(Eric Smith next to the Annie Leibovitz photo of his adored Irene Williams, the “Queen of Lincoln Road,” at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. Photo by Jordan Levin.)
Irene Williams, the fierce, elderly fashion iconoclast being celebrated in the show Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU this summer, was a singular character even in early 90’s South Beach, when having an original personality and fashion sense were considered laudable, if not essential, missions in life. She was her own landmark, a tiny woman who walked Lincoln Road every day in bright, head-to-toe color-coordinated (Purple! Red! Green! Orange! Pink!) outfits she made herself, out of towels, fuzzy toilet seat covers, vinyl, and the like. She even made her own hats, which tended to look like puffy caps with a kind of tufted helmet ornament.
There was a lot less to look at on Lincoln Road then: fewer people, fewer stores and restaurants, less shrubbery, everything still a bit faded. In the summers of the late 80’s it seemed empty of everyone but a few cats and homeless people trying to shelter from the relentless sun. And so Williams really stood out. Who was that tiny woman, plowing along with her head down? Why did she dress like that? How could you explain her, and why would you want to? She was perfect, an exotic of her own invention, someone you couldn’t imagine until she paraded past you in an elaborate pink and orange visual algorithm.
For the show we have to thank Eric Smith, a frequent visitor from New York who, when he met Williams in late 1994, started asking questions and filming her answers. The 40-something gay man and the 70-something woman became close friends. Soon after Williams, then 87, died in 2004, Smith made a short documentary about his friend, which has gone on to 100 film festivals, including the Miami Beach Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, whose directors first encouraged him to make Queen of Lincoln Road. Williams also left Smith her collection of hats, clothing and memorabilia, and so we also have to thank the Jewish Museum for immediately saying yes when Williams offered to donate her belongings.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/218967266″>Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road ©2004 World Love Productions, Inc (TRT 23 min)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user60234453″>eric</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
“One day I saw this vision in pink,” Williams said last Thursday, at the show’s opening. In a Williams-esque spirit of color coordination, he was dressed in a black and white check jumpsuit, cap and sneakers. “The next day she was in green. The next day she was in purple. This is a story about individuality and not caring what other people think.”
Which may explain the interest in this obscure little show about an obscure personality on South Beach before it became celebrity-driven and over-trafficked, when it was still a playground for artists and characters and hustlers and misfits and fashionistas and creatives and promoters and clubbers and designers and all sorts of people who had an idea they wanted to bring to life and found the imaginative and physical space to do it on South Beach. Plus those who just wanted to have fun. Like the East Village in the 80’s, South Beach in the early 90’s was a place where a small circle of people treasured each others’ originality and fabulousness, because pretty much nobody else would.
The opening last Thursday filled the museum, and drew some of the pillars of that time, including Merle and Danny Weiss, two of the show’s sponsors. Merle wore a matching pink Pucci dress and shoes, Danny a pink seersucker suit with Pucci tie ($1 in a thrift store), pocket square and belt. Merle’s Closet was an institution in early South Beach, a Lincoln Road thrift store that was a go-to fashion source for nightlifers and the drag queens that were the neighborhood’s biggest stars. Fernando Garcia, a designer who was part of the group of young, often Cuban-American, artists and fashion kids who first colonized South Beach (Garcia once staged a fashion show for a party the Miami International Film Festival threw for Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, involving gothic girls in ripped and painted wedding and quince dresses – Almodovar loved it) and Laura Quinlan, the Rhythm Foundation co-founder who started at the Cameo Theater when it presented the likes of Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dee-Lite instead of champagne for $500 a bottle, who always used to go out together, came out together. Israel Sands, whose store Flowers & Flowers (by Books & Books) was one of the first glamorous businesses on Lincoln Road, was there; he and Merle would see Irene walking Lincoln Road, from her apartment at one end to her office, where she made a living as a stenographer (typist) and notary public, at the other. (She typed Sands’ final college term paper for him, which he paid for by selling shoes at Neiman Marcus.)
Twenty-somethings have long gone to the likes of New York or South Beach to invent themselves, seeking places that would accept their new identities when their home towns/suburbs or families wouldn’t. Irene Williams did the same, but later. She came to Miami Beach in the late 40’s, lived frugally, and never married. She was combatively independent. At the opening Smith told of how, when relatives insisted Irene wear black to a family funeral, she showed up in bright red vinyl. When Annie Leibovitz wanted to photograph Williams in an ensemble she’d made of blue and green Pierre Cardin towels, she called Smith to ask if she should allow this strange lady to take her picture – and then charged her day rate for stenography services. What aspiring Influencer would tell a famous photographer that now?
Included in the show are some of the indignant letters Williams wrote to businesses and people she thought mistreated her. These included Orson Welles, who used her services and didn’t live up to her standards. “All I can say is that when I woke up this morning I felt that I was just released from “bondage”,” reads her missive to a Hollywood assistant. “No amount of money could compensate for this man’s demands. He is just beyond belief!”
So, these days, is an Irene Williams. Impossible to imagine her becoming a Queen of Lincoln Road anytime in the last decade. She’d be too odd. She wouldn’t be able to afford to live on South Beach, or, anywhere but the farthest outskirts of Miami. But it’s not just the tsunami of gentrification that would rule out an iconoclast like Williams. The more anyone can be famous online, the more normal they become – on some level, you’re mass marketing yourself, and so you have to think about what will appeal to the most people. Instead of spending your life defining yourself on your own brilliantly color-coordinated terms, because really, what could be more fabulous?
Irene Williams: The Queen of Lincoln Road, is on view until Nov. 5 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-672-5044. Admission $6, open 10am to 5 pm Tuesday to Sunday.