Claude R. Kirk Jr., colorful ex-governor of Florida, dies at 85

Claude R. Kirk Jr., who during his single, spectacularly colorful term as Florida’s governor from 1967 to 1971, hired a private police force, defied federal court orders and was a herald of a Republican resurgence in the state, died Sept. 28 at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 85.

He had had a heart attack in February, his son Erik Kirk said, and apparently had another heart attack in his sleep.

Mr. Kirk was elected to office only once, winning Florida’s gubernatorial race in 1966 as the first Republican to hold the seat in 94 years. He promised to improve the state’s recreation, tourism and business climate without raising taxes.

He called Miami — the home of his Democratic opponent — a “cesspool of crime” and proffered a slogan that was seen, even in 1966, as a thinly veiled segregationist plea: “Your home is your castle; protect it.”

He called the legislature into session to write a new state constitution, hired a private company to look into statewide corruption and traveled 10,000 miles a month to deliver speeches around the country.

He once rode a horse to a news conference and planted the state flag on the ocean floor, vowing to use state-owned airplanes to defend Florida’s territorial rights.

A New York Times magazine profile in 1967 declared that Mr. Kirk was “playing Governor the way Errol Flynn used to play Captain Blood — charming, daring, somewhat arrogant, seldom going by the rules.”

As one of the first two GOP governors in the old Confederacy since Reconstruction — Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas was also elected in 1966 — Mr. Kirk helped lead a Republican revival in the South. He encouraged speculation that he was a favorite for the 1968 Republican vice presidential nomination, which ultimately went to Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew.

Early in his term, Mr. Kirk set up a statewide environmental protection agency and killed a plan to build a barge canal across Florida. Historian and biographer Edmund Kallina Jr. told the Palm Beach Post in 2002 that Mr. Kirk “defined the three major issues in Florida for the 20th and 21st centuries: crime, education and the environment.”

Interest in Mr. Kirk’s dazzling, if brief, political career was heightened when he appeared at his inauguration with a mysterious green-eyed blond beauty, whom he identified only as “Madame X.”

About a month after taking office, Mr. Kirk married “Madame X,” Erika Mattfeld, a German-born actress he had met during a failed business venture in Brazil. Before they could go on their honeymoon, the governor’s political honeymoon was all but over.

His short-lived personal investigative agency — provided by the Wackenhut Corp. — prompted charges even from members of his own party that the governor was presiding over a police state of vigilante justice.

When he vetoed 48 bills his first year in office, newspapers dubbed him “Claudius Maximus.”

In 1970, after federal courts had ordered the desegregation of public schools in Manatee County, Mr. Kirk dismissed the superintendent and school board.

“Ain’t nobody gonna lay a hand on Claude Jr.,” he taunted federal marshals. “Anybody who lays a glove on a sovereign is committing an illegal act. There is nobody who can bodily force the head of a sovereign state into court.”

He relented only when a judge threatened to fine him $10,000 a day.

“The garden of controversy must be continually cultivated,” Mr. Kirk told Time magazine in 1967. “Otherwise, nobody knows you are alive.”

Claude Roy Kirk Jr. was born Jan. 7, 1926, in San Bernardino, Calif. His family later moved outside Chicago and to Montgomery, Ala., where his father manufactured vending machines and his mother was a clerk in the Alabama Legislature.

Mr. Kirk joined the Marine Corps near the end of World War II and then attended Emory University in Atlanta and Duke University before graduating from the University of Alabama law school in 1949.

He saw combat with the Marines during the Korean War and then sold insurance in Alabama before moving to Jacksonville, Fla., with $408 to his name. After founding a life insurance company that catered solely to the rich, he earned a small fortune.

He had an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1964, and he launched a short-lived investment business in Brazil before returning to Florida for the 1966 governor’s campaign.

In 1947, Mr. Kirk married Sarah Stokes, from whom he was divorced in 1950. They remarried a year later and were divorced again in 1966.

Survivors include his third wife, of West Palm Beach; two daughters from his first marriage, Sarah Patent of Jacksonville and Katherine “Kitty” Crenshaw, the wife of U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), of Jacksonville and Washington; twin sons from his second marriage, William Kirk and Franklin Kirk, both of Birmingham, Ala.; a stepdaughter whom he adopted, Adriana Dolabella of Jupiter, Fla.; two children from his third marriage, Claudia Kirk Barto of West Palm Beach and Erik Kirk of Tallahassee; 14 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

For years, after he lost his 1970 reelection bid to Democrat Reubin Askew, Mr. Kirk lived in the oldest house in Palm Beach. He made occasional runs for political office and was involved in various business ventures. Lee Iacocca credited him with setting up a meeting that made Iacocca, after his dismissal as president of Ford Motor Co., the head of Chrysler Corp.

When criticized for being an outrageous huckster as governor, Mr. Kirk replied: “I’m just sellin’ orange juice. Sellin’ orange juice, sellin’ Kirk, sellin’ Florida. People are payin’ attention.”