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.