WET: Swimming the Pools of Miami

Back in Miami after floods up north. Have pool to self all morning. Reflections like pulled threads–depending on wind or angle of sun–webbing and filigree, torn or laddered silk, a grid of dancing ectoplasm when my hand breaks the surface. I took my time and swam a dozen smaller pools, building stamina, before crossing to Coral Gables.  There’s nothing graceful about my stroke so don’t get any ideas. Although I used to swim competitively (when I was 12,) I now thrash and jerk like an injured duck, corkscrewing my body this way and that, part crawl, part frog kick, exhaling when I should be inhaling and vice a versa.

I sit and write overlooking Indian Creek. I ride my bike up the undulating pink pathway that runs along the beach and plot a way to navigate the city and its riotous history by swimming all the significant pools from one end to the other, gazing through my “Aqua Sphere” goggles, intrigued by rippling reflections, lost toys, human hair, loose grouting of the tiles, day-dreaming like the character in my favorite Cheever story: He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.

Sometimes I get invited but usually I just walk in or sneak in from the boardwalk and act like I belong, casually pick up a towel with monogram logo and order a drink. I swam the infinity pool at the Shore Club, semi-naked and high, during a midnight party for my book on psychedelia. And yes, it’s almost impossible to do laps in the harp-shaped pool at the Raleigh Hotel with its Baroque curves and wading-pool borders that attract talent agents. (The  Paramount has a pink imitation that’s even more impossible.)

I swam the long narrow pool at the Gainsvoort, eighteen floors above the lobby with mauve-and-beige settees and looping shark tank, where a certain smoothly bronzed set hang out with perfect teeth. A dozen male models looked on with disinterest as I ploughed through the water above the giant “G” spelled out in blue-flecked tiles at the bottom of the pool. Some of the muscled men posed with their skateboards and shirts unbuttoned and I assumed they were waiting for some photo op/cattle call or maybe they were male prostitutes waiting for a trick, I wasn’t sure, but never found out because I was asked to leave the premises after a few laps. (I still have one of the towels.)

I swam the brand new W pool just before a swimwear show and another casting call because I found myself surrounded by half-naked go-see models (young women in this case) like an erotic dream turned nightmare because they were everywhere, tan, long legs, some overly muscled, some anorexic thin, others with full, old-fashioned centerfold figures and big hair, preening in the mirrored furniture, stretching over, brushing out their hair, licking lip gloss, padding out bikini tops, all completely oblivious to me and the short PR woman who was pushing a path through the forest of towering fleshapoids, her face about crotch high, showing me the finer points of the bark-encrusted lobby, designer ceilings, fluffy-white corporate suites, Zen relaxation fountain, a jungle garden with gnarly swamp trees and a shimmering discotheque, making a path for me to follow close behind, out to a sweeping terrace with cabanas and a handsome pool. “Do you mind if I have a swim?”  “What?”  “I would like to try out the pool.”  Someone from marketing came down with a thick purple towel, made arrangements and I had my turn, stroking strangely down one side as workmen finished the installation of a floating catwalk lined with tiki torches and plastic magnolias.

Thoughts while swimming the endless perimeter of the L-shaped pool at the Biltmore: how my father always turned his shoulder such a way, sucking breath, and kicking off in one fluid gesture when entering the water, even when the water was cold. He was a beautiful swimmer, right into his eighties, with an effortless stroke that he learned form Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built in 1909 on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal.  I still have the bronze medal he won in 1931 from the Royal Lifesaving Society. He was only 15 but made it all the way across the Clyde Estuary from Toward Point, where his father was lighthouse keeper, a five-mile swim, against crosscurrents. Swimming was almost like breathing for him. When we went to the River Kwai in 2000 for the filming of a movie and to see the places he’d survived as a POW, we swam in the pool at the eco resort and there was an ornamental waterfall, with volcanic rocks and exotic flowers, that poured into the pool and down to the river, past Chinese gnomes and miniature temples.

One day I dared myself to jump into the muddy waters of the Kwai itself–the river having been such a presence, distant and brooding, throughout my childhood–and I struggled against its current, a little worried I would drown, as my father sat on the pier, drinking Coke and remembering that particular place as Tarsau Winter Camp–something familiar about the curve of the river and the shape of limestone hills across the way, he said–not far from where he’d fallen ill, close to death, and watched a fellow officer beheaded in 1943. (This was just a small opening in his occluded memory. The floodgates opened after that.)

I’d heard that the Biltmore had the biggest pool in the world and while it does seem vast, it’s no longer number one--San Alfonso del Mar in Chile, a chlorinated ocean of 20-acres, is the biggest–but it used to be true in 1926 when Johnny Weissmuller, pre-Tarzan, was swimming instructor and little Jackie Ott dove like an Osprey from the eighty-five-foot-high tower. There were tea dances and aquatic ballets every Sunday afternoon and people crowded around the Pompei-style arcade, hanging from ledges to watch Esther Williams, her synchronized aquanettes and alligator wrestling.

The arcade is still in tact as are the faux Roman statues and a Venetian palazzo at the lower end.  I swam very slowly around the perimeter, pacing myself, watching the worried tourists chatting on cell phones, eating lobster salads, recovering from hangover. Even if the rest of the day had been awash in digital clutter, the swim felt like something accomplished, 20 laps maybe 30.  “My dripping limbs I faintly stretch, And think I’ve done a feat today,” wrote Lord Byron after swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos, only about a mile across but symbolically loaded, from Europe to Asia, in honor of Leander who swam it every night to be with his lover.

Most people don’t swim any more. They lie in the sun and wade or stand up to their knees with an exotic drink, or walk through the shallows to cool off. It’s still in the Olympics as a sport but the lure of swimming as romance–as with Byron and Weissmuller–seems long gone. It’s just not jolting enough. The big Miami Beach hotels of the 1950s and 1960s rose up against the ocean like great white modernist bergs, their pools glinting in the winter sun like infinite sisters,  reflecting cumuli over Biscayne Bay. Here was a new kind of imaginary landscape and the aquamarine pool was the  central attraction. Goldfinger opened with a high sweeping helicopter shot of the Fountainbleau’s white facade, domed ballroom where Sinatra sang, Petit Versailles gardens, a perfect swan dive into the Olympic pool, and James Bond getting a massage by a poolside cabana. The pool itself has been rebuilt twice since then. In fact there are six pools and I’ve traversed them all, even the kiddy hourglass and of course the enormous free-form basin while observing a muscled man wading through the shallow end with a great white shark tattooed across his back. The lattice framework of the Eden Roc was offset by its square and oval pool, the latter over a bar with portholes so that drunken patrons could leer at mermaids cavorting underwater.

Melvin Grossman’s stacked-slab construction for the 14-story Deauville seemed like a mere garden shack compared to the 500-foot-long lagoon that stretched the length of the property. I wasted an entire afternoon during Art Basel drifting in that same Deauville  pool, in that same quasi-subterranean stream, that curves across this city where the Beatles swam when they came in 1964 and played Ed Sullivan from the Napolean Ballroom.

4 thoughts on “WET: Swimming the Pools of Miami

  1. Wow…I felt like I just went through a history lesson ….. on hotels and their pools and the sport of swimming, in particular!!!

  2. I love your observation that “Most people don’t swim any more” – one hazy late summer day a decade ago I swam delicious huge swells at Cameron and vowed to visit the Bridgehampton cousins every summer after… I also smiled this morning reading the appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who, like your father, and my grandfather William Muschenheim, swam well into his 80s – in Patrick Leigh’s case, “He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder.”

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