The Most Dangerous Job: The Murder of America's First Bird Warden

iStock.com/NicolasMcComber
iStock.com/NicolasMcComber

As the sun set over Florida Bay, Fronie Bradley gazed anxiously at the distant islands of Oyster Keys. It was a typical evening in Flamingo, Florida—gentle breezes, palm fronds rustling, scalloped waves lapping against tangled mangroves. It’s easy to imagine that the scene would have relaxed Fronie, but tonight was different. She could not put her mind at ease. Early that morning, on July 8, 1905, her husband, Guy Bradley, had left for Oyster Keys. Now it was well past supper, and his boat was nowhere to be seen.

When Guy failed to appear the following morning, Fronie called on her neighbor, Gene Roberts, and asked him to search for her husband. It was raining now, but Roberts did not mind. He boarded his sailboat and steered toward the keys. Peering through the gray drizzle, he saw no boat, so he sailed westward with the current toward the nearby village of Sawfish Hole. Near the water’s edge, he noticed an empty dinghy bobbing. Roberts immediately recognized it as Guy’s.

Splayed at the bottom of the boat was Bradley’s body: A gaping red gunshot wound festered by his collarbone and a .32 caliber pistol lay near one hand. Roberts inspected the weapon and determined that it had not been fired.

Around the time Roberts made this discovery, his neighbor, Walter Smith, was busy tying his schooner, The Cleveland, to a dock 70 miles south in Key West. There, he’d walk straight to the Monroe County Sheriff, Frank Knight, and deliver some unexpected news.

“I’ve shot Guy Bradley,” he said.

The reason, he’d later explain, had something to do with bird feathers.

 

In 1889, a fisherman named George Elliott Cuthbert found a feather that would change his life. For three days, Cuthbert had been canoeing through the Florida Everglades, bushwhacking a path through a buggy maze of mangroves in hopes of finding a treasure that would make him rich. As he paddled past the peering yellow eyes of alligators, Cuthbert noticed a white feather floating in the current and felt a rush of excitement.

Following the feather, Cuthbert would stumble upon the treasure he’d been seeking.

Thousands upon thousands of birds: Spoonbills, herons, wood storks, and snowy egrets—all eating, breeding, and squawking on a small hidden islet. This place, called a rookery, was undoubtedly one of the biggest bird breeding sites in North America, and it was beautiful, entrancing. “A flower, a beautiful white blossom,” is how Cuthbert described it. He gazed at the birds in wonder.

And then he began killing them.

Cuthbert fired, fired, and fired again. Once the smoke dissipated, hundreds of birds were dead. Cuthbert smiled, paddled toward the floating carcasses, and skinned them. Later, he’d take a second trip and succeed in killing nearly all of the other birds on the island. He’d earn more than $50,000 in today’s money selling their feathers.

The birds, which lived on an island now called Cuthbert Rookery, were martyrs to the whims of fashion. In the late 19th century, no fashion-conscious woman in New York or Paris could be seen without a hat bedazzled with bird feathers. This was especially true in New York, where “New Money” socialites wore feathered headwear—ornamented with a potpourri of flowers, ribbons, jewels, and the plumes of snowy egrets, called aigrettes—as the way to flaunt their wealth and status. These hats sold for as much as $130, the equivalent of $3300 today.

Aigrettes
Hulton Archive, W. G. Phillips // Getty Images

To meet demand, the millinery industry, which was based in New York, oversaw the killing of 5 million birds nationwide every year. It was a dream job for the rural poor; people such as Cuthbert could easily “shoot out” an entire rookery (that is, kill all the birds) in just a few afternoons. With feathers sometimes selling for $15 an ounce, a hunter could earn an entire year’s salary with just a few pulls of his index finger.

In the late 19th century, there were no limits to how many birds a plume hunter could kill. In Cape Cod, 40,000 terns were killed for the hat industry in one summer. In Florida, the slaughter was often indiscriminate and senseless. One popular pastime among tourists visiting the Everglades was to shoot critters from the comfort of boats, plinking alligators and birds with no intention of ever picking up their carcasses.

