Since I first published this post (January 5, 2012), several resources have become available that provide much more detail, while correcting certain inaccuracies found in earlier sources.
I’m just back from a winter break in south Florida, and I visited the Vizcaya mansion on the shores of Miami’s Biscayne Bay last Sunday. Vizcaya, a fantasy, over-the-top Italian Renaissance-style villa, was built over a span of two years, 1914-1916, by James Deering (1859-1925), co-founder and vice president of International Harvester. It was used by Chicago-based Deering as a 34-room winter home, set adjacent to ten acres of formal gardens, which were not completed until 1921, because of the outbreak of WWI. During the construction, a full ten percent of Miami’s population worked at the Vizcaya site. The original 180 acres included a working farm, machine shop, staff residences, garages, greenhouse, a boathouse with docking facilities, canals, and a paint and carpentry workshop.
Deering was discreet about his private life, and is referred to only as a “life-long bachelor” in the printed materials available at the site. He never married, and I could find no reports of his showing romantic or physical interest in women. Occasionally he did have unmarried female houseguests (such as actress Lillian Gish), but they were friends, not people he dated. However, he hosted many homosexual men -- some for extended periods.
Another hint is revealed by having a look at the floor plan of the bedroom level. The only guest bedroom adjacent to Mr. Deering's own suite is accessed (as are all the bedrooms) from a hallway that rings the central, open courtyard, What is not apparent from the hallway, however, is that this guest bedroom has direct access to Mr. Deering's bedroom by way of an exterior loggia that borders Mr. Deering's stunning bathroom (both bedrooms have doors that open onto this loggia). What was the reason to hide this access from other house guests? Hmmm. At the time Vizcaya was built, it was common for wealthy husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms, but that was clearly not the case here. The large sitting room adjacent to Mr. Deering's bedroom is situated away from the guest bedroom, which is not of a scale that would make it suitable as quarters for a future wife. Peculiar indeed. This is a home designed for a "bachelor" owner without any plans ever to marry.
More evidence? After the Vizcaya project, his openly-gay decorator Paul Chalfin returned to New York City to continue his interior design practice, and he wanted to have a home that he could furnish lavishly, in a way that would attract more business from members of the upper class. How was he able to accomplish this? Mr. Deering lent him the money to buy a 30-acre estate in Connecticut.
Also, rumors circulated from the large staff of servants that Deering held all-male parties at Vizcaya, although I have not been able to find hard evidence as corroboration. Even so, my educated guess is that Deering was a closeted homosexual, and I consider that these facts are enough evidence to include Mr. Deering on this blog. But read on.
In addition to making a fortune from agricultural machinery, Deering was a socialite and an antiquities collector. When he was phased out of daily company affairs by J.P. Morgan interests in 1909, Deering decided to go on a buying spree with his gay decorator, designer Paul Chalfin (see portrait c. 1915 a few paragraphs below), who made sure that Deering’s winter home did not resemble his brother’s plain-Jane estate a bit farther south. Deering served as Vice President of International Harvester until 1919 and remained a company director for the rest of his life. But after the 1909 reorganization, he essentially retired – with a very fat wallet. The Deering family had come into $800 million (in today’s money) from the sale of a part of their company's interests to J. P. Morgan bank.
Together, Chalfin and Deering sailed to Europe, snapping up fabulous antiquities (including doors, wall panels, mantels and ceilings) that would be incorporated into the creation of an opulent, over-the-top, decadent, and ostentatious fantasy villa in what is today north Coconut Grove.
Paul Chalfin was a New York-based painter turned decorator who had worked as an assistant to celebrated designer Elsie de Wolfe. Chalfin was openly homosexual and affected in mannerisms and speech. Not to mention the flamboyant way he dressed. He and Deering bonded immediately and made numerous trips to Europe to inspect villas and procure furnishings, including wrought iron gates, fountains and antique chimneypieces (one was 20-ft. tall). Chalfin and Deering spent two years formulating the Miami villa before handing the project over to a young, unknown architect, F. Burrall Hoffman, who was in the unenviable position of having to please two clients: Chalfin, who was on-site in Florida, and Deering, who was based in Chicago. About the only thing Hoffman and Chalfin had in common was that both had attended Harvard and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Althea Altemus, who served as a secretary to Mr. Deering at Vizcaya, was reviewing an article from a 1917 issue of American Weekly, which described the opening party at Vizcaya on Christmas Eve, 1916. She wrote next to a drawing of two seductive women looking down on Vizcaya (suggesting that Deering was a ladies’ man), “What’s this? No!”
