Kramer attributed his early success to his dreams — literally. "I am a man of visions," he told Forbes magazine in March 1993. "One time I had a dream about a burning field. I knew I should buy wheat and corn futures. That is how it is with me." Another dream, he claimed, told him to take all of his money out of the market, which led him to predict the 1987 stock market crash. Whether it was foresight or good luck, he made a reported $30 million on that deal and became a regular on German talk shows.

He also dated a string of high-profile and beautiful women. The loveliest of all was Catherine Burda, a willowy heiress whom Kramer met in 1989 at a charity dinner.

They were both rich kids with rebellious streaks. Three days after meeting, she flew him in her private jet to Munich to meet her father, Franz Burda, who ran one of Europe's largest publishing empires. The meeting did not go well. In interviews for his memoir, Kramer recalls Franz, a giant of a man, screaming, "Are you that Thomas Kramer? If you ever touch my daughter, I'll destroy you! I'll destroy you!"

Thomas Kramer is famous for his extravagant lifestyle.
Thomas Kramer is famous for his extravagant lifestyle.
Kramer's Portofino Tower is still a high-end hot spot in South Beach.
Marc Averette
Kramer's Portofino Tower is still a high-end hot spot in South Beach.

The couple defied Franz and jetted to New York a few days later to marry. It turned out Franz Burda wasn't bluffing. His newspapers began running stories about a purportedly shady real estate fund that Kramer had set up in East Germany just before reunification in 1990. The accusations were flimsy, but the bad press caused the bank to withdraw its line of credit. Kramer says his fund went bankrupt.

But if Kramer had made an enemy of one powerful German business magnate, he soon found a friend in another: Siegfried Otto, the wealthy patriarch of the clan that controlled Germany's biggest bank-note-printing company, Giesecke & Devrient. Siegfried was Catherine Burda's stepfather.

Outwardly, the elderly Otto was a respectable businessman. He'd earned his wealth by marrying Utta Devrient, the daughter of Giesecke & Devrient's owner, in 1943 while he was a major in the German army. When West Germany switched to the Deutschmark after the war, he turned Giesecke & Devrient into a global powerhouse that eventually printed currency for more than 50 countries.

In reality, though, Otto had been cheating the tax man for nearly 30 years, stashing 200 million Deutschmarks in Swiss banks. He saw a way out of his predicament in his new son-in-law.

Kramer, according to Swiss court documents, offered a simple solution: He'd take care of Siegfried's millions in Miami's real estate market. The younger German had just returned from his first trip to South Beach and was full of stories about a town slowly emerging from neglect. After a helicopter ride over Miami Beach, he was particularly bullish about the southern tip of the island, then a crime-ridden neighborhood that reminded him of Manhattan's Battery, which he saw transformed from a landfill into a luxury housing complex in the 1980s.

On May 8, 1992, the two German businessmen signed a confidential document, a gift annuity agreement that gave Kramer control over Otto's hidden funds, according to the Swiss court documents. Kramer, now 200 million Deutschmarks richer, embarked on a massive property-shopping spree, buying three lots on Star Island and 45 acres of land south of Fifth Street, often paying way over market value and usually in cash. Practically overnight, he became South Beach's biggest property owner.

"Everyone thought he was crazy," Saul Gross, then a city commissioner, told the New York Times earlier this year. "He wanted to buy whatever he could, and he was willing to pay whatever people were asking; he wasn't even negotiating."

Few have ever made a first impression quite like Thomas Kramer's grand debut in Miami Beach.

It came with the opening of his nightclub, Hell, on November 1, 1992, in the old Leo­nard's Hotel on Ocean Drive. "Come revel with the Devil," read the invitations. Kramer had spent $6 million to open a lavish nightclub featuring rooms dedicated to each of the seven deadly sins. However, rather than a glorious welcoming party, Kramer — who was dressed head to toe as Satan — prompted a mass walkout when journalists, many of whom were gay, overheard him telling the club's manager: "Don't let in any more faggots."

The opening of Hell, which closed two weeks later, was a PR disaster that left Kramer labeled a bigot — an image, though it was mostly untrue, that he could never shake even as he rose to new heights in South Beach. "He was seen as an arrogant man wearing a tux smoking a cigar telling us we were too ugly to get into his club," former Hell doorman Louis Canalis told New Times in a 1992 profile piece.

When not sabotaging his public image, Kramer spent the first half of the '90s cleaning up South of Fifth. His plans for the deteriorated neighborhood were as haphazard as his nightclub schemes. First he wanted to construct a replica of Portofino, the Italian fishing village. Next came plans for the world's largest gay hotel, followed by a $500 million casino backed by Donald Trump. Kramer blew millions on an initiative to bring gambling to South Florida that was defeated at the ballot box in November 1994. Finally, he settled on a less ambitious plan: a serious of high-rise luxury apartments, starting with Portofino Tower.

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ralphpetrucci topcommenter

This man promoted nothing but stupid greed and wasteful spending. Things turned out right.


This is a good story.  You have his rise to power, followed quickly by his squandering of that power, and the inevitable downfall.  He should probably say to hell with reality tv and try to get his life made into a movie.

frankd4 topcommenter

i first came across this story from the book MIAMI BABYLON which basically is the story from initially FISCHER from the north, to the present day master-builders of south beach