Ronald Kessler knows Palm Beach, the home of Trump’s Maralago. Here’s a throwback interview with him on his book THE SEASON. He’s a former Washington Post and WSJ reporter with many journalism awards. Other books (also on audio) include Inside the White House, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, The Terrorist Watch, and Spy vs Spy.
Jonathan Lowe: Palm Beach, as exposed by your book, sounds like one big social club from which we mere mortals are excluded. Is it really true that the police stop gawkers at the bridge? Why are the super rich so enamored with the place?
Ronald Kessler: They are their own social club. Why should they mix with gawkers and tourists? They prefer to be with their own kind. People who think, talk, and act the way they do. Palm Beach has the greatest concentration of rich people in the world. With vigilant police who can sense outsiders, Palm Beach offers the perfect setting for the rich to enjoy themselves. To give themselves a sense of achievement, they exclude outsiders and impose a caste system on the 3.75 square mile island paradise. Almost like laboratory rats fed growth hormones, the 9800 residents of Palm Beach exhibit the most outlandish and exaggerated forms of human behavior.
Lowe: Did you find their odd behavior and rituals were competitive in nature, meaning they don’t use balance sheets as a yardstick as much as we think they do?
Kessler: The super rich compete with balloon decorations and yacht lengths. Their net worths are always mysteries, either much higher or lower than what one is led to believe.
Lowe: If Palm Beach is Mount Olympus, who is Zeus?
Kessler: The Old Guard, with names like Hutton, Hilton, Pillsbury, Firestone, Dupont, Scripps, and Ford, preside over the social season. Their leader is Barton Gubelmann, a surprisingly candid and withy lady known as the Queen of Palm Beach. The new wealth is represented by Trump, Kluge, and Perelman.
Lowe: Has anyone yelled “Do the words KEEP OUT mean anything to you?” before releasing the Dobermans? Or did you gain access by reputation alone?
Kessler: I first came to Palm Beach to conduct research for my book “The Sins of the Father,” about Joe Kennedy. Sources who helped me then introduced me to others in Palm Beach. I was quickly able to refer to people I had interviewed, and that put people at ease. Very few refused to talk. Even though Palm Beach is a very closed society, people who move there are aware of its reputation–the place where Roxanne Pulitzer had her divorce, where William Kennedy Smith was tried for rape. Secretly, they love gossip and scandal. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. If you give them the right reason to talk, if you know the right combination, you can get in.
Lowe: Can you give an example of someone lying to you?
Kessler: One man, a former chairman of the International Red Cross Ball, told me he graduated from Harvard and won the Silver Cross, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart while serving in the Marines. He wears the medals when he attends the black-tie event, the pinnacle of the social season. It turned out he obtained his college degree through a correspondence school, and while he served in the Marines won no medals of any kind.
Lowe: What most surprised you about Palm Beach society?
Kessler: I wasn’t prepared for the blatant anti-Semitism in the Old Guard. Then there was Gianna Lahainer, who told me her husband died during the middle of the season. Since she didn’t want to take the time to hold a funeral for him, she had him embalmed and stored for forty days so she could hold a funeral for him after the season ended. “I wanted to go to the parties,” Gianna said. “My new life was going on, why should I wait? I would miss the season.”
Lowe: Any anecdotes about someone excluded from a posh party who thought he or she might be “in?”
Kessler: Many people essentially lobby to get invited to key parties by pressuring friends to speak on their behalf. But the greatest pressure is brought to bear on bank trust officers, who control much of the wealth. Trust fund babies, who live on inherited wealth, wake up late, go to their clubs, have a few drinks, and try to outsmart trust fund officers so they’ll give them more money. Their walk in closets may be half the size of most people’s homes, and their diamond rings may be worth millions, but they want more. One heir to an industrial fortune has homes in Palm Beach, New York, France, and Italy. He had a yellow Rolls Royce Corniche convertible but wanted a Ferrari as well. The trust department of his bank kept turning him down, so he bought the Ferrari with his American Express platinum card.
Lowe: Any Trump stories to relate?
Kessler: A Palm Beach caterer told me what happened when she mentioned to an heir that Ivana Trump, who lived in a $4.4 million home, needed a butler. “Ivana needs a butler? How about me?” the man said. The caterer said, “My God, you don’t know how to be a butler.” To which the man said, “What do you mean, I’ve had one all my life.” The trust fund baby applied for the job and was hired. He donned a white jacket and white gloves for a party. Amongst the guests was his mother. He didn’t stay long.
Lowe: Any churches in Palm Beach? If so, wouldn’t it be nice to have a microphone in the confessional?
Kessler: There are churches, but no funeral parlors or cemeteries. No one wants to be reminded of his own mortality. Everyone is living a fantasy. As for confessions, I have to say that what amazes many readers of “The Season” is that it is based on recorded interviews. What one finds out is that the very rich are indeed very different from you and me.
Lowe: What did you think of George Plimpton’s recording of your book?
Kessler: After hearing his rendition of “The Season,” I feel I’m missing a lot of good audiobooks. His WASPish delivery was hysterical, and gave it another dimension.