In southern Florida, bottomless plume hunting was a perfectly legal—and reasonable—way to make a living. Life in the swamps was difficult. The area had little arable land and no major industry. Residents made their money by fishing, fur trapping, harvesting sugarcane, or manufacturing charcoal. The demand for bird plumes offered a lucrative salary that no other job in the region could match. “Egret plumes are now worth double their weight in gold,” ornithologist Frank Chapman said in 1908. “There is no community sufficiently law-abiding to leave a bank vault unmolested if it were left unprotected. This is just the same.”

Among the many people who raided that bank vault was Guy Bradley. Raised on the east coast of Florida, he spent his teenage years sailing through the mangrove forests of south Florida in search of plumes, discovering the best places to hunt and becoming well-acquainted with other hunters across the state.

In 1898, the Bradley family moved farther south to Florida’s frontier, to a sparsely populated backwater town called Flamingo, which sat not far from the famed Cuthbert Rookery. Before making the move, they invited their friend Walter Smith to join them. Smith, an aging Confederate sharpshooter, accepted.

Once settled in Flamingo, the friendship would become irrevocably strained. Twelve-hundred miles north in New York City, the political winds were shifting—and they would jolt the Everglades.

 

“I don’t think in my reincarnation, if there is such a thing, that I want to come back to Florida,” Kirk Munroe, a Florida conservationist and personal friend of Guy Bradley, once said. “They are killing off all the plume birds. I remember when the spoonbills on the beach in front of my house made such a racket it was almost unpleasant. Now they are all gone—they never come back anymore.”

In 1886, George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist and editor of Forest and Stream, formed the first major bird protection society, which he named after John James Audubon, the ornithologist and painter who published the groundbreaking book The Birds of America. Within a decade, independent Audubon societies would pop up across the northeastern United States, claiming supporters as prominent as then-New York governor Theodore Roosevelt.

Egret
Istock.com/JackVandenHeuvel

“The object of this organization is to be a barrier between wild birds and animals and a very large unthinking class, and a smaller but more harmful class of selfish people,” wrote William Dutcher, a businessman and ornithologist who’d become the National Audubon Society’s first president. Dutcher knew exactly who he was matched up against: The millinery industry employed 83,000 people and was worth $17 million.

But Dutcher had friends in high places and believed he could convince politicians to pass legislation that could save America’s birds from extinction. He’d be a key lobbyist in helping pass the Lacey Act, which made it a federal crime to poach birds in one state and sell them in another. In 1901, he traveled to Tallahassee and successfully lobbied the Florida state government to pass a law protecting plume birds. With the help of state senator William Hunt Harris of Monroe County, an “Act for the Protection of Birds and Their Nests and Eggs, and Prescribing a Penalty for any Violation Thereof” was passed, barring any person in Florida from killing plume birds or selling their feathers.

It’s one thing to pass a law; another to enforce it. Most plume hunters lived in remote areas, hundreds of miles from the closest newspaper or courthouse. Dutcher knew that if the new law was going to be remotely meaningful, he’d need a warden who could enforce it—somebody who knew his way around Florida’s rookeries, who knew the tricks of the plume trade, who knew the plume hunters themselves.

That man would end up being an ex-plume hunter: Guy Bradley.

 

As Florida’s first bird warden, Bradley knew his job would become more dangerous as time wore on. At first, he’d be a one-man PR team: posting warning notices around the rookeries, distributing leaflets throughout villages, and meeting with Floridians to inform them of the law. Then eventually there’d come a time when everybody knew the law—and they’d either follow it or flout it.

Bradley was worried about how best to approach these lawbreakers, people who would definitely be armed and angry when confronted. For example: One of Bradley’s neighbors, Ed Watson, was a rumored plume hunter—and a rumored murderer who supposedly shot and killed 50 people. To preserve the law and his own life, Bradley knew he’d have to tread gingerly. “It would be necessary for a warden to hunt these people and hunt them carefully for he must see them first, for his own sake,” he wrote in a letter.

