by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 4: The Chief
The same year he was busy building the "Old Nest", Papa began thinking about running for office. He was well-known in town, and well-liked. He had a lot of friends on the growing Miami police force, and several had suggested he run for chief. Miami's Chief of Police was elected in those days, and after talking it over with his family, Papa decided to run. After all, his father had been elected Marshall of Key West; why shouldn't he be Miami's Chief of Police? The fact that he had absolutely no experience at law enforcement didn't seem to matter to him or the voters. It was truly a popularity contest, and he was popular.
When the votes were counted, there was a big celebration and in the center of it all, Chief Dillon received a magnificent gift from the force-a sold gold badge, elaborately decorated with the palm tree symbol of Miami, and the word "Chief" emblazoned across the front. On the back of the badge, beautiful engraving records his name and the year, "Raymond M. Dillon, 1917." Today, that badge is one of our family's treasures, glittering gold and in perfect condition.
That day in 1917, Adelaide and his children were proud, but the new position in the spotlight also meant a much more public life for the young Dillon family. Papa was only 33, one of the youngest chiefs ever, and Mama, just 31. The children were 10, 8, and 4 with one more baby to arrive two years later.
As for running the Police Department, as soon as his term began, Papa became very serious about it. He was smart enough to know that he would be supervising some well-experienced men, and the way the city was growing, the job became more important with each passing day. Looking back, the local residents at this time thought Miami's growth was wonderful, but they surely had no idea what they were facing. Chief Dillon took over the Miami Police Department when it had 30 officers, he was elected for a second term, and by the time his 4 years as chief ended in 1921, the force numbered 352. The almost unbelievable growth up until that time gave Miami its still-applicable nickname of "The Magic City", but even in 1921, the growth had barely begun. The 1920's will always be called "The Boom" in South Florida, and even when Papa left the force in 1921, they literally "hadn't seen nothin' yet.."
For Mama, being the Chief's wife wasn't all prestige. It seems the jail had no kitchen, so a plan was made for her to cook all the meals for the prisoner population at the jail, which in those days numbered between 10 and 20 men. As unimaginable as it seems today, she was asked to prepare everything in her big new kitchen at home, and have the food trundled downtown to the jail by one of the police officers every day. That meant more heavy work for Mama, who had done all the cooking and cleaning for her stepmother's rooming house, and now, she was to cook for the prisoners in addition to her growing family. All with no help. In later years, she never complained about it all. Instead, she viewed it as an adventure, and was always happy to do whatever was needed.
For Papa, being Chief was something he enjoyed, and it made him even more well-known in town. He cut a dashing figure in his uniform, and everyone took notice, especially the ladies. Papa was always a man of great charisma, and friendly to everyone. One of his old friends once told me, "Ray was the No. 1 man about town in the old days." From all the stories I've heard all my life, I understood completely.
A few years before he was chief, a famous man named James Deering had arrived in Miami, and begun building what was to be the grandest estate ever created in South Florida. Villa Vizcaya rose on the shore of Biscayne Bay, with a mansion copied after a famous Italian palace, hundreds of acres all around it, ten of which were developed into magnificent fountain gardens that were arrayed around the villa's terraces and verandas. Today Vizcaya with all its priceless furnishings is owned by the county, and is one of Miami's top visitor attractions. It's always the place for formal visits to the city by Popes and Presidents.
The building of Vizcaya had begun in 1912, the year Henry Flagler finished the railroad to Key West, and the two projects had something in common. Both required thousands of workers. When Vizcaya's mansion, fountains, grand walls and entrances were being built, more than a fourth of the little city's workforce was employed there, but that wasn't enough. Hundreds more were brought in, many from Europe, to create the statuary and other artistic treasures which were created on site, joining thousands of precious antique paintings, statues and furniture Mr. Deering's traveling designers were shipping from France, Italy and Greece by the boatload. James Deering was the heir to the International Harvester fortune, and money was no object. Vizcaya took four years to build, so when Papa was chief of police, it was brand new.
