Quick, class: What's the "most wealthy, glamorous, opulent, decadent, self-indulgent, sinful spot on earth"? In which American city can you put your dead husband's body on ice for 40 days -- literally -- because you "want to party at Mar-a-Lago" and a funeral would only spoil the fun? On what "3.75-square-mile island paradise" can you murder your wife, rape the maid, plow the gardener and bar Jews from your club but find yourself shunned for cruelty to the Pekingese?
"It's Palm Beach, darling," says a resident of that preposterous pile of egotism, money, social pretension and silicone boobs. "That's what it is. You move into a big house, you drive an expensive car and everybody accepts what you're saying without asking, 'Isn't this a little bit strange?'"
"Grotesque" might be a better word to describe the denizens of the world's most pompous resort. Not even the Grimaldis' Monaco can rival Florida's gilded swamp for sheer parading and enslavement to appearances. The comparison is relative, of course: Monaco is still a police state, but Palm Beachers are no longer allowed to fingerprint the servants. "It was a nice feature of living in a town like Palm Beach," says the city's mayor, the son of a Romanov grand duke.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post investigative reporter and the bestselling author of Inside the White House and Inside the CIA, now kneels to billionaires, dowagers, bimbos, "escorts" and lounge lizards in The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America's Richest Society. Kneels to them and gives them "a Lewinsky," as the saying goes. Despite its hype as "a powerful, seamless, juicy narrative that no novelist could dream up," Kessler's chronicle of so many leather-skinned paranoids on South Ocean Drive is the work of an overpaid lapdog. Someone should tell him the truth: No novelist would want to dream it up. A book about the private lives of alligators would be more interesting and make the same point in less time.
Granted, Kessler had some problems gaining access to "the beautiful people" in "plastic-surgery central," as one of his four main sources, "the night manager of Ta-Boó, Palm Beach's trendiest and most successful restaurant and bar," describes the moral vacuum he calls home. As a Jew, Kessler was automatically under suspicion in a famous nest of WASPs. As a reporter, he labored under the restrictions that apply to any journalist who has to suck up to his subject -- that is, he got his information in exchange for allegiance to the status quo. "Palm Beachers pretend to be above it all," Kessler writes, "but I found they thrive on the latest gossip, making for lively dinner-party conversation or late-night prattle over scrambled eggs and truffles." You can learn more about the place just by stepping over into West Palm Beach, where the workers and wannabes live.
Like all celebrity exposés, The Season promises vastly more than it delivers. Can anyone really care that Roxanne Pulitzer regards her drug-drenched, threesome-riddled existence as "more normal" than the lives of most people she knows? Are you surprised to discover that money rules everything in Palm Beach and that "Roman orgies" abound? That "most Palm Beach women go bare-legged," eschewing pantyhose "even with formal ball gowns"? That William Kennedy Smith was acquitted on rape charges? That Barton Gubelmann, the purportedly reluctant "queen" of Palm Beach's Old Guard society, thinks "every single man around here is a gigolo"? That most of the gigolos and escorts are gay? Can you believe it?
