June 10, 2012

the way they were

“We were so young and gay then and we thought we had all the money in the world. It will be sad if the great houses vanish and the Mizner period becomes only a memory and part of Palm Beach’s past rather than its present.”  -Billie Burke  


Ever since Henry Flagler left his Standard Oil office at 26 Broadway and transformed Florida’s East Coast into the American Riviera, New York and Palm Beach have shared the same social caste. Flagler envisioned Palm Beach as an international destination, built as much an indulgent retreat set apart from reason and restraint as it was patterned from the existing social DNA.

Glamorous yet quaint: Palm Beach in the 1950s and early ‘60s was a naively decadent playground where Queen Mary (Sanford) reigned supreme and everybody square danced on Thursday nights at Mar-a-Lago. 

Not a Trump in sight, but there were plenty of face cards, and they all knew who they were. It was as if everyone who really mattered had had gravitated to this place. Palm Beach in the fifties and sixties was more a private club than a glittering resort.

Of all the gaily colored moths that fluttered about then, the undisputed queen bee was Mrs. Stephen ("Laddie") Sanford, or Queen Mary, as she was unabashedly called. Royal garden parties were held in her honor, and if one was invited to her oceanfront villa, Los Incas, one knew that one needed to climb no farther.

Daphne (Mrs. George) Cameron in the trophy room of Laddie Sanford's house/Slim Aarons

People you had never heard of came from places like Cleveland and booked the whole winter season at the Breakers hotel, hoping to get the nod from Mary. Few did. Los Incas is gone, as is “Queen Mary” and without Mary Sanford at the helm, Palm Beach seems like a rudderless ship, an untethered balloon.

What did they talk about then?  Why, last night's party, of course-who got drunk and made a fool of himself, and who slipped off into the pool house with whom, and for how long, and for what possible purpose. Lawsuits were a popular diversion, and the question "How's your lawsuit coming?" was a good conversation starter in almost any group. Gregg Sherwood Dodge, the beautiful ex-show girl who had married the automobile heir, was suing Mary Sanford. Nobody really knew what this was all about, but it was exciting while it lasted because it split Palm Beach right down the middle, between Mary loyalists and Gregg loyalists, and everyone was disappointed when the two women kissed and made up.

Divorces and love affairs were as messy then as they are now, but somehow they were more glamorously messy. Detectives once barged in on Mollie Wilmot and found her wearing nothing but her estranged husband's self-winding watch. ("I had to wear it to keep it wound," she explained.) Then there was the dramatic moment when Patrick Lannan, the late art collector, who had an underground private museum beneath his Palm Beach house, "changed Marys."  

Pat Lannan /Slim Aarons

His "constant companion" had been Mary Sanford. Suddenly the designer Mary McFadden had taken the other Mary's place, and what did everybody think of that?

There was a third Mary in those days-Mary Donahue. She was considered rather naughty, but her husband's brother, the Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue, long dead, was the really naughty one, and everyone loved him-especially the duchess of Windsor.

the duke of Windsor's golf clubs, at the first tee on the Seminole Club in 1964

Other exotics floated in and out of Palm Beach. There was the Donahues' cousin Barbara Hutton, looking like a beautiful white lily whose slender stem had already been broken by  a cyclone called Porfirio Rubirosa (Ruby Baby), the dashing Dominican was every woman's dream.

Meanwhile, Lilly Pulitzer-this was long before there was a Roxanne- made dirty feet chic. She went barefoot everywhere, and it was amusing to watch her padding around her kitchen in her bare feet, cooking dinner for a party.

Lilly also made it chic to work. She made brightly patterned women's shifts and brightly patterned men's pants. Soon lots of social Palm Beach women were working too, opening little art galleries on Worth Avenue and little shops that sold costly and mostly useless bibelots, and that did nothing but lose money.


Worth Avenue 1960's

And then there were the Kennedy's who had a handsome son who wanted to be president of the United States.

Marjorie Merriweather Post wasn't really social she gave terrible parties, and her Thursday-night square dances were universally dreaded, though attending them was a must. They were carried out with paramilitary precision, with Mrs. Post barking out the orders in her loud Midwestern twang. Guests were expected at the doorstep of Mar-a-Lago precisely at 7:30, not a minute earlier or a minute later. Once they had all flocked in, each guest was served no more than two drinks. At 8:00 sharp, dinner was announced, and those whose invitations read "cocktails only" were ordered to leave, while the rest were seated. Mrs. Post's meals were undistinguished. Chicken hash was a favorite entree.

At precisely 9:30 P.M., guests were marched toward the ballroom, but before entering they had to remove their shoes and don satin slippers, thus to protect Mrs. P.'s highly waxed ballroom floor. Then, everybody had to square dance. No wallflowering or resting between sets was permitted. On the dot of eleven, the music stopped, and guests were told to go home.

Mrs. Post's hated parties today seem no more than a fleeting, irritating memory to those few Palm Beach people left who had to endure them. And Brownie McLean, whose mother-in-law owned the Hope diamond, now lives in a Trump condo in West Palm Beach.  

Today, the old Palm Beach of fifty-odd years ago, most of which was recorded for posterity by Slim Aarons, seems quaint and lovable, like something you might pull out of a trunk in Grandma's attic as quaint as a flower-printed dress from Lilly Pulitzer.

The old Palm Beach blends with the Old South they (and my Rollie) are gone with the wind.


Mona said...

My we are getting nostalgic in our advanced age! But I like.
Well, “Tulipan”, I'm off to curry the stallion. Ta!

SvO said...

I am simply aghast at the thought of you currying your own mount.
I must recommend a young stable lad to assist you with this and other "chores".

Thanks Ms. Edna, nize.

Anja said...

Thanks this is an interesting read.
Obviously I arrived at the Palm Beach scene too late. For Palm Beach today is really deadly boring!

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Well, old age must have some perks!

Beata said...

Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing...

Mrs. R. said...

Well, of course I've always knew that we were Master of the Universe when living in old Palm Beach. “One might say”.
Seriously, though – you described it to a T.