Glimpses of life lived large
Where sun is king, sample gilded-age living and shuttle flights imagined and real
Walking on white sand, I crossed into this Lilly Pulitzer-clad kingdom of frivolity just past the public beach in Lake Worth. Pelicans filled the air; surfers rode the storm surge; and I headed north to where estates stretch from the ocean to the intracoastal and bougainvillea blooms like dandelions, where the clear blue Gulf Stream runs close to shore, and there are walls of glossy ficus hedges. Here a fabulous excess belongs to another time: a small, medium, and large poodle to every Bentley convertible, country clubs with saltwater swimming pools, and trash pickup every weekday.
In the 1880s Henry Flagler, a stern-faced, mustachioed founder of Standard Oil, made the swampy wilderness of Palm Beach accessible with his Florida East Coast Railway. He built the Georgian-style Royal Poinciana Hotel, at one time the world's largest, and his own home, a Beaux-Arts mansion called Whitehall. Soon this was the winter home of East Coast society. Over the years Camelot came, along with the Du Ponts and the Dodges, Estée Lauder and John Lennon. Now, 130 years later, the place still thrives but as sort of a campy caricature of its former self. The Royal Poinciana was torn down; Whitehall is a museum; the Kennedys are long gone. Yoko Ono and Larry Flynt left, even billionaire investor Ronald Perelman recently sold his 6-acre estate for $70 million. But Donald Trump, Rod Stewart, Vera Wang, Vic Damone, Jimmy Buffett, Anne Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh are here, and you can still buy three kinds of caviar at the drugstore.
Most of what happens in Palm Beach happens in the pri vate clubs, on the golf courses and yachts, behind the hedges and wrought iron gates. Everywhere there are signs and guards warning no parking, no trespassing, or private property. More than most places, to see Palm Beach is to see only so much. But on foot, on a long, aimless saunter, you can see a lot. Peek through the hedges, stop for lunch, peer through the windows, buy something, get your feet wet on the beach, have dinner, stay somewhere. Soon you'll have seen plenty.
The estate section
Palm Beach is almost as long as Manhattan but not quite as wide.
It is thought of by locals as an island of its own, but it's just the northern 13 miles of an overbuilt, 16-mile-long sandy spit separated from the rest of the world by three fishermen-lined drawbridges over what was once a creek called Lake Worth and is now the Intracoastal Waterway. The four miles from the Sloan's Curve condominiums to Worth Avenue are known to those who know (mostly realtors) as the estate section. Here you have a wonderland of houses, many of which were designed by Addison Mizner, considered an untrained but visionary architect who popularized the Moorish Mediterranean look in South Florida. But there's also Art Deco, Bermudian, wedding cake, Southern Colonial, and of course the symmetry, marble, loggias, and broad-striped awnings of Robert William Gottfried's strangely ubiquitous Palm Beach French Regency.
Right after the Southern Boulevard bridge (drawbridge number one) is Mar-a-Lago, built from 1924-27 on 20 acres by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Since 1985, the 110,000-square-foot Hispano-Moresque-style estate has been the private home of Trump and since 1995 of his Mar-a-Lago Club as well. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley spent their honeymoon in the house's 75-foot-high tower suite overlooking the island and ocean.
After a few miles the mansions and their large lots blend into townhouses and boutiques, the shopping spread that stretches from Worth Avenue to just past the Breakers Hotel. This is midtown. Worth Avenue, Palm Beach's stand-in for Rodeo Drive, runs from the ocean to the intracoastal. I walked on the warm sidewalks window-shopping at Chanel,
I read the menus of plenty of undistinguished but expensive restaurants, drank dark drip with cream at the sole
Parallel to Worth is Australian Avenue and The Brazilian Court, the 1926 hotel and condominium where in 1984 Robert F. Kennedy's 28-year-old son, David, overdosed on cocaine. It's now a boutique hotel with a Café Boulud, and a Frédéric Fekkai Salon. Australian and Worth dead-end at the yacht-filled town marina and the middle bridge (drawbridge number two).
Most of Palm Beach's restaurants are in this part of town. Café L'Europe is the place to people-watch, car-watch the exotic supercars at the valet stand, feast on the caviar bar, and groove to the baby grand piano. At Bistro Chez Jean Pierre they have perfectly blond fries and textbook coq au vin with pearl onions and tender red-wine-braised legs and thighs. Renato's is candlelit with career waiters and plenty of outdoor tables.
But if you just cross the middle bridge you can find treasures like Cuban takeout at Havana, falafel sandwiches and grape leaves at the Middle Eastern Bakery and Grocery, fish tacos at Lupita's, and Italian soul food at Marcello's La Sirena.
Keep going and you reach the polo fields in Wellington where Prince Charles comes to whack the willow root, and then the endless sugar cane in Belle Glade, where feral boars run wild and the Fanjuls grow their sweet grass in the town's famous mucky black gold soil.
A couple miles past Worth Avenue is the north bridge (drawbridge number three) and the northern part of urban Palm Beach. Here, the Breakers Hotel is aging gracefully, its guests eating stone crabs at the seafood bar and at night watching dolphins in the spotlights. With its few posh pockets this is the practical part of town, where people buy groceries and have prescriptions filled. The Publix supermarket sells Spam alongside vintage champagne. Walk the side streets and you'll dodge alley cats and bowl after bowl of kibble provided by the elusive cat lady.
On Royal Poinciana Way I had the sweetest freshly squeezed Honeybell orange juice at The Tropical Fruit Shop and lusted after the Lamborghinis and vintage Broncos lined up to have their tires rotated and oil changed at Testa's Garage. On the east end of the street the classic Chuck and Harold's Restaurant has been replaced by Grotto, of the generic Italian chain. In 1993 co-owner Chuck Muer, his wife, Betty, and another couple were lost at sea sailing back from the Bahamas in a storm.
Past Royal Poinciana I had good diner food at Green's, an old-fashioned pharmacy with a lunch counter where John F. Kennedy once ate cheap hamburgers and drank coffee milkshakes.
The North End
In Flagler's day the North End was a jungle. Heading north from town you pass under a canopy of banyan trees and then estate section-sized houses including what is known locally as "Trump's folly." Trump bought this more than 40,000-square-foot oceanside palace at auction in 2004 for just over $41 million. Renovated by season three winner of "The Apprentice," Kendra Todd, it was originally listed for $125 million and is still on the market.
Beyond that, estates fade into smaller houses, mostly Bermuda style, with some older Spanish places mixed in. One of these, La Guerida, was built by Mizner for the Wanamaker family and bought by Joseph P. Kennedy in 1933. Decades later it was President Kennedy's winter White House, and more decades later became associated with tales of Senator Edward M. Kennedy's drinking and a nephew's trial on charges he raped a woman there. It was sold in 1995.
The North End is still the least developed and quietest part of Palm Beach. In the summer, mangoes drop from the trees in afternoon thunderstorms and sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand. Surfers catch waves at the Reef Road break, and white uniformed West Indian nannies walk fancy dogs on the beach. The town dead-ends at the Palm Beach Inlet. Manatees swim back and forth, and yachts pass in and out.
Look across the chop at the Port of Palm Beach, at the high-rise condominiums on Singer Island (named for the sewing machine Singers), at the beer-drinking day boaters, and the dredged dirt pile that is Peanut Island, home to a Robinson Crusoe campground and JFK's nuclear fallout shelter. Look out at the real world.
Jonathan Levitt, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.