The New Palm Beach Story
Published: April 2009
By Tom Austin
What happens when new money and bright young things
invade Palm Beach, South Florida's old-money playground,
And West Palm Beach, its up-and-coming neighbor?
To someone who has written about parties and nightclubs in Miami for almost two decades, Palm Beach is both a kind of beacon and rebuke, a shibboleth that embodies all manner of yearnings. As with the actual versus the psychic distance between Cuba and America, the lotus-eaters of Palm Beach are so close to Miami and yet so elusive, so removed.
Not that Palm Beach hasn't been good for some laughs along the way. In the 1980's, before the era of such new-generation heirs as Serena Boardman and Aerin Lauder, I can remember a wizened social doyenne waving off a proffered arm with a drawled, "My dear, if the banister were wider, I'd slide down." Since that moment when real life met romantic cliché, it has been all downhill, a sporadic diet of polo tournaments and stranger-in-a-strange-land parties.
As with any American resort, parts of the town—especially Worth Avenue—are now teetering on the brink of being a theme park (though the side streets have plenty of charm). A stroll along the Lake Trail, situated between Lake Worth and the back yards of luxe mansions, brings the strange spectacle of tattooed punks flipping their stunt bikes around.
A journalist friend worked here for a season five years ago, but it all ended for him one bizarre Christmas Eve. A hostess had hired dwarfs to play Santa's elves, and the locked-jaw crowd muttered endearments on the order of "Aren't they sweet?" This can be a very insular place, where cocktails are chased with claustrophobia, and a little Marxist bile is often part of the program. One watershed evening of my own brought drinks and twitches at the house of a tycoon who couldn't stop telling me about the companies he owned. When I interrupted his monologue to excuse myself, the host became visibly agitated. "Why, you're nothing but an ink-stained wretch," he blurted at the door.
"SPANDEX WAS MY LIFE," SAYS PARTY PLANNER BRUCE SUTKA, who made his reputation with a controversial New Year's Eve charity affair once held at the Flagler Museum, and now at the Breakers hotel. In years past, the debauched Young Friends of the American Red Cross Ball has featured Cornelia Guest riding a longhorn steer and the drag queen Brandywine spanking guests as they arrived. Sutka has impeccable Palm Beach credentials—he was once married to Stephanie Wrightsman of the old-guard Wrightsman family—but he lives on the mainland in downtown West Palm Beach and is a tireless promoter of that once squalid area.
The city and private interests have dropped a billion-dollar bomb on West Palm, throwing cash at just about everything. One day I hop into Sutka's SUV for a tour. He points out a strip of buildings that were bought by Standard Oil heir Lawrence Corning, who converted them into galleries and artists' lofts, jump-starting a traditional path to urban renewal. We drive by the International Pavilion—a $3 million—plus tent set up as a temporary convention center—to the three-acre site of the new Palm Beach Opera complex. Last-chance boardinghouses sit next to great old Southern houses out of Tobacco Road and bold new über-malls.
Downtown West Palm has some 162,000 square feet of bars and restaurants. It all began in the mid-nineties on Clematis Street, a renovated strip that starts near Lake Worth with the new Cuillo Centre for the Arts and meanders west with the usual string of chain stores. (On this afternoon, a band of Grateful Dead types are protesting outside the Gap: "Stop the slavery in a sweatshop.") Sutka is a huge fan of the new CityPlace, a $550 million, open-air mall and residential complex that I find objectionable on every possible level. Jorge Perez, a developer involved in some hideously tall condos in South Beach, is a partner in the project. But it's big-time all around. There's a 20-screen theater modeled after—a long way after—a Parisian opera house; a 1920's Methodist church that's been turned into a cultural center; accomplished restaurants such as Tamayo and Legal Sea Foods; even a proposed hipster haunt, New York's NV nightclub. This being America, the mall of the damned is packed, even though an organic and authentic pedestrian-friendly town—Palm Beach itself—is just over the bridge on its barrier island, and not all that crowded.
