Monday, September 16, 2013

This is Ellie Brecher's last week at the Miami Herald

Miami Herald staff writer Ellie Brecher, center, with colleagues
Howard Cohen, left, and Leonard Pitts.

She's never been featured in a commercial for Mexican beer, but Miami Herald writer Ellie Brecher just may be the most interesting reporter in the world.

Ellie was born in New York City. Her grandfather, Leo Brecher, was one of the founders of Harlem's Apollo Theater.

In the 1960s, she was a proud, card-carrying hippie who dropped out of college to join the Students for a Democratic Society, leading "anti-Vietnam War activities at the University of Oklahoma/Norman," according to her website.

After Oklahoma, she moved to Arizona "and lived a counterculture lifestyle until 1975, when she enrolled in an English course at the University of Arizona, while serving as head waitress at the historic El Charro Mexican restaurant downtown," her website says.

Somewhere along the way, Ellie's antiwar activities were noticed by the FBI and agents started a file on her.

Herald staffer Hannah Sampson recalls that when she heard the anecdote from a colleague, her first thought was. "I always knew she was a bad-ass, but that kind of confirmed it."

In 1977, Ellie joined the staff of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for 12 years.

In May 1989, she was hired by the Herald as a features writer in Broward.

In the 24 years since joining the paper, Ellie has "done everything there is to do here," says her best friend and colleague, Carol Marbin Miller.

"Everything" includes reporting stories from Haiti, Israel and Germany, and from Ground Zero on 9/11.

She's also profiled characters as diverse as designer Gianni Versace, pornographer Al Goldstein, a Pompano Beach husband and wife who ran a company that made instructional sex videos for couples, and controversial talk show host Neil Rogers. (On the air, Rogers often referred lovingly to Ellie as, "that psychotic bitch from the Herald.")

In the early 90s, Ellie managed to get on the bad side of a newsroom honcho and was punished with a demotion to fashion editor.

For the past few years, Ellie has been the paper's obituary writer. And its animal rights writer. And its religion writer. And a general assignment writer. All simultaneously.

“It’s not easy being an obit writer,” said her long-time editor Heidi Carr. “You’re having to talk to loved ones at the most difficult time in their lives, and pull out anecdotes that made the deceased so very special.”

"Ellie," Carr said, "quickly made family and friends feel comfortable, and instead of grieving, they were laughing and recalling joyous moments."

“The only bad part about Ellie writing obits was that her subject material was already dead,” Carr said. “I’d finish reading her stories and say ‘Gosh, I wish I’d had the chance to meet that person. What a fascinating life!’”

But now, after almost a quarter-century at the Herald, Ellie is retiring.

Her last day is this Friday.

In case you missed some of Ellie's earlier work, I've searched the paper's archives and compiled some of my favorite "Ellie ledes."

(Thanks for everything, Ellie...especially your loyalty and friendship. )


From a 2008 story about a funeral for a beloved pet pig:
In the lace-trimmed white coffin, Rachel Fernandez lay under her favorite pink "princess" blanket, her head atop a pink chenille pillow, a sweet smile on her lips.

She lived only 15 months, but with each anguished sob from the family in the funeral-home viewing room, it was clear that no pig had ever been more loved.

"Bless this wonderful daughter," Jesus Fernandez prayed over the pink, 86-pound royal dandie, the smallest of all potbellied pigs. "I give her unto you for her eternal rest, in the name of Jesus Christ."

The Oregon-bred Rachel, a full-fledged member of the Fernandez-Fleites family of Miramar since she was the size of a football, died Oct. 2 following dental surgery.

Jesus and his wife of five years, Lidia Fleites, her daughter Ashley Fleitas and his son Joshua -- plus the abuelitas on both sides and other relatives -- laid Rachel to rest Friday at Pet Heaven Memorial Park, 10901 W. Flagler St.

She's the first pig interred at the 40-year-old, two-acre cemetery, where some 4,000 pets lie under leafy black olive trees. Most are dogs and cats, but there are a goldfish and a frog, monkeys, birds, ferrets and Coral Park High School's mascot ram.

From a 2003 story on a smoking ban in Florida's restaurants:
"Smoking or non, Hon?''

Shorty the waitress greets you a few steps inside the door of Jimmy's Eastside Diner in Miami. Depending on the answer, she shows you to a table in front or in the back.

If you sit in front, she'll plunk down a heavy glass ashtray along with your menu.

Or at least that's how it used to be.

Starting Tuesday, a statewide restaurant smoke ban alters the drill: Don't ask because there's nothing to tell. Indoors, it's all non-smoking now.

From a 2003 story on a man who shared the same name with a wanted fugitive:
Who is Jose Luis Alvarez?

Jose Luis Alvarez would love to know, because that other Jose has been making his life miserable since 1996.

If that sounds confusing, imagine what it's like to be a regular Joe - which everyone calls him - who gets hauled off to a Miami International Airport detention room after each international business trip because he and a fugitive share the same name and birthday.

Imagine being a 39-year-old, Presbyterian Church-going Kendall father of four with a loving wife, two dogs, a pet bunny and a career that supports all of them in comfortable suburban style, "treated like a criminal'' even though he carries documents from U.S. Customs officials assuring anyone who looks that he is not the bad guy who apparently has eluded Interpol for the better part of a decade.

Imagine anticipating a return to the country on Aug. 23 with two of your kids - who have been visiting relatives in Argentina - knowing how rude and threatening the federal agents who hold you for 15 to 45 minutes every time can be.

"The anxiety starts building on the plane," says Alvarez, an Argentine-born naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Virginia as the stepson of an American foreign service officer and who travels Latin America for British Telecom. "I'm mad. I want to hit someone."

