- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

PALM BEACH, Fla.

“This city is rich, rich, rich, rich rich.” Malaysian Ambassador Rajmah Hussain saw no need for diplomatic felicities of speech as she surveyed the splendor of affinity credit card king Howard Kessler’s $30 million mega-mansion on the eve of the Jan. 26 Red Cross Ball in America’s foremost money mecca. After all, the five-acre, 22,000-square-foot estate, built on property once belonging to the Phipps oil and banking clan, boasts dramatic ocean views, resort-sized indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a greenhouse, guesthouse and a gazebo big enough to accommodate twice the 50 special benefactors and guests dishing and dining under the vigilant eye of an enormous staff.

Ms. Hussain’s astonishment at the luxe life, American style, began earlier that day when she and fellow envoys from Afghanistan, Luxembourg and Denmark joined Red Cross chairman and diplomatic den mother Bonnie McElveen Hunter for the flight from Washington Dulles International Airport aboard Donald Trumps private 727 jet.

“There’s sure a lot of legroom in here,” one diplomat noted before being told the aircraft had been reconfigured to seat 20 instead of the usual 150 passengers. (While The Donald kept mostly to his own private bedroom, bath and office, he did briefly join his guests for top notch ham and turkey sandwiches “directly from Trump Tower” in New York.)

The group reassembled the following night with event chairmen William and Nancy Rollnick for air-kisses and “grip-and-grin” photographs in the pre-ball receiving line at Mar-a-Lago, the 114-room palazzo Mr. Trump turned into a private club (now said to have a $200,000 initiation fee) after purchasing it from the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1995.

The cavalcade of guests is always over-the-top on Palm Beach Society’s Night of Nights, and this year was no exception.

“You don’t see this much ostentatious wealth even in the south of France,” said Luxembourg’s ambassador, Joseph Weyland as ladies promenaded in couture gowns, tiaras and multi-million-dollar parures of diamonds, sapphires, rubies and pearls.

“I don’t belong here,” Ms. Hussain said, suppressing a giggle after bantering with the decidedly low-key Archduke Georg von Habsburg-Lothringen (who dazzled guests with his colorful orders of Malta and the Golden Fleece) and his wife Eilika (nee the Duchess of Oldenburg).

Equally festooned and bedizened: Denmark’s ambassador, Friis Arne Petersen, standing proud and tall despite the weight of Britain’s Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Sts. Michael and George, Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun and his own country’s Royal Order of the Dannebrog. “If he put on everything he’d tip over,” his wife Birgitte said with a laugh.

Soon the action moved to the ornately gilded Grand Ballroom for the traditional presentation of arms by a Marine Corps color guard and red carpet procession of dignitaries to the sound of the “Triumphal March” from “Aida.”

This year there was something new as well: Washington businessman and former ambassador to Denmark Stuart Bernstein replaced Marion H. “Joe” Smoak as the ball’s chief of protocol after the latter’s 34-year tenure.

Also new: a Young Friends party for the junior set, who paid $250 per ticket to shake, rattle and roll by the pool — well apart from the $1,000-a-pop geriatric set dining on smoked salmon, “Mary Trump’s Meat Loaf” (scrumptious and obviously one of The Donald’s childhood faves, but at a white-tie-and tiara dinner?) and gateau au chocolat.

Apart from actress Susan Lucci and actor Sean Brosnan (son of Pierce), guests dancing to Peter Duchin’s lively tunes included most of the usual suspects: tycoons, trophy wives, trust fund babies, polo players, philanthropists, wealthy widows and their walkers. Among those spotted from the Washington crowd: BradandDenise Alexander, Bill Tiefel andNorma Kline, Dr.Mary Frances Smoak andBill Walde, Vicki Bagley, Wilma Bernstein, Adam Falkoffand Susan Eisenhower.

The Red Cross Ball remains an enduring if somewhat surreal event in Palm Beach, retaining world glass glamour and elan despite once-restricted guest lists, feuding chairmen, scabrous gossip and various boycotts and sabotage attempts throughout its 51-year history.

“It’s like a dinosaur from the Jurassic era that refuses to die,” said one longtime attendee who always says she is never going again but always does.

“The world is now a less elegant place, but the ball has kept its traditions,” 35-year veteran Herme de Wyman Miro noted before sweeping onto the dance floor to join a circle of guests who might have been her grandchildren’s age. “We’re proud of it and it always comes back — in all its glory.”

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