Guy Bradley
Allen3, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But the risk was worth it. Bradley was approached for the job in 1902, just as he was starting his life as a new family man. He had recently married a local woman, Fronie Vickers Kirvin, and the couple already had a baby, with a second on the way. The job not only promised Bradley and his family a steady income of $35 a month, it also offered him the dignity of becoming a law enforcement officer—a dream of his. (As a game warden, Bradley had to be sworn in by the Monroe County Justice of the Peace as a deputy sheriff.)

Bradley’s first months in the field went rather smoothly. He convinced the Audubon Society to give his brother and brother-in-law positions as his deputies, allowing him to cover more ground. He was relatively close with the local Seminole and Miccosukee tribes and had an easy time convincing them of the benefits of the conservation law. Many local hunters who were at first dismayed to hear about the law accepted the reality of their situation and vowed to follow the rules. If anything, the thought of being slapped with a $15 fine and being called a “poacher” deterred them. A rare few, who worried about the palpable decline in local birdlife, openly welcomed the law.

As Bradley wrote, “It is gratifying to me to see that a great many people are willing to abide by the law and even help me enforce it if they can.”

Wading Egret
iStock.com/MonicaNinker

Each day, Bradley trudged through the buggiest coves and inspected the remotest rookeries—including the replenished Cuthbert Rookery—where he accosted poachers shooting at the herons, flamingos, and snowy egrets. On a few occasions, men drew their guns and threatened to fire. But his biggest problems proved to be brewing in his backyard during his off-hours.

Since arriving in Flamingo, Bradley’s friend Walter Smith had attempted to carve out a position as the town’s unofficial “boss.” In an effort to amass power and build political connections, he regularly traveled between the remote settlement and the seat of Monroe County—Key West—where he schmoozed with the movers and shakers of local government. Smith, however, was not very popular back home in Flamingo—and his power was rivaled by his neighbor, an outsize figure nicknamed “Uncle” Steve Roberts. The two regularly butted heads.

In 1904, the Smith and Roberts clans started bickering over the location of their property line, with the Roberts family arguing that Smith was illegally squatting on their land. Eventually, the local surveyor determined that Smith was, in fact, trespassing. Smith took the case to court but lost.

The local surveyor’s name? Guy Bradley.

After the land dispute, things were never the same between Smith and Bradley. (Bradley’s sister had married into the Roberts clan, and Smith was convinced that—because of these familial connections—Bradley had been a biased surveyor.) The acrimony manifested in petty disputes, with both families refusing to help deliver each other’s mail or groceries.

The tensions would eventually boil over into Bradley’s work. Smith, like many people in Flamingo, supplemented his income by hunting plumes, and he deliberately broke the law around Bradley. By late 1904, Bradley had arrested and fined the old man once. He had also arrested Smith’s eldest teenage son, Tom.

This greatly aggravated the old sharpshooter. So when Bradley arrested Tom a second time, Smith approached the warden he once called “friend” and laid out his terms.

“You ever arrest one of my boys again,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”

 

“The natives are beginning to realize that the birds are to be protected and that the wardens are fearless men who are not to be trifled with,” the ornithologists A. C. Bent and Herbert K. Job wrote in 1904. “The Bradleys have the reputation of being the best rifle shots in that vicinity and they would not hesitate to shoot when necessary.”

Guy Bradley carried a nickel-plated .32 caliber pistol and went to work each day ready to use it. After two years on the job, he had literally dodged a couple bullets. The ornithologist Frank Chapman feared for the warden’s safety. “That man Bradley is going to be killed sometime,” he wrote in a letter.

Bradley’s efforts, however, were making a difference in southern Florida’s rookeries. “Under his guardianship, the 'white birds' had increased,” Chapman wrote. The victories, however, came with a share of losses. It was impossible to cover 90 miles of coastline at once, and in the winter of 1904, Bradley approached the Cuthbert Rookery and found 400 carcasses floating in the water. “You could’ve walked right around the rookery on them birds’ bodies,” he said.

