- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2007

PALM BEACH, Fla.

THE EVENT: The 50th anniversary of the International Red Cross Ball on Jan. 27 at the Mar-a-Lago Club.

GETTING THERE: Ambassadors accredited to Washington have been honored guests ever since the event’s founder, cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, started flying them down for the ball a half century ago. This year, diplomats from Afghanistan, Ecuador, Finland, Malta, Qatar, Slovenia and Thailand started the weekend duly impressed by the flight from Washington Dulles International Airport aboard Donald Trump’s personal 727 (reconfigured to carry 20 in luxurious comfort instead of the usual 150). “Do you think the Renoir hanging in the aft cabin is real?” one awed passenger asked over bagels and cream cheese served by a smartly uniformed flight attendant. “I don’t know,” his seatmate replied, “but it would be horribly bad taste if it wasn’t.”

WARMING UP: Upon arrival, a fleet of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces whisks the group to the palatial homes of private hosts. After lunch and a bit of sightseeing or shopping, dinner was served aboard the Mariner III, a classic 1926 motor yacht that cruised smoothly past some of the world’s most expensive real estate. “It’s $10 million for anything decent these days,” a retired Palm Beach business titan patiently explained as the band thumped out “Besame Mucho” on the sun deck, “but of course that’s only for a vacant lot.”

GETTING STARTED: Duly attired in white-tie finery festooned with colorful orders, medals and sashes, the ambassadors joined their spouses and ball co-chairmen William Rollnick, a former Mattel Inc. executive, and his wife, Nancy, for more than hour of receiving line duty as the 450 champagne-sipping guests trickled out to preen and posture poolside at the fabulous 114-room ocean-to-lake palazzo Mr. Trump purchased from Mrs. Post’s estate in 1995 and then transformed into an exclusive private club. Soon the throng moved to the massively gilded Grand Ballroom to dance and dine on smoked salmon, beef tenderloin and vanilla creme anglaise, but not before the presentation of colors by a military honor guard and a ceremonial entrance by Mr. and Mrs. Rollnick, the diplomats and American Red Cross Chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter.

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: Mr. Trump and his astoundingly gorgeous third wife Melania looked none too pleased when they were announced as “His Excellency the Ambassador of Malta John Lowell and his wife Marie Therese” as Peter Duchin and his orchestra pumped out solemn strains of the “Triumphal March” from “Aida.” The announcer, Gerald R. Ford-era Chief of Protocol Marion H. Smoke, didn’t seem to realize that The Donald and his missus had joined the parade (although none of the other associate chairpersons did). Ball veterans, however, claimed it wasn’t nearly as undignified as last year when the only lady ambassador found herself entering to the tune of “Isn’t She Lovely?” The Lowells, introduced as the Trumps, seemed hugely amused by all the fuss.

THE SCENE: A colorful cast of grandes dames, polo players, tycoons, trophy wives and trust fund babies dressed to the nines in white-tie (black-tie was optional), with most of the women opting for spectacular couture gowns, many tres decollete,, worn with millions of dollars in emeralds, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and pearls. The decorum of prancing about the dance floor in tiaras during wartime wasn’t much of an issue. As Mrs. Lowell reasoned, “If the ladies enjoy it, why not?” Towering six-foot candelabras and discreet uplighting added to the jewel-like glow with thousands of flowers in various shades of red completing the effect at tables covered in gold cloth overlaid with scalloped Battenberg lace.

WHO WAS THERE: Actor Pierce Brosnan kept female hearts aflutter as did his handsome son, Sean, who hung out with Ivanka Trump for much of the night. A few old guard eminences like Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer, the 1998 ball chairwoman, made appearances along with Sen. Bill Nelson and wife Grace (doing triple twirls on the dance floor), Tiffany & Co. chief John Loring, former Ambassador to Hungary Nancy Brinker, affinity credit card king Howard Kessler, Humble Oil heiress Coco Blaffer, and socialites Mildred “Brownie” McLean, Herme de Wyman Miro and Kate Ford. The Washington contingent included Brad and Denise Alexander, Bill and Norma Tiefel, Mary Mochary and Wilma and Stuart Bernstein, the latter resplendent in his Royal Order of the Dannebrog, bestowed by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark after his service as U.S. ambassador there. “I have no place else to wear it,” Mr. Bernstein noted, “because there is no white-tie in Washington anymore.”

WHO WASN’T: Most of the top-heavy committee hierarchy starting, oddly enough, with the two “chairman emerita,” Mrs. Post and her longtime successor Sue Whitmore, both of whom have long since departed to that Great Ballroom in the Sky. Dina Merrill, Mrs. Post’s daughter, was unlikely to come after exchanging barbed remarks with Mr. Trump over the latter’s “restoration” of Mar-a-Lago. Other no-shows included Henry Kissinger, Mary Lou Whitney (recovering from a stroke), actresses Mariska Hargitay and Helen Mirren, designers Kenneth Cole and Vera Wang and soon-to-retire Chief of Protocol Donald Ensenat.

INTERLUDE: Courtesy of Elvis impersonator Steve Connolly, who made sure arteries didn’t harden during the cheese course with renditions of “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and other Presley hits. Mr. Brosnan and his son were seen to exchange hairy eyeball looks when “The King” exhorted the mostly over-60 crowd to “go ahead and squeeze the person next to you and see how they feel.”

BACK ON TRACK: Mrs. McElveen-Hunter, a prominent publisher and former ambassador to Finland selected by President Bush to head the Red Cross in 2004, took the rare step of selecting new leadership of the ball after years of embarrassing infighting and sniping among previous chairmen chosen by the relief organization’s local chapter. The businessman who directed the event in 2005 and 2006 bragged about raising more money than anyone else but then failed to come through with a $600,000 pledge. His predecessors were criticized for being overly controlling, too concerned with personal publicity and — perhaps worst of all — appearing on the cover of a local society glossy wearing jewelry over their gloves. “We had 16 ambassadors, last year they only had six,” the businessman announced at his first ball. True, one of the rivals countered in a widely-read Wall Street Journal article, but hers were European, while “he had Syria and Guyana.”

“There are too many spoiled brats here and too much new money,” observed Donna Long, a longtime Red Cross supporter whose summing-up credentials include being the daughter of the late Ann Rork Light, the fourth wife of J. Paul Getty.

Mrs. McElveen-Hunter is hoping the choice of the Rollnicks (who have agreed to come back next year) signals a new era for the Red Cross in Palm Beach, one that will focus on obvious priorities.

“I’ve been to Darfur and seen what food, clothing and shelter mean to 250,000 people fleeing rape, torture and death,” she told the hushed crowd. “We have to focus on the mission and not get distracted because people’s lives depend upon it.”

“To whom much is given” she reminded them, “much is required.”

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