By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
It began as the Society of Arts, a backyard gathering at Palm Beach mansions where members would listen to concerts and hear lectures. A year after its founding, an article in the Chicago Daily News affirmed the group's rise. The piece, kept in the Palm Beach Historical Society archives, claims the group was the brainchild of Pittsburgh's Joseph Riter and New York's Henry Seligman. The pair, writer Junius Wood claimed, started it because "it was feared that the life of ease and sunshine at Palm Beach lacked mental stimulus." Wood called the club "the quintessence of the socially select of this winter resort" and described weekly dinners with invitations more coveted than those to any of the elegant balls that filled the social season. The Society of Arts hosted operas, vaudeville programs, and speakers brought in from the North.
At the time of the society's founding, the island was home to a second exclusive group, which became notorious. The Everglades Club, started in 1919 by railroad magnate and John D. Rockefeller protégée Henry Flagler, eventually developed into a symbol of the island's blatant anti-Semitism. Flagler built the Everglades Club on Worth Avenue during World War I, claiming the building would be used as a convalescent home for veterans. The claim allowed the Standard Oil millionaire to buy building supplies otherwise restricted during wartime. When the Everglades Club opened, it didn't accept members who held regular jobs because they were considered too tacky. Jews were also turned away. (Calls to the Everglades Club for this story were not returned.)
From the day of its debut, the Society of Arts catered to both the men who chose not to work and those millionaires who couldn't walk away from the office. To you and me, that means old and new money. Current members say Jews were always accepted, but it's a claim the club would not prove, citing its policy of keeping membership private.
In 1936, Col. E.R. Bradley, one of Palm Beach society's forefathers, gave the Society of Arts a home in an abandoned storefront on Royal Palm Way. That year, the group renamed itself the Society of the Four Arts, recognizing literature, drama, music, and art in the club's title. The new organization's first exhibit that year featured a Rembrandt painting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art later bought for $2 million.
Of the 17 founding members, only four were men. But perhaps as a sign of the times then, the club's leader, Hugh Dillman, was male. He set a precedent: All 12 presidents of the Four Arts have been men. Many of the early members had names that probably meant something back then, but their fame has faded. A few had titles of princess or heiress or lord, but most of their names show up in the news these days only in association with foundations they created.
The club bought the two-story Mediterranean-style building that now houses its library in 1938 and purchased a three-story structure across the street in 1947. The second building is now home to the art gallery, the club's offices, and the cineplex-sized theater. In 1987, Four Arts leaders got wind of plans to build a Publix next door on a vacant piece of prime real estate and acted quickly, buying the land for $275,000. The club's sprawling complex, reaching from the Intracoastal into the center of Palm Beach, is now valued at $8.5 million by the county but would likely sell for a figure with more zeros on the end.
When Cluett joined the Four Arts in 1951, it was "really full of lightweight rich people," she says. Back then, few members really had an interest in culture, and the Four Arts held elaborate "living pictures," consisting of a dozen members dressing up in period clothes -- like the ancient Greeks or the founding fathers.
Some Four Arts members, however, aimed higher, recalls Cluett, whose grandfather made his fortune in China after traveling there as a cabin boy. Not long after joining the Four Arts, Cluett began hosting dinners for the visiting judges of the club's art shows at her $1.2 million whitewashed brick home on the north end of the island. Sometimes, she helped organize less-elaborate fêtes on the lawn. She had the picnics sprinkled with wildflowers. "It was wonderful," she says, drawing out the first syllable. "Wonderful."
"Anyway," she says in an accent that sounds a tad British, "the Four Arts was only $50 a year when I started this thing. And I blew the chance to become a member for life for something like $2,000. Can you believe that? Oh, the money I've spent on it over the years."
She shakes her head and puts her hand on her forehead, careful not to mess that straight line of silver hair. "Oh well," she says. "Can you believe it's something like $900 a year now? Dear God!"
At the beginning of the Four Arts kickoff tea, Ervin S. Duggan makes small talk with the event's coordinator, 58-year-old Peggy Dean. Duggan is wearing a sapphire-blue dress shirt with a white collar, a scarlet power tie, and a navy suit. The ensemble would get him into any country club or reunion of network anchors. A teacup rests on a saucer in his left palm. "I just can't stand business casual," he says, "because you just can't define what 'business casual' means."