High life

The lost magic of Palm Beach

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM


Good old Helvetia. I’m quitting her for the rainy but pleasant land of England. The cows are beginning to resemble chorus girls and the village an Alpine Colditz. Too much of a good thing said a wise man to a friend of mine who wanted to live on the French Riviera all year round. That was long ago. The South of France is a shithole these days — and a very expensive one at that. The real Riviera now lies far away from the coast, up in the hills: Saint-Paul-de-Vence and its environs. The rest of the Côte d’Azur, where Russian and Arab gangsters have bought all the great houses on the water, now reminds me of Baku where, at the turn of the last century, the Great Game was being played between Russia, Britain and Germany, with Basil Zaharoff triple-crossing all three.

Forget the Riviera. We considered it for two milliseconds, but the people who have moved there lately are far too intellectual for me. So are many of the recent arrivals up here in the Alps. One can spot them in the hotel lobbies and hear them discussing Platonic dialogues and Rousseau’s social contract. That aside, having been cooped up here for so long, I’ve decided that a change of location is what the doctor ordered. First it was Athens, now it’s London. We found a great house, the wife has moved in, and I’m already missing the cows, some of whom look just like Vivien Duffield but are never as rude as she is.

Mind you, we’ll use my chalet at Christmas, in March, and during the summer after Greece, so it’s not like leaving Ireland for America during the potato famine. I simply cannot bear to live here all year round, as I have the past couple of years. There are nothing but jewellery shops and couture joints, and bookstores are as rare as Christian churches in Saudi Arabia. A retired cop told me that although it is not yet illegal to read books in town, it’s not encouraged.

Oh well, it could be worse, I could have gone to Palm Beach 62 years ago, the year I decided to be a libertine rather than a ship owner. Palm Beach was fabulous back then. The Phipps family had not sold the vast holdings that would become apartments for the BBQ (Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens) hordes who came down from the north. The place was magical. Everything was green, symmetrical and in good taste. There was no crime, and a wonderful police force that was well paid and knew everyone. We played tennis in the morning at the B&T (Bath & Tennis Club) and again in the afternoon at the Everglades on Worth Avenue. Further down the street was the Alibi, the best nightclub in Palm Beach, where everyone knew everyone. It was a very Waspy crowd — traditional and low-profile, with wonderful manners.

They opened their doors to us preppies for Christmas and spring breaks as if we were part of their families. The great polo player and lover of Edwina Mountbatten Laddie Sanford had never met me but invited me to his house for dinner, as did Winston Guest, a ten-goal handicap in polo. Many of my fraternity brothers had homes there while I was at university, and the tennis was terrific, especially when playing Stanley Rumbough, a superb natural athlete and husband to a great beauty, Dina Merrill, whose mother was the richest woman in America and had built Mar-a-Lago, now occupied by The Donald. And there was always West Palm Beach if one was looking for down and dirty. All one had to do was cross the bridge and presto, there were sleazy nightclubs, strip joints and hookers galore. WPB was for emergencies only.

Money-grubbing developers and modernity in general slowly drove the pristine, immaculate and conservative resort to adopt Hollywood ways. Palm Beach still reeks of money, but it’s new, vulgar moolah. Its beautiful Hispanic architectural marvels are gradually being torn down in favour of the brash kind, although it retains some of the old magic of being a village where one can buy a Mercedes or a diamond worth millions but cannot have one’s shirt laundered.

Never mind. I chose mountains over Tropics because of the Greeks, and it was fun. From the slopes to the club and back again; from the backgammon game to the nightclub to the bedroom: I don’t regret it. Europe was less hard-edged than America, liaisons less dramatic, people more relaxed. I found something contrived about America — the slogans and those who flung them around. For once I was right, too. Their moral certitude was bound to lead to an unforgiving culture of cancellation. A degenerate organ such as the New York Times now sets the agenda, which is a good reason to stay away. Talking to a Times reporter in 1960 covering Henry Cabot Lodge, who was running for vice-president on the Republican ticket, I became aware of the hatred the man felt towards Lodge, and the reason for it: Lodge was a patrician, and very handsome to boot.

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