Palm Beach, the overwrought sandbar of retail dreams, caters to the high-end wallet specialists: Gucci, Pucci, Hermès, and the resort mainstays that might as well advertise, "Wherever you are, WASP shopper, we are too." But some of the more offbeat shops, sophisticated shopping mechanisms, have adapted to their environment with unique mutations, in the same way that on a Galápagos island there will be a subspecies of iguana that can live only on one particular sun-drenched beach. Stubbs & Wootton, for instance, is all about handmade slippers (cast in needlepoint and velvet) worn as shoes, a regional whimsy that strikes much of the male fashion pool.
The semiotic shorthand of Palm Beach was Lilly Pulitzer in 1958, designing dresses next to a dime store on Worth Avenue, in the orange juice stand she and her husband, Peter Pulitzer, had opened up as a lark. C. Orrico on South County Road is now the official Lilly Pulitzer outpost, a thoroughly unaffected boutique full of her classic cotton print dresses. The retail mantle has been passed to her goddaughter, Lilly van Gerbig, who has brought out her own line, Govango, also available at C. Orrico. Her cotton dresses are similar in tone, adorned with giraffes and monkeys designed by her husband, Barry van Gerbig, the grandson of the late Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The Worth Avenue boutique of Steven Stolman carries other clothing lines that are post-Lilly in concept, incorporating designs taken from upholstery fabric. Stolman also sells the highly evolved jewelry of Mish New York: a rock-and-roll memorabilia expert, Mish Tworkowski has designed pieces based on various local landmarks. In conversation, Mish is light, deft, and Palm Beach in the best possible sense. "What I love is the juxtaposition," he says, "the beautiful houses and gardens, with the junk shops and Cuban food nearby on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. Just like the Hamptons, Palm Beach allows you to indulge in the social aspects—it all depends on which side of the hedge you want to be on, so to speak."
AT THE DAWN OF THE 20TH CENTURY SOUTH, Florida was one of the last great American wildernesses, and much of the state still feels brand-new and alien. In the time of Henry Flagler—the tycoon who, at the end of the 19th century, brought the railroad all the way to Key West, hacked Palm Beach out of the swamps, and built the hotel that would become the Breakers—people in Palm Beach visited one another by gondola. The Flagler Museum was once his home, a robber baron fortress called Whitehall. Today it houses his self-aggrandizing bric-a-brac and furniture.
In Palm Beach, history—especially social history—is everywhere at once. On Worth Avenue, the restaurant Ta-boó is still around, clutching onto bygone glories and myths: the day the Bloody Mary was invented for Barbara Hutton's hangover, the nights when German U-boat commanders slipped ashore for drinks at the bar.
But the best thing about Florida history is the half-baked fantasy creations of its early developers, such as society architect Addison Mizner, who practically invented Palm Beach. Known for prancing about town with his monkey, Johnnie Brown, he started with the beautiful Everglades Club in 1919, then built Worth Avenue itself. Mizner's houses are collected in the same way that Richard Neutra's work is prized in California. These days, you can see Johnnie Brown's little tombstone in a courtyard off Via Mizner, near the villa Mizner designed for himself. The view from the fifth floor reveals that a broad swath across the island is still unsullied, a remarkable circumstance in condo-mad Florida. But the encroachment of townhouses and megahomes on small-scale 1950's neighborhoods is also evident. Money can protect or destroy a beautiful place, and it has done both for Palm Beach.
Shannon Donnelly has spent 20 years covering society for the Palm Beach Daily News, known as the Shiny Sheet. It's printed on staunch glossy paper that doesn't let ink rub off on the well dressed. Every night in season, Donnelly confronts the exercise of money—new and old—within the glittering pageant of society. "The town has changed for the better," she says. "The middle crust is more accepting now, although the upper is still difficult. But an Internet millionaire who has cashed in at thirty-five is pretty hard to intimidate."
ONE RECENT EVENING, I VISITED WORTH AVENUE, the boulevard of desire, clogged with Rolls-Royces and fantastical matrons weaving in and out of bougainvillea-encrusted courtyards and drinking free at a boutique opening. At Calypso, landlord Jane Holzer (a.k.a. Baby Jane Holzer) turns up and fusses with the party tent, surveying a crowd that includes Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers and socialite Terry Kramer. At the Polo store down the block, a gaggle of clichéd WASP's—including two 10-year-old boys in blazers who were debating the merits of cashmere—frolic in a setting that almost parodies the arcane details of their lives.