The rookeries weren’t the only place receiving gunfire. In early 1905, Walter Smith and his family were eating supper when a hail of bullets tore through the home’s walls, forcing everybody to drop to the floor and panic. When the attacked ended, Smith accounted for his five children—no one was hurt—and poked his head outside. Nobody was there.

No one knows who attacked the Smith household or why, but Smith was certain the assault had been coordinated by the Roberts clan and their ilk. Neighborly tension had escalated from pettiness to violence: With the lives of his children at risk, the hardened veteran was not willing to turn the other cheek.

Months later, on the morning of July 8, 1905, Guy Bradley peered across the Florida Bay, looked toward the two small islands of Oyster Keys, and saw a blue schooner sitting in the mud of low tide. He immediately recognized the boat, The Cleveland, as belonging to Walter Smith. He also immediately recognized the sound of gunshots echoing from the islands: The Smiths were shooting a rookery, in plain sight of the warden’s house.

For Bradley, it was time to get to work. He grabbed his pistol, kissed his wife goodbye, and launched his dinghy at 9 a.m.

When Walter Smith saw Bradley approaching, he fired a warning shot into the clouds, signaling his boys—who were somewhere on the island shooting at birds—to return to the schooner. Bradley watched as the boys carried the bodies of two dead cormorants back to the boat. Tom Smith turned toward the rookery and fired his rifle into the nests.

“[Tom] tended to flaunt what he was doing a bit,” historian Stuart McIver says in an episode of Waterways, a public television program about the south Florida ecosystem. “If you were of a discreet [nature] about killing plume birds, Guy Bradley’s approach, from what I can gather, would have been to take you off to the side and talk you out of doing it again.” But the teenager wanted to make a fool of Bradley, and he made it a point to be seen defying the warden’s authority. McIver described the ensuing scene in his book, Death in the Everglades.

Bradley hollered at Walter Smith. “I want your son Tom.”

Smith clutched his rifle. “Well, if you want him, you have to have a warrant.”

Bradley shook his head. “I saw them shoot into the rookery and I see the dead birds. Put down your gun, Smith.”

“You are one of those fellows who shot into my house and I’ll not put down my gun when you are near me. If you want him, you have to come aboard this boat and take him, “ Smith said.

At this, Bradley clutched his pistol. Smith pointed his rifle at the warden.

“Put down that rifle and I will come aboard,” Guy responded.

What happened next is unclear, but Smith would later say that Bradley “never knew what hit him.”

 

When Smith sailed The Cleveland back to Flamingo, he told his family to pack up their belongings and get in the boat.

“I’m going to Key West to give myself up,” he told them. “I’ve killed Guy Bradley.”

In Key West, the sheriff charged Smith with murder and set bail at $5000. When word of Bradley’s death reached the Audubon Society, everybody assumed justice would prevail. Smith, after all, had openly admitted to killing a law enforcement officer. Senator William H. Harris—the same politician who helped push the bird law through the Florida legislature—was slated as the prosecutor.

The case attracted the attention of newspapers across the country. “A group of rook killers concerned in the secret traffic of bird plumage shot him in order to kill as many birds as they liked …” reported the Los Angeles Herald. “[Smith], it is pleasant to note, will suffer the full penalty of the Florida law.”

The reporters didn’t appear to know that Walter Smith had spent the past decade building political connections in Monroe County, where friends were encouraging him to open his purse strings and pay as much as possible for a lawyer who could reduce his prison sentence.

Turns out, Smith’s money would get him much further. Somehow, he managed to lure Senator William H. Harris to switch sides, from the prosecution to the defense.

Senator Harris, a local, knew that the grand jury would be composed of townsfolk—mostly poor fisherman and farmers—who opposed the bird-hunting law. He intuitively knew what talking points would resonate with them. So he repeatedly emphasized that Bradley was a bird warden and glossed over the fact that he was also an officer of the law. He argued that Smith was standing his ground in self-defense: Bradley, he claimed, had fired his weapon first.

As Harris bent the jury to his will, the out-of-town state prosecutors put on a masterclass in incompetence. They presented no evidence and called only one witness to the stand, the firebrand “Uncle” Steve Roberts. Gene Roberts, the man who found Bradley’s body—and found Bradley’s unfired pistol—was never questioned.

