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Laurence Leamer Headshot

The Woman Who Cried Wolf

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Last week I was doing an interview with Tim Malloy of WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach. We were standing outside the Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach which has a big display of my new book, Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, in the window. I was telling Malloy of the various problems I have been having.

Just before my book was published last month, the Palm Beach police chief told me that my life might be in danger and I should hire security for my public events. A couple weeks later, I was driving with a team from France's Channel Two when our car was run off the road outside the Palm Beach Country Club by a mysterious SUV. The Palm Beach Daily News refused even to mention the book for months even though it's the fastest selling book here in decades. New York's Harmonie Club asked me to give a talk in which I had to promise not to mention Bernie Madoff and then canceled because Madness Under the Royal Palms mentions a board member unfavorably.

When you write a controversial book that exposes an island of privilege as it has never been exposed before, you can't expect a love fest. But this had gone far beyond that. As I proceeded to list the litany of problems to the correspondent, a passerby started screaming at me. "That was a disgusting article you wrote in Boston Magazine and I'm not even Jewish," he said as he continued down the sidewalk, mentioning my sad, true story about how Madoff deceived the Boston Jewish elite.

"Why don't you come and say what was wrong?" I responded giving him the opportunity to detail the accusation.

"It was a racist and disgusting article," he said as he walked away.

It's a coward's ploy to spit out epithets and to refuse to present one's case in any detail. The accusation is absurd, but you're welcome to read the article in the February issue and make your own judgment.

And you're also welcome to view the video that led the local NBC news last week and has been shown on MSNBC.

I think of myself as a lucky guy, and I'm not worried about my life. My book is on the New York Times extended bestseller list for the second week. The reviews have been fine. My friends, about half of whom are Jewish, are totally behind me and are appalled at these ridiculous charges. And I've gotten all kinds of supportive emails from people I don't even know. But this man in the Palm Beach street is not the only one on the island making charges.

A leading socialite and a member of the Palm Beach Country Club has been calling people saying that my writing in Boston Magazine is anti-Semitic. Last year she and her friend had me give a talk at the club. I was astounded that she would make such a charge. I called her and asked her what I had done that was anti-Semitic. She said it was neither my book nor the article but the title of the article.("Madoff-ed! Boston's Jewish Elite and the Making of a Ponzi King"). I told her that I hadn't even seen the title until I received a copy of the magazine, but in any case there was nothing even vaguely offensive in those words. What she clearly did not like was the attention paid to an unhappy part of Jewish life.

"You can't use the term 'anti-Semitic' because you may not like something a person does or says or writes," I told her. "It's like the story of the boy who cried wolf. One day there will be a wolf and no one will come to your rescue."

I've given lots of thought to this and why so many members of the Palm Beach Country Club are upset at my book. When I gave my luncheon talk at the club last year, there was dead silence when I told stories that had made everyone else who ever heard them laugh. These ladies have struggled to arrive at their positions of economic and social superiority and they did not want to hear me mocking the world of Palm Beach society that they consider the ultimate symbol of success. And now they have to face the terrible reality that Bernie Madoff was an esteemed member of the club and cheated about half of them.

In my speech last year, I did not talk about matters in the book that involve some of the ladies in the room. In Madness, I write with a certain irony about the sense of moral superiority that is so prevalent in the club both toward Jews who are not members and gentiles. And then I detail a couple of adulterous trysts both of which ended in tragedy, the drowning of an illegitimate child, and the death of a member of a heart attack in the arms of his lover. That I would chronicle these misadventures has infuriated some of the members and led them to try to have one of my speeches canceled. They prefer to be celebrated for their generous charitable gifts and pictured in the Palm Beach Daily News in their designer gowns and jewels at charity balls.

There is a problem here that goes far beyond my immediate difficulty. The Madoff scandal and the profound economic recession are fertile grounds for a resurgent anti-Semitism. I understand the apprehension of Jewish Americans. Now is a time to be vigilant. It is also a time to be careful that those who speak or write in an honest manner about difficult matters involving Americans who happen to be Jewish do not risk being pilloried by a few unhappy, disgruntled individuals who speak only for themselves.