Review

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach

by Laurence Leamer

"Let me tell you about the very rich,” begins the narrator
of “The Rich Boy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short
story. “They are different from you and me.” The truth
of that observation, written more than 80 years ago, is brought
home with the force of a hurricane in Laurence Leamer’s
engrossing, at times shocking, examination of Palm Beach
society.

Leamer, who purchased a duplex a block north of Palm
Beach’s tony shopping street, Worth Avenue, in 1994, is
something of a Nick Carrawayesque narrator. He shares the lives of
his subjects, joining them for tennis games at the Breakers Club
and attending some of the myriad social events around which life
centers during the “season,” when the population of the
island triples. But Leamer, a former Newsweek editor who
brings solid journalistic credentials to his task, never allows
proximity to the world he’s trying to capture dilute his
objectivity. He’s a consistently clear-eyed observer, with no
illusions about the people he’s describing and no awe of
their wealth and power.

At least partially as promised in its subtitle, there’s a
surfeit of death in MADNESS --- a shooting, a suspected poisoning,
a savage beating, a suicide and a death by fire --- all in the
space of barely 10 years. The characters who swirl through the book
encompass sociopaths like Fred Keller, whose bitter divorce battle
(described in all its sordid detail) ends in a shattering act of
violence, to the merely self-absorbed, a description that fits most
of the rest of Leamer’s subjects, including participants in
the several May-December marriages that dot the book. Life in Palm
Beach, Leamer writes, is like an “elaborate costume party in
which one can wear whatever outfit one wants as long as the mask
never falls.” It’s an endless round of charity events
intended less to raise money for their ostensible causes than to
ensure the participants are featured in the “Shiny
Sheet,” the local nickname for the Palm Beach Daily
News
, whose main function involves keeping score in the
cutthroat competition that’s the focus of the Palm Beach
social ecosystem.

One story that illustrates the fierceness of that competition is
that of David Berger and his companion and later wife, Barbara
Wainscott. Berger was a distinguished Philadelphia trial lawyer,
one of the pioneers of class action litigation, who amassed a $350
million fortune in the course of a storied career. In his 80s,
however, he set about becoming the first Jew to crack the
stratosphere of Palm Beach society. Leamer painstakingly reveals
how Berger, with Wainscott as his guide, strategically dispensed
charitable contributions and hosted parties (one of them featuring
Prince Edward) seeking to gain entrance into those lofty precincts.
If the story were of a man less accomplished than Berger, it would
smack of farce; in the case of someone of his accomplishments, it
is little short of tragedy, especially as he passes the last years
of his life (he died in 2007 and is buried in the humble
Pennsylvania town where he was born), alone in his vast mansion,
while his sons, like vultures circling their prey, await his
passing.

The world Berger lusted after was hit by a social earthquake in
1995, when Donald Trump, “herald of a gaudy gilded age of
power and privilege that would sweep over the genteel old world of
the island,” turned Mar-a-Lago, the historic Marjorie
Merriweather Post mansion, into a club open to anyone regardless of
pedigree, willing to plunk down the $125,000 initiation fee.
There’s something pathetic about Leamer’s account of
Mar-a-Lago members, who time their visits to coincide with
Trump’s appearance and then hang around the club waiting to
shake his hand while his butler whispers their names in his
ear.

But perhaps one of the most profound developments in the recent
history of Palm Beach occurred just as Leamer’s book was
published: the revelation of long-time resident Bernard
Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. According to news reports, as many as
one-third of the members of the Palm Beach Country Club --- the
Jewish club to which only the seriously wealthy need apply,
established as an answer to the bastions of WASP society like the
Everglades Club and the Bath & Tennis Club --- were prominent
Madoff marks.

MADNESS UNDER THE ROYAL PALMS is something of a guilty pleasure,
but it’s a substantial pleasure all the same. Solidly
researched and capably written, it’s the perfect book with
which to while away an afternoon on the beach, preferably one
distant from the land of vacuous social climbing Laurence Leamer
exposes.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 6, 2011

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach
by Laurence Leamer

  • Publication Date: January 20, 2009
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sociology
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401322913
  • ISBN-13: 9781401322915