Palm Beach Is Having a Category 5 Identity Crisis

February 2024 by Daisy Prince

The entrance to the Everglades Club, on fashionable Worth Avenue, is almost hidden from view. The mirrored façade, behind carved wrought iron, deflects the intrusive glances of passersby. Its heavy, imposing door rebuffs the curious or unworthy. A strong push and the right pedigree are required to gain admittance, as you might expect from a club that considers itself one of the landmarks of Palm Beach.

Inside its dark foyer, a gray-haired attendant scans a list of the chosen for your name. When it appears, she lifts her palm to guide you up narrow steps to a hushed white courtyard, framed by blue-and-white-tiled arcades and softly lit by rows of white rice paper lanterns. Palm trees and pink bougainvillea provide a pop of color. Here and there are the entrances to secret apartments, secured by latches. On a second story are latticed windows, echoing those in Spain’s Alhambra Palace, where cloistered Spanish ladies peered out from their private world. The space feels, as its architect, Addison Mizner, intended, like “something religious—a nunnery, with a chapel.”

Off the courtyard is a salon. Nearby, at a mahogany bar, a bartender in a white jacket with gold buttons serves patrons—all white, mostly male, mostly golden-aged, bedecked in blue blazers and green ties sporting the club’s signature red alligator. These are the present-day descendants of the Gilded Age elite, with names like Vanderbilt, Phipps, Dodge, Pillsbury, Pulitzer, Sanford, Hutton, and Post—the families that put Palm Beach on the map.

You can imagine the founding fathers—and Logan Roy—all watching the Palm Beach boomlet and collectively shaking their heads, declaring, “You are not serious people.”

The Everglades Club, with its European opulence, was designed to confer prestige on wealthy Americans. To belong—back in the day—marked you as a bona fide member of the American aristocracy, at least according to Paris Singer, the Everglades founder and president. Now, the club’s old guard clings to it as a symbol of its past glories, a citadel barring parvenu upstarts who might confirm the members’ obsolescence.

My great-aunt C.Z. Guest, the late style icon, was an Everglades member, along with her husband, Winston F.C. Guest (the son of heiress Amy Phipps, Amelia Earhart’s sponsor, and grandson of Henry Phipps Jr., business partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie). C.Z., who happens to be depicted in the new TV series Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, was celebrated for her beauty and taste. Her image, captured by society photographer Slim Aarons as the perfect blond patrician goddess, holding son Alexander’s hand at her mother-in-law’s house, Villa Artemis (which the New York Post says Jeff Bezos may be eyeing to buy), is a defining symbol of Palm Beach. The club once punished her with a six-month suspension for inviting cosmetics queen Estée Lauder to a party, flouting its prohibition against Jews. Such exclusionary policies persisted well into the last century, when Sammy Davis Jr. was turned away at the door.

But then, the culture of Palm Beach has always been as much about keeping people out as letting them in (an aspect of the place that is amusingly depicted in the forthcoming Apple TV+ miniseries Palm Royale, premiering in March). Exclusivity is the essence of the town’s identity as a genteel enclave of the über-rich. It’s a town that runs on the fantasy that if you live in one of Mizners’s pink estates, have a cabana at the Bath & Tennis Club, and write thank you notes on creamy Dempsey & Carroll stationery, you belong. Today, however, that identity is under fire as the traditional clash of old and new money has escalated, year upon year, into a pitched class battle. “When you perceive incomers competing for the same resources, you are much more likely to dislike and oppose them,” observes Filiz Garip, Princeton professor of sociology and public affairs.

An early salvo in this scuffle was the 1985 sale of Mar-a-Lago, the home of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, to Donald J. Trump—a brasher, more vulgar breed of Palm Beach plutocrat. But recently, there has been a markedly flashier vibe shift. A massive Florida migration—675,000 people in 2021 alone, including nearly 92,000 New Yorkers—has brought with it a colossal influx of cash, children, and headaches. In just three years, the Southeast has drawn more than $100 billion in new income.

