South Beach has lost its queen.
Henrietta Robinson reigned supreme in Miami Beach for over six decades. She was a known fixture in the nightlife community especially at Twist where she spent many nights.
She died April 3 from COVID-19 at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 79.
“She was a bright light for South Beach,” said her close friend Joey Alaimo, 46. “She was beloved by the public.”
Over the years, depending on who you asked, she was known as the Mother, the Queen, the Grand Dame, the Grand Lady, of South Beach and/or Miami Beach.
Alaimo is devastated by Robinson’s death.
Robinson was in the hospital for a routine surgery when she contracted the coronavirus.
“It was like a slap in the face. She recovered from so much last year,” he said. “This time, it’s an easy one. It’s not threatening. The timing was terrible.”
Last year, while in the hospital, her heart stopped twice and she had to be revived. She also had hip replacement surgery. But she bounced back and made a full recovery. She even went back to cleaning houses, a job she had done for decades.
There didn’t seem to be anything that could stop her or slow her down – even at 79.
In March she was in the hospital again. As she was recovering from a routine surgery on her birthday March 20, Alaimo decided to not visit her since he didn’t want to risk giving her any germs because the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning in Florida.
“I spoke to her on her birthday,” he said. “She was positive. She was strong.”
But in the following days she developed a lung infection and her health rapidly declined.
Robinson was born in Akron, Ohio and grew up in Milton, Massachusetts. In 1959 she moved to Miami Beach where she decided to live her life openly as a woman.
“Henrietta was a pioneer in the LGBTQ+ community. One of the first Transgender individuals to live her life in Miami Beach,” Miami Beach Pride organizers wrote in a Facebook post. “She was beacon of light in the Transgender movement and a mentor to so many who struggled through the years.”
Robinson held a special place in the heart of Miami Beach City Commissioner Michael Góngora as well.
“Henrietta was one of the first persons of ‘alternative gender’ that me and many of my friends had met. She was a kind and gentle person,” Góngora said. “She was a mother figure to an entire generation of young gay guys figuring ourselves out in the early ‘90s and she made it easier for all of us to be open and accepting of ourselves and everyone else around us.”
Jenelle Bahan, 66, met Robinson in the late ‘60s when Bahan was a 14-year-old runaway looking for a new life and new home.
“Henrietta was a very special person to me from the day I met her. If you knew her – you loved her,” Bahan said. Bahan spent many years struggling with her own gender identity and always thought of Robinson as a mentor.
They met at a long forgotten collection of LGBT bars side by side called The Pinup, The Middle Room and The Night Owl.
Robinson told the Miami New Times back in 1991 while she was still performing, "Dressing up was illegal back then. If you so much as wore eye make-up or even a woman's scarf in a club it was right to jail. Then in '67 they legalized it, and things got a little better. This town used to be good and fast, and now it's good again. The Beach is coming back better than ever."
Bahan moved to Central Florida in 2003, but continued to stay in touch and spoke to Robinson at least once a month. She last spoke to Robinson on her birthday.
“She sounded upbeat. She sounded good,” she said. “Didn’t sound like anything was wrong.”
Robinson loved the spotlight and loved attention and considered Twist her second home where she had her own reserved seat.
“The owners of Twist treated her like a queen. One thing that really made her smile was positive attention,” Alaimo said. “She was such a modest and humble person but her aura was larger than life. You would see it in her smile.”
The Miami Beach Pride Parade was one of her favorite events of the year. She would often ride with Twist, but in later years Alaimo drove her in the parade.
“Being a resident of Miami Beach for over 65 years she was known as ‘The Mother of South Beach,’” the Miami Beach Pride Facebook post reads. “Henrietta was a welcoming face to many at Twist and was always there for those who needed a hug or comforting embrace. Rest in Peace Henrietta, your light will not be forgotten.”
Robinson’s mother died when she was an infant and she ended up being raised by her grandmother. She was one of six siblings.
Alaimo said most of her family did not accept her as a trans woman.
“One of her sisters had a baby and she was told she wasn’t allowed to see the child,” he said.
“She was a trailblazer,” Bahan said of Robinson’s legacy. “She did more for the LGBT community than people realize. Henrietta is a big part of where we came from, and where we need to go.”
Former Mayor Mattie Herrera Bower gave Robinson a commendation on behalf of the city of Miami Beach for her activism in 2011.
While most of her family did not accept her, Robinson did have an uncle in South Beach who gave her a job as a chef in his restaurant.
“She had such great stories to tell about that restaurant,” Alaimo said.
One such story she often recounted was the time she met Diana Ross.
“Apparently Diana Ross would come in every week. And she always ate her pasta dish,” he said. “One day she said ‘I want to see who’s cooking my favorite food.’”
So Robinson came out and Ross exclaimed “This is the queen who’s making my food!”
While the restaurant has long since closed down, Robinson never stopped cooking.
“She was a fabulous cook who made a mean lasagna which she loved to tell she had made for Gianni Versace,” Góngora said.
Alaimo loved her pot roast and linzer tarts, her crab salad and her bolognese. Alaimo’s children loved her food too.
“My son loved her bacon wrapped scallops. Whenever he got an A in school she’d make whatever he wanted,” he said. “She would make my daughter a cake in the shape of a heart for Valentine’s Day.”
Alaimo said Robinson would cater her own birthday parties – at Twist of course.
Before going in for her surgery she had already made the food for this year’s birthday celebration and tucked it away in the fridge and freezer for when she got out.
Alaimo met Robinson in 2011 and quickly bonded with her over their shared Italian heritage.
“She loved people. They loved her energy,” he said. “She had a heart of gold. She trusted everyone. Always gave people the benefit of the doubt.”
Sometimes though that trust would get her burned, remembers Bahan.
“She never had a bad word to say about anybody, even the people that did her wrong,” Bahan said.
Alaimo set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help cover the expenses of Robinson’s death. The goal is $3,500, any additional funds will be donated to Pridelines. Once the quarantine is over Alaimo hopes to plan a celebration of life in Robinson’s honor.