One day while growing up in Palm Beach, I stopped to visit my grandmother. As I’ve documented numerous times on this blog, I frequently found myself on the wrong end of Palm Beach’s brutal social system (well, the young part of it, at least.) In response to my complaints about the place, she, in some ways embodying the “old Palm Beach,” said that the town was a place that grew on you and you’d always want to come back to.
As the years pass, in some ways I find she’s right, although Palm Beach, like some other places in the world, doesn’t have a “right of return.” More to the point Palm Beach is a place that doesn’t leave you once you’ve internalized it. The world never looks the same once you’ve lived and moved and had your being in a town that is, for many of the most successful in this world, the ne plus ultra of communities.
It is with more than passing interest, therefore, that I picked up a copy of Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach. Leamer, who has written extensively about the Kennedys (another Palm Beach fixture,) went one better than many people who write about the place: he actually has a residence there and moved socially amongst the residents before putting his thoughts, experiences and interviews to book form. How he manages to show his face in the place after this is his problem, but for me a documented journey through the island was an opportunity to reflect on my own experience and to see what had changed and what had not.
The best place to start is the title. There’s no doubt that Madness Under the Royal Palms was intended to be provocative. But is the way the social system works in Palm Beach really a generalized form of insanity? A true Palm Beacher would simply come back in this way: is there any other way to run a social system? Like many places in the world, Palm Beach runs on its own internal logic, which makes sense to the participants even if it defies the conventional wisdom of outsiders. But one of the first lessons of life under the royal palms (or the Australian pines, or the banyan trees, or behind the ficus hedges) is that you’re not on this earth to conform to the conventional wisdom of the unwashed.
Leamer’s chief explanation of the ostensibly bizarre doings on the island is that the system is entirely driven by money, especially its disposition. At one point in the book he compares the destructive results of the system to the One Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien. A more relevant ring analogy would be Wagner. Palm Beach has more than its share of Alberichts who have forsaken love for gold, and that fact leaves more conventional wisdom about human relationships behind as well. In the end, however, things are more complicated.
In the midst of his chronicle of the present reality of Palm Beach, Leamer does provide some background. Palm Beach is originally a product of the Gilded Age, a place meant to be both the pleasant geographical terminus of a nation and the end game of success and upward social mobility. His account of the family affairs of Henry Morrison Flagler, the real founder of the place, is intended to be compared to the escapades of his current characters. To some extent the career of Addison Mizner, the gay architect whose Mediterranean creations defined Palm Beach for many years (and much of whose work has been lost in the “level and rebuild” craze that has taken the town by storm the last thirty years) is paralleled with the current situation of that community in Palm Beach. But Palm Beach, although a world unto itself in many ways, is influenced by the changes taking place in American society at large, and Leamer’s book documents those changes without really coming to grips for an explanation.
One of the important variables in the way people move up socially is determined by the rate of ascent. As long as that rate is moderate, it’s possible for those who at the top to begin with to properly assimilate those who are moving up, both by marriage and by enforcement of the rules of society. When that rate is very fast, however, the assimilation problem breaks down, and you end up with most dreadful result possible: tasteless nouveaux riches making a statement and getting away with it.
Leamer is certainly aware of the effects of vast sums of money showing up all at once, and its effect on society:
At the top of the milieu Shannon (Donnelly, the Palm Beach Daily News’ society columnist) covered was a new breed of billionaire and near-billionaire who set themselves apart and above from the old elite. For the most part, they did not join the clubs, and they held themselves separate from the community. The gods of irony or unintended consequence had played a cosmic joke, giving them money beyond human imagination, money so grand that there were no pleasures expensive enough be beyond them; yet in having everything they cared for nothing. (pp. 153-4)
The fundamental disconnect between money and the positive human attributes that most Americans associate with material success isn’t new in Palm Beach. The whole concept of “more money than brains” is an old one there. The realization of that disconnect is one of those things that sticks with a product of Palm Beach more than just about anything else. It’s a major reason, for example, for my instinctive aversion to prosperity teaching, an aversion that’s next to impossible to explain to people. (I see that my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger has a similar aversion that that theology, although he, like most, couches it in Biblical terms.) What’s changed, however, is a) the size of the fortunes being made and b) the fact that most of the people who have them have ostensibly come by the wealth in the first generation, which implies that they’re responsible for its accumulation even when there’s no obvious reason why they should be.
