Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance author and activist who lives in South Florida. Reach him at email@example.com.
by Jesse Monteagudo
Recently the Express, a South Florida gay newspaper, published an article by Kendall Natvig about South Beach’s changing social scene. ”In the 1980s and ‘90s,” Natvig told us, “South Beach was a major hub of gay nightlife. The place throbbed with the energy of house music, and throngs of gay revelers descended on the place both in and out of season.” Alas, “in the last decade, changes have taken place that have recast Miami Beach’s gay image. It is still a gay destination. But today’s South Beach nightlife scene is much more of a gay-straight melting pot.” Most of the great clubs that made the SoBe scene was it was in its golden age are closed; and many of the beautiful people who populated those clubs have gone elsewhere (if they are still alive). And so it goes.
Fortunately for posterity, Gwen Cooper has captured the spirit of South Beach during its heady nineties heyday in her first novel, Diary of a South Beach Party Girl. Herself a fourth generation Miami Beach native – in itself a noteworthy achievement – Cooper moved to SoBe in 1997, where she gained a reputation as a columnist and local personality. Though Diary of a South Beach Party Girl is a work of fiction – with most of the names changed to protect the guilty – there is much of Cooper’s own “party girl” experiences in her Diary. But you have to have been there to know for sure.
Cooper’s party girl is Rachel Baum, a young woman who, like Cooper herself, moves from the suburbs to the Beach in the mid-90’s in search of excitement. Before long, Rachel is living la vida loca and gaining a reputation for herself as a “diva-in-residence.” Like many others before or since, Baum is seduced by “a town [that’s] in the business of seduction;” a small town “like Peyton Place with Art Deco and movie stars.” As Rachel (or Gwen) aptly puts it, “the life of a straight girl living and dating on South Beach was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or since. No place else can you find yourself flying on a billionaire’s private jet one day and driving your boyfriend to a crack house the next – all while maintaining a nine-to-five job.” But even while she is unemployed – which is often – Rachel is able to enjoy all that South Beach has to offer: “There were a few simple rules – most of them tacit – that you had to live by, but if you did, the island was yours. You were invited to all the parties, guest-listed at all the doors, and you could even get your picture in all the local papers and magazines. You could live like a millionaire, with millionaires, and never pay a cent for anything.” Along the way, Rachel experiences a series of star-crossed romances with an assortment of men, most notably the mysterious, college-educated hoodlum John Hood.
Often lacking male heterosexual company, Rachel finds friendship and support from an unlikely circle of gay male friends: “nightlife celebrity” Ricky Pascal, Kojo Goldstein and Mike Becker. Gwen Cooper’s gay characters do more than pepper her narrative with comic relief or local color. As she explains, “one of the things about Diary I’m most proud of is that it doesn’t position its gay characters in any stereotypical fashion – where they show up just long enough to make a few bitchy wisecracks and then take the heroine shopping for shoes. . . .The [gay] denizens of Diary are realistically drawn and very unique individuals, and aren’t positioned as simply Rachel’s sidekicks. If anything, you get the sense that they probably view Rachel as their sidekick.”
Rachel Baum, like Gwen Cooper and countless other SoBe women, is quick to acknowledge and accept the importance of gay men in her life and that of turn-of-the-millennium South Beach. She agrees with her friend Ricky, who early on tells her that “it’s the gay men you have to impress if you want to make it in this town.” Though Rachel disapproves of her friends’ sexual promiscuity she nevertheless loves them as friends and brothers. Together, Rachel and Company form a supportive social circle that holds fast through thick and thin. As Rachel says, “all three of them – Ricky, Kojo, and Mike – were loud and raucous and hilarious, and they lived and loved to such excess that I didn’t always know how to keep up with them. But despite (or probably because of) all that, they very quickly became my family away from family. I still can’t imagine how I would have lived my life on the Beach without them.” Rachel’s gay friends “gave me my first exposure to the more overtly gay subculture of South Beach – at clubs like Twist, Paragon, Salvation, and Loading Zone.” Rachel’s friends also provide her with financial and moral support whenever she loses a job or a man (which is often).
Survivors of SoBe’s golden age will pore through this book with fine tooth combs, trying to figure out who Cooper’s “imaginary” characters are really supposed to be. Cooper doesn’t make things any better by mixing real-life personalities like Chris Paciello and Thomas Kramer among their fictional counterparts. On the other hand, those of us who were never part of South Beach society will enjoy Diary of a South Beach Party Girl for what its author intended it to be: an exciting and entertaining novel about a very interesting character who lives her life in a world that most of us can only dream about.
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