In Palm Beach, the newly arrived affluent are eschewing club ties or tuxedos at dinner in favor of short skirts, tube tops, and diamonds and sequins worn together to the grocery store. While many of the newcomers are snapping up properties in Palm Beach, legions more are flocking to its boomtown neighbor, West Palm Beach, with its looming luxury apartment buildings and office towers. And these interlopers are redefining what it means to be a vaunted member of exclusive, if sleepy, Palm Beach. If a certain slice of the country’s wealthiest individuals are living in a new Gilded Age, then—at least to the locals—Palm Beach is its 21st-century epicenter.

One wonders, of course, why here, of all places? A flood-prone beachfront with ballooning real estate prices? The answers are simple. The aura of a sandswept playground of like-minded people of means. The appeal of a mild winter. (Annual average: more than 230 days of sunshine.) Lower taxes. The promise of a pandemic-era refuge from all the COVID restrictions up north. The presumed immunity from the daily horrors of life in all those messy blue-state towns—in favor of a supposedly safe, sheltered community in a state that sells itself as a last bastion of “individual freedom.” Together, these draws—and the bright, if tarnished, brand of a local resident named Trump—have proved a powerful magnet for MAGAs with money and the nouveau riche of all stripes.

Still, there’s also the communal daydream, bordering on delusion. According to its many boosters, Palm Beach epitomizes an America that is poised for massive technological and economic ascent, along with all the sizzle and sex and toys that go with it. If only, they tell themselves. If only this little engine of a town could show the country how to reclaim some of its bygone greatness.

Then again, you can imagine the founding fathers—and Logan Roy—all watching the Palm Beach boomlet and collectively shaking their heads, declaring, “You are not serious people.”

Palm Beach is a barrier island three quarters of a mile wide and 18 miles long, about an hour and a half from Miami’s main strip. Modern Palm Beach got its start in 1893, when the Standard Oil and Florida East Coast Railway entrepreneur Henry M. Flagler realized that Americans would buy more railway tickets if his train terminated at an American Riviera. Under the spell of the maverick Mizner, who evoked Moorish Spain in creating his colorful, Baroque-style buildings, Palm Beach grew during the Roaring Twenties into a charmed realm of grand houses with terra-cotta roofs, stucco arches, and white beaches. And for the next 100 years, the town became the South’s protected little shoal for old money.

Today, Route A1A runs down the shoreline, past Mar-a-Lago to the south and further on to Manalapan. Straight across the water, separated by three bridges, stand the gleaming new edifices of West Palm Beach, a would-be economic hub—which residents refer to, without irony, as “Wall Street South.” While visually reminiscent of other contemporary metro centers, WPB remains firmly in the shadow of PB. And yet, West Palm’s mainland geography has given it the ability to expand in ways its elder sibling cannot. The truth is that when West Palm began to mushroom, in the past dozen years or so, almost anybody who could afford a house in Palm Beach proper would not have been caught dead, or alive, residing on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway. But the law of supply and demand has finally made West Palm desirable.

Author and designer Steven Stolman, who has lived in Palm Beach since 1995, contends that “some saw West Palm Beach as the poor relation until 2019, when the ultraluxury condo tower, The Bristol, rose over the Royal Park Bridge and sold some units for $20 million. That’s what lit the fuse.” And herein lies the real issue: Palm Beach’s gold-coast real estate has long been held by wealthy families, some of whom are primarily rich in property. Many houses had become too big to be maintained or, due to building codes, too expensive to tear down. By the 1980s and then again in the mid-2010s, as prices started to rise, some of the old guard decided to sell. In this way, the gates were opened, and, in the view of many a Palm Beacher, the barbarians ran through.

It was just the beginning. In 2020, when COVID hit and remote work became the norm, more rich northerners fled their gridlocked Big Apple, thousands vowing never to return. PB and WPB absorbed the resettlers, many of them Republicans, who were attracted to the gestalt of a state so red, it offered up three GOP candidates for president early on in the race, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who has boasted that Florida’s flush real estate market has been partly a consequence of his hard-nosed policing policies and his decision to keep his state relatively “open” when others were in lockdown.

