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Bernice Novack, former model and wife of Fontainebleau hotelier
[April 09, 2009]

Bernice Novack, former model and wife of Fontainebleau hotelier

Apr 09, 2009 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Bernice Novack, a foster child-turned-1950s fashion model and one half of the husband-and-wife team that brought the Fontainebleau Hotel to Miami Beach, died earlier this week from injuries sustained during a recent slip and fall. She was 87.

The second of hotelier Ben Novack's three wives, it was Bernice who was at Ben's side -- entertaining both celebrities and world leaders -- when the Fontainebleau opened in 1954.

Ben and Bernice met in New York in the late 1940s. Ben had already moved to Miami, but the Brooklyn native was then still a frequent visitor to the Big Apple, according to their son, Ben Jr.

Bernice, after a bumpy childhood that included time in a foster home, worked as a fashion model for the likes of Salvador Dali and Coca-Cola. Her hair was a vibrant red -- a color it would remain all her days.

"He flipped for her," Ben Jr. said.

But there was a more than slight problem: Ben was still married to his first wife at the time.

MARRIED MAN "She didn't want to date a married man and made it very clear to him," Ben Jr. said. 'A year later or two years later he showed up with a divorce certificate and said, 'Now can we date?' " The couple married in 1951, and Ben Jr. was born five years later. He grew up living in the Fontainebleau's penthouse suite.

"It was a glamour life," Ben Jr. said. He remembered, as a child, meeting every president from Kennedy to Ford and watching his parents mingle with "Rat Pack" celebrities like Frank Sinatra.

Over time, the hotel became a celebrity in its own right, featured in movies that included Goldfinger and Scarface.

What made the Fontainebleau special? Where to start? There was its glittery sophistication, its unconventional, crescent-shaped design.

It was also just plain big -- 535 rooms when it opened, more than 1,500 rooms today.

"The Novack family built a magnificent hotel," said Michael Aller, tourism and convention director for the city of Miami Beach. "It was a five-star hotel . . . the most elegant place to vacation in the world." But in the late 1970s, after Ben and Bernice had divorced, Miami Beach had fallen on hard times. Ben Novack Sr. declared bankruptcy.

The self-dubbed "Mr. Fontainebleau" was stripped of his hotel -- by then a national landmark -- by the courts.

Despite their divorce, Bernice and Ben Sr. "never really parted ways," their son said, and Bernice was on hand in 1983 when Ben's personal art and artifact collection was auctioned off.

IN STORAGE Bernice arrived clad in a tan jumpsuit, white hose and tan heels, her bright hair perfectly coiffed. She told The Miami Herald that watching the items sold off didn't bother her -- after all, they'd been in storage for years.

"You lose the sentiment for it," she said. "They just become objects. I hope the people who buy them find great happiness with them." Ben missed the auction -- he was in a hospital bed being treated for high blood pressure. He died two years later, and Bernice was Ben's primary care-giver and companion in those final years, her son said.

When it came to the Fontainebleau's design, Ben Jr. said his mother played a key role in coming up with the antiques and decor that helped make the place famous.

Ben Jr. said it was his father, not hotel architect Morris Lapidus, who came up with the signature curved building design.

CURVED DESIGN Ben Sr. had the inspiration while sitting on the toilet, his son said, and settled upon a curved shape so that three-quarters of the hotel rooms would enjoy a view of the ocean.

"It had nothing to do, really, with art," Ben Jr. said.

The Fontainebleau nowadays still curves -- and many of its original architectural features have been preserved -- but in other ways it is unrecognizable from its 1950s debut. New owner Jeffrey Soffer completed a $500 million renovation of the property last year, a face-lift that included a new glass-walled spa, 11 restaurants and bars, and an elaborate pool deck.

Neither Bernice nor her son saw the remade hotel, however. Ben Jr. says they weren't invited to the grand opening.

Services will be 4 p.m. Friday at Beth David Memorial Gardens, 3201 N. 72nd Ave., Hollywood. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting a donation to the Broward County Humane Society in Bernice's name.

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