My Palm Beach Faux Pas

My Palm Beach Faux Pas:
Old Money Vs New Money
Lois Whitman-Hess

I was recently told that I made a faux pas in Palm Beach that I shouldn’t repeat again. I love the person who tried to correct me, but I am too old, and too satisfied with who I am, to change my ways.

This is what happened. I was at a Palm Beach party a few weeks ago and one of the other female guests was staring at me as if she wanted to have a conversation. Instead of standing there awkwardly, I said, “Hello I’m Lois Whitman-Hess, how do you know our host and what do you do?” She was around my age so I thought she might be retired but would have plenty to say. She could just give me a one liner about her career so we could strike up a conversation. Instead, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I do nothing.”

I have to admit that most people would have backed off and tiptoed away in embarrassment. Not me. I didn’t let men order me around in business, so I sure wasn’t going to let this uptight senior get the better of me. I said, “You did nothing? Surely you had to do something.” She cleared her throat, paused to think, and then blurted out, “I raised my children.”

I wasn’t finished. I never am. “I’m sure you worked before having children.” She stepped back in an attempt to run away but she snapped back, “I was a writer for Seventeen Magazine.”

I was flabbergasted. Standing before me was someone I would have loved to know better so we could reminisce about our journalism days. I was a reporter for WWD and HFD for eight years in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I read every issue of Seventeen Magazine as a young girl. I wanted to know so much more. I told her how thrilled I was to meet someone who wrote for a leading magazine during my reporting heyday. She wasn’t interested. She politely ended the conversation and walked away.

I was baffled by this encounter, so I mentioned it to the Palm Beach woman who hosted the party a few days later when we spoke on the phone. Her response was like she found out I was picking my nose in the middle of her party. “You don’t ask people what they did for a living in Palm Beach. It’s rude and classless.” I didn’t answer her because after 55 years of successfully navigating myself in the business world, I wasn’t going to listen to someone telling me right from wrong. I Iet it go.

A few weeks later I read a chapter in Laurence Leamer’s book, entitled, Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace about the protocol at parties in Palm Beach. Apparently, Donald Trump and I have bad etiquette in common.

I will let Laurence Leamer’s book explain. “After one of the dinner parties at Mar-a-Lago, when the waiters were serving coffee, Trump stood up at the head of the table. ‘I’d like to go around the table,’ he said, sweeping the room with his hand, ‘and have everyone get up and say a little about themselves, where they are from and what they do.’One of the grandes dames rose slowly and stood quietly as she looked across the table. ‘I live in Palm Beach,’ she said finally. ‘And I do nothing.’ With that she sat down while the other guests contemplated her words. Another of the ladies, copying the first speaker’s words, rose and said, ‘I live in Palm Beach. And I do nothing.’

Trump had merely been trying to enliven the island’s tired social rituals, but he discovered that most of these people did little. That was the point. They didn’t have to do anything. They stayed among their kind. They never went places where someone would ask anything so impertinent and expect one to stand up and answer.

Another of the dinner guests, Richard Cowell, observed these proceedings with astonishment. Born in 1927, Cowell had lived in one of the first fifty houses on the island and gone to the Palm Beach Day School. To him, Mar-a-Lago was not a legendary estate but the landed expanse that he and Dina Merrill, the actress and Mrs. Post’s daughter, had roamed as children. Cowell was the second generation of his family to belong to the Everglades and the Bath and Tennis, and he saw himself as the keeper of certain aristocratic traditions.

Cowell watched that evening at Mar-a-Lago with bemused fascination as Trump belly-flopped in front of the social arbiters of the island. ‘All of the top people were there, the peak of the Bath and Tennis and the Everglades,’ Cowell said three decades later, his memory vivid. ‘Everybody was laughing at him. That was his first major blunder with that group.’ The guests left right after coffee, and by the next morning the story of Trump’s behavior was all over the island.

“Trump paid no attention to the naysayers. He would rise to the heights of Palm Beach life, and Mar-a-Lago would be the splendid device that would take him there.”

The moral of the story. Marry rich and do nothing, or live in Miami, a wonderful melting pot, where everyone wants to know who you are.

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