Maybe so, maybe no. But property listings reflect how this river of wealth has been flowing south. Small wonder that the Palm Beach Daily News, a.k.a. “The Shiny Sheet,” has become a must-read for keeping tabs on who’s buying what and for how much. Beauty heir William Lauder bought the late Rush Limbaugh’s house for $155 million. Fashion maven Tommy Hilfiger flipped his historic mansion on South Ocean Boulevard for more than $41 million, after acquiring it only four months before for just under $37 million. In 2021, private equity honcho Scott Shleifer, an adviser to Tiger Global Asset Management, purchased an oceanfront jewel for $132 million. A year and a half later, Oracle’s Larry Ellison snapped up Netscape cofounder Jim Clark’s Manalapan estate for $173 million—then the priciest home ever sold in the state. And, for now, maybe it will stay that way: Over the past few months, the stratospheric price tags seem to have descended to earth.

The egos haven’t, though. How else to explain the fact that native Floridian and Citadel founder Ken Griffin, who, as tallied by the Palm Beach Daily News, owns $500 million worth of beachfront property as well as two side-by-side commercial buildings on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, applied for and won approval for a 44,000-square-foot residence along 1,400 feet of coastline, which will make it the largest and most expensive estate in Palm Beach? According to reports, the property’s entire value will be an astonishing $1 billion. For his mom. Sure, Griffin’s wealth is estimated by Forbes to be nearly $36 billion. But, as Griffin confided during a talk last year for culture vultures at the influential Society of the Four Arts, “Mom’s home comes first.”

When old and new money mix, there’s an inevitable frisson, and nowhere can it be felt more keenly than at the valet station outside the Royal Poinciana Plaza mall. Old Palm Beachers snicker as they watch women new to the scene arrive in pink, yes, pink, Rolls-Royces, like a battalion of invading Barbies—a shocking display in a town accustomed to understated wealth. (Palm Beach is a place where people dress up to go to the pharmacy. There is even an unctuous TikTok account, which showcases label-loving PB residents describing their overpriced clothes.) But things have really gotten out of hand. “Certain aspects are unrecognizable,” says author Stolman. “Who wants to go for an ice cream and be run down by a Ferrari?”

Kelly Smallridge, who is the president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, isn’t afraid to gush that her town has “amassed up to 47 billionaires now.” That doesn’t mean mere multimillionaires get a pass. When Smallridge goes to The Breakers, the largest luxury hotel on the island, she says it teems with “models and money.” The bluebloods and the blue-haired may shoot some side-eye from behind their Jackie O sunglasses. But as they stroll into the Everglades or Bath & Tennis, another emotion stirs behind those shades: fear. Lamborghinis and mega-tanned invaders are a constant reminder that a new cohort is pushing up against their carefully erected barriers. And not only are the transplants greater in number, they are, worst of all, younger. This new migration has brought its share of horror stories—of newcomers poaching nannies, snapping up tee times and cosmetic surgery appointments, and emitting an overall tenor of rudeness and ruthlessness.

Some Palm Beachers see the benefits of having fresh blood in town. Celerie Kemble, an interior designer and native of Palm Beach, insists “there’s always going to be one lane of traffic that’s moving fast towards change and one that’s moving at its own pace. It still feels like home to me, and there are a lot more interesting people around.” Nick Hissom, 31, cofounder of Aktion gallery, agrees. “There’s definitely been a lot more diversity, integration, young people, mixing of age, culture, and industries.” Stolman adds that “despite the glare of the relatively recent spotlight, Palm Beach is still a one-of-a-kind paradise.” That said, Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, believes that while the volume of people has turned the towns, particularly West Palm, into a thriving metropolis, “there are legitimate questions of whether we have the infrastructure to accommodate it and whether it’s too much too soon.”

He’s right to be worried. Palm Beach has virtually no public transportation, almost zero affordable housing, and few schools. Let’s not downplay the racket from private jets, either. During the pandemic, private air travel to the area increased by a third, creating a flyover cacophony. According to one VIP, “Teterboro to Palm Beach is the rich man’s highway.” And in a municipality whose waterways brim with superyachts, there’s a move afoot to block an additional mooring field. However, Smallridge mentions that civic leaders are working on providing free golf carts that will function like Uber. So there’s that.

Trump’s spectral hold on Palm Beach isn’t unlike Voldemort’s at Hogwarts: He’s planning a comeback, but he’s under wraps until he returns to power.

The bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway cause innumerable traffic snags. “Old wealth used to wake up on the island all the time and never come over to West Palm for jobs,” Smallridge explains. “The difference now is you’re not dealing with an average age of 75. You’re dealing with an Ivy League–educated 42-year-old with three kids who bought a home on the island for $8 million and needs to come over to West Palm for a job every day.” In response, the Coast Guard and elected officials set new rules to reduce the number of times one of the bridges could be raised during rush hours, “instead,” says Smallridge, “of the bridge going up for some silly little sailboat every half hour or hour.” (Try telling the taxpayer with a $100 million yacht that it’s silly.)

Even the moguls carving up the town realize that such quality-of-life issues might affect their bottom line. Developers Stephen Ross (owner of the Miami Dolphins), Jeff Greene (the real estate entrepreneur), and others, while seeking growth and community, have expressed concerns over how expansion could impact everything, down to the ever-present traffic headaches. Ross’s One Flagler building, opening soon, is a bone of contention, a 25-story tower in an area typically zoned for five-story properties. “You can be sure,” Greene has said, “you’re going to have hundreds of cars all driving on the street together at 5 p.m.”

It has gotten so bad that some of the old guard have begun to bail. Take one dapper gray-haired real estate exec whose family had been coming to the area for half a century. He and his wife are so fed up, they’ve decided they’re never coming back. “Palm Beach always had a certain snobbery about it,” he says, “but there was a gentility too. Ladies would go to their lunches, from the beach club to the Everglades to Ta-boo. But now it’s like they’ve been driven out and have had to recede into their homes.” (Most of those I interviewed would only talk on condition of anonymity, concerned they might offend their neighbors—or risk being ostracized.) An influential figure in the arts who has lived in Palm Beach for years says he’s thinking of moving back to the Hamptons full-time. “I hate it now,” he laments. “Palm Beach has been overrun by newbies. And the people are all paper thin, mentally. My wife and I are starving for a cultural and intellectual life.” Maintains longtime PB society chronicler Shannon Donnelly, “It’s obvious money, you know? Palm Beachers for the most part don’t like obvious money. Even though they at one time were probably considered the obvious money.”

If there’s one person who’s always been obvious, it’s Trump. But if you ask Palm Beachers about him, they’ll tell you he’s rarely seen out and about. “He eats at Mar-a-Lago,” says one local. Another adds that Trump doesn’t tend to dine in nearby restaurants. Nevertheless, his presence looms like an orange cloud over the whole town. Residents would rather not refer to the MAGA faithful who have lined the streets now and again, waving American flags emblazoned with Trump’s visage. They definitely don’t want to talk about the swastikas projected on the sides of public structures last year, including the AT&T Building in West Palm. Or the packets of antisemitic flyers found in the driveways and lawns of Palm Beach County. (The head of the hate group Goyim Defense League was sentenced to 30 days in jail—for littering, the only applicable statute until the passage of a law in May that forbids hate speech.) One business owner whispers when he tells me, “I can’t talk about this, but the politics in Palm Beach are scary.

Sure, Jared and Ivanka drift in from Miami, but they are rather ghostlike figures. And in a way, Trump’s spectral hold on Palm Beach isn’t unlike Voldemort’s at Hogwarts: He’s planning a comeback, but he’s under wraps until he returns to power.

If Trump is a phantom here, his political cronies sure aren’t. Developer Ross has been a major supporter. The same goes for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Nelson Peltz, Brooklyn Beckham’s billionaire father-in-law and chairman of the Wendy’s board. There is apparently no bottom to all the deep pockets jangling around. And with primary season in full tilt, Palm Beach has been fertile terrain for candidates in search of the lowest dangling fruit. Trump, of course, has hosted fundraisers for conservative groups (not to mention his codefendants). It’s always been a Republican stronghold, but Democrat Greene says California governor Gavin Newsom and his counterparts from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina have come to visit. The town has a two-word mantra for such outsiders, according to state attorney Aronberg: “campaign cash.”

Trump would be the first to say that the infusion of new wealth is good for business. And if there is one clear beneficiary, it’s Palm Beach’s charities. Make robust displays of largesse and it smooths your social entrée, helps demonstrate to the IRS you are legally domiciled here, and acts as a balm when you’ve annoyed the neighbors with your excessive construction. Around these parts, charities have been the recipients of windfalls that, in earlier times, would have been tied up in cultural institutions in the northeast. As with everything else in these echelons, there is a competition for who can give with the most. For philanthropists, lavishing millions, especially when they first arrive, is their version of baking cookies for the new neighbors.

