It’s absolutely certain that they shared two great passions.
Miami, and golf.
Yet in the public imagination, they were polar opposites.
Gleason could pop off into a rageful rant and let his temper bust. Nixon held his anger in check, even when frustrated at press conferences. Gleason smoked and drank heavily and struggled with a serious weight problem. Nixon was strictly disciplined in controlling his personal vices and even stuck to cottage cheese lunches to maintain his weight. Gleason blew his dough easily, especially pulling out the stops on the “Great Gleason Express,” his caravan on the rails with his band and fellow performers. Nixon was conservative about spending his own money.
More significantly, however, Gleason and Nixon fought and persevered to get ahead, perceiving themselves as the “little guy” given the shaft and trying to make the big time against the rich and powerful – even after they both became rich and powerful themselves. Gleason used this in creating often sad dreamers. Nixon used this in characterizing the “Great Silent Majority,” who supported him.
Gleason grew up in an extremely poor and emotionally barren childhood, his father abandoning the family, his sole sibling dying young. In 1935, when his last family member, his mother, died. He always remembered that he had 36 cents in his pocket. But the sadness of his early years and the struggle to be part of the larger world drove him. For fifteen years, he tried to make his way through vaudeville, theater, radio, and early television. He was nevertheless grateful for it all because, as he said, it fired him with “ambition.”
Nixon’s determination to succeed was not that dissimilar. He too watched a young brother die. Despite his excellent grades and acceptance into Harvard University, his family was unable to afford the train fare to send him cross-country. He always saw himself as the embodiment of the struggling underdog in America, someone who had to fight hard and without relent, doing whatever it took to get ahead. Within six years of being elected to Congress, he was elected Vice President. Then, in 1960 he lost the Presidential election to John F. Kennedy. Two years later, returning home to Southern California, he lost his election for Governor of the Golden State.
Nixon moved to New York in 1963 and became a high-powered attorney. But he never lost hope in attaining the supreme political success which had alluded him. A workaholic, Nixon found his only relief in round after round of golf. Once he moved to the East Coast, however, his time on the links was limited to the warmer months. He pined for a permanent place to escape winter’s cold and get in his golf.
At the same time, Jackie Gleason was finally hitting the big time. Extraordinarily talented, he won a Tony and was nominated for an Oscar. He wrote the screenplay for the poignant film Gigot, an isolated mute and wrote the film’s musical score. Without any formal training in music, he orchestrated over fifty-five record albums and penned the familiar themes of his two hit television shows. Perhaps no song is more closely associated with a television performer than Gleason’s composition “Melancholy Serenade, which opened his weekly hit CBS variety-show, The Jackie Gleason Show:
It was that show, with its familiar moments, which thrust Gleason into the U.S. Pop Culture of the 50s and 60s, and even into the early 70s. There was his welcome, as he appeared from behind swaying curtains, carrying a coffee cup and saucer (filled with whiskey, he suggested), the sweep of his hand and his cry, “And away we go…..!” A camera-angle shot from above featured a Busby Berkley-type dance routine from the June Taylor Dancers (the choreographer was his third wife’s sister).
Skits included the distinct characters he had painstakingly created: ”Reginald Van Gleason,” a high society figure, always in top hat and tails. ”Joe,” a philosophical bartender, always willing to lend an ear; the silent “Poor Soul,” an everyman who could never seem to succeed at even the smallest gesture; and “Rum Dumb,” a drunk who was as artistic at the pratfalls of physical comedy of Lucille Ball.
The hot-headed Brooklyn bus-driver always waiting for his ship to come in and release him from the humdrum grind of a working-class existence proved to be his signature character “Ralph Cramden,” and the basis for his other famous television series The Honeymooners.
And it only got better in 1964. That was the year Gleason moved his entire show, orchestra, Honeymoon co-stars Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, the June Taylor Dancers – everything, down to the one place he came to love the most and with which he was to be forever associated – South Florida’s Miami Beach.
Beneath the coconut trees and perpetual sun of South Florida, Gleason indulged what became his other great passion of golfing. He even bought a home that overlooked a golf course.
Someone else had taken a liking to golfing in Florida by that time as well.
Beginning in the 50s, during his Vice Presidential years, Nixon had begun enjoying fishing and swimming in the warmth of South Florida to break the cold winter months in Washington.
Even after John F. Kennedy defeated him in the 1960 presidential election, Nixon held his first meeting with him at the old Key Biscayne Hotel, in the Miami island suburb by the same name. Instead of just occasional golf weekends, by the late 60s, Nixon and his wife Pat began making lengthier respites during the holiday season and winter vacations to Florida as guests of their friend, Key Biscayne Bank president and owner Bebe Rebozo.
