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Obituary: Nightlife legend Gilbert L. Stafford brought style, class to the doors that mattered

BY ELINOR J. BRECHER, ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

gilbert Gilbert L. Stafford, gentleman guardian of the velvet rope at the hottest clubs on both coasts, held the power of social-death-by-denial over aspiring partyers.

He wielded it mercifully, dismissing the unworthy with constructive criticism such as: ``Honey, you are not getting in with those shoes.''

He was -- using his own favorite term -- simply fabulous, Dahling, and his presence out front at The Spot or Crobar, Liquid or Chaos, Fat Black Pussycat or Blue, signaled the epicenter du jour of South Beach hipness.

``He was always at the best places at the right time,'' said Gary James Fitzsimmons, who hired Stafford to work the door at clubs in Miami Beach and New York.

Stafford, who would have turned 58 on Jan. 20, died in his sleep on New Year's Day in Los Angeles, said his sister, Anna Johnson.

HIV positive and a smoker, he learned he had a lung tumor several weeks ago.

Stafford -- an accomplished dancer known for his bow ties, colorful socks, occasional ascot, red kimonos and abiding fondness for Dewar's Scotch -- was planning to open an L.A. club later this year, Fitzsimmons said.

The oldest of his father's nine children, Stafford left Baltimore after high school for New York, where being a flamboyantly gay black man wasn't such a struggle.

``Baltimore wasn't kind to him,'' said Johnson, the youngest by 22 years, who still lives there.

In New York, Stafford tried writing, acting in commercials and soap operas, and ``got into the nightclub scene,'' she said.

Fitzsimmons said that when he hired him at Disco Inferno in 1991, Stafford ``was already a star in that world.''

``He spoke very well and had a physical presence,'' Fitzsimmons said. ``People respected him. He would tell you you're not coming in in a nice way. Now, they're as rude as they can get. It was about being classy.''

Johnson said her brother inherited his sense of style from an uncle who likewise fancied bow ties -- with striped pants, pink socks, and white patent-leather shoes -- and from the British actor Charles Laughton.

Though he made his living in the superficial dance-club world, Stafford was a serious consumer of fine art, classical music, opera and literature.

``He was kind of a geek but still cool,'' said close friend Donnamarie Baptiste, production manager for Art Basel Miami Beach.

``We used to argue about art -- Old Masters and emerging contemporary art. We'd talk about Tennessee Williams and Langston Hughes. We listened to Mozart.''

Stafford loved watching Frasier and The Golden Girls, and would ``lip-sync Nina Simone,'' Baptiste said.

``Everybody wanted to know him,'' she said. ``They were sticking money and everything else you can think of in his pockets. But it was his job and he was unfazed by it.''

His real friends loved him because he ``was a great listener,'' his sister said. ``He gave great advice from the heart. He would try to save the world if he could.''

Johnson said that he was ``was about to go to his 40th high school reunion. He felt like they had treated him so badly . . . that the best revenge was to live well. He was very successful.''

In addition to Johnson, Stafford is survived by sisters Renada McGuire, Tracye and Teresa Stafford; brothers Charles, Jarrett and Guy Stafford, and mother Vivian Jones, all of Baltimore, brother Larry Stafford of New York, and his beloved bull terrier, Monty.

Family and friends plan to hold celebrations of his life in Miami Beach, New York and L.A., then scatter his ashes in Chesapeake Bay. Memorial donations are welcome to the United Negro College Fund.

Caption: Nightlife legend Gilbert L. Stafford died Jan. 1, 2009 at the age of 57. JARED LAZARUS / MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

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