Joseph Kennedy, father of the slain president, was a member, but he resigned in the early '60s to avoid scrutiny for belonging to a club known for excluding blacks and Jewish people. Renowned socialite C.Z. Guest once told a reporter that she and her husband were temporarily suspended from the club after they brought Jewish guests — Estee Lauder and her husband — to a party there in 1972. And Kleenex heir James Kimberly talked of how he and Sammy Davis Jr. once showed up together at the club only to have a doorman escort them back to the parking lot.
In 1959, wealthy Jewish people on the island founded their own club, the Palm Beach Country Club, and the social circles of the super-rich remained segregated for decades.
Today, Everglades members insist they're more welcoming to wealthy people of all stripes. Rush Limbaugh is a member, as is Palm Beach Town Council President David Rosow, who attends a Catholic church but had Russian Jewish grandparents. Still, because of the club's aura of secrecy, it's tough to know how far the Everglades has evolved. A list of the all-male board of directors is publicly available, but a full membership roster — which in 2008 included 953 people — is not.
To join the Everglades Club, a prospective member must be sponsored by two existing members. Then the nominee's name is posted inside so that if anyone objects, he can protest his or her membership by writing to the admissions committee. There's an application form that asks the prospective member's occupation and what other clubs he belongs to. On top of that, there are interviews and a trial membership period before a person can be admitted as a regular member.
One longtime club member, who did not want his name printed, says that "there are a lot" of Jewish members but that they don't tout their religious affiliation. He says it's akin to U.S. military policy toward homosexual soldiers: Don't ask, don't tell.
"As far as the majority of the members are concerned, it's not an issue," he says.
The member says he doesn't recall any black people expressing interest in joining. (The island's population is only 2.4 percent black, according to U.S. Census data from 2000.) But if they ever did, "I would hope they'd be treated like anybody else," he says.
William Pannill, president of the Everglades Club, confirmed that no black person has ever been put up for membership. But he says he's brought black guests to the club. "In the last 16 to 17 years I've been involved, there hasn't been one incident of any Jewish guest or black guest being turned away from the club," Pannill says. "We have nothing against blacks; we have nothing against Jews."
Daily life on the club's campus, however, doesn't conjure visions of a charming melting pot. One former employee, who left the club this year, says the only time he saw a black person on the golf course was during the one day a year when employees were allowed to play. Another former employee explains that black workers are given jobs that do not require them to interact much with members, such as trimming trees.
Racial divisions are reinforced by the housing arrangements. During the tourist season, the club has 300 employees on its payroll, and about half of them live in free housing across Worth Avenue from the main campus. The dorms, by many accounts, are cramped and hot, with no central air conditioning. Communal bathrooms serve 30 or 40 people.
Employees are divided into the three buildings according to their job assignments, club human resources director Tami Hubbard explained in a court deposition. Their jobs also tend to divide them along racial and ethnic lines.
During Melissa's tenure at the club, chefs such as she were housed in one dorm. Waiters and waitresses, including a sizable population of young Romanian servers, lived in another building. A third building was occupied by all men — dishwashers, busboys, and valets — most of whom were Latino.
This division of labor isn't particularly strange for the restaurant business, but the hierarchy did have some peculiar manifestations at the Everglades Club. Melissa came from the world of private clubs and pedigreed training. She earned an associate's degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University and, after working as a pantry chef (responsible for cold dishes like salads) at the tony Fishers Island Club in New York, was recommended for a job at the Everglades. Meanwhile, Cardona was an undocumented immigrant whose job application didn't mention previous education or employment.