In December 1905, the grand jury dismissed the charges. Smith was set free.

The Audubon Society would never replace Bradley. “Few responsible men, after the murder of Guy M. Bradley, are willing thus to jeopardize their lives, for, if the laws of the state cannot be enforced and criminals brought to justice, no man has a guarantee for his safety,” Laura Norcross Marrs, the Chairman of the Florida Audubon Society’s Executive Committee, wrote in 1906.

Indeed, two more bird wardens would be killed. In 1908, Columbus McLeod’s boat went missing while he was patrolling Florida’s Charlotte Harbor. Weeks later, the sunken vessel was discovered weighed down by two sacks of sand. Nearby, McLeod’s hat was found containing two blood-stained gashes, which resembled axe marks. That same year, Pressly Reeves of South Carolina, an Audubon employee, was shot and killed. No arrests were ever made.

With three deaths in as many years, the Audubon Society shifted focus from stopping poachers to stopping the millinery industry in New York. In 1910, Audubon lobbyists convinced New York state lawmakers to pass a bill forbidding the importation of plumes. That was followed by the Weeks-McLean Act in 1913, which banned the importation of wild bird feathers, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it illegal to sell or transport hundreds of species of birds.

“It seems funny to have to say this,” McIver says on Waterways, “but [Bradley] probably did more for the cause by giving up his life, than if he had continued as before, if he just kept on being a warden for another 15 or 20 years.” His death, as well as the death of other game wardens, created so much palpable disgust that even the most ambivalent lawmakers were compelled to take action against the millinery industry.

The final blow, however, came from the world of fashion. In 1914, Irene Castle, an actress and dancer, had an appendectomy and cut her hair short before the surgery. When she returned to the limelight, her hair was bobbed—and audiences loved it. A trend was born. By 1920, film stars everywhere were flaunting short haircuts that made extravagant, feather-loaded hats look and feel awkward. By the roaring twenties, the plume business, like its victims, was dead.

 

When John James Audubon visited the Everglades in the 1800s, he claimed that the wading bird population was so high that flocks would “actually block out the light from the sun.” This is how it must have felt after the plume trade’s demise—the wading bird population in the Everglades exploded.

But only briefly. New threats would imperil the legacy Guy Bradley died for. Water diversion projects built in South Florida in the 1950s have since bled the area of vital freshwater, while climate change has caused Florida Bay to rise at least 6 inches since the mid-20th century. With freshwater choked to half its original levels and saltwater creeping, the ecosystem has deteriorated. Compared to the 1930s, the wading bird population in the Everglades today has dropped 90 percent.

Flock of Birds
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

But there are efforts to combat this. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan—“the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States,” according to the National Park Service—aims to improve the freshwater flow into the area. The plan has cost upwards of $16 billion. Writing for the National Parks Conservation Association, Laura Allen says, “The restoration’s success will be measured in birds.”

So far, results have been mixed. In 2017, the Audubon Society reported decent wading bird numbers, tallying more than 46,000 nests among seven species. This year’s census appear to show better numbers: Everglades National Park just reported the highest population of white ibis mating pairs in 70 years.

Much more work, however, is needed to return the Everglades to their heyday as a birdland paradise. Guy Bradley started that job 116 years ago. It will take a continued effort to ensure that he did not die in vain.

 
To learn more about Guy Bradley’s life and legacy, Mental Floss recommends Stuart McIver’s book, Death in the Everglades.

13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 86th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. Nina Simone was her stage name.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. She had humble beginnings.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. She was book smart ...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... with the degrees to prove it.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. Her career was rooted in activism.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. One of her most famous songs was banned.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. She never had a number one hit.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. She used her style to make a statement.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. She had many homes.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. She had a famous inner circle.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. You can still visit Simone in her hometown.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. You've probably heard her music in recent hits.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. Her music is still being performed.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Beyond Kellerman's: Inside the Real Catskill Resorts That Inspired Dirty Dancing

When you think of Dirty Dancing, or even just hear the first strains of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," you probably think of a single image: Jennifer Grey, in her diaphanous pink dress, being triumphantly lifted toward the heavens by the Adonis-like dance instructor played by the late Patrick Swayze.

