WASHINGTON LIFE: Palm Beach has turned upside down because of Bernie Madoff. Word has it that members of the exclusive clubs are screaming at former friends who got them to invest with him, saying, “How dare you show your face here after what you did?”
LAURENCE LEAMER: I was at a charity event in December which one guest said was “like the Titanic. The ship was sinking and people were crying that they had lost this and that. Everybody was drunk.”
WL: How does the scandal compare to the Pulitzer divorce case or the William Kennedy Smith rape trial?
LL: Previous crises or psychodramas in Palm Beach are nothing compared to this. It is devastating on so many different levels: personal, psychological and charitable. Palm Beach is all about money and people’s lifestyles are affected even if they didn’t lose any. They’re all worried about what they’re going to do with their investments now. Everyone is nervous.
WL: Is Madoff the ultimate pariah there?
LL: He’s beyond being a pariah. The magnitude of his evil is tremendous because it affects so much charitable giving and we won’t know the results for years to come. The wealthy Jewish people, who have suffered the most, are extraordinarily generous and you had to give big to get into their clubs. If a similar situation had involved members of the Bath and Tennis or Everglades clubs, the charities wouldn’t have been that affected because WASPs don’t give as much money that way.
WL: Palm Beach was once restricted to gentiles. Now, so many people living there are Jewish – a clear majority – that the WASPS seem to be the ones who are in a ghetto.
LL: That’s what makes this whole situation particularly poignant – because this whole tragedy took place just at the point where the Jews were in clear ascendancy on the island.
WL: Is there anyone left who still represents “Old Palm Beach”?
LL: Lots of them, including several people in my book. Mildred “Brownie” McLean, one of the McLean family of Hope Diamond fame, goes back the farthest. She represents Palm Beach at its best, and has an almost heroically positive attitude about life. Stanley Rumbough Jr., who was married to Marjorie Merriweather Post’s daughter, actress Dina Merrill; and Jimmy Barker, from an old Kentucky family. Others include Jean (Mrs. T. Suffern) Tailer those related to old guard clans like the Munns, Boardmans, Phippses and Boltons.
WL: What about Donald Trump?
LL: My publisher thought he was overexposed, but I maintained you couldn’t do a book about Palm Beach without him since his arrival there was one of the major social developments in decades. So, I went up to him at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago and told him that I had read his books. I thought he was a man who was best approached with a cartload of candor. Big mistake. And so, I’m one of the few people he has turned down for an interview.
WL: All the big new money has made it doubly hard on the old elite. People whose dwindling inheritances only permit them to live in apartments or smaller houses at least used to be able to point with pride to their grandparents’ impressive former homes. But now, even those have been demolished by arrivistes who want 60,000-square-foot monster mansions with his-and-her helicopter pads.
LL: That’s why many of them take great pleasure in the Madoff scandal. They feel the nouveau riche have been flaunting it for too long and it was time they got what was coming to them. Of course, I don’t see how you take pleasure in a widow losing everything because her husband on his deathbed told her to “give all our money to Bernie.”
WL: You’d think some of the anti-Semitism would lessen as the older people in the restricted clubs die off.
LL: The younger ones pretend they’re different, but they’re still members.
WL: You maintain that many charities have scant connection to critical issues of the day.
LL: I went to a luncheon for a group that spends about $300,000 a year to save Palm Beach’s feral cats. This woman got up and said she had 18,000 acres in the Adirondacks and would be delighted to fly some of them up on her plane. I thought, maybe you might have room for a homeless person as well.
WL: That might be changing now people can no longer afford their clubs.
LL: I know a guy who is walking away from his $200,000 membership at the Mar-a-Lago Club because he can’t afford the monthly dues. Others are complaining about $30,000 assessments payable over five years. That used to be considered chump change. Now restaurants have $29.95 three-course specials that you normally see only in August.
WL: A lot of D.C. folks flew down for an over-the-top wedding on New Year’s Eve. Doesn’t such extravagance fly in the face of current realities?
LL: I plead guilty. I was there with 350 other people at the Breakers. The groom flew in the best society band from New York, dancers from Brazil and a gospel choir, and had indoor fireworks, juggling bartenders and masses of caviar. Let’s hope the marriage lasts, but if it doesn’t there may be an awesome divorce party.
WL: The wedding itself seems more like a sideshow, a last gasp of wretched excess that is no longer viable even for most rich people.
LL: If it’s the Titanic, they’re dancing in the ballroom on the way down. Palm Beach is a fantasy world. Now the illusions are gone and it’s going to be pretty hard to get them back.
Author’s View of a Not-So-Perfect World
By Lawrence Leamer
I flew down to Palm Beach from my home in Washington for the first time in December 1991 to cover the William Kennedy Smith rape trial for my book, The Kennedy Women. I have lived all over the world, from the mountains of Nepal to the provinces of France, a city in southern Peru to a town in Japan, but Palm Beach was as exotic and hidden a place as I had ever visited.
I have the soul of a journalist and I decided that I should buy a place on the South Florida island, integrate myself into the community and write an intimate, revealing book about the lives of wealth. In 1994, my wife and I purchased our ocean-front condominium in an exquisite building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, architect of the Kennedy Center. Since then I have spent the winters in Palm Beach.
All those years I kept trying to understand the complex social world of the most celebrated and exclusive enclave of wealth in America. It was so much harder than I imagined it would be. Of course, I knew that when an anthropologist arrives at a remote village, it is always the town drunk or bum who immediately greets him and it takes many months to get to know the people who really matter. In Palm Beach, it was a slow, laborious process to win the trust and cooperation of people.
There is an extraordinary buzz about Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death in Palm Beach, propelled into high motion by the Bernard Madoff scandal. But well before that and indeed before anyone, Washington Life was planning to feature it. There are any numbers of Washington connections. I always see people I know on the nonstop US Airways flights from Reagan National. There are three other Washington couples in my building alone. Marjorie Merriweather Post was an institution both in Washington and Palm Beach where she built the incomparable Mar-a-Lago that Donald Trump has turned into a club. One of the major characters, Eric Purcell, went to Georgetown University where he became obsessed with Deborah Gore Dean, whose grandfather owned the elegant Fairfax Hotel and Jockey Club. Another one, Barbara Wainscott, lived here when she worked in the Nixon Administration.
If you see me in the Georgetown Barnes & Noble, having dinner at Taj of India, or on the tennis courts with my buddies at Aspen Hill, come over and say hello. I’m the guy with the tan.