|By Elinor J. Brecher, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 6, 2007 - Bernie Bercuson was a Miami Beach hotelier for seven decades -- a visionary who anticipated the "golden age" of Sunny Isles motels and bought and sold properties accordingly -- a prodigious collector of art both sophisticated and shlocky, and a quietly generous philanthropist to hospitals, museums and synagogues.
Canadian-born, Bercuson came to South Florida on vacation in 1937 and never left, except to guard a POW camp in Georgia during World War II. He died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at 91.
Bercuson spent his last 15 years in a Bal Harbour condo but had lived periodically at his hotels, some of them marvels of beachfront kitsch.
His favorite was the 130-room Aztec, built in 1956 at 15901 Collins Ave., said Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association and husband of Marlene Blumberg, one of Bercuson's nieces.
Nephew David Bercuson, an entertainment lawyer, remembers a Machu Picchu-style pyramid out front.
"Uncle Bernie had a lot of foresight," said David Bercuson. "He anticipated trends."
Sensing a shift in the public's tastes, he jettisoned more formal South and Mid-Beach hotels with lobbies for establishments farther north offering room-side parking.
At various times, Bercuson owned or co-owned the Ocean Grande, the Sherry-Frontenac, the Versailles, the Cadillac, Hallandale's Aristocrat, the Kimberly, the Del Rey and the Singapore, at 9601 Collins Ave.
The latter was a notorious hangout favored by mobster Meyer Lansky. Along with the Aztec, the Kimberly and the Del Rey got swept up in a late 1960s anti-organized crime offensive by then-Florida Attorney General Earl Faircloth.
Bercuson had nothing to do with gangsters, insisted Blumberg, who worked for his wife's uncle during the 1960s and 70s. Bercuson "went nuts every time it was printed," he said. "He tried to avoid it his whole life and it followed him around," because some of his partners were involved with the Lanskys in other ventures.
"I'm not sure anything ever came of it except a bunch of headlines," said retired Miami Herald investigations editor Jim Savage who, as a reporter, covered the Faircloth investigations. "In that era, it was like the communists: There was a mobster under every bed."
David Bercuson described his uncle as tough and aggressive, but "a whimsical character," a high-school graduate who was "one of the smartest men I knew. He read everything."
He retired about 15 years ago. "He became softer in his later years," said Blumberg, doting on his younger relatives. "Once he got out of the hotel business, he became a real mensch."
Married briefly in his 50s, Bercuson never had children. "He was a confirmed bachelor [and] the Frank Sinatra of his day, with the Cadillac, the cigar, the pinkie ring," said Blumberg. "He loved life and always dated lots of ladies."
In 1975, Bercuson met Manella Gianella at a frame shop he patronized. Soon she was accompanying him on trips to France, Italy, Spain, New York and Canada as a platonic companion.
Everywhere he went, he bought art, said Gianella, 59: "A lot of Picasso ceramic and lithographs, Chagall, Botero, Latin American artists -- anything that catches his eye."
He collected the American Impressionist Jack Amoroso and owned a Dale Chihuly glass flower sculpture. But he would also buy cheap tsotchkes at Walgreens and dubious paintings from street vendors, and display them among his valuable works.
"You never knew what was important and what wasn't," said David Bercuson.
In the 1990s, Bercuson donated much of his 130-piece collection of Picasso ceramics to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art and the University of Miami's Lowe Art Musuem.
Bercuson was buried Thursday at Lakeside Memorial Park in Doral.
In addition to six nieces and nephews, Gianella and her sister, Marianna Gianella Blum, he is survived by 11 grandnieces and nephews, one great-grandnephew, and his Yorkies, Rockie and Chi-Chi.
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