This Is What It Looked Like To Spend Spring Break In Palm Beach During The '50s
I like Palm Beach. I’ve always liked Palm Beach, from the first moment I arrived there. It was spring break 1953, and I’d flown down from New York with my father on an Eastern Airlines DC-7. I remember we walked down the airplane ramp onto the tarmac, and I was struck by the change of air. It was soft, unlike the gritty smells of New York City. I felt so energized I kept repeating, “I’m going to move here when I get older.”
My dad was amused, and he kept asking, “Just because of the air?”
We rented a car, and when we drove over the Okeechobee Bridge and down Royal Palm Way, I thought I’d entered an enchanted land. Coconut palms stood 40 feet high and lined the avenue, and the buildings were all vaguely Spanish colonial, reinforcing the enchanted land motif.
We turned off South County Road onto Brazilian Avenue and approached our destination. Today it would be called a bed-and-breakfast, but back then if you were to give it a name, it was an upscale boarding house, but only for invited guests.
Mrs. Elaine Gordon owned the establishment and was something of a Palm Beach legend, a Baltimore debutante of the same era as Wallis Warfield, aka the Duchess of Windsor. One of her guests was Aunt Bessie Merryman, who had served as Wallis’ chaperone at the time of Edward VIII’s abdication. A courtly but spry lady, she was supposed to have told Edward, “You can always marry someone else, but you can never be king again.”
Mrs. Gordon, who everyone called “Auntie Mame,” was always ready to get the party going. Once when she was tipsy, she told me when she was a young belle after World War I she met Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the World War I American Expeditionary Force, at a Washington garden party. She said he took her aside and tried to kiss her, but she resisted because she didn’t like his false teeth.
Another visitor to one of her bridge parties was Grace Fortescue, a white-haired grande dame who I noticed everyone seemed to stare at. After the party, my dad told me she had been involved in a famous murder case in Hawaii in 1931. She admitted to killing Joseph Kahahawai, a native Hawaiian accused of raping her daughter. The trial created a sensation, and Clarence Darrow defended her. She pleaded guilty, claiming she was defending her daughter’s honor and received a 10-year sentence, which was commuted to a one-hour confinement in the territorial governor’s office.
The next morning we drove to the Bath and Tennis Club where we received guest passes. The B&T, as it was called, was another Spanish-inspired creation, designed by Hollywood set designer Joseph Urban. Spanish tiles adorned the floor, and pecky cypress wood covered the ceiling. Fronting the beach was a curving dining pavilion where gourmet lunch was served every day. After the institutional cuisine of Deerfield Academy, this was a gastronomical feast. Before lunch, around 11 a.m., a perfectly peeled orange on a stick was served to all who wanted one.
When not eating, we spent our time basking in the sun, frolicking in the surf and flirting. Back then all the prep schools were single-sex, and most of us hadn’t seen a young woman since Christmastime. They all seemed slender, tanned and friendly. Some I had met at subscription dances in New York. A lot of the guys I knew from summer vacations or interscholastic sports events.
The fun continued in the evening. Alex Hufty, a dazzling woman who played a devastating game of tennis, hosted a cocktail party every night in her home, complete with food and a dance band.
Surely this was heaven on earth. I wish I could say I had many romantic interludes, but I can only recall a few stolen kisses in the back seat of a car. There were other pleasures, though. Sunday afternoon we all headed to the Palm Beach Polo Club to watch the international playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa. I can’t remember if his team won, but I do recall the stands were filled.
There were other glamorous people in Palm Beach. Every day a fine-featured woman of a certain age showed up at the club with the largest straw hat I’d ever seen and a bathing suit that came up to her neck. “That’s Lili Damita,” someone told me.
“Who is she?” I asked. I’d never heard the name before. “She was once married to Errol Flynn,” was the reply. I sure knew Errol Flynn, a famous actor and manly figure, at least around women. Every teenage boy at the time wanted to be “in like Flynn”—whatever that meant.
When not sunning or partying, there was time to go shopping on Worth Avenue or sightseeing at The Breakers. Ah, The Breakers, the signature Palm Beach hotel. I remember visiting Lesly Stockard, whose family stayed there. She was my age, and I knew her from New York. Her younger sister, Susan, who later changed her name to Stockard Channing, became a famous actress best known for playing Betty Rizzo in “Grease,” but Lesly was not to be outdone. She married Earl E.T. Smith, the last American ambassador to Cuba, and when he retired she ran for, and successfully became, mayor of Palm Beach.
It is hardly possible to recall that era of Palm Beach history without mentioning the Kennedys. Most people in town knew at least one member of that big family. But as an occasional visitor, I recall seeing only one Kennedy, and it came not on the dance floor at the Ta-boo, but at another place where Catholics of the Irish persuasion gathered—St. Edward’s Church.
This was 1957 when JFK was still a U.S. Senator. I was aware of John Kennedy because my mother knew some of the Bouviers (his wife’s name), and she talked about her a lot. Like most of the country I was excited when he made a dramatic bid for the vice-presidential nomination at the 1956 Democratic convention. After that, everybody learned about the charismatic young senator with an infamous father, heroic war record and beautiful wife. Overnight he went from prominence to celebrity, and was seen as a possible future president.
It was in that atmosphere that one Sunday at mass at St. Ed’s, I noticed people whispering in church. It was hardly noticeable at first, but then it grew to a buzz. The reason for the disturbance soon became clear. The man taking up the collection was Sen. John F. Kennedy. As he moved from pew to pew, the noise grew until it became almost a soft roar, unheard of in a Catholic church. It was not exactly the clamor of a political convention, but it was a memorable moment for the generally solemn and silent St. Ed’s.
This Palm Beach spring break odyssey continued through my college years (Trinity ’58), and then every winter I would visit my sister who had moved there. Finally in 1973, I made good on my promise to my father and moved permanently, not to Palm Beach, but to Fort Lauderdale. However, during the late 1970s and 80s, my young son, David, and I would revisit some old memories at Sunday lunch with my sister at the Bath and Tennis Club.
I still visit Palm Beach often. My sister’s daughters live there, and occasionally I go to the B&T. It still looks the same after all these years, as does most of Palm Beach. People who haven’t seen Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach for 20 years can hardly recognize those places, but it is comforting to see that Palm Beach’s hotels, clubs, mansions and Worth Avenue shops retain their elegance and glamour.
Yes, I still like Palm Beach. I guess I always will.
Bernard Moran also had some adult adventures in Palm Beach, which in 2010 he turned into a book of short stories called “Love and Treachery in Palm Beach.” Next he published “Love and Treachery in Palm Beach 2” in 2016. The final edition, “Love and Treachery in Palm Beach 3,” should appear this fall.