More reliant on the winter tourist season than is California, Florida did not often trouble itself with subtlety in pool design or in the application of color. Hotels like the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc built enormous, extravagant pools to contain the million-footed beast blown down from the north.
"Almost every old Miami Beach postcard will show you a pool." says architect Laurinda Spear, whose firm designed the new International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. "And every postcard showed the building very small and the pool very big, because they felt they had to seduce you."
Bigger was always better in Florida, and biggest of all was the L-shaped pool of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. At 240 feet long and 150 feet wide it was for many years the largest hotel swimming pool in the world. Built in 1926, the Biltmore pool eclipsed even the nearby Venetian, a mammoth 820,000-gallon hole left by the excavation of the coral rock quarry from which many of the original homes in Coral Gables were built.
Alexander Ott's Water Follies had run for two years at the Venetian Pool before settling in at the Biltmore in 1929 for what became a 13-year run at the height of the Depression. The show often drew crowds of 3,000 people on Sunday afternoons, and it was to follow the exploits of Alexander Ott's son, Jackie Ott, the Aqua Tot, that many of them came.
Jackie was the world's most beautiful child, winner of six baby beauty contests. "My mother would curl my hair and put lipstick and eyeliner on me, and I was hard to beat in those baby contests," he says. He became friends with headliners such as Olympic skater Sonja Henie, the Flying Wallendas and magician Harry Houdini. The great Houdini had himself shackled and locked inside a trunk, then lowered into the Biltmore pool, a watery grave from which he escaped by the narrowest of margins.
Jackie Ott later became friends with Johnny Weissmuller, who was a regular in Alexander Ott's show at the Biltmore pool long before he went to Hollywood and became Tarzan. Weissmuller supposedly never drank anything stronger than milk, but that didn't stop him from behaving strangely. "He was seen running up and down the halls of the hotel one night with no clothes on, chasing this girl," Ott says. "Johnny was like a big kid, always pulling fire alarms, having the time of his life."
In John Cheever's short story The Swimmer, the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, decides to swim home through suburban Connecticut via his neighbors' backyard pools. It is a story of loss, but one that begins with much promise. Water is neither wonderful nor weightless in Merrill's world; it has specific gravity.
He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.... The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way....
And if not friends, well, at least when they carted him off to the loony bin he would be in shape. The pool boy, his muscular prose rippling with the upper body strength of 10 novelists, has an inexplicable contempt for men who do not hurl themselves into the literary whirlpool. I swim the water-containment beat—bottled water, mottled water, hot-water bottle. I am the treader of water, treater of words, here to remove the scum of the earth from your filter.