Afterward, my inner movie jump-cuts to Ocean Boulevard, a string of mansions, each with a tunnel to their respective cabanas on the beach. It's akin to leaping into a movieland salute to The Palm Beach Story crossed with a Jay-Z video. The last landmark to loom on the horizon is the gingerbread castle Mar-A-Lago: built in 1927 by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and now Donald Trump Land.
The over-the-top Breakers hotel was erected in the 1920's in the Italian Renaissance style. In the opulent lobby, just past a sign that welcomes the National Hockey League conference, the indigenous black-tie society—teeth flashing like sabers under the chandeliers—swans around on its way to endless galas and dinners. Stray conventioneers lower the tone a bit.
In contrast to the lobby, the Breakers' pool and spa is an entirely modern proposition, an anywhere-there's-money concept lined with cabanas, second wives, and financial predators aping casualness in loafers without socks. A group of buff mothers talk as their kids play touch football with the pool boys. One older finance type with a cowed young thing is actually smoking a cigar while holding a smiling baby, who's happily oblivious of the way Dad expresses his paternal pride to a business associate: "Let me tell you, pal—this baby is being raised on the world's most expensive breast milk."
ANOTHER PALM BEACH DAY STARTS WITH a formal old-line lunch at Café L'Europe: there's an essence-of-Europe couple in one corner, regional glamour gals dripping diamonds, and epicene waiters who could have stepped out of Sunset Boulevard. On the other hand, the high-priced fare—such as the supremely delicate slivers of squab—is probably the best of its kind in Palm Beach.
That night's great social wallow begins, yet again, in retail world, with an opening at the Greenleaf & Crosby jewelry salon on Worth Avenue. Peggy Guinness is displaying her handmade jewelry, gold balls and skulls and such. My crawl continues at Bice Ristorante with a table of excessively cultivated college students, chain-smoking, striking arch café poses, and mourning lost youth: "I sort of miss high school, but I really miss just living in Gstaad." In between various languors, the three Graces lob out the breaking nightlife report: "For people under twenty-five—and that's what it's all about—you've got to check out Clematis Street."
To start the adventure off on the right note, something kicky seems in order, and the ballyhooed drag show at Someplace, a restaurant in West Palm, turns out to be just the thing. In the cabaret room, a madly eclectic sampler of humanity has turned out for the event: hip-hop boys, thrill-seeking socialites, unrepentant schlock tourists, and veterans of the local gay bar circuit. In South Beach, drag shows are as common as feral cats, but this is something different: innocent, naughty, and wonderfully entertaining.
By midnight, Clematis Street is in full French Quarter—meets—Fort Liquordale—frat-night fester, backed up with cars, horny kids, and general tawdriness. At a restaurant called Finjan, belly dancers are working the outdoor tables, and street photographers hawk Polaroids to strolling couples. The crowd ebbs in and out of the watering holes: the eternal Starbucks and themed fun houses such as Samba Room, Tommy Bahamas Tropical Café & Emporium, Club 109, a totally jammed E. R. Bradley's Saloon, and the simply named Bar. Outside Bliss Lounge, the three Graces of Bice turn up and lead me inside to club sanctuary, where rave girls in boas are dancing beneath a chandelier.
Then it's downstairs to the Liquid Room, formerly operated by the South Beach team of Ingrid Casares and Chris Paciello. The scene resembles an ad for gorgeous-but-doomed youth, everyone sitting glumly before ice buckets of vodka. Not a bad club, but the Arcadian adventures of the idle rich end where they began, on the island that care and common sense forgot.
At 2 a.m., 251 Sunrise, on Sunrise Avenue,is jumping in a polite way. In the tiny upstairs room, decorated as a kind of Poloesque clubhouse, revelers in black tie are winding down from some charity ball. Suddenly a stream of water hits my face, fired from a water gun by none other than Christina Shields, who looks like Brooke Shields with an edge. They are half sisters, it turns out.
Every night on the town, someone—usually a tipsy someone—would try to explain the elusive essence of the island, the magical je ne sais quoi, darling. It would all be couched in vague romantic images, as if Palm Beach were Paris in the twenties, a cultural wonderland impenetrable to outsiders—particularly if they happened to be from Miami. If much of Palm Beach considers the rest of the world a waste of time, Miami operates almost entirely beneath its radar of contempt. And the more perceptions of the two resorts blur together in the vulgar modern world, the more Palm Beach sneers and preens.
