A Look Back…

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Stars of Yesteryear Along the Beach

Celebrities of today face challenges of having a secluded hide-a-way, or being able to take a vacation in privacy. Paparazzi and crowds follow their every move, snapping photos and trying to get that elusive autograph. Going back to a distant time and a different generation, celebrities could almost get lost in the crowd. Over the years a number of stars have walked the sand of Fort Myers Beach. Here’s a brief step back in time and a few of the A-list stars that at one time were at our beach.

The Lindbergh’s were good friends with Jim Newton, a prominent developer on the island. According to island legend, Charles asked Newton to preserve some of the natural habitat of the island that today is known as the Matanzas Nature Preserve. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famed aviator is known for having strolled the beaches of Captiva, collecting shells and penning “Gift From the Sea.” Prior to her time on Captiva, she spent time on Fort Myers Beach. Anne was known as a calm person who did not want to be known and when she felt she could no longer find peace and quiet on Fort Myers Beach to meditate, she went to Captiva Island.

James Jones, author of “From Here To Eternity” was a staple along Fort Myers Beach long before he hit his claim to fame. He first arrived in 1949, two years prior to releasing his debut novel, which in 1953 made it to the big screen. Glenn Miller, a freelance writer from Fort Myers, had the privilege of meeting with Jones’ good friend, Rose Pavese Pacelli, back in 2006. In his blog, Glenn Miller writes he asked Pacelli what was the author like. “He was a cocky son of a gun,” she shared with Miller. “He was a very slight built fellow [and] he was not a big husky fellow. He was very slight. I might say he was kind of full of it.” At the same time she admitted he was “he was very warm and friendly [and] he was not a troublemaker.” Jones died in 1977 at the age of 55. “He’s another one who lived fast and died young,” said Pacelli.

Al Capone is perhaps the most famous mobster of all time and had ties to Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach. There is debate as to whether or not Capone had a house in Fort Myers, and did he actually stop for gas in town on March 25, 1930 on his way to Miami. Apparently he told the gas attendant “you know who I am, but keep it under your hat.” The Fort Myers Press newspaper even ran the headline, “Was Al Capone Here Tuesday?”

In her book, “Coconuts & Coquinas: Island Life on Fort Myers Beach 1920-1970” Jean S. Gottlieb shares a story by Elizabeth (Betsy) Lawton. Lawton recalled that “Al Capone refuged on the Beach once – took a very nice big house – had two guards. They ‘hid’ behind the palm trees. Capone was ill and stayed indoors much of the time, but his guards were very affable fellows.” As a child Sarah Hackett arrived on the beach to visit her grandparents who rented a house for winter season and learned that “Al Capone and gang had just vacated” the house her grandparents were to winter in.

Jerry “Kingfish” Kerschner, world famous swimming champion resided on the beach in the 1950s. Kerschner felt that Fort Myers Beach was an excellent training site as he was preparing to swim the English Channel. He held the record for the four-mile swim and for six years held the title for the 150-yard freestyle. Everywhere he swam, he set a record.

“Kingfish” was recognized for qualifying for the 44’ Olympics, and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He arranged not only to swim across the English Channel, but turn around swim back – non-stop. The only thing stopping him was he could not get over there. He told the Rome News-Tribune in March 1952 of his frustration:

“I’ve just got to get over there somehow this summer and swim that English Channel. I’ve been trying to make it for six years now but something always turns up to block the trip. Finances don’t work out, or something.”

Of the six Americans who successfully crossed the channel, Kerschner was not one of them.

Former President Harry Truman spent time during his two terms as president at Key West. In the mid 1940s, Truman and his entourage of secret service men and staff would take working vacations to the island. The house they stayed in is today known as the Truman Little White House and is a museum and still used as a retreat for government officials. Truman is known to have visited Fort Myers Beach. Vi and John Stefanich owned a restaurant on the beach and shared a story of the day Truman came in which Gottlieb put in her book. The Stefanich’s kept a guest book and would ask patrons to sign it.

“One night we neglected to get the most famous [name] of all. We were jammed, … and one man came up – he looked so nice and natty with his little bow tie, and he said to me, ‘Young lady, who told you you could serve ice cream with the fish?’ and I said, ‘Oh, sir, we have good refrigeration now. . .’ He said, ‘OK,’ and his wife was standing in the back. . .just smiling nicely, and he said, ‘All right, I’ll still pay the bill.’ So he paid the bill and he left – ‘Thank you, very good meal.’ And out he went! Everyone rushed up. . .and they said ‘You mean to tell me you didn’t ask him to sign the book?’

And I said, ‘Who?’

‘Harry Truman!’ I was dumbfounded.”

Perry Como was an American singer and television personality for over 50 years, and had ties to Florida. In 1959, he came to the southern state with his family and spent some time in Fort Myers and on Fort Myers Beach. Eventually he moved to Jupiter where he died in 2001 at Jupiter Inlet Colony.

Other celebs from years gone by that have visited our quaint beach community include Myrna Loy (actor), Elizabeth Bishop (writer), Frances Langford (actor), and Jon Hall (actor). Friends of Jim Newton included Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, all of whom visited with him on the beach.

 T.M. Jacobs

Southwest Florida Historian T. M. Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.