Since its release in 1987, Dirty Dancing has remained a beloved mainstay for scores of fans, earning it a place in the popular film canon and endless re-showings on basic cable. Even dedicated fans, however, may be missing out on a fundamental aspect of the film that’s never directly addressed: its Jewish roots.

The movie’s setting, Kellerman's, is based on the numerous all-inclusive vacation spots aimed at Jewish travelers that dotted the upstate New York landscape throughout much of the 20th century—a constellation of resorts commonly known as the Borscht Belt. (The term was coined by Variety writer Abel Green as a reference to the hearty Eastern European soup that was ubiquitous on these hotels' menus.)

For the purposes of appealing to a broader audience, most references to the Jewish identity of resorts like Kellerman's were expunged from the movie. Still, even without many explicit references to Jewish life, Dirty Dancing—written by seasoned resort-goer Eleanor Bergstein—managed to get a lot of things right about the Borscht Belt. While the average viewer might not notice them, there are numerous nods to this resort culture embedded in the film.

 

Before grandiose resorts like the ones that inspired Kellerman's existed, enterprising Jewish families opened boarding houses in the Catskill Mountains during the early 20th century. Known as kucheleins, these bucolic locations were moderately priced respites for tenement-dwelling New Yorkers looking to beat the heat. The houses had communal kitchens, where fresh milk was the beverage of the day, thanks to the dairy farms prevalent in the area. (We'll come back to that later.)

Eventually, as Jewish families became more affluent—and these boarding houses became more successful—many of them expanded into sprawling resorts. And word got around that these sumptuous hotels were the places to see and be seen. The best known of them, including Grossinger's, Kutsher's, and the Concord, became institutions. Grossinger's alone counted Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, and Milton Berle among its guests. Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher at the hotel in 1955 (Fisher had been discovered there). Meanwhile, Kutsher's Country Club once welcomed stand-up comedians like Joan Rivers, Andy Kaufman, and Jerry Seinfeld (and employed a pre-NBA Wilt Chamberlain as a bellhop).

A vintage postcard shows a grand hotel in the middle of the wilderness.
Hotel Kaaterskill, 1903-1904
New York Public Library, Flickr // Public Domain

But there was a darker reason these elegant, upstate New York hotels were so popular with Jewish travelers beyond their boundless kosher meals. Anti-Semitism in the United States was an unfortunate, widespread fact of life for the first half of the 20th century, and many vacation spots throughout the country were "restricted," meaning Jews were not welcome. The Catskills resorts of the Borscht Belt offered an upscale experience without the risk of being turned away.

In the world of Dirty Dancing, outright mentions of Jewish culture are almost nonexistent. At best, several of the characters are reduced to borderline-lazy tropes in order to get the point across that they are Jewish without having to explicitly say it. Marjorie Houseman (Kelly Bishop) is a stereotypical Jewish mother, and Lisa Houseman (Jane Brucker) is a stereotypical a "Jewish American Princess."

And yet, even without mentioning religion, Dirty Dancing hits many aspects of the Borscht Belt experience spot-on.

Take, for instance, the mambo obsession that sweeps through Kellerman's in the movie, which takes place during the summer of 1963. It's not fictional in the slightest. In It Happened in the Catskills, an oral history of Borscht Belt culture, there are multiple descriptions of the mambo craze that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s.

One of the best accounts of the time comes from Jackie Horner, who served as a consultant on Dirty Dancing. Like the film's character Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), Horner was a Rockette for a time, and from 1954 to 1986, she taught dancing at Grossinger's. "All of us could do the routines that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did in Dirty Dancing," she said. "In fact, I used to bring the watermelon plugged with vodka to our staff parties just like in the movie."

As she explained, "every hotel, big or small, had a resident dance team" whose schedules were jam-packed with lessons and performances from sunup to sundown: "At 9:30 we started teaching, and we kept going until 6 o'clock, when we'd break for dinner. At 7, on a full stomach, we'd go right into dance rehearsal. At 9, we'd change into costumes for our 10 o'clock show. Then we'd dance with our pupils from 11 to 1."