The Police Chief, of course, became a friend of Mr. Deering's and visited his magnificent new home often. Papa always told us how Mr. Deering, who had a large private yacht, and welcomed famous guests from places like New York and Newport all the time, was very interested in the waters around Miami and the history of the area. After all, the tropical jungle on his estate and the clear blue bay directly in front of the beautiful mansion were all brand new to this wealthy man from the Midwest. He was somewhat of an intellectual, and when he was in residence, he had plenty of time to absorb the local color. That was Raymond Dillon's specialty, of course, and the two became quite close friends.
Close enough, in fact, that when Chief Dillon's fourth child was born in 1919, he was down on the waterfront at Vizcaya spearing crabs with Mr. Deering. A servant ran out on the bay front terrace and called to Captain Dillon to come up immediately to receive an important call. Then she plugged the new-fangled phone she was carrying into a jack in the stone base of one of the nearby statues and offered the handset to Papa. Villa Vizcaya had telephones everywhere.
The baby was a girl, and Adelaide and Raymond named her Ruth, after Adelaide's sister. Right then and there, Mr. Deering, who had no children, asked if he could add a middle name of his choosing. He chose Rosemary, a name my aunt never liked. But certainly she did like the gifts that followed until Mr. Deering's death. He sent little dresses from Paris, toys from New York, and other exotic gifts that only he could provide. As she always joked, she was in his heart, but not in his will.
My mother, just 7 at the time, remembers having a wonderful time "playing in the fountains" at Vizcaya, as hundreds of servants and gardeners worked all around her. The Dillons had special access.
Meanwhile, back at the Police Department, Papa quickly found out that being Chief was not all fun. Political squabbles cropped up quickly. A new Police Commissioner and the Mayor decided to replace almost half the force without even consulting the new Chief. A major building burned down in the black section of the city, and the Police were accused of taking their time getting to the crisis scene and not doing much once they were there. But as one of the city's histories says, "Despite the fractious political situation and two near race riots, Chief Dillon made impressive gains." He oversaw the installation of the first police call boxes around town, and hired the first policewoman to work with delinquent girls.
Of course World War I began the same year as Papa's police career. The war led to Miami's Dinner Key becoming the home of a new Naval Air Station, and there were various other new military installations around town. The military brought the Military Police with them, and the MP's joined with Chief Dillon's department to beef up local law enforcement. Gambling, bootlegging and prostitution began to be more than just annoyances in Miami, and gave the city just a small preview of things to come. Papa's entire four years in the Department were highlighted by "clean-up campaigns" when the girls and the booze would be rounded up. A book about the history of the Miami Police Department says "Chief Dillon received major community support after he announced the police had ended prostitution in Miami." I can just imagine Papa making such a grand overstatement with a straight face.
Even back then, the city fathers were very concerned about tourism, and tended to wink at the "evils" that many of the northern visitors came to Miami to enjoy. In Papa's day, this small town corruption was nothing compared to what was to come in the twenties and thirties when even Al Capone made Miami home. But it was made clear to Papa that the police were not to stand in the way of tourists enjoying themselves. And they didn't.
Prohibition became federal law in 1919, in the midst of Chief Dillon's administration, but he had been dealing with problems of rum-running from Cuba and the local speakeasies for years. By law, Miami had been "dry" for six years before the federal law was passed. But as anyone could guess, Miami was never really "dry."
And then in 1921, Miami's city government went thorough a dramatic change when it switched to a reform-based commissioner-manager form. From then on, the Police Chief would be appointed by the city manager, not elected. Papa didn't like this new system, and the people running it didn't like him.
Miami's first City Manager under the new system was a man named Colonel Charles Coe. And although Col. Coe lasted only four months, that was long enough to fire the Police Chief who had opposed the new form of government. It happened just a few weeks before Papa's second 2-year term expired.
As he said years later, "Doggone, I believe the Police Chief should be elected by the people! Not appointed by some crook." So now that the chief would be appointed, Papa decided to run for Sheriff. He knew he was still popular with the people, and the sheriff's job was up for election.
He quickly planned to run, and if family history is any gauge, the main thrust of his campaign was a song created by his family-so typical of the Dillons. All Chief Dillon's kids and their cousins piled into the back of an old pickup truck, and rode around town for days singing to the tune of a popular song of the day, "Oh Yes, We Have no Bananas."