Althea described Paul Chalfin as a “very ladylike old dear” who lived with his boyfriend (Louis A. Koons) and chow dogs on “The Blue Dog,” the 74-foot houseboat provided by Deering. Blue Dog was described in detail in the July 1917 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Althea, however, described the boat as the scene for quite “unique” parties and recommended a certain actress as a source for details. Koons, who also served as Chalfin’s secretary and business partner, accompanied Deering and Chalfin on the many European art and furniture buying tours.
However, Diego Suarez, the garden designer, had less charitable words for Chalfin: “(He) was absolutely the worst pansy I have ever seen. He had a secretary (?), Koons, whom he used to kiss goodbye. He was always kissing his hand.” Suarez expressed disgust that Koons later resided in Chalfin’s house in NYC. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
As for James Deering, this description comes from one of his house guests, actress Lillian Gish:
"He was an astringent little man. I don’t think he was really comfortable with his guests. I remember very clearly the night we were there. It was an April night and the gardens were full of fireflies. I was probably very romantic, and I can remember that I wanted to get into a gondola and ride on the canals. It was such a lovely night. But we were taken right in after a look at the gardens to see a movie. It was a movie about microbes and germs. Can you imagine that? I suppose he thought it was entertaining. I had the impression that he was a man who wanted to have beauty around him in his house and gardens, but that he didn’t know what to do with it. He wasn’t able to live with it. It was simply there."
So the personalities of Deering and Chalfin must have been like oil and vinegar. At the very least Chalfin must have helped Deering come out of his shell, especially while in Europe, away from society's expectations of a certain decorum required of a man of his stature and social standing. Deering even requested that Chalfin provide a private place on Vizcaya's grounds where he could escape (alone) from staff and visitors. The man was truly not comfortable in his own skin.
All that off towards one side, Liberace would have felt completely at home at Vizcaya. Trust me. There’s a 3-manual pipe organ (a 3-ton Welte-Mignon behemoth with a player mechanism), tea house, garden theater, statuary walks, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains, maze, indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, mangrove swamps, grottos and a room whose entire function was for arranging flowers. Did I mention the carved stone breakwater "barge"?
The breakwater barge originally boasted a fountain, lattice structure
and a forest of palms.
and a forest of palms.
*John Singer Sargent (discreetly gay), who painted clothed women and naked men, was an intimate friend. While staying at Vizcaya, Sargent painted a series of watercolors of male nudes, using the African-American workers on the premises as models (see watercolor below). A further clue to Deering’s sexual orientation is a statue in the gardens that depicts Ganymede, the mythological gay youth who was the lover of Zeus. A tapestry hung inside the villa depicts a male lion with a raging erection. I’m not making this up. James Deering, that life-long bachelor, is speculated by many to have had an intimate relationship with Sargent.
I’m just sayin’.
Although most of the original furnishings remain intact, the south Florida climate took its toll. During the 1980s the original open-air central courtyard was covered with a glass pyramid so that air conditioning could be installed, diminishing further deterioration of fabrics and furnishings. Innovations at the time of construction include a central vacuum system (in 1916!), an automatic electric telephone switchboard and a fire control system. Upon Deering’s death in 1925, while returning from France on an ocean liner, the house was maintained by minimal staff after it was inherited by two nieces. Following hurricane damage and escalating maintenance costs, the women sold Vizcaya much below value to Miami-Dade County in 1952 to operate as a museum. Today the house and gardens are designated a National Historic Landmark.
The boat house, where Deering’s yacht Nepenthe was docked, along with various lagoons and canals, were lost when some of the acreage was sold off piecemeal by the nieces. Today Mercy Hospital and a large Catholic church occupy the adjacent acreage where those features once stood.
Several movies (remember Pet Detective?) and documentaries have been shot here. Vizcaya is today a popular backdrop for quinceañera photos/celebrations by Miami’s huge Latina population and the scene of countless fashion photoshoots. During my visit several brides were being photographed in the tea house and gardens. The mansion and gardens may be rented for private functions.
Open daily at 3251 S. Miami Avenue. 305.250.9133.
Sources for this update:
Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America – Althea McDowell Althemus
The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Woman’s Picture – Rachel Zolf
LGBTQ America – Megan E. Springate
As opulent as the following color photos seem, black and white photographs from the 1920s indicate that the rooms contained many more decorative items and details than what visitors view today (see example of reception room photos below). A rich man's clutter.
1. Staircase fountain leading up to garden folly/casino
2 & 2a. Reception room today vs. b/w photo from the early 1920s
3. Bayfront (east) loggia
4. Mr. Deering's bathroom with tented ceiling & water views
5. Teahouse lattice & garden folly/casino interior