Breaking in a Social Climber’s Guide to Palm Beach Society

Jump on the ladder!

First, a few affectations to leave behind – wherever it is you came from.

– Illustrative or dramatic speech

– A Roman numeral after your name

– An invented name with “von” or a “de la”

– Swagger

“Most of these people don’t deliver and therefore last a few seasons and are history,” says James Sheeran, astute social observer and editor and publisher of Palm Beach Society. “They work and network for their personal aggrandizement, not for the cause. And discovery comes soon!”

Do you have to be filthy rich?

Publicist Carey O’Donnell says no. “Cash is not necessarily king when

someone with social aspirations turns their sights on Palm Beach. Grace and style is what matters inside the inner social circles, especially those with a social ‘legacy.’ If you’re rich as well, you’re in, baby! But remember, social climbing at this altitude is a real, live game of snakes and ladders. Choose your rungs carefully!”

Socialite in training

– Don’t rely on accomplishments in a previous life

– Have a pet. “In Palm Beach, a cute little poodle is dearer to a woman’s heart than her husband,” Sheeran says.

– Volunteer (See page 3)

– Be understated. Dress well, but be traditional. Decolletage will get looks from leering husbands but nothing more.

– Create a plan for marketing yourself with immediate and next- year objectives, but not beyond because the plethora of new players seeking the limelight changes quickly.

– Get a mentor. Someone older and wiser in the ways of Palm Beach, someone who knows what makes a difference, what really counts. Plan on total immersion for three to six months. The ultimate mentors: Nancy Sexauer Walsh, Jean Tailer, Helen Persson and Pauline Pitt.

– Write lots of personal notes to your mentor on Cartier or Tiffany stationery.

How the ladies who lunch work it

– Join a group that supports a cultural organization such as Miami City Ballet’s Artist Circle ($1,500 a year, includes priority seating, access to invitation-only events and a pair of pointe shoes signed by a member of the company) or Young Friends of the Kravis ($85 single, $120 couple).

– Start small. “Propose simple ways to raise money – dinner with an Astaire movie, readings, cooking classes, all in a private home for $10 a person with pizza or hamburgers – for a charity. No show biz, no overhead, little publicity.” – Sheeran.

– Volunteer: Work toward a position on a charity ball committee.

– Support causes that have a good product and need help. “Cancer, Heart, Dana Farber, Bascom Palmer are all great but a newcomer has to bench warm before gaining rank…Non-profs such as Center for Creative Education, Armory Art Center and School of the Arts teach young people the basics of living a good life and facilitating themselves as life rolls out.” – Sheeran


“Men provide the elbows for the Palm Beach women to hold onto,” Island observer Kit Reed, a contributor to Palm Beach Illustrated magazine, says.

– Palm Beach is a matriarchal society. Granted most of the money is made by the men, but the women decide how it’s spent.

– Dress well, at least as well as possible when you’re limited to a tuxedo, fuzzy shoes and no socks. (See page 5)

– Be able to dance. So many marriages have suffered because the husband would rather slouch in his chair.

Better yet, be a singer, a musician, an artist or a writer. “Capote and Tennessee Williams were not screaming rich, but they were able to write up their hosts and the hosts’ guests,” said writer Joella Cain. “Gigolos and hangers-on can’t do that.”

– Have a pilot’s license.

– Keep a stock of Cuban cigars.


“In Palm Beach the tuxedo is the most important suit,” said Palm Beach real estate wiz Bob Gordon, who heads the local chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs dining society. “You need at least two and preferably three, plus shirts with studs and cufflinks. Otherwise, a couple of blazers, an assortment of pants, sport jackets, suits and so forth.”

Gordon can get a tux from his a Hong Kong tailor for about $1,200. Expect to spend $3,500 and up at local stores for name brands.

TIP: “The best place for a man to buy is at a jewelry store with his wife. If he sees a nice pair of women’s earrings, they’ll change them over to a pair of cufflinks. Because she’s looking for bigger and better, she can’t say anything.”

Be a good host

Begin by hosting luncheons – plan on $40 a head with beverages, tax and tip.

Then, graduate to cocktail parties with food and drink for 100. You’ll need to add:

– Valet parking – $500. Your new friends can’t be expected to park and walk. This ballpark figure from Don Ryks at Fred Furtado Valet Service covers four valets for 4 1/2 hours.

