Hands-on philanthropy with a very special touch at the Red Cross Ball.
By Kevin Chaffee
Once upon a time in Palm Beach …
… The bejeweled grandes dames who chaired the Red Cross Ball would have never dreamed of venturing beyond the resort’s high security perimeters to visit disaster sites where relief efforts were underway.
All that has changed now. The ladies in charge have a thoroughly modern view of their mission to help victims of wars, famines, floods and other calamities throughout the world. That includes being “hands on” in places inhabited by the wretched of the earth.
So, it came as no surprise when American Red Cross Chairman Bonnie McElveen Hunter singled out the Social Samaritans at the 54th annual ball on Jan. 29 for helping “the least, the lost and the last in their critical hour of need.”
Michele Kessler, the ball’s general chairman, “doesn’t just look good,” McElveen-Hunter told the glittering crowd. “She puts caring into action by immunizing children for measles in Madagascar.” Mary Mochary, the gathering’s “grand patron,” was lauded for visiting Darfur refugee camps to distribute food, medicine and other aid.
Increased focus on the ball’s philanthropic purpose didn’t detract from the glitzy elegance of an event that has long been one of the major highlights of the Palm Beach social season. The white-tie dinner dance at the Mar-a-Lago Club always draws a top-notch crowd of philanthropists who love the pageantry of the diplomatic receiving line populated by foreign ambassadors resplendent in their colorful orders, medals and sashes.
This year’s contingent, flown as always from Washington aboard Donald Trump’s private 727 aircraft, included envoys from Mexico (Arturo Sarukhan), Liechtenstein (Claudia Fritsche), Monaco (Gilles Noghes), South Africa (Ebraihim Rasool), Netherlands (Renee Bos-Jones) and Barbados (John Beale) as well as the Ambassador-designate of Hungary (Gyorgy Szapary).
Adding extra glamour was Princess Madeleine, the beautiful younger daughter of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, who was said to be scouting out possible venues for her mother’s World Childhood Foundation benefit in South Florida later this year. Dressed in a dark green gown sans major jewels, the princess, 28, sat at a junior table – in Palm Beach “junior” generally means under age 60 – where she stayed put most of the night. One younger guest who asked her to join him in a post-dessert fox trot was disappointed. “I’d love to,” she demurred, “but I’m not allowed to dance.” Security concerns were said the be the reason, although no one knew what they could possibly be in the $1,500-a-pop crowd of moguls, dowagers, playboys and trust fundafarians. One clued-in wag suggested the New York-based royal’s no-marching orders were the result of gossip column links to recent escorts including Stavros Niarchos (one of Paris Hilton’s ex-boyfriends) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
After ample opportunity to jewel- and gown-gaze while sipping Champagne during cocktail hour, trumpeting heralds summoned guests to the grand ballroom for the ceremonial entrance of the princess, ambassadors and Red Cross dignitaries announced by the ball’s “chief of protocol” Stuart Bernstein, a former ambassador to Denmark. The military escort and presentation of colors by the 4th Anglico Marine Unit of West Palm Beach was a sober reminder that many of the young soldiers have served, or are about to serve in Afghanistan.
“The Marines are the best-dressed people here,” Mrs. McElveen Hunter told the applauding crowd.
The chair ladies know the difference between measles and malaria vaccines but that doesn’t mean they paid any less attention to the flowers, food, fabrics and other details of an event that always stands out in a town where spectacular is the norm.
The walls and ceilings of the gilded ballroom were complemented by gold lace linens on tables set with gold-rimmed porcelain and centered with floral arrangements of pink, peach and coral roses and hydrangea. The dinner was equally lavish: poached lobster frisee salad, rack of lamb and a dessert mélange that so impressed Mr. Trump that he seized a tray from a passing waiter to serve Princess Christina himself. (He might have been a bit lonely. His wife, Melania, was absent for the second year in a row.)
Dancing to the tunes of Jimmy Vali and his orchestra (a much smaller and presumably less pricey ensemble than those led by Peter Duchin and Bob Hardwick in other years) was punctuated by legendry crooner Vic Damone, 82, who appeared onstage without benefit of introduction to sing “My Heart Cries for You,” “On the Street Where You Live” and other long-ago Billboard hits. Yards of billowing taffeta, feather boas and crepe de chine proceeded to shimmy and shake along with the white-ties-and-tails until it was time to collect the goodie bags and await the arrival of one’s Rolls or Bentley from the valet parking platoon.
Washingtonians (many who have winter homes here) may have broken an attendance record this year. They included super-lawyer Robert S. (“Bob”) Bennett and Ellen Bennett, former Ambassador to Barbados Mary Ourisman, Susie Broyhill (widow of former Rep. Joel T. Broyhill), interior designers Climis and Carol Lascaris, Dr. Ahmad and Judy Esfandiary, lobbyist Xavier Equihua, Magda Gohar Chrobog (wife of former German Amb. Jurgen Chrobog), rubber heir John Firestone and Marsha Willson, Dr. Philip Wine, Mike and Julie Connors, Rafat and Shaista Mahmood, Wilma Bernstein, former Chief of Protocol Marion H. (“Joe”) Smoak, former Ambassador of Afghanistan Said Jawad and Shamim Jawad, Herman and Regina Porten, Dr. Matthew Gavin and Holidae Hayes, and Bill and Norma Tiefel.
Local notables spotted: Palm Beach legend Mildred (“Brownie”) McLean (daughter-in-law of Hope Diamond owner Evalyn Walsh McLean), Kate Ford (widow of Henry Ford II), Phipps/Pulitzer scion Bob Leidy Jr. with du Pont heiress/jewelry designer Sasha Lickle, Lois Pope (widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope Jr.), former Chief of Protocol and Ambassador to Hungary Nancy G. Brinker, event designer Bryan Raffanelli (who did the recent White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao), philanthropist Herme de Wyman Miro, Stephania Conrad, and ball co-chairman Susan Keenan with sons Barry M. Goldwater III and Nick Keenan.