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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton