I have a new favorite person, and her name is Ruth Shack. She’s the 85-year-old whirlwind who’s spent her life fighting for the arts, historic preservation, and civil rights in Miami. Last week she received the 2016 Miami Culture Champion Award in a gala event I was unable to attend because NYC is frozen and life sucks.
Shack may be best known as the sponsor of the 1977 Human Rights Ordinance in Miami-Dade County. A three-term county commissioner, she proposed an amendment to the county’s existing anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It passed. “I thought it was a very ethical and very Jewish thing, to fight against discrimination,” she told me in a telephone interview. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. But I was condemned by priests and rabbis and I got death threats. People forget that back in 1977, gay people could be fired, could be jailed, could be sent out of their homes and out of theaters. To see my friends going to jail just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was horrific.”
But Shack’s victory was short-lived. Some readers may recall singer/former beauty pageant-winner/citrus spokesmodel, Anita Bryant, who came out swinging with an anti-gay-rights campaign called “Save Our Children,” and Jerry Falwell followed her to Miami to help her fight the war. Shack’s ordinance was repealed, and Miami didn’t ban discrimination based on sexual orientation again until 1998.
Shack had some major victories during her tenure as commissioner, though. She was a huge advocate for Miami’s arts and architecture, sponsoring the county’s first historic preservation ordinance in 1981. She helped create South Beach’s Art Deco District. She convinced her colleagues to approve the artist Christo’s Surrounded Islands project, which wrapped 11 islands in Biscayne Bay in 6.5 million square feet of hot pink fabric. The installation brought attention to Miami as a trend-setting cultural destination, and Shack’s influence led to the formation of a serious art scene and the establishment of Art Basel in America, a huge annual contemporary art show. Ruth and her husband Richard built their own vast modern art collection, featuring works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and many more. They’ve donated many of the works to local museums.
“Ruth Shack is truly Miami’s cultural champion,” said Adolfo Henriques, chair of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council and CEO of Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust, the award ceremony’s sponsor. “She had the vision to bring together so many people to support, launch, and strengthen Miami’s cultural renaissance.”
Ruth is originally, of course, a Brooklynite. I asked her how she’d ended up in Miami. “I married the right man!” she told me. She and Richard were given two weeks in Miami as a wedding gift in 1953, and both immediately fell in love with the city. “We honeymooned the first week and found jobs the second week.”
Richard, who’d been a talent agent in New York City, opened a theatrical agency. Ruth became a nightclub manager. “I’d never been to a nightclub before,” she said. “They started up at 11 at night and they emptied at 7 in the morning. And I’d go out into the sun and I knew I was going to hell.” The duo found Miami impossibly glamorous, the ideal place for a fresh start. Richard had just gotten out of his second tour of duty—he done a stint in World War II and was called back to the Korean conflict. The lively, sunny spot seemed the perfect antidote.
But nothing’s perfect. “My activism started as soon as we got down here,” she said. “I was booking Black entertainers in the nightclubs and realizing they had to leave after dark; they weren’t allowed to stay in the hotels. That was shocking. We ran into all kinds of anti-Semitism ourselves when were looking for places to stay. Then I became active in politics and saw that women were seen as envelope stuffers, not candidates.” She threw herself into the fray. “One constant in Miami is change,” she pointed out.
She comes by her progressivism honestly. “I was born into a family of Bolsheviks,” she said, laughing. “My father carried on that activism—he was a good-looking man and was always asked to be the token Jew in the country club, the one Jew on the Chamber of Commerce…and he always said “I’d love to join! And I’d like to bring five or six friends!” and then the invitation disappeared.” She remembers him yelling at the radio as he listened to stories of injustices around the world. “I knew by the age of five or six I wanted to be one of those people who changed minds through the spoken word. Other girls wanted to be Shirley Temple; I wanted to be Huey Long.”
As for the art advocacy, it kind of just happened. “Richard and I realized if we wanted to see art we’d have to buy it,” she said. “So we built a collection. Everything was nascent back then, so we started museums. I laughed, “You were fearless!” Shack shot back, “I had no brains!”
Richard Shack died in 2012. I asked Shack how she’d like to be remembered. “I’d like to think my life mattered. I made a change. You know, I became a great-grandmother this week. It’s absolutely awesome. I have three splendid daughters and seven grandkids, and it’s such fun watching them find their niche and make their way in the world.” She paused. “I’ve always been excited to get up in the morning. There’s so much out there.”