It has been 115 years since railroad baron Henry Flagler pushed track down the eastern shore of Florida and opened up the island between Lake Worth and the Atlantic known as Palm Beach. Within a generation the destination had become the Disneyland of the unoccupied rich.
In 1997, writing about Ted Kennedy's 1991 mishaps there, I characterized the resort this way: "Palm Beach at night has maintained its reputation through much of the century — a string of watering holes where exhausted money meets avid, heartless climbers." Cordie May, a Mellon heir, had gone there after her combative divorce and once recalled for me the amenities of "a place you went if you were rich enough and all used up."
Now, as unflinching as Dante, the irrepressible Laurence Leamer — The Kennedy Women, Fantastic! (about Arnold Schwarzenegger) — has turned his attention to the society in which he luxuriates most winters. Social lepidopterist that he is, in the 300-plus pages of Madness Under the Royal Palms Leamer pins out that gaudy, conflicted community like cornered butterflies — fluttering, hectic and doomed.
Leamer's book is constructed as a sort of roundelay. Several couples, a cross-section of the resort's ripe denizens, are introduced successively, then reappear throughout the pages as their driven lives move toward culmination, not ordinarily happy. Against these vivid characterizations the dynamics of the community itself — unappeasable social climbing, discrimination without apology — contort every outcome. The recently exposed Bernard Madoff sinkhole demonstrates how uncontrollable these consequences can become.
Leamer's initial couple is Barbara Wainscott and David Berger. A divorcee who once served as Pat Nixon's social secretary, Barbara comes from DAR stock and projects, as the book opens, magisterial social control as she oversees a dinner dance in honor of "His Royal Highness, the Prince Edward," second in line for the British throne.
David Berger, her "longtime lover" and companion at Elephant Walk, their Regency estate, is 84 years old, a small-town Jewish lawyer from Pennsylvania who amassed $300 million in winning class-action lawsuits. Whatever Barbara requires to advance in Palm Beach society, up to and including a genteel subsidy for the Prince, Berger — grumbling sometimes — provides.
These two quickly exemplify the fundamental division around the island among the fading WASP gentry, their trust funds depleted and layer after layer of newly rich Jews. The Jews are still not welcome inside the hallowed Everglades and Bath and Tennis clubs, and among themselves spend decades on waiting lists to get into the picky old Palm Beach Country Club, where Joe Kennedy was once the only Gentile member.
Apart from this time-honored bias, traditional hesitations rarely apply. "For a presentable heterosexual man looking for a rich widow, or a bisexual man capable of occasionally performing, the pickings in Palm Beach are rich indeed," Leamer acknowledges early. A dedicated tennis player, Leamer has over the years struck up friendships at the lush Breakers tennis center with the likes of Eric Purcell, aging roustabout offspring of Belgian film actor and sex bomb Monique van Vooren, and his younger businessman pal Sonny Peixoto. Their lives of working the big charitable events on the cheap, salted up with barfly sex, came to an abrupt end when Sonny grew obsessed with a party girl named Amity; this sequence deserves screenplay treatment of itself.
Better-known personalities — Donald Trump, Estée Lauder, Stanley Rumbough — wander in and out of this enthralling narrative. But the real stars are the workaday multimillionaire citizens of Palm Beach, whose foibles and profoundly troubled dreams and random homicidal breakouts have finally produced their Boswell.
Burton Hersh's most recent book is "Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover that Transformed America."