The inrush of that kind of money has changed the landscape of Palm Beach more than anything else, both physically (to the extent that those who want to build can get past the preservationists) and socially. At the vanguard of that change is Donald Trump, whose transformation of the Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club, with the concomitant opportunity of the clubless arrivistes to have their own place in the sun free from the constraints of places like the Everglades Club, the Bath and Tennis (B&T) Club, or even the Palm Beach Country Club. (As an aside, my gut tells me that Leamer has overplayed his hand on the formal stuffiness of the B&T. Palm Beach is full of institutions which set ridiculous rules and people who ignore them when the situation calls for it. The B&T was the place, for example, where one Palm Beach Day School classmate asked me at a dance, “Are you experienced?”)
Mentioning the Palm Beach Country Club brings up another ongoing transformative aspect to Palm Beach life: the island’s Jewish community. Jews have come to Palm Beach since the beginning, in the early years readily mixing with their Gentile friends. (For numerous reasons I prefer my mother’s term for the non-children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Leamer’s “WASP.”) The whole saga of a Jewish community that is socially (and to some extent physically) separate from its Gentile counterpart began in 1944, three years before the founding of the State of Israel. At that time Jewish entrepreneur A.M. Sonnabend offered to purchase a large tract of land and buildings which included the Biltmore Hotel and the original Flagler mansion. Just as their Zionist counterparts needed an Arthur Balfour to facilitate their return to the Promised Land, so also did the Jews who wished to come to the island. They found one in Claude Reese, scion of a pioneer family in Palm Beach County and an eminent realtor. (The Southern Scots-Irish have always been the great interlopers between Jew and Gentile, and always with unexpected results.) The Gentiles were furious at such an invasion, so Reese, mindful of his commission, came up with a plan. Knowing that Sonnabend was undercapitalized, he offered to the residents the option to buy out his contract before he could come up with the money. They could not bring themselves to do so, and Sonnabend was able to make the purchase.
The subsequent quasi-two-state history has pretty much paralleled its Middle Eastern counterpart, albeit with more money per capita on the table and less bloodshed. (My brother did get a fractured jaw out of the conflict.) The Gentiles fulminate and moan about the Jews and their ways, but with each passing year the Jewish presence in Palm Beach increases and the Gentile decreases. Without enough fresh Gentile blood and money (and without the Palestinians’ death penalty for selling property to the Jews, we sold our house to a Jewish couple when we left in 1972) Palm Beach is transformed into a predominantly Jewish town, gripes about the Shiny Sheet looking like the Jerusalem Post notwithstanding. (Personally I think that the paper’s coverage of Jewish holidays and other religious events is one of the best things they do.) In the meanwhile Palm Beach life goes on with separate clubs, charity balls and other social events. It’s a situation that doesn’t fit into anyone’s “politically correct” paradigm and Leamer has received criticism for discussing it. But he is spot-on in his description. I first commented on this state of affairs in 2005; its perpetuation isn’t really a credit to anyone on the island.
While discussing communities in Palm Beach, Leamer documents the rise (or more accurately the revealing) of another group: the gay community. Until the 1990’s the existence of same was largely an open secret in a town where open secrets are plentiful. But, in parallel with developments elsewhere, the gay community has come out in force to the extent that Leamer proclaims that Palm Beach is as gay as San Francisco. (But does it rival Atlanta?) As is the case with just about everything else in Palm Beach, the results don’t match conventional wisdom. To begin with, Leamer had more difficulty getting gays to talk about their life in Palm Beach more than any other group, and in some cases was forced to use pseudonyms, something that strikes me as “old school Palm Beach” as much as anything he touches upon. Beyond that, rather than creating a new paradigm for life on the island, “(w)hat the gays in Palm Beach have produced is largely a society that replicates the straight world with the same preoccupations the same narrow preconceptions and judgments. They play same games with charity and go through the same struggles to get their Botoxed features in the Shiny Sheet.” (p. 253)
If group documentation was Leamer’s main device to chronicle Palm Beach in the decades straddling the turn of the millennium, it would probably make for a dull book. Leamer’s technique, however, is to use selected people to illustrate the state of the island. He weaves his characters skilfully like a good novelist, which is good to hold your interest, and of course it’s always a good idea to keep up with the key players (which he struggled to find in some cases, especially when it came to the Gentiles.) Novelists, however, are forced to resort to artifices to keep the narrative moving, and although Palm Beach is this country’s small town par excellence, he runs the risk of either missing something or someone really important or having to bend his narrative to keep his story together.
