Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach
Review by Christopher Silvester
Life in Palm Beach, writes Laurence Leamer, ‘is like an elaborate costume party in which one can wear whatever outfit one wants as long as the mask never falls. For over a century, people have come to the exclusive community to reinvent themselves by cloaking themselves in the illusions of wealth. They often build second acts so unrelated to the first that their biographies are like two different lives mysteriously attached to each other.’
Across the Intracoastal Waterway from the mainland, Palm Beach is a thirteen-mile-long island off the coast of South Florida. It is ‘not only the most exclusive resort community in the world, but the most socially segregated town in America,’ says Leamer, who settled there with his wife in 1994, purchasing a duplex apartment in a condominium one block north of Worth Avenue, which is reputed to be the most expensive shopping street in the world.
Unlike many of those he writes about here, Leamer never strove to become an insider himself, but he has got closer to the town’s rotten core than most and he has exposed it to the world with an anthropologist’s acute observation and a moralist’s disdain. Plenty of the town’s leading personalities cooperated with him for this book, granting him interviews, telling them about their lives before they came to Palm Beach, and inviting him to dinner parties at their homes and at the town’s clubs.
Otherwise, he has tracked their public endeavours in the society section of ‘the Shiny Sheet’, as the Palm Beach Daily News is known.
The rich WASPs live in the ‘estates section’, where ‘practically the only human beings one saw were gardeners blowing leaves, or pool men hurrying out of electronic gates.’ The rich Jews also buy large estates whenever they can, but at the southern tip of the island there is a section of condominiums mainly populated by Jews. The WASPs refer to this, in a cruel joke, ‘as the “Gaza Strip,” a nightmarish vision of what would happen to Palm Beach if “they” ever took over, a vulgar Catskills South that would destroy peace and property values’.
The two leading clubs on the island, the Everglades and the Bath and Tennis (B&T), remain exclusively Christian, although Catholics were latecomers to membership for both; while the Jews have their own establishment, the Palm Beach Country Club. ‘Everything the Jews get into, they take over,’ says steel heiress and socialite Eles Gillet.
‘And people don’t want them to take over the last two things they have. Those are our clubs.’ It is not just the Jews that provoke WASP angst. Gillet was worried that ‘the Everglades was being taken over by Midwesterners, a strange species that as far as Eles was concerned could have come from Albania.’
And even within the Jewish community there were social divisions, since Boston Jews ‘fancied themselves a more intellectual, charitable lot than their New York brethren’. At Dan Ponton’s Club Colette, the town’s leading private dining club, the WASPs and Jews ‘did not so much mix as sit side by side in a manner that reminded one of the cliques in a high school cafeteria’.
Ironically, one of the few things both the WASP and Jewish elite groups have in common, however, is their favoured dress designer, Arnold Scaasi — not an Italian, since Scaasi is Isaacs spelt backwards.
While it is the men of Palm Beach, by and large, who dispense the dollars, it is the women who imprint their taste (or their interior designer’s taste) on the décor of the homes. When Leamer compliments William Koch on the masculine character of his residence, he elicits the response: ‘I was between marriages.’
At the heart of this insightful book are several stories of human wreckage, beguilingly told. Barbara Wainscott propels her Jewish husband David Berger to partial social acceptance among the WASP set (partly by marrying him in New Zealand with Prince Philip and Prince Edward as witnesses), but when he develops Alzheimer’s disease, his two sons by a previous marriage get him to divorce her. They pay her off on the condition that she never sees him again.
Fred Keller signs a misleading prenuptial agreement with his younger (fifth) wife Rose. He gives her half of all the new properties he acquires, but also sneakily saddles her with half the debt, thus hoping to ensure that she will owe him $10 million in any divorce. When they do divorce, she wins custody of their child and, eventually, half of his total wealth, but at a meeting to discuss the assets, he shoots her to death and gravely wounds her brother.
Another incident reflects badly on Palm Beach too. ‘Sonny’ Peixoto, an impoverished wannabe living a lie as part of the town’s younger partying crowd, bludgeons his social-climbing girlfriend to death before jumping from the balcony of a penthouse apartment while being shown around by a real estate broker.
As Leamer puts it, Palm Beach is ‘full of people pierced by sorrows brought on by the pursuit of money’.