In Kessler's nest of mummies, vipers, babes and moneybags, only one person emerges as a hero: Donald Trump, who bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 and stunned the Old Guard by turning it into a country club that accepts anyone as a member -- Jews, blacks, you name it -- anyone, of course, who happens to have buckets of cash. Kessler seems to approve of this move, but it's as close as he comes to a democratic impulse. All 336 pages of The Season are tainted by his wide-eyed wonder at the glamour of it all. The fun comes in watching the Trumpster rile a crowd that ought to be first in line for the tumbrels, should such a glorious moment ever return.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The tantalizing, and largely borne-out, premise of this dishy expos is that the real-life goings-on in the wealthy resort community of Palm Beach, Fla., are so hedonistically outr as to "make Dynasty and Dallas look like nursery tales." Having originally come to the area to research a book on Joseph Kennedy (The Sins of the Father), former Washington Post reporter Kessler found that life in Palm Beach--where 87% of the residents are millionaires, the local grocery store offers valet parking, bank tellers routinely make house calls, and party-goers shell out some $38 million a year to attend the almost-nightly charity balls held during the December-April "season"--was so "bizarre" that the town merited a book of its own. Although one local maintains, "we have the same problems everyone else does. You just add a few zeroes," Kessler's research, conducted during several lengthy stays in Palm Beach, resulted in the hardly surprising but nevertheless titillating conclusion that vast wealth and nearly unlimited leisure time are an often volatile combination. Adultery, plastic surgery and decadent night life all feature prominently here, as do names like Donald Trump, Roxanne Pulitzer and Rod Stewart. But through intimate portraits of some of Palm Beach's less famous residents, Kessler also puts a human face on all the glitz and glamour, revealing that the super-rich can be as painfully insecure, as lonely and even as down-to-earth as the rest of us. While all of that may be nothing new, this is a fun and frothy glimpse into a world that, despite its surface glitter, is, as Kessler astutely observes, characterized by almost as much cliquishness, pettiness and gossip as high school. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kessler, New York Times best-selling author and former award-winning Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, researched a different kind of secret society this time. As in his previous works, such as FBI and Spy vs. Spy, he immersed himself thoroughly in this assignment. He met the "right" people and was invited to their parties; he interviewed the "old guard" and the "new money." The result, which takes up where Murray Weiss and William Hoffman's Palm Beach Babylon (LJ 12/92) left off, is a very readable soap opera-ish account (with some adult sexual references). Read it if you want to know what the obscenely rich eat, wear, and do from December to April, but by the fourth chapter you may find that the name- dropping becomes tedious. Recommended for public libraries.--Kimberly A. Bateman, Broward Community Coll., Pembroke Pines, FL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Money matters in this high-society resort, according to bestselling author Kessler; so do pedigree, the right wardrobe, the right restaurantand bigotry and misogyny. Palm Beach is an island enclave off the east coast of Florida, first established as a playground for the rich in 1892 by Henry Flagler (Standard Oil, railroad money). Among the first winter residents were John D. Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. Recent homeowners include billionaire entrepreneurs from television, cosmetics, real estate, and finance. Rich as they are, however, the newcomers can't be admitted to Palm Beach's inner circle without running the gauntlet of the Old Guard socialites and their leader, the wealthy widow Barton Gubelmann (there are a lot of wealthy widows and divorcées in this story). Gubelmann introduced Kessler (Inside the White House, 1995, etc.) to nuances of who was in and who was out. Out are Jews: Palm Beach's two most illustrious private clubs permit no Jewish members and are touchy about Jewish guests. Other ethnic groups serve as maids, cooks, gardeners, and waiters, until recently legally required to be registered and fingerprinted (that local law was declared unconstitutional in 1985). Donald Trump comes off as a hero: His club, Mar-a-Lago, admits not only Jews but African-Americans. Shopping, plastic surgery, drugs, sex, and charity balls help Palm Beach regulars pass the time. Women are appreciated for their (cosmetically enhanced) bosoms, their wardrobes, and their ability to organize parties. The Jewish author donned a tuxedo to socialize and gather tales of both old and new money, yet he also established rapport with some ofthe lesser mortals on the island: a "walker," a restaurant manager, and an eccentric blond real estate broker from London. None of his sources raise the level of discourse above a Monica Lewinsky–Linda Tripp chat. Although Kessler tries to be nonjudgmental, the weight of accumulated anecdote paints a picture of narcissism and decadence that is both pitiable and unsettling. (16 pages photos)
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In early June, just as Barton Gubelmann, the grand first lady of Palm Beach's Old Guard, was explaining how Palm Beach society works, the phone rang.
"Oh, shit. Let the maid take it," the eighty-year-old scion said in a gravelly voice. Behind her, beyond the lily ponds and the burgeoning sea-grape trees, the Atlantic glistened.
An invitation to one of Gubelmann's gala dinner parties is coveted more than acceptance by the Everglades Club or the Bath & Tennis Club, the two WASP clubs that dominate Palm Beach social life and conversation. For her last party of the season, on May 9, Gubelmann dressed as a milkmaid. The invitation billed the party "Operation Deep Freeze" and explained: "Barton Is Cleaning Out the Freezer and Wants the Cupboard Bare." Dress called for "Flip Flops and Aprons."