Case in point: Citadel’s Griffin donated $20 million to the Norton Museum of Art. Howard and Wendy Cox gave $20 million for the Cox Science Center and Aquarium. Hedge-funder John Paulson gave an unspecified amount to the charity du jour, the Phipps Ocean Park. (Some institutions up north typically raise hundreds of thousands at their galas. By comparison, the Norton benefit cleared $3.8 million last year.) Even European aristos, always in search of ways to meet the running costs for their castles, have been drawn by potential donors on the island, choosing to launch their charity events here. This month, the Duchess of Rutland isn’t relying on the Plaza for her inaugural gala for the American Friends of Belvoir Castle. She’ll be at—where else?—The Breakers. That’s where the money is.

Next year, who knows? Such affairs may be held at some of the other hotels and resorts that are popping up like beach umbrellas. For instance, Germany’s Oetker family (which owns the Bristol in Paris and the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes) is partnering with the London-based property tycoons the Reuben Brothers to reboot the old Chesterfield, which will soon open as The Vineta. And Russian-born developer Vlad Doronin, owner of the prestigious Aman resorts group, bought a South End hotel property last year under his OKO banner. The total? A vertiginous $147 million.

Palm Beach has always been a matriarchy. The men may have made the dough, but the women run the show. Today, billionaire Beth Rudin DeWoody fills that role as the resident art empress. In the tradition of Henry Clay Frick (Manhattan’s Frick) and Albert C. Barnes (Philadelphia’s Barnes), DeWoody has been spending a lot of her spare time—and spare change—showcasing her enormous personal art collection.

DeWoody, who’d vacationed in Florida since she was three, became an early convert to West Palm in 2000 when she purchased a home on the water—“a little compound,” she calls it—with a few extra houses so her kids could be there too. “When I first bought it,” she recalls, “people were like, ‘You were so brave to go there’ ”—meaning the hinterlands beyond the harbors.

A self-described “obsessive” collector, she fell upon the perfect location, in 2008, for housing the 10,000 works—by established and up-and-coming artists—that she’d amassed. There were bargains aplenty in Florida back then, when the subprime-mortgage crash burst the real estate bubble. A broker friend took her to see a sprawling 1925 Art Deco treasure in West Palm. Rudin converted it into a space to warehouse her collection, portions of which are displayed in themed rooms.

Her venue—dubbed The Bunker—is not officially open to visitors, but droves in the know clamor for tours. “It’s been word of mouth,” says DeWoody. “It coincided with the renovation of the new Norton Museum and also with a bunch of galleries coming down from New York because of COVID.”

Gallerists galore have been hanging out their shingles, as have appraisers, art advisers, and consultants. Nick Hissom, casino magnate Steve Wynn’s stepson, who grew up in Vegas and LA, never thought he’d set up shop in Palm Beach. “I moved here when I was 27,” he says. “I’m gay, and my partner was 22 at the time. You wouldn’t generally expect two young gay men in their 20s to open up a gallery in Palm Beach. But in the last three or four years, so much has happened. I like the safety, the peace, the cleanliness. So if you want to make a lot of noise, West Palm is just a two-minute drive away.”

Ever since Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies colonized the island in the late 1800s, it’s been about money, money, and more money.

It’s the discreet charm of the American aristocracy but brought utterly up-to-date by top-drawer American designers.

The arrival of COVID exiles has given rise to a new batch of New York City restaurants, like La Goulue, the wildly popular Le Bilboquet, and Harry’s, an offshoot of the Wall Street favorite. Apparently, society swells from Manhattan to Montauk crave nothing so much as familiarity, says one artist who frequents the town: “They replicate in Palm Beach their cloistered environments from the Hamptons, the Upper East Side, Newport, Aspen, and elsewhere, going about their lives without a clue or even curiosity about others who are not like them, associating only with other people like themselves.” Such folks are hardly homebodies. Coveted dining spots may help re-create a recognizable New York world—and make people who can get the right table on a Friday night feel überconnected—but they can’t compare with the one thing money still can’t outright buy in Palm Beach: membership in a private club. With all of their cachet and community, clubs are as much a part of the island’s DNA as palm trees and pink golf carts.

