2009-03-19 / Top News

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CITADELS OF NAPLES AND PALM BEACH: MANNERS AND MONEY

BY BILL CORNWELL

 
For generations, Palm Beach has reigned supreme in matters of high society. Its Mediterranean style villas, with their barrel-tiled roofs and sweeping ocean vistas, may rest at sea level or slightly above, but the view from their wind-swept balconies is decidedly Olympian.

Looking back, across Lake Worth and toward the far-less-exclusive municipality of West Palm, the inhabitants of Palm Beach see a Florida that is far poorer, far more ethnically diverse and far more ravaged by a howling recession than anything they know or, more tellingly, care to know.

Against this backdrop, the gentry of Palm Beach brook no apology for their ferocious addictions to conspicuous consumption, grand living and high times. Moreover, they feel no threat — none whatsoever — to their peculiar status from other well-known areas of the state. South Beach is hipper, Orlando more prized as a tourist destination, and the beaches of the Gulf Coast more idyllic, but Palm Beach is without peer in the realm of pure snob appeal.

PHOTO BY SLIM AARONS/GETTY IMAGES April 1959: Mary Sanford attending a charity ball in Palm Beach.
Those who view Palm Beach from afar serve as its enablers. There is a fascination that seemingly cannot be satiated. This obsession has fueled innumerable newspaper and magazine articles, scores of nonfiction books and the occasional roman a clef.

We who do not live there may find Palm Beach to be vapid and irrelevant, but it seems as if we cannot get enough of its scandals and ridiculous ways.

Carl Hiaasen, columnist, novelist and the Charles Dickens of South Florida, puts his finger on this phenomenon when he writes, "As any journalist can attest, just because a place is shallow, corrupt and infested with phonies doesn't mean it's dull."

Thus, to challenge Palm Beach's iconic status takes some doing, simply because of the mythic spot it occupies in our collective psyche. But over the past decade or so, a pretender has emerged.

Naples.

Yes, dowdy, little, sleepy Naples. Fueled by an influx of CEO-style wealth, which tumbles southward from the Midwest, Naples has carefully crafted a reputation as the state's other citadel of manners and money. Along with their substantial bank accounts, these new Neapolitans bring with them a taste for grand parties, chic fundraisers and lavish events that rivals the doings of dear old Palm Beach. Indeed, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, which concluded last month, has earned in nine years an international reputation for grandeur and fundraising that equals or surpasses any single event that Palm Beach hosts.

But with that said, the question remains: Is Naples truly a threat to Palm Beach's standing, not only in Florida but outside of the state as well? And do the two towns truly compete against one another?

In other words, is this the polo-and-caviar set's equivalent of the Red Sox vs. the Yankees?

"Let me tell you this," says Erin Belleville, "the people in Palm Beach don't give two hoots in hell about Naples."

Ms. Belleville, a much-decorated veteran of society wars in Palm Beach, Houston's River Oaks and most recently San Francisco's Pacific Heights, insists that in terms of rivalry, Palm Beach feels none — at least where Naples is concerned.

"It probably goes something like this," she explains. "Naples looks to Palm Beach for validation of its status, Palm Beach looks to Manhattan and Manhattan looks to God."

Ms. Belleville posits that "the hippie snobs of Napa" probably feel more threatened by Naples than the residents of Palm Beach because of the tremendous success of the Florida wine festival, which has diminished the standing of some notable wine events in California.

(For the record, Andrea Steffy, a spokeswoman for the Naples festival, says: "We don't feel we really compete with anyone. Our goal is to raise money to help the children of Collier County, and we applaud anyone who raises funds for other worthwhile causes.")

"What Naples has done with (the wine festival) has truly put them on the map," Ms. Belleville adds.

Many in Naples would concur that a rivalry with Palm Beach does not exist. Yet they maintain that is because their town doesn't wish to emulate its East Coast counterpart, no matter how much appearances may speak to the contrary.

"For years, people in Naples have been saying: 'We don't want to be like Miami, we don't want to be like Miami'," says Lois Bolin, a knowledgeable Naples historian and a tart-tongued commentator of the social scene. "Well, these people were horrified to wake up one day and realize, 'Oh, hell, we're not like Miami, we're like Palm Beach.' It's not necessarily something a lot of people really aspired to, however."

There are obvious differences between the two towns. A notable one is the way in which Naples clings to its propriety in a manner that would bewilder much of Palm Beach.

Lapses in behavior in Palm Beach tend to be herculean in nature and national in scope, such as the Pulitzer divorce trial (which made life in Palm Beach sound like the backstage goings-on of the Rolling Stones), the William Kennedy Smith rape trial (replete with tales of Ted Kennedy's pub crawling) and the Bernard Madoff scandal (he owns a home in Palm Beach and was an esteemed figure there). Even minor offenses in Palm Beach have a certain panache, as when Liberace had his purse snatched while he dined at one of Worth Avenue's toniest establishments.

