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Laurence Leamer

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Cathleen McFarlane Ross: A Great Lady

Posted: 02/11/10 03:09 PM ET

Cathleen McFarlane Ross liked to read the papers in bed. When she woke up Monday, she opened the pages of the Palm Beach Post to find that she was featured in the paper along with her picture looking regal and formidable. Cathleen did not so much lie about her age as to dance so fervidly around the subject that one forgot to ask. And it was one of the delights of the article that the paper said she was 73, shaving a good decade off her years.

Cathleen lived with her husband, Walter Ross, in one of the treasures of Palm Beach, a home designed by the legendary Addison Mizner in his romantic Spanish-infused style. The mansion sits looking westward across the inland waterway to the skyline of West Palm Beach.

Almost directly across stands the empty 30-story 1515 building that at 9 a.m. on Sunday is to be imploded in 6.5 seconds. Cathleen was always thinking of ways to help people and she had decided that morning to have a party in which people would donate at least $25 for relief to Haiti though many people would give much more. She had already purchased enough vodka to make bloody marys for half of the island, and doubtlessly on Sunday morning just short of noon there would be a number of half looped socialites wandering up Worth Avenue looking for their Bentleys.

Soon after she read the article, Cathleen felt a pain and was able to make it down to the kitchen before she collapsed. She had suffered a massive heart attack and within seconds was brain dead. Her large, powerful heart kept beating and she was not declared dead until late that evening.

Cathleen was the rarest of things -- a totally authentic human being. She swore like a drill sergeant. She told more dirty jokes than a burlesque comedian. She understood that life is no more than a snap of the fingers and one must live each moment with passionate intensity. She was a Catholic whose faith was the profound animating spirit of her life and of her joy.

Much is being made of Cathleen's charitable interests in the papers here but it was not merely the fact that she was so philanthropic but the causes she chose and the way she served them. In the first place, she understood that charity is not just getting your name on the building. Charity is the way you treat people. She had so many friends, so many concerns that the phones in her house rang like a bookie joint. She had a blind friend. She called her all the time and invited her to her parties. In recent weeks, another close friend broke her ankle. Every morning, Cathleen called her.

Three decades ago Cathleen had been one of the original volunteers for the Lord's Place in West Palm, an organization that serves the homeless and the hungry. Homelessness is not a chic cause. The Red Cross is chic. Cancer is chic. The symphony is chic. Homelessness is nasty and unpleasant and distracting. Cathleen did not care. One day a week she and her friend drove an old van full of food out to the migrant laborers and others in the furthest reaches of the county. They laughed and they joked and they had a wonderful time.

In 1984 Cathleen decided that there should be a fund raiser in Palm Beach for homelessness, and it was one of the most unique charity event Palm Beach ever had. Held at the Beach Club, everyone donated their time and efforts for the evening from the band and the waiters to the valet parkers, and there was a giving, generous spirit and the most genuinely joyful of spirits. And everyone there learned that it is not only more blessed to give than to receive, but in giving one receives tenfold back. The event continued for years but after a while people wanted to be paid, and the evening became in some measure just one of the endless social events on the island.

Last January Cathleen told me that she wanted to resurrect the event and call the women's group that put it together the Flappers, the original name. I told her she was doubly crazy. The social calendar in Palm Beach is set a year ahead, and it would be impossible in three or four months to put together an evening. As for the name, it was silly and would turn people off. She did not listen to me. Last April over 300 guests came to "Sing, Dance, and Sin The Night Away" at the Flappers' Speakeasy raising $200,000 for the homeless in Palm Beach County.

As I am writing this I am looking at a card that I received a few weeks ago reminding me to hold the evening free for this year's Flappers event. There is a photo that appears to be from the twenties of a woman leaning over the hood of a car. Her short dress is up to her thighs and one sees her stockings and garters.

Oh, Cathleen, there was nobody like you, nobody so full of exuberant fun. You loved life profoundly and life loved you. I don't have your faith and the only immortality that I am sure exists is memory. But I know your spirit is out there, your sense of playfulness, your generosity and caring, your love for life in all its infinite details and moments.