– Photography – $150 per hour. If you make it this far, you’ll want a few for the scrapbook. Coverage for the average party at Lucien Capehart Photography is about $400.

– Flowers. At VM flowers, prices for party flowers range from $50 to $50,000 depending upon the host and the event.

Five hors d’oeuvre faux pas

– Boring food. Don’t make everyone suffer your low-carb diet.

– Big food. Tray-passed foods must be bite sized.

– Double dipping.

– Returns. If you touch it, keep it.

– Slow drinks. Make guests feel comfortable fast by putting a drink in their hand immediately.

– The White Apron Catering

Only in Palm Beach . . .

With so many parties, the best hosts find a way to stand out.

“One woman with incredible taste, 50-ish, did a tacky party just to get a laugh out of her friends,” VM flower’s Duane Murrell said. “For her birthday party, she painted the walls in her house gold and put all her guests’ names and ages on the cake. Some were amused, some weren’t. Waiters wore gold lame, she had plastic flowers for centerpieces. It was so much fun because it wasn’t serious. But those who walked in and said how beautiful it was, were never invited back.”

The full kit and caboodle

GOWNS: Sami Alpark’s salon is a hot stop for ready-to-wear gowns.

“We have dresses that range from $3,000 for something more simple and basic to $15,000 for something beaded, with special touches. But $5,000 is the median price point for gowns women wear to the charity balls,” Alpark says.

“For the chairwoman or someone on a committee, the price resistance lowers. It’s almost expected of them. So they may go to $7,000.

“We’re talking 20-30 functions a year, just here,” Alpark said. “They’ve gone fashion wild.”

JEWELRY: The most fashion conscious women prefer an unadorned neckline. But, for the jewelry case of the woman who wants it all, Graff Jewelers, who supplied Donald Trump’s “12-carat natural D flawless” diamond for fiancee Melania Knauss, has just the thing.

“Sometimes they just come in and buy a set of earrings for $200,000 – diamond waterfalls – let’s say $250,000 just to be safe,” manager Craig Miller said. “We have some that start at $100,000, a simple pair, that would be great for an evening. They also usually like a rather large ring – could be up to 40 carats, traditionally a large white diamond.”

“Between clothes and jewelry, they spend a million a year, easily.”

– Sami Alpark

– $3,000 and up for gowns

– $200,000 for diamond drop earrings for evening

– $700 and up for shoes (Manolo Blahniks, of course)

Alpark’s best dressed (listed alphabetically, of course)

Kathy Bleznak

Audrey Gruss

Darlene Jordan

Dorothy Kohl

Anka Palitz

Pauline Pitt

Hot property

You’ll need a home to rest and relax in between parties.

$75 million: Ron Perelman’s South Ocean estate

$36 million: The sea-to-lake estate of troubled Canadian publisher Conrad Black

$22.9 million: Nuestro Paradiso with 150 feet of oceanfront was featured in Sinatra’s Tony Rome

Less than $2.5 million: Not much left at that price, brokers say.

But don’t despair. Remember: Grace and style trump cash. Repeat this to yourself as you commute back and forth across the bridge.

TIP: If you’re not dining in your own personal seaside villa, the only restaurant with real waterfront dining in Palm Beach is at the Flagler Museum where lunch – Gilded Age style – is served daily in the Whitehall Cafe. Lemonade or tea, tea sandwiches and sweets including scones with cranberries are $18 including tax and gratuity.

Details of a fab life

– If you have jewelry, fine furs and couture and don’t have a safe room or hermetically sealed storage vault at home, rent vault space at a private bank.

– Whatever car you have, keep it up. Few things are worse than a valet parker calling a tow truck because your battery went dead.

– Keep fit. Get a gym or spa membership. All that dancing is tough.

– Watch your diet. Don’t stand at the hors d’oeuvres table and skewer shrimp for half an hour.

– If you’re invited to a reception, cocktail party or dinner always R.S.V.P. (you’d be surprised how many don’t), and always follow up with a thank-you note. E-mails and phone calls are out. A token gift for the hostess is always a nice gesture.

– Keep your plastic surgeries straight. Restoration is a plus; augmentation is not.

– You will not be allowed to enter the B&T (That’s Bath and Tennis Club, silly) if you have a pierced eyebrow.