Just as he decided to make one more try for the political big time, Nixon purchased a modest, one-level, thick concrete-block house from his former U.S. Senate colleague, Florida’s George Smathers. It wasn’t far across the water from The Jackie Gleason Show. By 1967, Gleason and Nixon were frequent partners on the golf course and became close chums.
And by that time, as The Jackie Gleason Show continued into its second successful year from Miami, Richard Nixon was campaigning for the presidency.
It’s not clear who first approached who about an endorsement, but for the first time in his life, Jackie Gleason got behind a presidential candidate, deciding to publicly support Richard Nixon for President. He taped a one-minute long statement, more personal than political, which opened a televised Madison Square Garden Nixon rally in New York, on Halloween night in 1968. Here it is:
“Dick Nixon’s time has come,” Gleason concluded, “And so Madison Square Garden…away we go!’”
Once Nixon began his term as President, the public became familiar with news squibs about his frequent weekend trips to Key Biscayne, Florida being a far shorter flight from Washington than La Casa Pacifica, his other sunny getaway, his home in San Clemente, California, dubbed “The Western White House.” The Florida retreat, at 490 Bay Lane, was known as “The Winter White House.”
“From the sun and fun capital of the world, Miami Beach! It’s The Jackie Gleason Show!,” as the voice-over opening line of the show exclaimed while the camera panned across the blue water to the shoreline seemed just as relevant to the man from the dark and anxious capital up north as well.
Throughout the first Nixon term, whenever the President went down to Key Biscayne with his family he took time out to golf and could always count on his pal Jackie as a partner on the links. The President even played in one of Gleason’s charity golf tournaments, on February 19, 1973. Nixon made over 50 trips to the Winter White House as President.
Entering his second term already shadowed by the growing Watergate scandal, however, Nixon made more frequent escapes on his own to Florida, increasingly out of reach to the press corps which always traveled with him. And a particular story which had him seeking the companionship of his pal Gleason while retreating even further, from his Secret Service agents, led to what seems to have been the reason for the performer’s eventual disenchantment not so much with Nixon as with politics and the government in general.
Jackie Gleason had a passionate fascination with the possibilities of UFOs and space aliens, amassing such a private library on the subject that it was later considered significant enough to have donated to the University of Miami.
According to his estranged wife Audrey McKittrick, in an interview she granted, during President Nixon’s trip to Miami to play in Gleason’s 1973 charity golf tournament, he personally drove the performer in the dead of night to nearby Homestead Air Force Base.
McKittrick said that her ex-husband had returned home in the wee hours of the morning, greatly upset.
When she pressed him on what troubled him, Gleason allegedly replied that he’d seen the remains of unearthly being which had, at first, looked to him like “mangled children” who were “only about two feet tall, with bald heads and disproportionately large ears.” Nixon had shown Gleason the fragments of a fallen spaceship and the remains of aliens killed in the crash. So the story went.
That a U.S. President could elude his Secret Service detail and drive his own car to a friend’s house, then continue undetected to an Air Force Base seems to make the whole tale a tall. According to recollections of a former Secret Service agent, however, he was warned that Nixon was not above attempting to escape their perpetual watch and furthermore, in that very same year, looked into potentially limiting his detail protection.
Was McKittrick fibbing? If Gleason did tell her the story, was he teasing her? If Nixon had brought Gleason to the air force base, was it all a gag?
Perhaps the most peculiar of related allegations Gleason had told his wife was that President Nixon shared not just his love of golf and South Florida, but also a curiosity for potential alien life.
When her story was picked up by the tabloid press, Gleason was incensed at the violation of something he’d told her in private - so she said.
It might also be that Gleason had told a whopper to his wife and had actually just gone to hang out with the President without her, and was then embarrassed that she retold the story and humiliated him and Nixon. The story lingered mostly in the tabloid newspapers for years; only recently has it been given more serious review by those in the scientific community investigating all potential truth in alien-and-UFO related claims.
What is true, however, is that Gleason never denied the claim, even in private and, separated from McKittrick at the time the story broke, he never spoke with her again.
Nor did Gleason continue to play golf with President Nixon after 1973. It may have been a factor of scheduling. Perhaps, if some type of similar incident had occurred as a joke, Gleason may have felt his belief in UFOs were being ridiculed. Although not particularly political by nature, it may have been the Watergate scandal, then just burgeoning, which upset Gleason. Or, was it the confirmation of aliens his ex-wife claimed Gleason claimed that Nixon had shown him?
When later pressed on the matter, Gleason allegedly confirmed the tale to a friend, but more than anything, “ he was very upset that the government would not share this information with the public.”
Tomorrow: A Rare Glimpse at the Key Biscayne, Florida “Winter White House” of President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon.
Meanwhile, here’s a final clip of Gleason set to another one of his trademark jingle tunes:
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