By Nancy Clark
Palm Beach, Florida is more monied and more conservative than most of America. More than half the population is 65+ (2000 Census) and the dominant demographic Euro American at 96%. Don a navy blue blazer on. And you’ll look the part of the swim and tennis club crowd. While socks aren’t fashionable, blazers are. Gentlemen will want a jacket to dine at Café Via Flora, Pizza al Fresco or Ta-boo, the preferred eateries of locals in a surround of luxury retailers with names like Gucci, Christofle, Brioni, Bottega Veneta, Neiman, Saks, Cartier and Chanel.
Pursuit of wealth has always been the attraction to this tropical clime. Some 400 years ago, a Spanish conquistador by the name of Juan Ponce de León arrived in Florida. He’d sailed with Christopher Columbus on Columbus' second voyage to the Americas in 1492. He later was credited with discovery of Puerto Rico (then called Borinquen) with rich deposits of gold. By order of the King of Spain, de León colonized the island and was its governor for two years until the king snubbed him by the king who replaced him with Columbus' son.
On the rebound, de León set sail again intent on discovering the elusive Fountain of Youth. He landed on Florida's east coast near present-day St. Augustine, just three and a half hours north of Palm Beach on I-95 christening the land La Florida or "place of flowers.” He continued in his southern route around Florida’s cape to Charlotte Harbor where his he and his crew were forced by the not-so-friendly Calusa tribe to retreat. Seven years later, de León made a second attempt at colonizing Calusa territory with 200+ settlers in tow. The indigenous tribe ambushed the pilgrims and sent them fleeing back to Cuba. De Leon was shot in the process and died in Cuba shortly after reaching port.
The next notable to arrive in Palm Beach Was Henry Morrison Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil. Credited with making the Atlantic coast barrier island accessible via his Florida East Coast Railway, Flagler built two luxury resort hotels, the Royal Poinciana and the Breakers Hotel, establishing Florida’s Atlantic coast as a tourism mecca.
It was the Gilded Age and the shine was on Florida. Flagler sold house lots—developing more than two million acres of residential, agricultural and tourism—and built his own tribute to the arts called Whitehall in 1902. Flagler built the 75-room Beaux Arts estate as a winter home and wedding present for his wife. When it first was completed, the New York Herald proclaimed it “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” Now on the National Historic Register, the museum is worthy of at least half a day on any tourists’ itinerary.
Money begets money. Marjorie Merriweather Post was a leading socialite married to her second husband financier Edward Francis Hutton when she built Mar-a-Lago in Palm Springs. The rumor mill has it that the very wealthy couple was on a 10-day cruise when the cereal heiress inquired of the chef how it was that he had managed to produce fresh-tasting vegetables after so many days at sea. The chef disclosed a new method of storing vegetables—freezing—and Mrs. Hutton determined to invest in the innovative little company called Birdseye. She was subsequently listed as the wealthiest woman in the United States, with a fortune worth about USD $250 million.
In 1985, The Donald Trump purchased Mar-a-Lago and it took him 10 years to convert the private residence into a palatial club. Its elite upper crust panache and enviable spa are in immediate proximity to the ocean-side mansions of his ex, Ivana, and other family members.
Since the early 1900s, New York titans have gravitated to Palm Beach for winter season. Among those arriving post WWII was Lilly Pulitzer. Barefoot, the newlywed hawked fresh squeezed orange juice from the oranges her husband flew in from his groves. She needed a dress to disguise the inevitable juice stains and the colorful Lilly sheath was born. Soon she was selling more of the preppy tunics than she was juice. When Jacqueline Kennedy was televised wearing Pulitzer’s pink and lime green sheath, Lilly’s permanent place among the world’s leading designers was fixed.
It’s all about infrastructure. The underpinnings of wealth are rooted in servicing an unmet need. Give the people what they want. Even in Palm Beach.
Here you can snag some of the best buys nationwide at the handful of second-hand stores. It’s the little known secret of ladies who lunch. At Déjà Vu, the sales are final, and some of the merchandise is pinned with the original price tags, never worn. At Classic Collections, the labels on the garments echo those on Worth Avenue: Chanel, St. John, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Emilio Pucci Gucci, Prada, and Bottega. Ball gowns worn once that went for $5,000 are tagged at no more than $500. Gardening pants...yes, even these can be scored at a deep discount.
GETTING THERE: Fly into Palm Beach International Airport where the shopping is a step up from other airports.
STAY: The Breakers Palm Beach. Only one legendary oceanfront resort in North America offers you everything under the sun.
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