To members, the clubs are shelters from the uncertain storms of déclassé civilian life, places where you don’t need to worry about your performance in anything other than tennis. And unless you grew up stretching out on those ancient sun loungers, nibbling oyster crackers, and then running straight into the aqua blue, you’ll never appreciate the strong bond of nostalgia that binds all these birds of a feather. Nor will you understand the lengths that this flock, behind the 20-foot hedgerows, will go to protect it.

Ten reference letters to get in. Years on the waiting list. Doors shut against the silent pleas of the new young northern hordes. Even so, the old guard holds firm, not out of pure prejudice (though there’s some of that) or unkindness (though there’s certainly jealousy toward those for whom the rising fees and initiation dues are mere pocket change), but ostensibly because they fear they will be crowded out.

As Tufts associate sociology professor Helen Marrow explains, “Private voluntary clubs are really about creating networks among the elite. So if there is contestation happening inside those clubs, it means the old-monied elite is feeling ‘status threat,’ both financially and culturally.”

The historically WASP institutions—the Everglades, Bath & Tennis (B&T), and Sailfish Club—have been in existence for a century, more or less. They were notorious for their small number of Jewish, Black, and brown members. Though many of those who belong, young and old, now profess shame and rage at that toxic past, it’s a taint that can color the perception of the clubs in the eyes of the community and the world at large. A year ago, the dean of institutional equity and inclusion at Connecticut College stepped down amid an outcry after the school announced plans to hold a fundraiser at the Everglades.

Traditional cultural conservatism still courses through some clubs along with the Sauvignon Blanc. That said, change has come, incrementally. The ultra-buttoned-up B&T hosted nuptials for two women. And how was this ceremony treated by others in the inner sanctum? With no more than a shrug, according to members, who remark that as a family club, the idea of “family values” has altered over time. Family is the key. Often, legacies are shoo-ins, which perpetuates the same insularity. And the more the newcomers push to join, the more certain clubs enforce or raise the bar for entry.

There is a new club, however—Carriage House—that specifically targets the new affluent Gen X-ers. The owners: Brazilian-born interior designer Paula Bickford and her husband, Michael K. Bickford, a polo player and the CEO of a real estate investment firm. Finding there was nowhere in the vicinity that really offered the European sensibility they sought, they decided to pony up for two buildings, one designed by Mizner, which was once owned by financier E.F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Although the Bickfords claim they’re not trying to compete with the old-line clubs, they are quick to note that more than 90 percent of their members are from Palm Beach. Opened in April 2022, Carriage House brings to mind those English upper-class haunts such as 5 Hertford Street and the old Annabel’s, with over-the-top interiors that are fantasies of what 21st-century posh might look like. Its grandeur is decidedly maximalist: leopard-print ceilings, plush fuchsia chairs, an emerald green banquette, and a wall covering inspired by an Indian elephant hunt. “We use lacquer from a special place in Europe with no imperfections,” Paula Bickford divulges. “It almost reflects like a mirror.” Strict dress code: jackets for men, no ripped jeans, definitely no sweats.

It’s not a cheap night out. The initiation fee is $250,000. For a dining club. There’s no golf. No racket sports. No sailing. It’s closed for half the year. Some who’ve joined also belong to B&T and Everglades. And the place has only 231 members, their ranks restricted by the town council. But all things are relative. The august Everglades purportedly sets new members back as much as $300,000 to join—and another $25,000 or more per year. The entry fee for the private club at The Breakers? Reputedly a cool $450,000. (The figures come from club insiders; most club spokespeople either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for confirmation.)

Not everyone loves Carriage House. One frequent guest sniffs, “It looks so phony, like it was made for Instagram.” But there are moments that really set it apart as the nouveau nighttime playground. In a much-remarked-upon incident, about a year ago, two people were caught in flagrante in the bathroom, according to sources. Accounts differed: They were on the tile floor, with other patrons stepping over them on their way back to their tables; they were in a stall—with the door, some speculate, left deliberately open. Around town, of course, people can’t resist talking about it but, when asked, Bickford responds, “I’m a serious business owner. I’m not going to go into rumors.”

