An American Beach
In northeastern Florida, a former opera singer keeps a unique community intact.
By Alan Huffman
"Come on in, baby!" MaVynee Betsch calls from the back of her apartment, where she is trying to find a news clipping on one of the dozens of environmental and historical causes she supports. The stairway to Betsch's apartment—which occupies the second floor of an otherwise abandoned cinderblock building in American Beach, Fla.—serves as overflow shelf space for her ever-expanding archive of documents and memorabilia. It offers a telling introduction to her world, though nothing can fully prepare a visitor for Betsch herself, whose persona is every bit as dramatic as the characters she played in Madama Butterfly and Salome, as an opera star in 1950s Europe.
When Betsch (whose first name is pronounced "MAH-veen") appears at the top of the stairs, it is as if she has burst onto a stage, and in a way she has. She smiles broadly, arms outstretched, wearing colorful, flowing fabrics and oversized jewelry. Her gray dreadlocks, seven feet long, curl like heavy ropes of Spanish moss from her head to the floor, and form a pillow-sized, Medusan mass that she sometimes carries in the crook of her arm.
Now 70, Betsch has fought to save the world's rain forests and the site of the Florida plantation on which her ancestors were slaves. But she has achieved most as the protector of American Beach, a small community on Amelia Island in northeastern Florida, founded by her great-grandfather in 1935 (the year she was born) as a resort for African Americans banned from public beaches during the Jim Crow era. The dunes and maritime forests of American Beach, now surrounded by encroaching development, have provided the most meaningful backdrop of MaVynee Betsch's life, and she gave up her stage career in 1965 to return.
Jangling her bracelets of shells strung on discarded fishing line, Betsch begins pulling photos from stacks of papers organized under Day-Glo green headings: beachgoers in front of American Beach's now-shuttered Evans' Rendezvous nightclub; her great-grandfather's sprawling arts-and-crafts mansion in the ritzy Sugar Hill neighborhood of Jacksonville, Fla., about 40 miles to the south; and herself, striking a pose atop the 60-foot dune that dominates the beach and that she named NaNa. Betsch's crowded apartment is essentially her clearinghouse, her base of operations. There is no place to sit. The bed, illuminated by light from windows opening to the Atlantic view, becomes a work-table during the day. Despite a three-year battle with cancer, Betsch pauses only long enough to rifle through a few more newspaper articles before clasping her hands and saying, "Let's go, baby! I want to show you around!"
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