Can ordinary mortals enter Florida society without the benefit of good breeding and gobs of money? Henry Alford scales the walls at a classic resort to find out.
We want in. My mother and I are flying to Palm Beach for the weekend and, regardless of the fact that we don't know a single person who lives there, it is our fervent hope that, come Monday morning, we will be Palm Beach society's new king and queen. We long to be on a first-name basis with du Ponts and Flaglers and Khashoggis and Trumps; we long to show the world that winter can be a verb.
"What you want to do tonight," I coach Mom on the plane, referring to the party being held at our hotel, the Colony, to celebrate the opening of the hotel's cabaret's season, "is stand as close as possible to any VIP's in the room. If there are any photos taken, you'll be in the shot."
"Got it," Mom says.
Societal ascension, I've decided, requires photo documentation. If a gate is crashed in the forest, does anybody hear it?
Some four hours later, Mom and I are mingling at the Colony's crowded bar. Lighthearted chuckling and Chardonnay are very much in evidence, but recognizable pillars of Palm Beach society are not. We've come to the Colony—the pale yellow, British colonial-style landmark of 92 rooms and much local lore—for a package called the Society Soirée Weekend; we scour the room for Old Guard and New Guard, but find only No Guard. Then, suddenly, out by the pool, someone catches my eye. Could it be...? Oh my God, yes! It's Dominic Chianese, who plays Tony Soprano's crabby Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. We love him. "He's no Mary Lou Whitney," I say to Mom, referencing the former queen of Palm Beach society. "But I'll take him."
We walk over to Chianese and tell him we love, love, love him. Dressed all in black, he is avuncular and warm, more monsignor than mobster. He introduces us to his wife, Jane, and tells us they're staying at the hotel. Mom recites from memory a coruscating line of Uncle Junior dialogue—"I've got the Feds so far up [a certain part of my anatomy], I'm tasting Brylcreem"—whereupon Chianese laughs and warmly thanks her. Sadly, there are no photographers around, and the moment goes undocumented. But as we take our leave, Chianese says to us, "God bless you." We are thrilled.
Success coursing through our veins, Mom and I float into the Colony's elegant cabaret to hear the bluesy singer Baby Jane Dexter. We're feeling very inside. When a fellow cabaret-goer wearing an all-lace jumpsuit sans underpants passes our table mid-performance, our tablemate (who happens to be the PR director of the Palm Beach County Convention & Visitors Bureau) opines, "That outfit is so Boca." Mom and I nod faux-knowingly. Yes, yes: so Boca. After the show, still flush with the excitement of meeting Chianese, Mom and I walk a block from the hotel to Worth Avenue, which is all Moorish arches and plate glass, and press our noses against the windows of Hermès, Gucci, Ferragamo, and Bulgari. We vow to further solidify our rising social status through the rapid accumulation of luxury goods.
While the society soirée weekend at the Colony, now called Sun and the Cabaret, includes a limo tour, with champagne—or, as it is called in these parts, shampoo—of Palm Beach's estate section, I have decided to, uh, supersize the Colony's offerings with two quintessential Palm Beach activities. The first is, of course, a consultation with a plastic surgeon.
The next morning Mom and I find ourselves in the Palm Beach Gardens offices of Dr. Arturo Guiloff, located just behind the La-Z-Boy showroom. (Mom: "Nice. After surgery, you can loll.") We take a seat in the lobby and wait. She is anxious about the consultation, worrying that the doctor "will see a Cadillac in my every wrinkle." I try to placate her. I tell her that if indeed I ever get "done," I want copious amounts of anesthesia. She suggests "a man in the lobby, with a hammer."
Dr. Guiloff is calm and trustworthy. In his immaculate office, he gives Mom the once-over and then utters that statement so galvanizing to the heart of the 50-plus female: "I'd really like to do something with your eyelids." As for me, he suggests I might reduce the fat pads under my eyes; my mind reels at having a new body area whose fatness I can obsess over.
(I ask if there are any eyelid calisthenics I can do; he politely says no.) How will we know when we've had too much work done? I ask. Guiloff says some Palm Beach women have to tape their eyes shut when they go to bed because they can't close them; Mom responds, "That's where we draw the line." We leave his office bearing written estimates (Mom: $15,000; me: $6,000).