From a 2003 profile of an animal rights activist:
Russ Rector, South Florida marine-mammal advocate, is chowing down on breakfast sausage - counterintuitive for an animal rights activist, but then again, Rector tends to be that way - and fulminating against the theme parks that use performing dolphins and killer whales.

"There is no redeeming social value in these stupid pet tricks," he growled, calling such attractions "little better than a roadside zoo."

In 1992 he founded the Dolphin Freedom Foundation, which promotes the notion that marine mammals belong in the ocean, not in captivity forced to ``live in their own toilet'' and beg for food.

At the moment, Miami Seaquarium is the target of Rector's near-obsessive loathing. He's trying to cost the Rickenbacker Causeway attraction so much money and trouble that it will either ``shape up'' or bail out.

"I'm a lethal mother---," declared Rector, 55, with bravado worthy of the visual: Hemingwayesque facial hair and a black eye patch protecting a right eye mauled in a construction accident.

Seldom at a loss for the incendiary phrase, he added: "When I come after you, it's not for fun or exercise, it's to get you gone."

From her 1993 profile of Gianni Versace:
Gianni Versace is snuggled into an armchair in the lobby of the Marlin Hotel. The sizzling Italian designer is oblivious to a photo shoot behind him and to journalist Carl Bernstein, who claims to know him, wandering around clutching a coffee mug.

Chilly gusts fling raindrops against the windows of the Collins Avenue hotel, which sits catty-corner to the rear of the Amsterdam Palace, a '30s-era Mediterranean fantasy that Versace is restoring.

Versace -- lord of a $350 million fashion empire, who has dressed Elton John, the casts of La Scala and Miami Vice -- adores Miami Beach. Adores it.

In fact, his current collection -- aflutter with the latest bellbottoms -- has Miami written all over it. Literally.

"Miami" in bold, candy-colored letters emblazoned on a scarf accented with vintage Cadillacs and bathing beauties.

"Florida" trumpeted in flowery medallions across tropical and jungle-print silk shirts bursting with palm trees, hibiscus, alligators, fish and fanciful images of old Sol -- upwards of $1,800.

"I think fashion must put joy in life, quality and a sense of luxury," Versace says. "Life is enough sad."

In a 1990 story about depression she talked about her own struggle with the mental illness:
On a chaise longue by the water of Biscayne Bay, watching a squadron of pelicans wing silently toward the ocean, I could not recall when I'd felt much better, either. As recently as two months before, I had spent my mornings cowering under the covers dreading the day, my nights in a bizarre obsessive ritual, weeding my garden by flashlight, the stereo cranked up loud enough to drown out all thought. Weekdays were feeble efforts to maintain an illusion of competence at work. Weekends I spent virtually entombed in the house. My sense of humor was immobilized; my capacity for joy, gone. I felt as though my personality had drained out through a hole in my aching heart.

Dockside, I raised my coffee mug in salute to Lawton Chiles, and reached for the amber plastic vial in the pocket of my nightshirt.

"Prozac," I announced to Harpo, popping a small, green-and- white capsule onto my tongue. "Breakfast of champions."

A 2002 piece about Robert Kraft, a Miami Beach resident who was about to set a personal record of jogging on the sands of Miami Beach for 10,000 straight days:
On Jan. 1, 1975, Robert Kraft took a step in the Miami Beach sand that began a journey of 80,000 miles. And he never left home.

He could have thrice encircled the globe. He could have run 3,053 Boston Marathons. He could have scaled and descended Mount Everest 7,273 times.Instead, the man in black called Raven has jogged the same eight-mile stretch of shoreline every day for 27 years, attracting disciples who have imbued his ritual with near-mystical significance.

Today, he does it for the 10,000th consecutive day. He expects perhaps 50 ``Raven Runners'' from around the country to join him. Certainly, the woman called Miracle will be there: his girlfriend, Priscilla Ferguson, 43, who teaches at the International Fine Arts College in Miami. And most likely Taxman, Warden, Angry Man, Caribbean Queen, Stryper, Sleeper, Algae Man, Bookworm, Electrolyte, Colonel, Flying Dutchman and Deliverance - all nicknames Raven has given them.

A 2011 story about a skateboarding dog:
In human-canine relationships, generally it’s people who have dogs.

But if you are Tillman, the world’s fastest skateboarding dog — you can look it up in the Guinness Book of World Records — you have people.

You have an agent, a personal assistant, a driver, a pedicurist, publicists, and a guy named Ron Davis, who picked you out of a litter of six English bulldog puppies and made you an Internet star...

A 2008 obit about a South Florida rabbi with a special skill and a steady hand:
Cantor Abraham Seif, the ritual circumciser who probably separated more newborn Jewish boys from their foreskins than any other mohel in South Florida history, has died at 86.

Known far and wide as Seif the Knife -- or The Yankee Clipper -- the Polish-born Holocaust survivor learned the delicate procedure in Brooklyn after World War II.

By 1988, Seif estimated he'd done 10,000 circumcisions, yet he told The Miami Herald that he still recalled the first one.

"I fainted," he said. "Everyone does."


  1. Great post Bill; I've always enjoyed her writing, and, hopefully, the Herald will do something to acknowledge her work. Neil Rodgers used to chide her on the air but you could tell he respected her and, if Neil liked her, she must be a great person.

    Clay Kaeiser

  2. Well done. Thank goodness this is not her obituary.

  3. Didnt know you were retiring. You cant move to Florida since you already live there. Hope you have fabulous plans, and a decent blender for mojitos.

  4. To sit next to Ellie at a fashion show or entertainment event was pure heaven. Her comments always stole my focus.


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