The glitter and glamour never end in America’s foremost money mecca
By Kevin Chaffee
Jewels sparkled, Champagne flowed and the usual line of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were in gridlock mode outside the Mar-a-Lago Club at the 52nd annual Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach. As in past years, a delegation of ambassadors flew down from Washington on Donald Trump’s private 727 jet for the week-end, which also featured a private dinner at the $30 million, 22,000-square-foot estate of affinity credit card king Howard Kessler and his wife Michelle on the eve of the Jan. 31 main event.
Those assembled in white-tie-and-decorations for the excruciatingly long but absolutely essential receiving line the following night included envoys from some of the most Lilliputian nations on Earth (Liechtenstein, Monaco, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Oman) – a cause of some merriment among diplos and guests alike.
“It’s unfortunate that San Marino couldn’t be here as well, but they don’t have an embassy in Washington,” one emerald-encrusted dowager joked to an equally bedizened pal after obligatory “grip-and-grin” photo-ops with the town’s ubiquitous society photographers. “Too true,” the friend replied, noting that the Vatican was also out of the picture because, “unfortunately, the papal nuncio doesn’t do balls.”
The fabulous wealth and luxurious lifestyles of Palm Beach residents has overwhelmed some of the diplomatic attendees in the past, but that wasn’t the case with most of this year’s delegation. “Monaco is also quite rich,” Ellen Noghès, wife of that country’s ambassador, said with a laugh.
Truth be told, many of the Palm Beachers aren’t feeling quite so flush this year. The economic downturn had already affected the enclave in a major way, and then Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme crashed all around them. Horror stories abound detailing massive losses suffered by elderly couples, widows, foundations, charitable causes and other victims.
“At least 15 major houses were put on the market the same week the scandal broke,” one guest pronounced at his table. This somewhat old news was soon topped by a local PR executive’s tale of attending two recent household sales where all of the owners’ possessions were up for grabs. “There were furs, clothing and shoes,” she said, “even someone’s dear departed fox terrier, stuffed and mounted in a glass box.”
One humorous note was that day’s newspaper report about a group of teenage boys taking credit for wrapping Madoff’s North Lake Way home in toilet paper – in revenge, they said, for their trust funds getting wiped out. Despite their “confession,” the local police weren’t investigating because the resident housekeeper declined to make a formal complaint. (Madoff remains under “penthouse arrest” in Manhattan.)
Asked how area residents’ massive financial losses were affecting his opulent Mar-a-Lago Club, Donald Trump professed to be unaware of anyone dropping out because they could no longer afford dues on their $200,000 memberships. “Not yet, anyway,” he said while holding court in the gilded ballroom alongside his wife, Melania, who, as one observer noted, appeared “almost too glamorous to be real.” Palm Beach’s second-most-controversial resident also mentioned that he was thinking about buying the Lowes Island Club in Sterling, Va., with plans to turn it into a high-end resort.
Patriotism and pageantry are always a big part of the festivities and this year was no exception with the ambassadors, ball chairmen and numerous top benefactors making grand ceremonial entrances to strains of the “Triumphal March” from Aida before dinner was served. There were a few snipes about this year’s line-up getting a tad out of control with the incongruous addition of NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and his teen-age son Austin – looking distinctly uncomfortable as they promenaded down the red carpet under escort of a Marine Corps color guard.
Dinner was a distinct improvement over “Mary Trump’s Meat Loaf,” a fave dish of The Donald’s mom that took pride of place on the menu last time but was considered a bit infra dig by the white-tie-and-tiara set. This year’s fresh Maine lobster, tenderloin of beef braised in cherries and brandy, and a roule au chocolat definitely hit various epicurean spots.
Guests included the usual blend of loyal Red Cross donors (both self-made and trust-fundafarian) with a nice addition of younger guests sprinkled at tables set with towering trumpet vases filled with roses, orchids and other formidable blooms. Former ball chairwoman Jean (Mrs. T. Suffern) Tailer and Helen de Wyman Miro reminded guests that Palm Beach Society is still very much out-and-about as did more recent additions to the scene such as Kate Ford (the widow of Henry Ford II) and Lois Pope (the philanthropist widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope).
Those with Washington connections included Red Cross Chairwoman Bonnie McElveen Hunter (reminding guests that the organization reaches out to “the least, the last, and the lost” to alleviate human suffering across the globe); former Chief of Protocol Nancy Goodman Brinker (who ran the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, named in honor of her late sister, in West Palm Beach that morning); former ambassador to Denmark and ball protocol chief Stuart Bernstein and wife Wilma; ball protocol chief emeritus Marion “Joe” Smoak and wife Francie; Brad and Denise Alexander (who will again chair the Red Cross polo luncheon on March 1); Mary Mochary; Susan Eisenhower; Bucky Clarkson; Bill Walde and Mary Frances Smoak; Mary Ourisman; Ahmad and Judy Esfandiary; Bill and Norma Tiefel; and the ambassadors of Afghanistan, Portugal, and Romania.
The local chapter of the Red Cross preferred to keep mum, at least for the time being, about how much money the ball raised for the cause – especially compared to other years when seven-figure proceeds were the norm. Longtime patrons estimated that attendance was down by about 25 percent, but hastened to mentioned that a number of “angels” had made up for enough of the difference to exceed last year’s net.
“Times are tough,” Donald Trump said at evening’s end, “but I think we ended up doing pretty well.”