Einstein on the Beach

By staff December 1, 2007

Albert Einstein

After a serious operation at age 70, Einstein came to Sarasota to recuperate. The year was 1950. He stayed for a month or so at a cottage on Lido Beach (since demolished) and was accompanied by his secretary, Helen Dukas. He was here to rest and that’s exactly what he did. Aside from walks on the beach and tossing a softball to the neighborhood kids, he hardly did a thing, other than sit in the back yard and watch the wildlife that gathered near the humpback bridge at the back of the property. True, there was a trip to Jungle Gardens, which he loved, but otherwise the high point of his stay was a visit to Badger’s Drug Store on Main Street, where he was fitted for a truss. Like many older gentlemen, he didn’t look his best in resort wear; a neighbor remembers his boxers hanging down an inch or so below his shorts. It was the quietest vacation imaginable and just what the doctor ordered. The famous physicist (Time Magazine’s Person of the Century) went on to even more groundbreaking work in the remaining years of his life. And we are one of the few towns in the world that can claim to have had “Einstein on the Beach.”

Eleanor Roosevelt came often to visit her uncle, David Gray, who lived on Siesta Key. She sometimes wrote about Sarasota in her “My Day” newspaper column, portraying it as a remote, tropical place, with landscaping she didn’t care for. While here she would socialize with her uncle and his friends (he was the widower of her Aunt Maude, the relative she felt closest to) and do touristy things like visit Jungle Gardens (which she rather uncharitably referred to as a “snake farm”), have lunch at the Siesta Key Fish Market, and visit the Whispering Sands Inn (site of today’s condo complex). The original multitasker, she usually scheduled speeches during her vacation time—once for the Israel Bond Drive at the Ringling Hotel and another time for the Kiwanis Club at the Lido Casino. Like many visitors, she was shocked to find a first-rate art museum here; she also loved the concerts by the Florida West Coast Symphony (her uncle was one of its founders). But in spite of all the wealth and culture, Sarasota had a Southern, conservative edge back in those days, and Mrs. Roosevelt felt its brunt: During her last visit she received a death threat and had to be hurried away from a Democratic rally at the Holiday Inn up by the airport (currently the Sarasota Cay Club).

Montgomery Clift made his acting debut in Sarasota in 1932, age 12, in the Players of Sarasota production of As Husbands Go. He was here with his genteel but dysfunctional family, wintering in a big gloomy house they rented near the bayfront. Young Monty was bored and prone to get into trouble, so when his mother found out about the auditions at the Players, she dragged him along. His performance was a smash. As one audience member put it: “His physical presence and intensity were hypnotic. You couldn’t stop looking at him.” After the curtain fell, his mother needed a moment to compose herself. Not only was she overwhelmed by her son’s looks and talent, but dollar signs were beginning to light up in her eyes. Within five short years she had him starring on Broadway.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda attended the Ringling School of Art and Design in 1939, studying life drawing and costume design. The quintessential Jazz Age flapper was a failed ballerina and only a semi-successful writer (Save Me the Waltz), but her talents as a painter were very solid and in recent years have become increasingly appreciated and written about. Her stint at Ringling was the only time she ever formally studied art. Just after she completed her classes, husband Scott took her to Cuba for a vacation. There he became so drunk that he tried to stop a cockfight and was badly beaten by the crowd. The Fitzgeralds quickly returned to the U.S., he to Hollywood and she to an asylum in Asheville, N.C., where her mental problems kept her confined for the rest of her life. Within a year, Scott was dead of a heart attack at 44. Their post-Sarasota vacation was the last time they ever saw each other.

Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat came down regularly in the ‘20s and ‘30s. He often stayed at the Villa Serena, that apartment building in Whitfield Estates, and played golf at the SaraBay Country Club and the Bobby Jones course. Though he had often played baseball at Payne Park over the years (which he hated, as the right field fence was so close), his time here was mostly recreational. Golf and too much drinking. It set up the medical complications that ended his life early, at age 53.

Bette Davis was a reclusive but glamorous visitor in the late 1940s. She was usually accompanied by her third husband, William Grant Sherry, a well-known artist. At an exhibit of his paintings at the Ringling Museum, the Sherrys met the hard-drinking local art crowd and fit in perfectly. Chick Austin, then head of the Ringling, had them over for dinner on many occasions (his house still stands on Delmar Avenue), and there is a persistent rumor that Bette had an affair with a Ringling professor. But her most memorable Sarasota moment occurred one morning when Tennessee Williams showed up on her doorstep. He had driven all night from Key West with a new play he just finished. It had the strange title of A Streetcar Named Desire, and he wanted her to play Blanche—both onstage and in the movie that was planned. Bette sat on her porch overlooking the bay and read it. After much soul searching, she finally turned it down. She’d just had a baby, and was having such a nice relaxing time in Sarasota. “It was the worst decision of my life,” she later lamented. “Just imagine—me and Brando!”

George W. Bush

Of course, not all vacations pan out. George W. Bush experienced the worst moment of his life in Sarasota, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked while he was listening to second-graders read a book about a goat at Emma Booker Elementary School. The seven minutes he sat there have become among the most controversial in American history. Still, we hear he really liked the food at the Colony.

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