Whether on the floor, through the door, or sipping Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame till the wee hours, the habitués of Carriage House frequent a club for a new Palm Beach. It may be ultrarich, flamboyant, and occasionally indecent, yet people are dying to get in. And while it lacks the status of established clubs (and the facilities that appeal to families), it has tapped into a class-conscious aspect of yore that is still very Palm Beach: Who can’t get in is just as important as who can, and no amount of tennis courts can make up for the FOMO people feel when they aren’t at the white-hot center of social gravity.

Palm Beach’s future, however, will be written across the waterway. West Palm Beach, initially intended by industrialist Flagler as a community for his hotel workers, became, in the middle of the last century, a diverse middle- and working-class neighborhood. Then a 1980s crack epidemic ravaged much of downtown. Rejuvenation started in the ’90s, but that too was stalled by the 2008–2009 recession. It wasn’t until Related Companies, the real estate development group, started its massive push for grade A office buildings and condos that the area started to tick. Sean MacPherson—the man behind smart boutique hotels like Manhattan’s Marlton and Montauk’s Crow’s Nest—is creating a new hotel in the NORA (North Railroad Avenue) district. He sees West Palm as a blank slate. “It’s not codified yet,” he emphasizes. “It’s an interesting stew, with enough elbow room for things to develop.”

If Trump is Palm Beach’s most polarizing figure, then developer Stephen Ross is his West Palm equivalent. An octogenarian billionaire (who in 2021 split from then 54-year-old Kara, his wife of 18 years), Ross is more responsible than anyone for WPB’s growth. Referred to in turn as a visionary and a narcissist—sometimes by the same people—Ross and his Related Companies have 4.5 million square feet of property. Such growth has ushered in a flotilla of yoga studios and outdoor markets, gelato shops and floating tiki bars, community centers and medical facilities. There’s even the sleek Brightline Train, as chic in its way as old Flagler’s, which shuttles premium passengers to Miami with complimentary WiFi, attendants, and cocktails.

Such progress comes with immeasurable costs. In have poured the young, hard-charging entrepreneurs, investors, hedge fund managers, and bankers who demand floor-to-ceiling water views, 24-hour doormen, and someone who will not just walk their poodles but take them to the vet. Out have gone the serene environs (courtesy of the construction din). Out, too, have gone many laborers, small-craft sailors, the leisurely commutes, the sense of a more humble patchwork community.

Richard Ryles, a third-generation West Palm Beacher who is writing a book with the working title Jim Crow Today: Growing Up Black in Florida, is running to be a Palm Beach County commissioner. According to Ryles, “West Palm Beach doesn’t have an identity…. If you drive down Clematis Street”—the main drag in town, lined with restaurants and nightspots—“you would think that the majority of people that live here are Irish, Italian, or Japanese…. It’s an internationally Caribbean city that does not in any way embrace the population that lives here.” Which may be a polite way of saying that de facto segregation is still central to the lived experience of many West Palm residents, especially the 47 percent who are people of color. That said, from Ryles’s point of view, many of the outward signs of bigotry are long past. When Ryles and his daughter frequent Palm Beach Island, he says, “I have never been mistreated in all of the times that [we] have gone over and had dinner.”

In October, Palm Beach County approved a $200 million bond issue for affordable housing. Still, Ryles expects that all the new development, in time, will push Black people out. “Where else,” he asks, “can you live less than two miles from the beach?” Gentrification, imperiling communities of color across the country, is playing out all the more dramatically in West Palm Beach because of the eye-watering investment rolling in.

Despite all that cash, Palm Beach, culturally, is a small town. Since the time it became a playground for wealthy WASPs, it has remained, at heart, a pleasure dome. So to those who complain about its dearth of intellectual heft, one can only say: They didn’t read the fine print. Palm Beach has forever been the insular resort its name advertises—no matter how many billionaires squish into its tiny hurricane-threatened seashores and waterways.

Which reminds me of a scene I witnessed one afternoon at the Colony Hotel. Three women—two in leopard jumpsuits—emerged from their gold Mercedes and swiveled up to the side entrance, walking their tiny dogs and gesturing to their waiting suitcases, which might as well have been steamer trunks. Within an instant, a squad of pink-clad parking attendants clambered over to assist. But no dice. A silver Tesla had somehow locked itself in the driveway. And no one could come up with a way to move it.

That says it all. Old Palm Beach has no idea how to take command of this
new machine.

February 2024 by Daisy Prince