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Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
June 2012

Just when it seems everyone has a ticket to ride this summer, one old friend drops into town to share stories of his days with the Beatles

 

Pix_for_Gaspar_Gonzalez_6-12It’s a phenomenon familiar to those of us who’ve lived in Miami for any length of time: the seasonal exodus. Despite the Chamber of Commerce declarations that we are now a year-round hub of activity, we know better. It isn’t that Miami shuts down completely in summer, but it does seem to take, shall we say, an extended lunch break.

How else to explain the afternoon a couple of weeks ago, when, seizing an all-too-rare respite from my work schedule, I decided to hop in my car and head to the beach? My usual destination, when I can get there, is a little north of the tourist action, with a small parking lot that services it. Good luck finding a spot there between December and April.

But on this picture-perfect day, the kind that launched a million postcards -- cloudless, about 79 degrees, with gentle waves -- more than half the parking spaces were empty. (Woo-hoo!)

The first of my neighbors left a few days ago, not to return till after Halloween. Other neighbors won’t be gone nearly as long, but they’ll be gone for a good stretch, seeking relief from the heat and those fickle, tropical wet kisses that that keep threatening to visit our corner of the world this time of year.

It can get a little lonely in the village, not seeing people you’re used to seeing. But it can also be an opportunity to perform neighborly acts. Some of my neighbors, knowing I’ll be around, ask me to look after their homes, pick up mail, or just keep an eye out for anything suspicious. It makes them feel better to know they at least have someone they can call to make sure everything is okay, so I happily agree.

It’s easy enough to do, and it’s not like these small acts of kindness are keeping me from much of anything. That’s because summer in Miami, culturally speaking, is pretty lame. That’s always been the case, albeit for different reasons.

Before, it was a case of there not being a whole lot of culture anywhere on the calendar, period. Now it’s because galleries, museums, and other cultural purveyors wait to schedule their big events closer to the first weekend in December, to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach.

This year, I’m happy to report, there’s at least one notable exception. My friend Harry Benson is having a book signing at the Taschen store on Lincoln Road on May 30. (I know, I know, you won’t be reading this till June, but I’m writing in May. Besides, this isn’t the Events Calendar.)

For those who don’t know, Harry is one of the world’s great photographers, having chronicled everything from the Civil Rights movement to the assassination of Robert Kennedy to the first Gulf War. He’s photographed every American president since Dwight Eisenhower, and celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Jack Nicholson to stars so young they may not know those other names. Harry has been named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and his work has been exhibited in major museums, including a one-man show at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2007.

And if none of that rings a bell, how’s this: Harry was the fifth Beatle. True. As a young photographer for the Daily Express in London in early 1964, Harry was all set to ship off for Africa, to cover the liberation struggles on that continent, when he got a phone call from his editor, telling him he was headed to Paris instead. Seems there was this British pop group that had made quite a splash there and it looked like their next stop was America.

Somewhat disappointed -- Harry was not a rock-and-roll guy -- he traveled to Paris to meet the lads, and was there when they received word that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had gone to number one in the States. That’s when the five of them flew over. In old footage of the Beatles landing in New York, Harry, camera in hand, is visible just behind the group as they get off the plane. It’s Harry’s days with the Fab Four that are the subject of his new book for Taschen, The Beatles: On the Road, 1964-1966. Taschen’s 1000th title release, it’s a big deal.

Harry’s Beatles connection is also partly responsible for our friendship. In 2006 I was making the documentary Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami for PBS. I had previously interviewed Harry for a magazine story and I knew him to be the architect of the famous meeting between Cassius Clay (as Ali was then known) and the Beatles. I called him up and asked him if he would tell that story for the film. “Sure,” said Harry.

It’s a nice moment in the documentary, and a surprising one, because the meeting didn’t happen the way most people might assume. It was February 1964. Harry was with the Beatles in Miami Beach for their second Ed Sullivan Show appearance at the same time that Clay was preparing to fight then-heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, who was supposed to destroy his young challenger sometime between the moment they got in the ring and the end of round one. Naturally, Harry thought it might make for great photos to take the band over to the Fifth Street Gym, where Clay, who never met a camera he didn’t love, was training.

At least that was the plan. When John Lennon heard it, though, he balked. “Clay’s going to get beaten,” Harry remembered Lennon saying. “We want to be photographed with the champ.” Harry couldn’t get him to budge, so he went over to Liston’s camp to inquire about the photo-op. “Don’t bring those fellas here,” Liston told him, without ever looking up from his training regimen. (“Fellas” wasn’t the actual word.)

So Harry, a pragmatic Scot, did the only sensible thing: He lied to the Beatles about where he was taking them, drove them to the Fifth Street Gym, and locked them in a side room until he could get Clay’s attention. By the time the Beatles discovered the ruse, it was too late. Clay had them clowning around with him in the ring. And Harry, of course, snapped away.

Harry has told me a lot of stories like that when we’ve gotten together over the years, which we do occasionally in Palm Beach County -- where he and his lovely wife, Gigi, keep a home -- or at his exhibitions. It’s been a while, though, so I’m looking forward to seeing him at the Taschen event. Otherwise, I’ll have to wait till November. That’s when Harry usually returns from New York.


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