Ringling's luck fared poorly afloat
By JEFF LAHURD. Correspondent
SARASOTA - For all of his success on land, John Ringling had a singular run of bad luck when it came to his seafaring vessels.
The sleek 83-foot Wethea was replaced by the larger and more opulent, Vidoffner II. Captained by the “genial” Arthur Rowe with a crew of eight, it was hailed by the Sarasota Times as “one of the finest boats that has been seen in these waters for many a day.”
At 110 feet long the ship was lavishly appointed with all that era's luxuries, including a music room with an electric player-piano, electric lighting, a telephone in the guest rooms, a fully outfitted kitchen with a refrigerator that could hold 1,800 pounds of ice, and a dumbwaiter that brought gourmet meals up to the dining room, “thus eliminating any odor from the kitchen.”
The bedroom closets were “moth proof.” For show, up to 1,500 electric globe lights could be switched on for an impressive seaside display. The Sarasota Times reported that the boat was so magnificent, “that anyone could well feel proud over the ownership.”
Ringling's yachts, each grander than the one before, were more than obvious status symbols of his wealth and social standing. They also provided a prestigious means of showcasing the area to his high-brow friends and prospective property buyers.
It was easy to reel in fish, one after the other, when the bay literally teemed with them, followed by a scrumptious meal and convivial company, and a cocktail or two with the great man himself.
Salesmanship at its subtle best.
The Sarasota Herald wrote of one such outing that the guests were treated to “waters of the bay and gulf assuming every color known to marine painters.”
The trip offered “a day's pleasure such is rare even in Florida, land of pleasure seekers.”
On Feb. 13, 1920, while in Tampa to undergo general repair and to take on new engines, the Vidoffner II exploded while being refueled, and sank. One crew member was severely burned and another was killed.
According to Ringling biographer, David C. Weeks, after the Vidoffner went down, Ringling leased the yacht Pastime from John Wanamaker. As the bay waters near Ringling's home were too shallow to accommodate it, the boat was docked in front of the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club on Gulf Stream Avenue — which Ringling owned — or at the nearby city pier.
It was from the Pastime he modeled his next vessel, the 125-foot Zalophus. As Week's put it, “Zalophus was the ultimate symbol of John Ringling's success. It resembled John Wanamaker's Pastime of Palm Beach — in other words, it was a duplicate of a boat owned by a man of great wealth and social position.”
In “Ringling, The Florida Years,” Weeks added that the Zalophus was the last word in sea-going luxury. The ship, completed in December 1922, contained six state rooms and quarters for the servants and crew.
Ringling reportedly paid $200,000 for it, more than $2.5 million in today's currency.
A.G. Roan had taken over the captain's duties from Arthur Rowe and it was he who was in charge on Feb. 4, 1930.
Ringling's then-friend and later circus adversary, Sam Gumpertz, borrowed the impressive vessel for an overnight trip with friends to Useppa Island. The Sarasota Herald's banner headline told the story: RINGLING YACHT SINKS IN GULF. The yacht had gone down a mile off of Lido Beach, settling in 10 to 12 feet of water.
There was no loss of life, but two crew members were injured, each suffering a crushed hand when lowering a motor launch. It was said that four passengers were aboard, and that Gumpertz' guest, William Greve, “viewed the situation calmly, laughed good naturedly over the outcome of their proposed cruise ... and had their bags brought up by the crew.”
During the next few days' truckloads of material washed up on the beaches as the vessel broke up amid rough seas, and a steady stream of locals took the ride out to the key for a look-see at the partially submerged ship.
One diver, determining whether it was salvageable, died at the scene. In the end, Ringling was paid $100,000 by the insurance company.
Kept under wraps, was the rendezvous two noteworthy guests were engaged in: the colorful mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker (Beau James) who was with his girlfriend, the young actress Betty Compton. They were secretly spirited away from the scene to Fort Myers and then to Miami to avoid the tabloid publicity that would have certainly ensued.
What sank the Zalophus? No one knows for certain.
Sometime later, an exasperated Captain Roan quipped that it had been a jelly fish, and the joke of the day went that the ship had hit what was left of the Florida boom.
In either case, the heady days of showcasing Ringling's properties aboard ritzy yachts were over.
“Mister John's” remaining vessel, the 56-foot Zalophus,Jr., was diminutive by Ringling's standards, but adequate enough for the hard times that lay ahead.