm across the street, so he had everybody from general workers to supervisors so that would have probably been the apex.

How did they live?
All the Fontainebleau property was once the Firestone estate and it was like Vizcaya's. Everybody had Firestone tires and everything. For Miami having these very wealthy people come to town was a big deal. Most were these so-called winter visitors who made their money in American industry. It was the robber baron era, there was no income tax until 1916 and even then it was like it was today. These people had more money than they knew what to do with. They traveled to Europe and had yachts.

Obviously these industrialists were employing Americans in their factories elsewhere, but here in Miami, what were the average people doing for work?
When Vizcaya was built almost a third of the people in Miami worked on it. Contractors, artisan plasterers, landscape people. It wouldn't be like a staff, but Deering did have to have a staff of probably like 20. Between gardeners and maids and people running his farm and butlers. He had a huge estate, his gardens were beautiful. He had a huge staff.

Historian Dorothy Fields, her grandfather worked in Deerings' gardens. Thelma Peters, her grandfather worked in Vizcaya. A lot of black people in the Grove were hired by industrialists. There was a very active black community in the Grove, the majority of which came from the Bahamas.

Kirk Monroe was there in the Grove in late 1880s and I know some of the people from the black communities in the Grove worked for him and he brought people over. Everybody in that era of upper middle income would have had some kind of domestic help. Not a staff, but some kind of help, primarily African Americans. If you were on Miami Beach they would not allow black communities there so the people that worked there had to cross the causeway to get there. The Grove supplied a lot of workers for millionaires on the waterfront.

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Murder unresolved?  At this point, the beginning of episode two, in the third season in the series, “Downton Abbey,” there is a serious problem touching on literary justice.  I am referring to Miss. O’Brien’s murder of Lady Cora’s unborn child.  So far, the only price she has paid for this sin has been guilt, almost driving her to make the fatal error of confessing to Cora when she finally learned Cora was not seeking to replace her.

Is this justice?  No.  Of course it isn’t.  So, there must be some fall that is due before the series ends which will bring O’Brien to account.

Since O’Brien became aware of the threat to Lady Mary, posed by John Bates’ wife’s threatened, public revelation of the true circumstances of the death of the Turk visitor in Mary’s bedchamber, and the subsequent shame it would bring to Lady Cora and the House, I believe O’Brien poisoned (or had poisoned) John Bates’ wife in order to prevent the threat from ever materializing.  In O’Brien’s mind, atonement and the relief of guilt for causing the death of Cora’s unborn child would be served.  The discovery of this, and the subsequent prosecution, would at last bring literary justice to bear on O’Brien’s transgressions.

Or, she might remain unscathed... but, somebody, besides the Earl’s valet, Bates, murdered Bates’ wife.  Who better than O’Brien, and who, besides Bates’ second wife, Anna, who it seems would be completely out of character (and plot) as a murderess, had a motive along with the flawed character to carry it out?

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