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The Old Guard
Colby Katz

The Old Guard

At the head of a 20-foot table, the squat silver urn looks as if it should be under glass. It has been so meticulously polished that not a spot of tarnish can be found among the ornate ribbons and miniature flowers decorating its edges. A water spout emerging from its center points like an arthritic finger at the woman sitting before it, as if accusing her of a social blunder. "I have no idea what I'm doing, I have to admit," Talbott Maxey says in the urn's direction.

It's Maxey's first time serving tea, and soon she'll be judged by perhaps the Western Hemisphere's most fastidious afternoon tea drinkers, the exorbitantly wealthy members of Palm Beach's Society of the Four Arts. Every year, the group holds a tea party to celebrate the opening of the winter season. Eight women serve tea to dozens of other members in an art gallery on the club's ten-acre grounds on Royal Palm Way. To prepare Maxey, a team of no fewer than three servants, dressed in white maid outfits that include comfy sneakers, surround her and shower her with advice.

"You pour the tea from here," one of the women says in a slow, instructive voice, her fingers leaving prints on a silver kettle next to the urn.

"OK," Maxey nods with understanding.

"Then you ask how strong they want it," another woman in white interjects. "Add water from the urn if they want it weaker."

"All right."

"Then you offer them cream and sugar and lemon," the woman who began the lesson finishes, pointing finally to a plate of lemon slivers arranged in a perfect spiral.

"Sounds simple," Maxey says, trying to convince herself she's got it. She sits with her knees together and back straight at the head of the richly stained oak table. Just a few feet away is another, identical table. Women sit at the ends of each one like fighting couples who station themselves as far from each other as possible. The four urns of boiling water glow so brightly under the gallery lights that it's hard to make out detail.

At 4 p.m., when the tea starts, a crowd of elderly women surrounds Maxey, all holding empty porcelain teacups. She stands out not only because she's likely one of the few women who drives her own kids to school or because she lives in West Palm Beach rather than on the island or because her husband works for a living. What's strikingly different about her is that she's the only one who looks to be less than 40 years old (at least, without a good plastic surgeon to thank). In fact, the average age of the dozen or so women gathered around her is probably twice Maxey's 35 years. And many of the women can tell stories of Palm Beach's heyday a half-century ago.

But those old-guard Palm Beachers, who made the town's name an adjective synonymous with wealthy, who can boast of royal titles or inherited fortunes, who have never worked a full day in their lives, are fading like a sunset over the Intracoastal. And as they go, they're slowly taking some of the stuffiness that has always defined Palm Beach, a town commonly referred to as the world's richest society, an island where four of every five residents have a net worth of at least $2.8 million, and where five billionaires dwell.

At the Four Arts, which has been Palm Beach's toughest ticket for nearly eight decades, new leadership and members like Maxey have helped set in motion changes to open the private group to outsiders. It's a gradual process, one that old-timers are somewhat reluctant to complete. There are, for instance, still no black or Hispanic members. But slowly, the club has allowed the public into its events. And its leaders want outsiders to know that it has become, perhaps like the island of Palm Beach itself, a little more friendly to families who make less than seven-figure salaries.

An hour into the Four Arts tea party in November, Helen Cluett steps onto the oak floor of the art gallery and stops below the arched entranceway. "Well, hello there," she says to a passing woman in a wide-brimmed hat, gesturing gracefully by putting out her hand, as if showing a ring on her finger. Cluett, a spry 82-year-old, inspects the people mulling around paintings and photos of nude bodies and Florida landscapes.

Conversations among the crowds of people around her, all carrying teacups or napkins filled with miniature sandwiches, create a smooth background of murmur. Cluett stands there for several minutes with her hands empty and mouth still, her ice-blue eyes scanning the faces, her silvery hair curled flawlessly at the neckline, her nails perfect and pink. Finally, she takes a step inside.

Cluett is neither on the Four Arts board of governors nor a member of a committee overseeing a project. But many club members mention her as one of those Palm Beachers who makes things happen. It was islanders like Cluett who, back in 1924, started the organization that would become the Society of the Four Arts.

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."

"My Jimmy says the same thing," Dean responds.

