- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MADNESS UNDER THE ROYAL PALMS: LOVE AND DEATH BEHIND THE GATES OF PALM BEACH

By Laurence Leamer

Hyperion Books, $25.95, 313 pages

Reviewed by Katie Wendy

Imagine a serene subtropical island, where immaculately preserved, hedgerow-hidden palaces are nestled along a pristine 16-mile stretch of coastline, exposing a crystalline turquoise-colored ocean umbrellaed by a cobalt blue sky.

In the middle of this paradise are winding streets, brimming with royal palms and vivid shades of flora and fauna contrasted against the Mediterranean-inspired hues of one private villa after another, mostly occupied by the insanely wealthy as winter retreats.

These magnificent mansions form awe-inspiring queues of various architectural motifs, shapes and sizes, all the way from the coast’s narrow two-lane Ocean Drive down to the Intracoastal Waterway. Lake Worth, as the Intracoastal is called here, serves not only as a floating parking lot for the gargantuan yachts waiting their upper-crust owners to climb aboard, but also as the barrier island’s great divider. Its drawbridges separate Palm Beach from the western mainland and are closely guarded by security cameras and police as they span the lake that serves as a moat protecting this Shangri-La. Just a 10-carat diamond solitaire’s throw away is the lower class, crime, ordinary life.

Add to this one of the world’s toniest shopping strips - Worth Avenue - where typical shops and services are noticeably absent. In place of the Gap, Payless Shoes and Claire’s Accessories, there is Chanel, Jimmy Choo and Van Cleef and Arpels. Chain restaurants are nonexistent - perhaps there is a law against them. When locals want to eat, they enjoy astronomically priced meals at Cafe L’Europe, Bice or Bistro Chez Jean Pierre. Or they dine at one of the island’s members-only clubs.

In “Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach,” best-selling author Laurence Leamer (“The Kennedy Women,” “Sons of Camelot,” “Fantastic: the Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger”) investigates paradise and reveals the illusiveness of Palm Beach’s fairy-tale facade.

Drawing upon friendships, interviews and observations of a select group the author met after moving to the island in the early 1990s, Mr. Leamer seeks to introduce his readers to the truth behind the curtain of Palm Beach’s exalted social status.

To the author’s eye, life in Palm Beach is more desperate than desirable. Pedigreed, moneyed WASPS reign over the town’s activities and their sole purpose for being is to maintain the sovereignty they have held in the area for the nearly 115 years since Henry Flagler and others turned an uninhabitable jungle into the American Oz that it has become. There are the “haves” and the “want-to-haves,” the “used-to-haves” who yearn to return to what once was and the “got-bucks-but-not-quite-enough” people. And then there are the Jews.

It used to be that Jews could not live in Palm Beach at all; then they were permitted to reside along the south ocean shore. Now, while they no longer can be restricted geographically, the barrier still remains. For the nasty little secret is that no matter how much money their bank accounts hold or how many companies or boards of directors they head, Jews will never be considered haute enough for the old guard. They are permitted to attend the balls, donate to the good causes, get their pictures in the paper, but they do not qualify for membership in the social structure that rules the roost.

Whatever else they are, they are not white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. “For a hundred years, the social elite of America and those seeking to be part of it [have] been coming to this island off the coast of South Florida to spend the winter season. During that time, Palm Beach became not only the most exclusive resort community in the world, but the most segregated town in America.” Do we hear a little hyperbole here?

Mr. Leamer draws a picture of a secluded world inhabited by the super rich, the greedy and the bizarre. In addition to the conflict caused by the aspirations of wealthy Jews and their exclusion by high society, he writes of aging women left with fortunes, but with few interests other than getting their skin stretched so tightly one wonders if their bouffant hairdos hide the excess flesh that has been pulled back from their faces.

There are the gay men who disguise their sexual orientations and “walk” lonely women to the season’s charity balls and glitzy dinners. The author introduces the reader to young males who use their youth and vigor to service richer, older wives and affluent older men who regularly trade in wives for younger, newer, silicone-implanted, botox-injected models. Additionally, there is the society communist who uses her position to promote or ruin others’ ambitions and the disillusioned failures who would rather take a nose dive off the top of a condo than continue to live outside the luxury they see every day and can never attain. If that isn’t enough, we have murder and all the rest of the seven deadly sins.

Ah, yes, Palm Beach! Where WASPS have the Everglades and Bath & Tennis clubs, Jews have the Palm Beach Country Club and Donald Trump has Mar-a-Lago. (Situated right next door to Bath & Tennis, Mr. Trump’s purchase caused seismic ripples in the town according to Mr. Leamer: ” … to the dying WASP breed next door, it is unthinkable that a group of pathetic parvenus should have taken over the greatest estate on the island and turned it into such a place.”)

This is the town Mr. Leamer wants us to see - a town consumed with the divisions that continue to separate the elite from the pretenders and the petitioners - a paradise that is anything but. A sad place populated with sadder people. But the saddest thing of all is that the author thinks he has discovered something no else knew about before he got there, that high society is anti-Semitic, that no matter how much money and power one has, it doesn’t guarantee status, that just because one lives in Palm Beach it doesn’t mean one is of Palm Beach.

The problem with “Madness Under the Royal Palms” is that it neither breaks new ground nor produces information that most of its readers don’t already possess. Perhaps it’s time for another book about the Kennedys.

Katie Wendy is a writer living in Boca Raton, Fla.

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