Through his characters we see the various aspects of life in Palm Beach: the houses, the Worth Avenue shopping, and the charity balls. These last are not to be underestimated; they define both the season in general and those who attend them. They are part of the race to the top that Leamer likens to a greyhound race (an analogy I used in my piece Running Rusty.) Although these have doubtless raised money for worthy causes, the whole spectacle of the things tends to sour the long-term observer to charitable giving as a whole, which is something else that’s hard to explain outside of Palm Beach. But perhaps the sincerity of the givers and guests should not be underestimated. Leamer’s epilogue is the aftermath of the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s scheme, which drained funds from both the Palm Beach Country Club and a good portion of its membership. In the wake of that collapse, one lament many of his Jewish victims made was that they were no longer able to give to charity, something that struck me as heartfelt.
The one place that hit home more than any other was the effect of Palm Beach-level wealth on family life. It was painful to read many of the accounts. This is one place where Palm Beach has changed very little. Children are still victims of acrimonious divorces and abductions that would land lesser parents in prison, in between being shunted off to boarding schools and raised by the help. Leamer’s account of Fred Keller, which ended up in Keller murdering his wife and going to prison while his son Fredchen blocked him out of his life, was one of the more riveting—and gut-wrenching—things to get through in the book. But if Leman had gone back a generation or two, he could have found equally squalid accounts.
That, of course, brings me to an aspect of Palm Beach life I am all too familiar with: Palm Beach Day School. His description of the school (with the exception of a few details) could have been made when I was there:
The Day School teachers are often excellent, and they try to teach the children about the world beyond Palm Beach, but it is difficult. Ten-year-olds have their hair colored and go in for weekly manicures and pedicures. The private school children learn how to judge another person by his clothes, his car, and his address. Many of them are brought up more by nannies than mothers, and only toddled occasionally to be displayed to dinner guests like a new bibelot. Many of the children, especially those who are the children of divorce, have their own therapists with whom they discuss their problems.
They live on their own island of children within the island of Palm Beach. If things go according to plan, they go to prep school and then to the Ivy League, and from there perhaps to Wall Street. As long as they live in this pocket of privilege, they are smart and adept, but step across the bridge into what most people call America, and they are confronted with a world about which they know nothing. (pp. 24-25)
At the start I considered the book’s title, Madness Under the Royal Palms. It’s time to consider the subtitle: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach. Leamer rightly describes Palm Beach, behind the three bridges that both connect and separate the town from the mainland, as the country’s first gated community. It is a place at the pinnacle of this country’s life, and its residents—past and present—know it. For all intents and purposes they might as well inscribe on all of the bridges’ the street lights the same motto the Romans had for the Straits of Gibraltar: ne plus ultra, there is no beyond. And it’s not only gated from the outside world, but within there are many gates and walls that keep people from each other as well, barriers more than what we see “beyond the gates.”
To have grown up in such a place was and is an experience both defining and dissatisfying. There has to be better, one tells oneself, even as people pay exorbitant prices for large houses (only to replace them in some cases) on tiny lots to have their address on the island. Some of that beyond can be found in that wide world beyond; in that respect, the efforts of my Palm Beach Day school teachers paid off (maybe too much.) But when you’re in the “centre of the universe,” there is ultimately only one plus ultra that can satisfy:
And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be. (Hebrews 13:12-14)
My memories of the Palm Beach of my youth (70’s – 80s) were positive. I loved the community and felt at truly at home. But my experience was not normal. I had a happy childhood, loving parents, a good education, I didn’t do drugs, nor felt the need to prove who I was or what I was. I was also taught that to those who have been given much, much is to be expected.
There are times I wish I could give to my children the benefits I received from my parents- but much of what I loved is gone. The vulgarity of the world that set Palm Beach apart has taken over the heart of that community. I wish it were not so, but that Palm Beach is gone.