The Breakers hotel, Palm Beach
Tribalism and elitism go hand-in-hand. As the rich get richer, to the point where 1 percent of the country’s population now owns 99 percent of the wealth, they separate themselves from their material inferiors with ever-increasing exclusivity. No better illustration of this is found than in Palm Beach, Florida.
The ocean-side town, home to a horde of super-rich corporate titans and, these days, a few super-rich politicians (sleepy-head Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, empty-head President Donald Trump), always has been a bastion of the aristocracy. But there used to be at least a pretense of tolerance for the hoi polloi from the other side of the tracks – er, the Intracoastal Waterway.
Your faithful scribe arrived in the environs in the last quarter of the 20th century, and frequented the island for both professional and social reasons. As a newspaper reporter, I occasionally was assigned to interview a visiting celebrity (Frank Sinatra) or prominent politician (former U.S. Sens. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, James Buckley of New York, amicable Republicans from the pre-tribalism period). This was in the era of accessibility to The Breakers hotel, where most prominent visitors stayed.
The Breakers had a lounge, the Alcazar, where pop or jazz groups performed for listening or dancing, drawing people from parts west to mingle with Breakers patrons. A nightclub up the road, the now-defunct O’Hara’s, had four bars that were packed every weekend with plebeian revelers who danced the night away to tunes rendered by a small band that knew what real people wanted to hear. As one patron, an engineer who participated in daytime chess at the club, said, “The rich sat side-by-side with ne’er-do-wells.”
The Kennedys would hang out at the pricey but popular Au Bar, mingling with folks who drove over the bridge for an occasional night of excess.
Alas, that day is gone, and “attitude” has taken over. Try going to The Breakers. On second thought, don’t. I did this week, and the experience was utterly exasperating.
I had called the posh hotel’s gift shop about the possibility of carrying my book Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died. Under shade trees and awnings, comfy lounges occupy the patio in the front and sides of the store, the first in a row of upscale (what else?) specialty shops. This shop sells newspapers and a few books in addition to gifts. I think my book would sell well. Hotel guests are there to relax, and would be intrigued to discover, as a sticker I affix to the cover says, a novel based on a “Real, Sensational 1976 Murder. Shocking Revelations.” After all, murder in sedate Palm Beach is extremely rare (except, possibly, those resulting from domestic disputes).
The shop manager (I think that’s his title) asked me to send him an email. I did, describing the book. Several days later, I called again, and was told I hadn’t emailed him. I politely replied that I had, and re-sent the email. After a few days, I called, but was repeatedly told that Andrew wasn’t available. It happened that I needed to be in Palm Beach to replenish copies of the book at the Classic Bookshop, whose operators are ever-so congenial and accommodating. So I figured that I’d just drop in at the nearby Breakers shop to see if Andrew were available. That’s when the fun began.
Back in the day, one merely drove up the long, palm-lined drive, found a parking spot on the left side of the property, and entered. For some years now, a guard station has sat halfway up the drive. I explained my mission to the young guard, who told me I ordinarily could use the self-parking lot on the right, but an event prevented that, and I would have to drive up to the entrance, where I would be charged a $35 valet fee unless they agreed to validate the ticket. I asked if I would be allowed to leave if payment were required, and he said I would. So I drove up, got out, and accosted one of the half-dozen uniformed attendants milling around. He advised me to leave the car keys, and have the shop manager validate my ticket for free parking.
At the shop, a young clerk phoned Andrew in his office, then told me Andrew was about to leave for a meeting. I knew this was a lie, and asked if I could leave a copy of the book. Another phone call. Only if I didn’t need it back. The whole thing looked futile, so I took the copy with me and left, returning immediately to get the ticket validated. Oh, the polite young man said, this was against “policy.” A third phone call, this one to the valet desk, lasting about 10 minutes. Finally, I left without ticket validation, and walked to the valet area. I told the guy that the shop refused to validate the ticket.
Palm Beach Bookstore
Much hand-wringing ensued. This was indeed a crisis. What to do? More phone calls. Finally, a tall, lean young man ambled up, extended his hand, and said, “Can I help you?” I went through all that had transpired, to which he replied that it was “against our policy” to let me leave without paying the $35. To which I responded that he would promptly have my car brought and hand me the keys, whereupon I would drive away – unless he wanted a homeless person on the property overnight, and an ugly scene for the hotel guests to witness when I summoned the police. He decided it wouldn’t be a problem after all. My car was brought, and I left.
The day before, I had another delightful experience, this one at Palm Beach Bookstore, a short distance from The Breakers. I entered and proposed to the owner, Candice Cohen, that my book be stocked on a consignment basis, in a section with other books by local authors. I’d been selling the book at Green’s Pharmacy and Luncheonette, a block away, but that arrangement had ended. I explained that the management had required that I not sell the book at any other nearby location.
Cohen erupted, waving her arms. “Green’s is a drug store,” and they had no right to demand an exclusive, she ranted. “And now you come to me and want me to carry the book? No, I’m not interested.”
Surprised, I asked, “You’re going to punish me for their behavior?”
“You agreed to it.”
“Ms. Cohen, I first came to you – with the first edition, a different cover. And you rejected it.”
“I’m not interested.”
Green’s Pharmacy and Luncheonette
I still don’t know why Green’s decided against carrying the book any longer, since its sales of an average six copies a month far exceeded, I am pretty certain, any of the other books by local authors on the revolving rack. But I speculate that with both stores, it’s because I’m not a Palm Beach resident like the other authors. No matter, I considered pulling my book out of Green’s, whose manager paid for sales only in cash, several times due to the rude, exceedingly inconsiderate treatment accorded me by management. Subsequently, I checked the ownership of Green’s with the Florida Division of Corporations, and learned that the two directors also had a drug store in Delray Beach, about 20 miles south. I called and asked for one of the men, and was told by the young lady who answered that he was at Green’s that day. The next day, I visited, unannounced, and asked for the man. One employee said, “He’s in Nevada.” Another said he no longer was connected with the store. Obviously, somebody, or somebodies, was or were lying — for what reason, I don’t know.
Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort
I found the phone number of the other director, a shopping mall developer, in New York state. The secretary was cordial as I relayed my experiences with the two stores, and she promised to get back to me. That was about 10 days ago. I’ve heard nothing – but I’m not finished.
The inordinate amount of time I spent at The Breakers caused me to be late for a cocktail party at another ocean-side hotel, this one down the coast 30 or so miles, the Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort, where an open patio afforded grand views of the Atlantic. Valet parking or self-parking around the corner were offered. Management was celebrating the facility’s refurbishing of the ballroom and banquet space, and invited several meetup groups. An array of delectables was laid out – oysters on the half shell, roast pork, etc. – an open bar served libations, and small bottles of champagne were there for the taking. A musician entertained for dancing.
The eminently affable sales manager, Margie Osborn, told me she’d been with the hotel 23 years. It was easy to understand why.
A tale of two hotels. If you’re planning a visit to South Florida, you might want to avoid the one in a town with traffic tie-ups caused by visitations of His Eminence at a private property called Mar-a-Lago – the ultimate in both tribalism and elitism.
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