In February of 1930, during a business trip to New York City, John Ringling got a call from the captain of his yacht. The captain's sad duty was to report that the 125-foot showboat had sunk a mile or so off Lido Beach. Although two crew members were hurt, no one died. That was the only good news. Injuries aside, the sinking could have been a public relations disaster.
First reports indicated that Ringling friend and business associate Sam Gumpertz and his family had taken the opulent vessel out that day for a pleasure cruise to Useppa Island. The boat slowly settled to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in about 12 feet of water. Its smokestack was visible from the shore, drawing a steady stream of locals who had driven to St. Armands to have a look-see.
Actually, the yacht was not carrying a family on a wholesome sightseeing trip. Instead, the passengers that night included Jimmy Walker, the colorful mayor of New York who personified the excesses of the Jazz Age, and his mistress, beautiful actress Betty Compton.
During the Roaring '20s, Walker's free-wheeling personality had captivated many New Yorkers, but the Depression made his antics less palatable. He would soon face an investigation for corruption. The tabloids would have had a field day with a sensational accident during a Florida tryst with his girlfriend, and everyone involved with the accident knew that.
Like Ringling's private railway car, JoMaR, the Zalophus was the epitome of luxury. At a cost of $200,000, it was purchased to replace the Vidoffner II, which had burned. The Zalophus drew only four feet of water and was richly appointed, with such unusual features as square windows. Its captain oversaw a crew of 11. While Ringling was not an avid boatman, the vessel was perfect to tour distinguished guests around his real estate developments.
Four days after the sinking, the local paper announced that some of the boat's contents had washed up to shore near Cortez and were being hauled back to Sarasota in a truck by the sheriff's office. Among the salvaged items were expensive chairs, a desk, doors, screens, copper tanks and mahogany boxes.
Those who knew the inside story about the sinking kept the secret. Not until 1958 did Dr. Joe Halton, a Sarasota physician who had treated the two crewmen, reveal what had happened. He told a local reporter that after the guests were brought ashore on one of the yacht's launches, His Honor and his lady were taken to Fort Myers. A few days later, Mayor Walker came to Sarasota aboard Barron Collier's yacht for a much-publicized stay at C'a d'Zan-sans Miss Compton.
Now another chapter is being added to the mystery of the Zalophus. Captain Carl Fismer, president of the Spanish Main Treasure Company, discovered the still-intact deck of the vessel while he was searching for a Spanish galleon off Lido Key. Torn from the hull during rough seas shortly after the accident, it is lying on the bottom of the Gulf.
Fismer, who has 30 years of experience in underwater exploration, is waiting for permission from the State of Florida to salvage what he believes are many treasures lost when the yacht broke up. For instance, Fismer says that five of the six staterooms had bathrooms with brass tubs and 14-karat gold fixtures. Add to this silverware, china plates, porcelain, statuary, crystal and miscellaneous knickknacks and antiques, and the remains of the Zalophus could be a rich find indeed.
Fismer has formed the Ringling Yacht Recovery Project to recover, preserve and display the artifacts that went down over 70 years ago. He will report on his progress and display pictures of any artifacts he salvages at his Web site, http://www.treasureco.com/. For more information about his effort, contact him at [email protected]