"So I never find myself in trouble, I just wear a tie to everything," Duggan says, touching the Windsor knot with the fingertips of his right hand.

It's not like Duggan to follow tradition. As Four Arts president, he has led the effort to begin cracking open the closed organization -- well, at least a little.

After taking the $183,000-a-year job two years ago, the blond and handsome Duggan quickly developed, in good corporate-America style, a planning committee to set long-range goals. Like Duggan, the group reports to the 55-member board of governors. Duggan's planning committee did away with old-style planning sessions that were nothing more than dinner parties held randomly at members' homes.

Duggan also started a successful program called Campus on the Lake that brings in nationally known speakers. The $25 tickets to the lectures, which in 2003 will include author Frank McCourt and former first lady Barbara Bush, are open to the public as long as members don't take all the seats. Outsiders can also attend Four Arts-sponsored concerts, which this year will include the Florida Philharmonic and the Brazilian Guitar Quartet. Outsiders can even buy $2 tickets to attend the tea parties, although this fact is not advertised. Balls, which are held only every two years, are still for members only and likely always will be, thank you very much.

Most of these events were first opened to the public a decade or two ago, Cluett recalls, although no one's sure of the date or if there was any argument over the practice. But Duggan has actively tried to get the public to attend. He has created a website and issues regular press releases for events. He says he hopes talking with New Times will help attract young people.

Duggan took this job after an illustrious Washington career that began in 1964 as a Washington Post reporter, continued as a presidential speechwriter, and ended as president of PBS for six years, starting in 1993. The walls of his office are testaments to his accomplishments and are adorned with photos of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, all standing with Duggan -- who sports various hairstyles, from fashionably long to cool and short.

A few minutes talking with Duggan explains how he advanced. He carries himself with a James Bond-like confidence and the hospitable air of a man who grew up among the gentry of Manning, South Carolina. Among Four Arts members, he's famous for stories that pack the perfect punch line. "I've got many of them," he says coyly. "If we had all the time in the world, I'd tell you all of them. Perhaps one day over a drink."

He came to Palm Beach, he says, for the chance to educate people who have the means, if they so choose, to pursue a life of learning. "This isn't just a gated community with a golf course," Duggan says of his new island home, an apartment on the Four Arts grounds provided to him as part of his job. "This is a full community, and we add a sort of cosmopolitan feel to a small town."

Walk out of the Four Arts art gallery, through the main building with its vases under glass, past the garden with its koi ponds, and into the reading room of the library and you'll find a bizarre mix of modern and old worlds. In this bleached-wood-paneled, rectangular room, two rows of massive bookshelves attached to metal tracks run along the floor. Push the buttons on their sides and the shelves roll slowly left or right to create aisles, as if a robot were moving them for you.

It may not sound fancy to an average citizen of the 21st Century, but the high-tech storage, which increases the capacity of the room by removing aisles, is part of a library that has no computerized book index. Instead, members find volumes they desire by using a throwback from the last century: the Dewey Decimal System. Or, more likely, they ask someone to fetch them a book. "Most of our readers don't know how to use the computer," Hope Annan, the Four Arts member in charge of the library committee, says in a carefully articulated voice much like Audrey Hepburn's in Breakfast at Tiffany's. "Instead, we [members] walk up to the desk, and the woman there says, 'Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith, here is the book you are looking for.'"

Annan, who is 70 years old, is something like the island's Dick Clark. Four decades of photos kept at the Palm Beach Historical Society, which keeps a three-volume dossier on the group, show her opening new sections of the Four Arts library or standing proudly in the sculpture garden -- looking not much different than she does today. Her black hair is still curled into her neck in Mary Tyler Moore fashion, just as it was in the 1950s. A few wrinkles have emerged at the corners of her eyes, but her figure still has an hourglass shape.

It would seem she hasn't had much to stress about. Her first husband, Arthur Atwater Kent, made millions from a radio-manufacturing business he began in 1895 (yes, that's the 19th Century). Her current spouse, John, does something that has to do with investing... or something, she says. "It's always one of those difficult questions," she says. "I don't know what he does."

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."

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."

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."

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 Enquirer magazines 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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