But that night, as I caught a ride home in a car whose windows were open to a fragrant breeze, the Palm Beach moment finally happened. For a second or two on Royal Palm Way, the millennial worm turned back to the gorgeous opulence and pure possibility of the 1950's. Suddenly, the town felt like a dreamscape that had somehow missed being soiled by time. For Palm Beach believers, life is forever fun and shiny, a place where most of the time, nothing bad can happen.
Palm Beach International Airport is in West Palm Beach; the Fort Lauderdale airport is only 50 miles from Palm Beach. March is high season here, so expect to face crowds—and pay top dollar—at many establishments.
The Breakers 1 S. County Rd.; 888/273-2537 or 561/659-8440; doubles from $405. The 569-room oceanfront Breakers is a Palm Beach monolith. Most well-heeled locals belong to its beach club and first-rate spa.
Chesterfield Hotel 363 Cocoanut Row; 877/955-1515 or 561/ 659-5800; doubles from $350. A quirky 55-room gem near Worth Avenue. Its Leopard Lounge is wondrously demented.
The Colony 155 Hammon Ave.; 800/521-5525 or 561/655-5430; doubles from $285. A block from the ocean, the 90-room Colony has a tiki bar, an old-time beauty salon, and a lobby dedicated to the art of martini swilling.
Four Seasons Resort 2800 S. Ocean Blvd.; 800/432-2335 or 561/582-2800; doubles from $395. Built on six acres of beachfront, the 210-room Four Seasons has a restaurant headed by acclaimed chef Hubert des Marais. Let us now praise the luxe.
Brazilian Court 301 Australian Ave; 800/552-0335 or 561/655-7740; doubles from $335. Just around the corner from the Chesterfield, the circa-1926 Brazilian Court has lovely courtyards.
RESTAURANTS AND CLUBS
Bice Ristorante 3131/2 Worth Ave.; 561/835-1600; dinner for two $110. The hordes outside are forever pleading their case to maître d' Francesco Blanco. The rack of lamb transcends the agitated ambience.
Echo 230 Sunrise Ave.; 561/802-4222; dinner for two $80. In a much-talked-about, highly metropolitan addition to the dining fray, chef Mattias Radits prepares all manner of Asian dishes.
Café L'Europe 331 S. County Rd.; 561/655-4020; lunch for two $50. An institution full of proper old ladies—and great food.
Hamburger Heaven 314 S. County Rd.; 561/655-5277; lunch for two $18. Even socialites crave comfort food.
251 Sunrise 251 Sunrise Ave.; 561/820-9777. A loyal throng of prepsters attend this youthquake disco for the noble cause of fun.
Palm Beach Tavern 251 Royal Palm Way; 561/832-0385; dinner for two $80. A simple and unaffected bar and restaurant that's perfect for the first—or the last—stop of the evening.
WEST PALM BEACH
Hotel Biba 320 Belvedere Rd.; 561/832-0094; doubles from $79. The renovation of this 46-room registered landmark building is a sign of stylish things to come. Sip sake at the chic Biba Bar and think Zen thoughts in the poolside bamboo grove.
Someplace 424 24th St.; 561/802-9060; dinner for two $50. A down-home restaurant with veal marsala during the week, drag queens on weekends.
Tamayo 550 S. Rosemary Ave.; 561/514-0510; dinner for two $70. The southern division of New York's Maya, with a sleek interior and good food, too: chocolate tamal, grilled filet mignon with mole cheese enchilada.
Society of the Four Arts Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach; 561/655-7226. Designed by pioneer architects Addison Mizner and Maurice Fatio, the Four Arts includes a library, an exhibition hall, and a vast walled garden.
Episcopal Church Bethesda-by-the-Sea 141 S. County Rd., Palm Beach; 561/655-4554. A 1925 landmark; wonderful greenery.
Norton Museum of Art 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach; 561/832-5196. One of the best museums in Florida. The collection includes many French Impressionist works.
Henry Morrison Flagler Museum Cocoanut Row and Whitehall Way, Palm Beach; 561/655-2833. The early 1900's house built by the founder of Palm Beach.