It’s hot and muggy as I stroll along Worth Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of Palm Beach, Florida, or to be historically correct; Rodeo Drive is the Worth Avenue of Beverly Hills, California. This glitzy Avenue is well worth (no pun intended) a visit for nonprofits and those of us that appreciate the work of philanthropy.
This is the place of giants; men and women who epitomized charity in their lifetime and in perpetuity through their ongoing foundations.
Les Standiford, just published another book on this city: “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” which followed his 2002 book, “Last Train to Paradise”. His train book recounts the history of Henry Flagler, the man who developed and transformed Florida from a great swamp to the second largest growing state by population (Texas is #1).
After the Civil War, Flagler co-founded the Standard Oil Company in Ohio with the richest man in America at the time; John D, Rockefeller.
Flagler traveled to Florida at the advice of his doctor and is credited with conceiving Palm Beach and Miami Beach. Henry Flagler then built luxury European style hotels to attract northern tourists, including The Breakers, which retains its status today, as the legendary ocean front resort in Palm Beach. He followed up on his vision by building a railroad all the way to Key West, Florida, to transport the tourists to his resorts.
The rest is history, except, to clarify that modern Florida was honestly made possible by Flagler and another entrepreneur; the man who invented air conditioning, Willis Carrier.
This new book gets interesting after the 83 year old, Flagler falls down the marble stairs of his luxurious Palm Beach mansion, and dies.
The story pivots to Marjorie Merriweather Post, of Post Cereal fame who began the construction of Mar-a-Lago in 1924. She was married at the time to E.F.Hutton, the well known and successful financial guru. The complex sits on 17 acres and has 126 rooms, 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms and three bomb shelters. In the 1960’s, Post attempted to bequeath the Mediterranean style mansion to the state of Florida as an international gathering place for seminars, but the state concluded it was too expensive to maintain.
Then Post tried to give it to the Federal Government saying it could be the winter White House. She even invited First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson for a site inspection to no avail. In 1973, Post finally gave it to the National Park Service before her death at age 86. It still was too expensive to maintain so the Park Service by an Act of Congress returned it to the Post Foundation in December 1980.
Sometimes a foundation can’t even give things away, and Donald Trump ended up saving it from demolition and purchased it for a reported $8.5 million.
Ironically, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s original dream of turning Mar-a-Lago into a southern White House became a reality, since today it actually does function as a part time Presidential residence. The prime minister of Japan and the president of China among others held official meetings at this winter White House.
For some unknown reason, the mansions on the island all have their own names, and are all unique architectural masterpieces. The architect extraordinaire and 1920’s society bon -vivant responsible for this was Addison Mizner. He is credited with transforming Palm Beach into the American Riviera.
The amazing architecture is a varied and stunning mixture of Spanish red-tile roofs, Italian towers, Moorish-Gothic and the ever present Mediterranean Revival. Some residences include swimming pools positioned to catch the morning sun and second pools to catch the afternoon sun.
Interesting to me, Mizner had a pet squirrel monkey, named Johnny Brown, that accompanied him to all his Gilded Age high society events. He and his monkey were invited to the The Scopes (Monkey) Trial in July 1925. This was the show trial that challenged the teaching of evolution in public schools. Johnny Brown was known as “the human monkey” and as a lark he also ran for mayor of Palm Beach. He was buried in the Pizza Al Fresco courtyard, one of many landscaped and decorated courtyards that are hidden along Worth Avenue. If you can find this famous monkey’s headstone between the ferns you can sit and relax while enjoying a slice of pizza outdoors in it’s beautiful surroundings.
About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU, a wine seller, caterer and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go to travel person, father, grandfather and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart healthy nutrition, exercise and travel.