The most titillating eruptions in Naples probably were the Steven Benson murder case in the 1980s, in which Mr. Benson, in a failed bid for inheritance money from his family's Leaf Tobacco Company fortune, placed a bomb in a car and killed his mother and his brother, and the David Mobley financial scam that bilked locals and others out of more than $100 million through a Ponzi scheme that foreshadowed, on a much smaller scale, the later finagling of Mr. Madoff.

Tellingly, it is a rare Naples scandal indeed that involves a name that is familiar outside of the immediate area.

"People who are happy in Palm Beach, probably wouldn't be happy in Naples, and people who love Naples probably would not love Palm Beach," says Doris Reynolds, who has lived in Naples for more than a half century and is acknowledged as the foremost expert on the city's history and lore.

Ms. Reynolds also wrote for Palm Beach

Life for a dozen years, so she has a sense of both places.

"What you have in Palm Beach is a coterie of old, old money," Ms. Reynolds says. "That's not so in Naples, where the money is not as old. And because of that, Naples is a very democratic place, less snobbish and less clannish than Palm Beach. But don't be misled. Money is still the great equalizer in Palm Beach and Naples."

Ms. Reynolds says that while Palm Beach has an almost insatiable desire to air its most guilty secrets, as evidenced by the best-selling tell-all books that are usually written by local authors and crammed full of anecdotes and salacious tales supplied by prominent residents, Naples prefers to keep its scandals in the cupboard.

On this subject, Ms. Reynolds is expert. She was approached a few years back by the publishing house Little, Brown to write an insider's account of Naples. As someone who knows where more than one skeleton is buried, Ms. Reynolds was the perfect choice to pen such a page-turner.

She respectfully declined the opportunity, no doubt to the substantial relief of many of her fellow Neapolitans.

"I had a title: 'Inside Paradise,'" she recalls. "But I decided against it. I didn't want to hurt people by telling everything I know. And, really, nothing has happened in Naples that hasn't happened anywhere else. As long as you've got men and women and lots of money, you're going to have things happen.

"I've been in Naples 56 years," she continues. "If I wrote everything I know, well, I'd probably get death threats and be run out of town. I do not want that. I love it here. I want to stay."

So, instead of a torrid expose of desire under the palms, Ms. Reynolds wrote a book that combined history and food and bore the title "When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried." To date, that book has prompted no death threats and no one-way tickets out of town for Ms. Reynolds.

Ms. Bolin echoes Ms. Reynolds' views that Naples chooses to be more subdued in how it displays its wealth. That fact, rather than the sheer amount of wealth itself, which may tilt in Naples' favor, is the greatest differentiator between the two places, she says.

"You have in Palm Beach what I would call 'loud' money," she says. "In Naples, the money is more 'quiet.' This is because Naples attracted a different sort of person.

"People who came to Naples originally were more likely to love nature, to be less pretentious and have less desire to display their wealth. Some of those who first began to come down here enjoyed driving ratty cars and wearing old clothes for three months out of the year. It was a different, more relaxed way of life than they had back home.

"Naples can still be seen as quaint and charming by someone who is from New York. That's not the case with Palm Beach."

Barbara and Ron Balser serve as trustees of the Naples Winter Wine Festival and divide their time among homes in Naples, the Buckhead section of Atlanta and Santa Fe.

"I've spent a good bit of time over the last 25 to 35 years in Palm Beach," says Mrs. Balser. "They do have some magnificent events there, some truly magnificent events. But I think we have a goodly number here as well.

"I don't think people from Palm Beach have a clue how wonderful Naples is, and that is all right. We're not in competition, in my mind. I think competition is more of a Palm Beach thing. I feel the people in Naples are a little friendlier. "We don't live in competition here. Part of that is because so many of the people in Naples come from the Midwest, while much of Palm Beach is from New York and the Northeast.

"New York is wonderful; I love it. But it can be a tough life, even if you have money. You've got to elbow your way around there. It is gentler, lower-key in Naples. We have a quiet way of going about our lives."

But if one craves the grand stage where wealth, status and appearance count for everything, or almost everything, then Palm Beach is the place to be.

Consider the marital experience of Ms. Bolin. For a time, she was wed to a godson of Aristotle Onassis, and they lived in Naples. He found the atmosphere to be soporific at best, suffocating at worst.

"He really thought of Naples as sort of a joke," Ms. Bolin says.

Eventually, her husband's disdain for Naples — along with other considerations, of course — led to the dissolution of their union. Ms. Bolin got on with her life in Naples as a consultant and writer.

Her former husband?

"He moved to Palm Beach," she says with a laugh.

Take it from Doris Reynolds, Naples isn't for everyone.

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