Sun, Surf And Similes: The Art Of The Betsy


Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles on South Florida. The earlier piece on Feb. 8 focused on Deerfield Beach and Lauderdale by the Sea.

The porch at The Betsy, a South Beach hotel and cultural hub, is a front-row seat to the color and chatter of contemporary Miami.

Along Ocean Drive, I watched a parade of stylish vacationers; palms swaying against the brilliant sunshine; packs of young men cruising the strip, top down on the convertible, salsa blasting.

Yet the music wafting across The Betsy’s porch was old-school jazz. Аlong with piles of real newspapers (also old school!), it signaled an evolution from what The Betsy’s managing director, Zach Plutzik, refers to as “the Will Smith Miami,” a sun-and-surf image as simplistic as it is out of date.

Invited to be a writer-in-residence later this year, I had come to The Betsy to observe Miami Beach’s ongoing maturation as a year-round cultural destination, and the role of Jewish visionaries in the process. One of those visionaries is Zach’s father, Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik — the New York financier, Fannie Mae board chairman and Jewish philanthropist who has invested heavily in Miami Beach as a place of unique vibrancy and potential, Jewishly and otherwise.

“The Miami Beach community is much more interesting than the brand sometimes projects,” explained Jonathan, who bought the former Betsy Ross Hotel, a Georgian colonial landmark, in 2005 and reopened a renovated version, incorporating an adjacent Art Deco building, four years later. As more year-round residents embrace that community, he added, it becomes clear that “this is one of the cultural capitals of America. And the momentum continues to accelerate.”

From the start, Jonathan Plutzik was clear about establishing not only luxury lodging, but also an arts hub in a neighborhood that includes the New World Symphony, Florida International University’s Wolfsonian and Jewish Museums and numerous galleries and architectural landmarks.

Plutzik and his sister, Deborah Plutzik Briggs, established a writer’s room in homage to the prewar tradition of setting aside workspace for visiting intellectuals. The room, as well as The Betsy’s cultural commitment, is also a powerful tribute to their father, the Jewish-American poet Hyam Plutzik.

“We’re all familially obsessed with the written word,” said Jonathan Plutzik, whose childhood was populated by Jewish literary relatives and colleagues of the elder Plutzik, a University of Rochester professor. In a sense, the Plutziks have recreated that atmosphere at The Betsy’s writer’s room, where a revolving slate of artists-in-residence host a weekly salon. The space has hosted the likes of novelist Dani Shapiro and director Moisés Kaufman, in partnership with the Knight Foundation, as well as participants in the annual Art Basel, Miami’s signature cultural event. “The ability to invite people is a very, very powerful thing,” reflected Plutzik.

Within the hotel, there’s a library full of Jewish-themed books, a light-filled gallery with a piano for performances, and walls hung with artwork for sale. Diners and patrons of the lobby bar are treated to live pianists and singers nightly. A women’s writing group meets weekly at the hotel, trading notes over manuscripts.

Plutzik Briggs — officially The Betsy’s vice president for P.A.C.E. (Philanthropy, Arts, Culture, and Education) and Community — oversees programming that engages Miami’s distinctive cultures. Events include the annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium; an exiled writer series, in partnership with Florida International University; the O, Miami Poetry Festival; an LGBTQ reading series; and a periodic conference on Ibero-American literature.

Each year, the Plutzik family invites a promising young writer from Trinity College (Connecticut), Hyam Plutzik’s alma mater, for a weeklong literary residency.

“I didn’t want us to be dilettantes in the space,” said Plutzik, explaining why he drafted his sister, who has a nonprofit arts background, to expand The Betsy’s role. “Our whole model is built around creating an environment where people gather to talk about important subjects. And it’s natural to gather in a place of hospitality.”

Though part of a long tradition of Miami Jewish entrepreneurs, Jonathan Plutzik certainly didn’t need to open a hotel, or to put so much energy into forging cultural partnerships with organizations like the Knight Foundation and FIU. But he is convinced that Miami Beach has come of age alongside such global arts hubs as Tel Aviv, San Francisco, Aspen and the Hamptons.

“If you went to my Northeastern friends 10 or 15 years ago, you’d hear a lot of, ‘Oh, I’m not a Florida person,’” Plutzik said. “Now everybody you know was either here last weekend or is coming next week. It’s that kind of place.”

Why the zeitgeist shift? Miami Beach’s urbane sensibility — its dynamic cosmopolitanism, and walkability rare in the Sunbelt — feels both seductive and deeply familiar. “We’re all rediscovering Miami Beach,” reflected Plutzik. “And the rediscovery is still happening.”