When your blood isn’t blue (and other minor scandals)

– A fine family lineage is important, but not mandatory. If you fake it, you’ll be found out. Which brings us to another point by social observer and writer Kit Reed: “Respect the existing hierarchy, the old-guard social order, no matter how arcane it may seem.”

And again, remember: Grace and style trump cash.

– If you aren’t what you say you are, or you mess up in other ways, you can rehabilitate yourself in Palm Beach.

If your wife catches you in bed with another woman or another man, you can make a comeback, if you are repentant and pay penance.

However, there is a double standard. Wives who are caught by their husbands usually have more trouble. “Men can get away with more here than women because there are fewer of them,” Reed says.

The top old-guard BALLS

Bal des Arts

Feb. 5, Norton Museum of Art, $1,000-$25,000, 227-1250

Cancer Ball

Feb. 4, The Breakers, $500, 655-3449

Discovery Ball

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feb. 19, The Breakers, $650, 833- 2080

Heart Ball

Feb. 14, The Breakers, $750. This year is the 50th anniversary, 615-3888

International Red Cross Ball

Jan. 29, Mar-a-Lago Club, 650-9133

Preservation Foundation Gala

March 4, The Breakers. Sorry, this one is by invitation only.

Up-and-coming galas

Artists Ball

Jan. 8, Armory Art Center, $300, 832-1776

Guests wearing white serve as living canvases to be painted by artists

Diamond Constellation Ball for the South Florida Science Museum

Jan. 15, Mar-a-Lago Club, $550, 832-1988,

Ext. 236

Glitz 2004 for March of Dimes

Dec. 10, The Breakers, $300 adults,

$225 juniors, 684-0102

Florida Oxygen Ball

(Lung Association), March 13,

Mar-a-Lago Club, 659-7644

Night of Stars at The Kravis Center with Vanessa Williams

Dec. 16, $750, 651-4320

Sixty-five Roses Ball

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Jan. 8,

The Breakers, $500-up, 683-9965

Top charity events

– Andy Roddick Tennis Weekend featuring Anna Kournikova and other stars, Dec. 11-12, Polo Club in Boca Raton. Sold out. Maybe next year.

– Beautiful Table Settings: The Art of Fine Dining preview party,

March 3, Norton Museum of Art, $175, 832-5196

– Chris Evert/Bank of America Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic & Gala, Dec. 3-5, Delray Beach Tennis Center and Boca Raton Resort and Club (gala), $500 gala, $20-$900 tournament. 394-2400

– Global Society Ball for Orbis International, Feb. 28, Flagler Museum, $350-$1,000. (Dina Merrill Hartley, honoree, music by Peter Duchin Orchestra). By invitation.

– Historical Society of Palm Beach County Archival Evening honoring Lilly Pulitzer, Dec. 2, Club Colette, $500, By invitation.

– Holiday Bazaar for New Hope Charities, Dec. 2, Sailfish Club, $150 or $200 at the door. 366-5093

Top charity events

– National Horse Show including Jumping Under the Stars, Nov. 30- Dec. 5, for dinner/dance 753-3389

– Studio 54 Party for Equestrian AIDS Foundation, Dec. 3, Palm Beach Equestrian Center, $2,500-$4,000 for the week

– “Spain in the Age of Exploration” Gala Premier for the Norton Museum of Art, Jan. 31, at the Norton, $5,000-$25,000

– Outback/Sidelines Equestrian Triathlon for Equestrian AIDS Foundation, Jan. 8, Palm Beach Equestrian Club in Wellington, $175 VIP seating, $10 general admission. (Competitors from polo, show jumping and dressage compete in all three disciplines.) 818-4502

– Palm Beach International Film Festival Grand Awards Gala, April 16,

Boca Raton Resort and Club, $1,000. 362-0003

– Palm Beach Opera Evening of Splendor with Placido Domingo, Feb. 27, Kravis Center, $1250 gala, concert $50-$125, 833-7888

– Red Cross Polo Luncheon, March 6, International Polo Club,

$200, 833-7711

– Swingtime Golf Tennis for the Tim & Tom Gullikson Foundation, Dec. 11-12, Ibis Golf & Country Club, Tennis $35-$55, Gala $200 ($150 if also buying tennis tickets) 394-9190

– Zegna Par-Tee and Jay Robert Lauer Golf Tournament for Hospice of the Palm Beaches, Dec. 10-11, The Breakers, $350 Par-Tee, $850 golf, Matt Lauer hosts, 642-6888