Palm Beach was the winter home for America’s royalty. Winston and C.Z. Guest, Douglas Fairbanks Junior, the Dodges, the Phipps, and other kings, queens and princes of American society chose Palm Beach for it’s privacy and exclusive reputation. Not far from Worth Avenue, Estee Lauder had her winter residence, often guarded at the gates by a man in uniform. Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor wintered there, often seen walking arm in arm along the avenues. Marjorie Merriweather Post’s home, Mar-a-Lago, was more castle than residence, (as it still is), with parties complete with silverware made of solid gold and space for legions of well heeled guests seated at endless dining tables attended by a wait staff of Hollywood epic proportions. Palm Beach was a place where the yearly season of charity balls abounded with guests streaming into them in spangled gowns fashioned by the top designers of the day or in costumes seemingly made for only the highest of theatrical production, all feathers and fur, silk velvets and jewels. Uniformed valets attended the lots filled edge to edge with Roll Royces, Bentleys, Jaguars, and Bugattis. The Kennedy family lived there too, but they lived nearer to us on the North end, in more modest digs, as many Catholics were relative newcomers and had settled at the north side of the island alongside the relatively few jews that resided there at the time. Even the Catholic church and Synagogue were situated on our side of the island.
The residents were colorful, to say the least, as Palm Beach poodles were often dyed pink, yellow and violet at Easter time to go along with the seasonal theme. The pampered pooches sported coordinating nail lacquer, rhinestone collars and satin bows atop their perfectly coiffed heads. It was a delight for any child to behold such wonders, and Palm Beach was full of them.
There was a woman, whose identity I never learned, who loved to ride the lake trail on her bicycle- she had many- each matching the outfit for the day. She would pass by us children on her Zebra striped bike, wearing her zebra pants, blouse and scarf- and the next time we would see her, she was riding a lime green bike with the corresponding green clothing. We lost count of how many outfits and bikes there might have been, but it was an impressive number, and we marveled at her whenever we saw her, speculating on what might be waiting for her use at home.
Meanwhile the parade continued as always on Worth Avenue, Palm Beach’s famous retail area. In the early 1960s, the socialites strolled the street, chauffeur at curbside, awaiting their return. The women greeted each other with perfect maquillage, bejeweled wrists and fingers and knowing smiles. Taboo or Petite Marmite were the places to go for a drink or a bite to eat, respectively, and the Shiny Sheet’s photographer was sure to be there to record the latest social gathering.
Across town to the north, on Royal Poinciana way, the casual diners frequented Testa’s for its it’s chicken salad and famous strawberry pie. Here, the diners sat al fresco, watching the passers by in their chinos, polo shirts and colorful Lily Pulitzer dresses. A quick stop at Palm Beach News for the paper and a pack of cigarettes and maybe a stop at the Post Office made the outing complete.
During the winter months, Palm Beach was swarming with people and activity, but in the summer months, the tourists disappeared, the residents returned to their northern estates, and most of the stores and restaurants closed. The streets were empty, and only a few establishments remained open; a skeleton crew for survival of the few who stayed. Among these were Greens drugstore, the Post Office and the small grocery establishment on Royal Poinciana. These were the tropical months, hurricane season, when it rained every day, and the air was so thick with heat and moisture that it was like breathing pea soup. The environs had a wild feel to them, the death like humidity bringing forth the odors of mold mixed with ocean air and the pungent emanations coming from sewage grates along the roadways. Florida has changed since those days, becoming more of a year round destination, but back then, it was as if the whole world stopped for the summer, only to revive again in the fall.