If you have read anything about Bernie Madoff, the $65 billion swindler, who took most of the fortunes of his good friends in Palm Beach (and elsewhere) in the giant Ponzi scheme he operated since the early ’90s, you’ll appreciate this book on his Palm Beach crowd. Written by RPCV Larry Leamer the book was published just weeks before Bernie the Bandit went down.
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Laurence Leamer has written gossipy books about the Kennedys and Arnold Schwarzenegger that have brought some actual thought to celebrity-mongering. Now he has come up with an exercise in commercial star-fuckery, dull-withered-rich-people division, that some of his readers may find considerably less alluring than his takes on Jackie and Ethel. Others might cruise through this stuff with a certain horrified delectation. Put me down in the first category.
While Leamer’s title suggests a true-crime approach to his material, the book is less Vincent Bugliosi than Anthony Trollop. The customs and mores of the dessicated Palm Beach rich are examined with an unsparing exactitude, even when they aren’t doing anything as interesting as shooting their wives or smashing their girlfriends’ faces in. Here’s the biggest mystery in the book: if Leamer is so repulsed by a municipality that harbors some of the ghastliest bigots and spoiled ignoramuses in America, why does he choose to live there part of the year? He offers no clue.
Palm Beach, Leamer reports, has been a warm-weather refuge for the American super-rich since the late 19th century. Henry Flagler’s railroads made the site accessible, and Addison Mizner’s Spanish-Moroccan architecture gave it a public aesthetic. Mizner is one of the Palm Beach personages that Leamer plunks down in his wandering narrative. The “sick, rotund” architect built the monumental mansions, hotels and private clubs that turned Palm Beach into “an exquisite, timeless, sophisticated enclave.”
Sophisticated is the wrong word. By Leamer’s own description, shallow is more like it. Both the old WASP aristocracy—real estate tycoons, oil barons, the Listerine heiress, et al—and the more recently arrived Jews (who inhabit a section of town the WASPS call “the Gaza Strip”), as well as such late-coming riff-raff as Donald Trump, are all animated by just one goal: social-climbing. They go to parties and balls and they decorate their houses and themselves, and they don’t do much else. How “sophisticated” is that? Oh, and they are nearly all Republicans. Those few denizens with liberal concerns—a few Jews mainly—learn early to keep their mouths shut politically.
Over the course of his narrative, Leamer takes us inside lots of grotesquely over-produced charity balls and parties. There are recitations of menus and descriptions of gowns, trophy spouses and eye lifts. We learn that Eric Purcell is “an intriguing conversationalist,” though we never hear him say anything intriguing. Brownie McLean “reigns over” a “superficial society given over to pleasure and amusements.” Leamer leads us through his pal Brownie’s succession of marriages to wealthy men, and while Leamer spends an inordinate amount of time visiting with Brownie—as does the reader—Leamer never conveys what her attraction is. The only thing interesting about Brownie is her money. (Some of you are saying, “Duh.”)
Leamer does have the acuity—and the dramatic sense—to be amused by Palm Beach’s Jay Gatsby-like figures, both male and female. A goodly number of the townsfolk emerged from humble beginnings and their outsized personalities were invented out of not much. They set out to marry money, and in a society where superficiality is everything screwing your way to riches is a piece of cake. It is some of those tales, however, that do have a way of leading to the madness and bloodshed of Leamer’s title. Fred Keller, who shot his wife in cold blood, chose to commit murder to avoid handing over half his fortune to a woman he came to regard correctly as a gold digger. One of several instances where Leamer steps in and participates in the story he is telling is his series of prison visits with the unrepentant Keller. Leamer, however, fails in his attempt to help the killer find “closure.”
It seemed that by the time Leamer was nearly finished writing this book, he was pretty much up to his hairline with the glittering triviality of it all, and so he added a postscript about a couple of Palm Beach’s “nice” people. When Pauline Pitt’s divorced friend died young from breast cancer, Pauline took in the woman’s adopted seven-year-old and raised her lovingly. There are precious few others you admire when you put down this compendium of shiny but dumb lives. Among the most memorable of the strivers here is the woman who believed that her life would be forever enriched by marrying a Jew who didn’t identify as Jewish and taking her vows in the presence of Prince Philip. Oy vey.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64; Washington 1964-67) writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. Death Vows was published in September 2008. Lipez is a former editorial writer at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. His journalism and fiction have appeared in many publications, and he reviews mysteries for The Washington Post. He lives in Becket, MA and is married to sculptor Joe Wheaton.