Some of those pupils were indeed the "bungalow bunnies," like Dirty Dancing's bored housewife Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison). "The husbands only came up on weekends, so it was party time for them Monday through Friday," said Horner. "They took dance lessons from the male instructors during the day. At night, after the show, the male instructors came back to dance with the pupils. They kept themselves busy around the clock."

 

Another thing Dirty Dancing got right? The resorts' practice of hiring college students for summer and holiday gigs. He may have been the "villain" of the movie, but medical students like the weaselly waiter Robbie Gould (Max Cantor) were commonplace around the Borscht Belt. It was a win-win situation for many of these part-time workers. As Tania Grossinger wrote in her book Growing Up at Grossinger's, "In the summer, many college students applied for jobs as busboys, waitresses, or bellhops, where they could conceivably make $1500 a season in tips and salary, have virtually no expenses, and have a heck of a good time to boot."

And the film's love story is realistic, too. Those hotels were great places for matchmaking. My existence can attest to that. My parents met at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, over the Passover holiday in 1967. In a story that vaguely echoes that of Frances "Baby" Houseman (Grey) and Johnny Castle (Swayze), my father was working his way through college as a busboy and my mother was a high school junior, vacationing at the resort with her family. Years later, my extended family started a 15-year tradition of spending Passover in the mountains.

The exterior of a resort
Grossinger's, 1976
John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Unfortunately, the film also accurately alluded to the Borscht Belt's decline. Though some families—my own included—kept frequenting these resorts, even by the 1960s, these destinations were starting to lose their luster.

At the end of Dirty Dancing, resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) laments to bandleader Tito Suarez (Charles "Honi" Coles) that times are changing. The exchange is easy to overlook because it takes place mere seconds before Swayze's immortal "nobody puts Baby in a corner" line. But if you listen carefully, it becomes clear that Kellerman is the voice of a dying generation—and of a dying culture.

Max Kellerman: "You and me, Tito. We've seen it all. Bubba and Zeyda [ed. note: Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather] serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders. Through the war years when we didn't have any meat, through the Depression when we didn't have anything."

Tito Suarez: "Lots of changes, Max. Lots of changes."

Max Kellerman: "It's not the changes so much this time, Tito. It's that it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come up here with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it's all slipping away.”

Max Kellerman's realization that his resort is no longer the hotspot it was a decade or two earlier is on-point. (As is his reference to the ubiquity of milk at those boarding houses.) By the 1960s, air travel had become more reasonably priced, and restricted vacation locales were becoming a non-issue, especially after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

And with the culture shift of the late '60s hovering over these Borscht Belt resorts like an ominous cloud, it would become less and less likely that kids would be interested in coming up to the Catskills to take foxtrot lessons alongside their parents. Listen, Baby may have been all-in when it came to doing the mambo or grinding up on Johnny to "Cry to Me," but who's to say she'd still want to cha-cha-cha with him once she got a whiff of what John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to offer when Beatlemania hit the U.S. a few months later?

 

Max's melancholy observation was a harbinger of what was to come. Nowadays, these palatial hotels are nonexistent. The ones that still stand either cater to an ultra-Orthodox clientele (as in the case of the Raleigh) or, like Grossinger's, exist in a state of perpetual ruin.

Dirty Dancing may live on in our hearts and our memories (or rather, "voices, hearts, and hands") through streaming services like Netflix and endless cable reruns. But without some effort, the history of hotels like Kellerman's might be forgotten.

People rowing boats across a lake in front of a resort
Kutsher’s in Thompson, New York, 1977
John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

So maybe next time Dirty Dancing has its 5785th airing on TBS, before Baby and Johnny take the stage for the time of their lives once again, have a little sympathy for Max Kellerman's kvetching. Because believe it or not, there was a time, to quote Miss Frances Houseman, "before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came," when a joint like Kellerman's was a pretty cool place to hang.

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