The seventy-eight guests, who dined on pheasant pie, ham, and cold beef tenderloin, included Palm Beach mayor Paul R. Ilyinsky and his wife, Angelica; Lesly Smith, the town council president whose late husband, Earl, was ambassador to Cuba; Durie Appleton, a girlfriend of John F. Kennedy who was erroneously said to have been married to him; Prince Michel de Yougoslavie, ousted Yugoslav royalty; Chris Kellogg, an heir to the Wanamaker department-store fortune; Angela Koch (pronounced 'coke'), wife of near-billionaire William Koch; Princess Maria Pia of Italy; Jane Smith, from Standard Oil Company of New Jersey money; and Cynthia Rupp, an heir to the Chrysler fortune.
Unlike many other Palm Beach socialites, Gubelmann has no publicity agent and no bio to hand out. Why should she? She is Palm Beach society. After social queens Mary Sanford and Sue Whitmore bothdied in 1993 (Whitmore having succeeded Sanford as queen), the Palm Beach Daily News handicapped Gubelmann eight to one to rule over Palm Beach society. She said she didn't want the job.
Self-deprecating, irreverent, and publicity-shy, Gubelmann is a contrast to Palm Beach's plastic strivers. She is the widow of Walter Gubelmann, an America's Cup financier whose father, William, invented handy gadgets like the bicycle coaster brake and the basic mechanisms used in adding machines, typewriters, and early calculators. If she wasn't already rich, Gubelmann would make a good CEO. Shrewd and smart, she exercises her authority deftly and like a good boss rarely reveals her true powers.
Like other Palm Beach socialites, she shuttles back and forth among her homes. During the season, she lives in Palm Beach, where she has what she calls her "very small house" on South Ocean Boulevard, just two houses north of the home John Lennon and Yoko Ono owned. Assessed at $2.9 million, Barton's house is a gray-shingled contemporary with a pagodalike roof. At the entrance is a lily pond with a fountain, and in back is the requisite pool, rarely used. Inside, on an upholstered chair, sits a green pillow embroidered with the words It ain't easy being queen. Outside, the vanity plate on her Mercedes reads glamma.
Now, in off-season, Gubelmann was preparing to make her annual pilgrimage to her palatial home in Newport, Rhode Island. Gubelmann would fly there with one of her maids, her dog, and her cat, having bought tickets for each of the animals. Her assistant, Arthur "Skip" Kelter, a graying man with a perpetually bemused expression, would drive up in her Mercedes. A Chevy van with another driver would haul a twelve-foot trailer containing her clothes and Skip's computer.
J. Paul Getty said, "If you can actually count your money, then you are not really a rich man." Asked how much she is worth, Gubelmann responded in kind: "I don't know," she said. "I don't sit home and count it. I have no idea. Someone must have it on some piece of paper. We have lawyers and accountants and bookkeepers." But Gubelmann is said to be worth close to $100 million. When asked about that, she said, "Is that what it is? I'm glad to know it. I'll spend some money today."
Palm Beachers hold Gubelmann in awe, and many doubted she would ever meet with me, much less be candid. I first came to Palm Beach four years earlier to conduct research on Joseph P. Kennedy for my book The Sins of the Father. Residents like Dennis E. Spear, the caretaker of the Kennedy estate, and Cynthia Stone Ray, one of Rose Kennedy's former secretaries, filled me in--not only on the Kennedys, but on the secrets, lore, and rituals of Palm Beach. Spear took me to Au Bar, where Senator Edward M. Kennedy had been on the night that his nephew William Kennedy Smith picked up the woman who would later accuse him of raping her--a charge that a jury found to be without basis. Cynthia gave me a tour of Palm Beach's mansions.
I was drawn to this bizarre town. Like most people, I hadn't realized that Palm Beach is located on a fifteen-mile-long subtropical barrier island, of which twelve miles is Palm Beach. On the rest, the southern tip, are the towns of Manalapan and South Palm Beach. The island's width varies at different points from five hundred feet to three quarters of a mile. Lake Worth, a coastal lagoon that is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, separates the island from the mainland about a half mile away. In 1870 settlers cut a ditch between the northern end of Lake Worth and the Atlantic. The inlet was later enlarged, and another was cut at the southern tip of the barrier strip, turning it into an island.
With only 9,800 residents, Palm Beach is inherently a very small town--only a few times larger than Gilmanton Iron Works, the New Hampshire village where Grace Metalious's Peyton Place was set. Here, on $5 billion worth of real estate, live some of the richest people in the world. For many tycoons, Palm Beach is a reward, a realization of life's pleasures in a self-contained paradise.