I thought that New Year's Eve in Palm Beach would be different this year, but I had no idea how different.
My evening was to begin with a cocktail party at the home of Dick and Susan Nernberg, friends of mine from Pittsburgh. They live in an exquisite apartment above Maus and Hoffman, a clothing store on Worth Avenue.
Then I was to go to the wedding of George Cloutier and Tiffany Spadafora at the Breakers Hotel. I would have to leave at some point to go to the Coconuts party at the Flagler Museum. This is the most exclusive invitation in Palm Beach by far. Then finally, Mark Brentlinger and Brian MacDonald were giving their annual blast at their mansion. They were gay and last year at midnight the bartenders stripped off their shirts to greet the New Year. That would be a fitting ending to the evening.
In the last few months the lives of the mega wealthy have been twice devastated, first by the collapse of the stock market and secondly by the embarrassing losses of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. That made even those who had lost nothing angry and fearful looking for someone or something to strike out against. And when people learned that ABC's 20/20 was following me around New Year's Eve, that became the target of the moment.
The day before yesterday, I knew something was wrong when Susan called and said that guest after guest at her cocktail party was backing out, terrified by the idea of camera snouts intruding on their lives. A few months ago, most of these same people would have lined up for their shots, but now AM(After Madoff) they seek to hunker down in obscurity. I scarcely had time to decide what to do about that problem when George Cloutier called to say that he had guests refusing to come if there were cameras. George loves publicity, and it was extraordinary that he was willing to give up the klieg lights in the name of love and a full house.
Mark Brentlinger said that he didn't want cameras either. These were tough economic times, and it would not look right that he and friends were having a wildly extravagant blast.
I couldn't do anything about George's wedding or Mark and Brian's party but I sure could do something about the cocktail party. So I started calling around inviting a whole new group of people to the cocktail party. ABC interviewed on camera many of the guests. What was so striking was the seriousness of their comments and their convictions that Palm Beach was a different place now and their lives different too.
After the cocktail party, my wife Vesna and I drove over to the Breakers for the wedding. "If this is the Titanic," Cloutier had told me in one of his more philosophical moments, "Well, we're in the ballroom and we're going down dancing." It was most flamboyant, extravagant, over-the-top, spare-no-expense blast imaginable. Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey tried to talk over the din of music while Florida's Senator Bill Nelson and Louisiana's John Breaux sat quietly and others of the 350 guests danced.
Former Senator Breaux and I were at the same table, and we discovered that we shared a lot in common. Our apartments in Washington are two blocks from each other. We were wearing the same stripped dress shirt. And as a politician, he shared with journalists one of the defining attributes of our mutual castes. We never pay for anything. When I started talking about my forthcoming book, Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, the good Senator whipped out his business card and asked for a freebie. (Don't worry, Senator, you'll get it next week).
I left the Breakers before eleven to make it to the Coconuts at the Flagler Museum. Last year several of the twenty-five Coconuts had told me that they had been upset at the quality and quantity of their several hundred guests, but this year was different. It could have been fifty years ago, all these faces of the old American elite. As the fireworks exploded brilliantly above the Inland Waterway to the sounds of popular music, I found it poignant. I knew this world was ending, even if few of the people here realized it.
Just as the final barrage of fireworks exploded, my wife and I left to drive north half a mile along the ocean to Jungle Road and the big gay party of the evening. Palm Beach was once one society, now it is many and gays are one of them. Gays were once servants of the wealthy. They escorted the ladies as walkers. They clothed them. They decorated their homes. And now they are often the mega wealthy themselves.
It was an overwhelming event that spilled over from the gigantic mansion next door to Ivana Trump's home. Everywhere there were pretty boys, handsome gay men, and occasional tongues placed in occasional ears in manners unseen at the Coconuts. And there was former Congressman Mark Foley, who left the House in a scandal involving Congressional Pages. And in the middle of it all dancing endlessly was the co-host, Brian MacDonald, in a white décolletage shirt that made him look like Errol Flynn playing a pirate.
As I drove back to our home, I thought what a fantastic evening it had been but one filled with a sense that I was seeing the last of something. Palm Beach has retreated into itself seeking to preserve a world of privilege and wealth beyond human imagination. But there is a stirring in the land, and a stirring even within many people on the island itself. America has to change and Palm Beach has to change as well. And there may not be too many more evenings in Palm Beach like New Year's Eve.
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