The Old Guard

Palm Beach's most exclusive club opens up, but not too far

Annan's long connection with the Four Arts is common among members. Most have paid their dues, which are now $900 per family, for decades. Membership has long been held to about 850 so that any interested member can get a ticket to a concert or lecture in the 768-seat auditorium. But as members have aged and died off, or moved away, as many as 40 new spots per year have opened up. Each winter, a committee reviews a list that Duggan says includes hundreds of people hoping for a spot. Two members must recommend candidates, some of whom have waited to join for decades. The entire group votes on each one.

There are enough new members that the group spun off a clique about a decade ago called the Young Friends of the Four Arts. Members are adolescents by Palm Beach standards, which means they must be under 50 years old. A week after the formal Four Arts ball, the youngsters hold their own party in a tent, where revelers are not required to wear tuxes. Instead, they dress in business casual.

But old-timers still dominate the Four Arts. A few recognizable names are among them, including Martha Jane Kennedy, who wandered through the gallery during the November tea party grasping a porcelain cup. Its saucer held bite-sized cucumber-and-egg-salad sandwiches with no crusts. "Oh well," she responded in a raspy, 75-year-old voice when asked if she was related to the Kennedys of Mass-achusetts, "that's not something that needs to be in the papers."

Colby Katz
At top, Talbot Maxey pours tea for the first time at the Four Arts. Longer-standing members, including Valerie Fleming, at right, take half-hour turns acting as servants at the tea parties. The Four Arts rents out a team of white-clad maids, one of whom is shown at left, to pass out finger sandwiches.
Colby Katz
At top, Talbot Maxey pours tea for the first time at the Four Arts. Longer-standing members, including Valerie Fleming, at right, take half-hour turns acting as servants at the tea parties. The Four Arts rents out a team of white-clad maids, one of whom is shown at left, to pass out finger sandwiches.

Wearing a straw hat with a wide brim and balancing an embroidered purse in the crook of her arm, Kennedy said she's been a member for so many years that she's forgotten when she joined. She recalled that she's been coming to these teas since she was young. "I know they have a wait of eight to ten years or something like that to join," she said. "You ought to talk to someone who knows more. I know I'm just lucky to have joined."


Unlike the Kennedys and others at Palm Beach's snobby zenith, James Sheeran definitively knows his place. He attends the Four Arts balls and banquets, but he knows he's there for business. As editor of Palm Beach Society, he appears at every social event of the season, documenting most of them in his glossy magazine, which is full of photos of millionaires in tuxes and sparkling gowns. He knows that the host invited him because he can provide publicity. "I don't linger," the 49-year-old Sheeran says in a gruff voice lightly flavored with a New York accent at his office on tony Worth Avenue. "I make an appearance, and then I leave." He still spends summers in the City, returning in season to Palm Beach like the millionaires he writes about. Sheeran has been to the exclusive International Red Cross Ball, the one where royals sport colorful sashes across their chests and women don bejeweled tiaras. And he's attended what has always been the most coveted social event in Palm Beach: the Four Arts ball.

The Four Arts has managed its exclusivity for decades by handpicking members from a small community of social cliques, Sheeran says. The pecking order at the Four Arts is well-established, he explains. It's based on seniority, wealth, and fame that can't be measured in headlines. There's an old rule among the ultrarich that names should appear in the press only when people are born, when they marry, and when they die. That rule is evident at the Four Arts. The group hasn't been touched by scandal in its 78-year history.

The party and the ball that proceeds it have long been the most exclusive invitation in a town where there's a high-brow party every day during season. Sheeran says: "It's old, WASPY, dignified, noncommercial groups. They don't pander to outsiders, and I'm not going to say they discriminate, but it's borderline." There are certainly no blacks or Hispanics in the crowd at the Four Arts ball, he adds.

Asked whether the Four Arts has any Jewish or minority members, the group's head of public relations fumes. "Of course there are Jewish members," Paula Law says from her office in the Four Arts main building. "Look at the list of directors and you'll see several Jewish names." Queried as to whether the Four Arts allows other minorities, she says the group hasn't received any applications. "We have many blacks who come to our lectures and things. I see them here all the time. We would like them to apply for membership, but they never have."

After New Times followed this line of questioning, Law and other Four Arts officials became less willing to speak. "Haven't you gotten enough?" she asked accusingly after returning a call for Duggan, who she said did not wish to talk further for publication.

After all, the group doesn't have to worry about bad press. "Nothing can be sacrosanct forever," Sheeran says, "but expect the Four Arts to survive."


As the November tea party comes to a close, Edith Hasler Bliss stands in the corner of the art gallery with her back to a giant painting of a half-opened sardine can, an acrylic entitled "Packed in Portugal" by Boynton Beach artist Jack Newman. Bliss clutches a white purse with a gold handle and wears a conservative, baby-blue suit dress. A white scarf with green polka dots clings to her neck. Like many Four Arts members -- and there may be no one alive who's been in the club longer than Bliss -- she talks fondly about the old days: the balls, the tennis tournaments, and the never-ending parties. "Oh, I love how it was when I first came," says 86-year-old Bliss, who arrived in Palm Beach just before World War II. "It was absolutely grand."

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