Even the song didn't work. He lost the election, and that was the end of Papa in law enforcement and politics.
But it wasn't the end of his campaign song. I remember my mother and her sisters singing it just for fun whenever they'd get together over the next 50 years.
That same year, there was a Presidential election in Cuba. Even while Chief of Police, Papa had visited the island often, usually on hunting trips with a large group of friends from Miami and Havana, since he had always had many friends in both cities.
And in these years, his position as Chief had introduced him to even more people in Cuba, but of course, as always, he was close friends with everybody he met, from taxi drivers to important politicians. By this time, he had learned to speak fluent Spanish, but since we always joked about his less-than-perfect command of English, we wondered about his Spanish. In any case, his personality fit perfectly with his Cuban friends, who were almost always smiling and happy, and they never criticized his Spanish. As Papa used to say, "Cubans are the best-natured people in the world." He loved them.
One of his hunting buddies was a Cuban man named Alfredo Zayas, probably one of the most unlikely friends Papa ever had. . When Papa met him, Zayas was Mayor of Havana, and probably enjoyed knowing Chief Dillon, and joining in his hunting parties. But I wonder if Papa ever knew this man's background.
Zayas was a highly intellectual lawyer and poet from an aristocratic family who had earlier served Cuba as prosecutor, judge, Secretary of the Constitutional Convention, Senator, President of the Senate, and Vice President. And since this was a man who mixed literature with politics, he also served years as co-editor of the highly respected journal, "Cuba Literaria."
Most important to Papa, I'm sure, was that Zayas was one of the big heroes of the Spanish American War, fought in 1898, and of course, a huge event to everyone in Key West and Miami. Since the US had helped Cuba win its independence from Spain, Papa surely had high respect for Zayas who was a major Cuban patriot. Zayas also had two important brothers-a doctor who had been another great revolutionary and had been killed during the War, and another who was Cuba's longtime Minister to Paris and Brussels. Somehow, with his 5th grade education and lots of charm, Papa mixed with such people with ease. No one intimidated him, and he treated everyone the same, obviously the key to his popularity.
When Zayas announced that he was to be a candidate for Cuba's presidency, Papa had a plan. He contacted another close friend in Havana who was a sea captain named Monolo Itturiaga. The Itturiagas and the Dillons had been friends for decades, visiting in each other's homes regularly. Both knew Zayas, and were excited about his campaign. The two seaman got together, and decided that if their hunting friend won the election, they'd present him with an elaborate inaugural gift. Papa's idea was to have a large ship model made, and named after Senora Zayas, "Maria." I don't know if the two men had the model made in Havana or Miami, but it is a magnificent three-masted ship, fully rigged with working pulleys and yardarms, flagged as a US warship during the Spanish-American War. The hull is carved from one piece of mahogany, and is 37" long from bow to stern. The whole ship is set in painted waves of plaster, and has a 4-foot long glass case with matching mahogany frame. There are little cast iron soldiers on deck, and at the wheel, a small Chinese boy doll. I learned years later that the doll is there because Alfredo Zayas' nickname was "El Chino", or "The Chinaman", since everyone thought he had a very oriental way of quietly analyzing everything.
When Election Day arrived, and Alfredo Zayas won, the big gift was ready, and presented in Havana. From that day in 1921, until he left office in 1925, the ship model was on display in Havana's Presidential Palace.
In his few remaining years after leaving office, Zayas published his major literary work, the 2-volume "Lexicografia Antillana" and served as the President of the "Academia de la Historia" in Cuba.
But when he died, Senora Zayas decided to return many of his Presidential inaugural gifts. The ship model came back to Miami, and I remember it at Papa's house when I was little. As I grew a little older, he told me he thought I was the only grandchild he had who showed any interest in ships, so he gave me the big model of the "Maria" when I was 11. From that day to this, it has been one of our family's greatest treasures-the large ship in its big glass case. I show it to all my Cuban friends in Miami today, and tell them about Alfredo Zayas, Monolo Iturriaga and Papa.