The other accessory that we'll need for social ascent—besides faces whose sole idiom is intense surprise—is a tiara for Mom. So we return to Worth Avenue to visit various fine jewelers. But a tiara, it turns out, is hard to come by. "Generally it's something that's handed down in a family," a tanned and nattily dressed clerk at Cartier tells me. I respond, "I see. We're new in town and want to do things very comme il faut. " He smiles wanly and suggests we visit Greenleaf & Crosby. There Mom tries on a six-inch-wide, Napoleon III, gold, silver, and diamond tiara priced at $28,000. "Yes, yes, yes," I enthuse, as Mom and the saleswoman peer in the mirror at the tiny treasure. I add, "The vacant spot of queen of Palm Beach society..."
"...could be yours," the saleswoman says.
So our faces will be tight, and our heads bedecked—but where will we live? Mom and I spend most of our subsequent 1 1/2-hour limo tour of the 14-mile-long subtropical barrier island that is Palm Beach trying to decide which house is most "us." We marvel at the gorgeous Mar-a-Lago, formerly Marjorie Merriweather Post's house and now a club owned by Donald Trump, but we worry about upkeep and sand in the bedsheets. I point at a slightly garish manse on a bluff; Mom rolls her eyes heavenward and says, "So Boca." No, many of the smaller, ocean-side manses seem a better fit, we decide, and then we go on to imagine the real estate ad for our dream house—Mom is looking for a "turnkey situation"; I crave "All the I wants."
That night we dine at the favored haunt of Palm Beach society, Taboo. We keep a beady eye out for Chianese, hoping additional contact with him in public will render Mom and me "made men." But he doesn't show up, so we remain more maids than mades. Instead, we sit in the window seat overlooking Worth Avenue, people-watching and speculating. We see sturdy elderly gentlemen whose extra-tufty eyebrows have almost achieved the status of limbs; we think, Buckley-Groton-Princeton. We see blond women in headbands and fluorescent Lilly Pulitzer fashions; we think, Summers in Katharine Graham's potting shed. We see a woman in a turban and a Chanel suit; we think, Impoverished noble looking for seventh husband.
"What do you think people make of us ?" Mom asks me.
"Dowager and her decorator."
I point out that many society grandes dames have dessert-like names (e.g., Sugar Rautbord, Brownie McLean); I ask Mom if she has given any thought to this. Mom considers it for a moment. "My friends call me Marzipan," she says.
On our last day in Palm Beach, we drive over to the Breakers hotel for brunch; it is more glamorous and much larger than the Colony, and we decide that we are definitely brunching up. Our subsequent outing—a boat tour of the estates of various VIP's—is called off because of a squall, our boat captain telling us that Florida is "the death-by-lightning capital of the world" (I imagine the headline in the Palm Beach Post: FRIED MARZIPAN). The pool area back at the Colony is sun-drenched, so Mom and I opt for poolside basking.
At about noon, I spy Baby Jane Dexter emerging from the hotel and taking a seat at a table in the shade. Sensing an opening, I grab my camera and walk over and tell her I loved, loved, loved her performance on Friday. We name-drop and cackle and bond. She asks me to sit. Mom, hearing the din, sidles over and joins us. Drinks are ordered. We love this. We're sitting with the hotel's second-most-famous guest, and everybody can see us. And then, just when we thought it couldn't get any better, something even more wonderful happens: Dominic Chianese and his wife walk out to the pool and say hello to Dexter. Dexter starts to introduce Mom and me to them, whereupon I, eager to show off the advances that Mom and I have made in the world of social climbing, allow as how "we already know each other." Dexter looks impressed. Eyeing my camera, she grabs it and says, "Let me take a picture of you and your mom with Dominic and Jane."
The Colony , 155 Hammon Ave.; 800/521-5525 or 561/655-5430; www.thecolonypalmbeach.com ; Sun and the Cabaret package from $620, double, through April 7.
HENRY ALFORD's story "The Ultimate B&B?" (T+L, December 2000) will be featured in the upcoming anthology More Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor (HarperCollins).