The Old Guard

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

A week after the tea party, while giving New Times a tour of her home, Bliss tells the story of how she ended up in Palm Beach. The tale begins in Tennessee, where her father was a landowner. Then she describes her first marriage to a wealthy inventor. She continues with her second marriage to an old-money millionaire who drank too much and follows up the melancholy history by describing the death of all three of her children. "No mother should outlive her children," she says sorrowfully. At the end, she repeats a mantra that she employs often: "There's one thing we can be sure of, and that's change."

Until a year ago, Bliss lived in a tiny flat at 324 Pendleton Lane in Palm Beach. It was really nothing more than a cottage originally built at the edge of a tennis court that belonged to an estate next door. When her neighbor, concrete king John Rinker, wanted to expand his mansion, he purchased her third of an acre for $2.2 million. She banked the money and moved into a 1,700-square-foot brick house on modest North N Street in Lake Worth.

Everywhere in her home, trophies stand like mushrooms after a rain, all glittering from a fresh polish. There are silver plates from tennis tournaments, crystal goblets from backgammon contests, and adorned cups from golf courses. "I have more of them," she says. "I just can't put them all out. I don't have enough room!" On the piano are framed photos of her accepting trophies as big as her torso. They show her as a beautiful new Palm Beach bride, her round face and slightly curled hair making her look like an early movie star. Back then, she says, Palm Beachers had contests to occupy their days. Culture was provided by the Four Arts. "It was a play land for the North, and luckily someone thought to do something with it by having the arts here."

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.

But back then, the Four Arts hadn't opened up, Bliss says. It was easy to attend lectures and concerts. Now, members who haven't thought to buy tickets in advance must arrive 45 minutes early to assure a seat. Some aren't used to competing with the masses.

Bliss shares a complaint with many long-running members of the Four Arts. She grumbles about those lightweight rich folk, those new-money millionaires who have no social responsibility. In her garage, she hordes a pile of National Enquirermagazines with tales of lost riches. She has photocopies ready of her favorite story, the one claiming Mary Woolworth Donahue blew her fortune on booze and Palm Beach parties. Bliss shakes her head at the scandalous nature of it all. "God gives you money in many ways," she says firmly. "You can inherit it or earn it or just get lucky and find it, or some sort. But we are not, ever, to worship it."

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