Palm Beach pulse

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 9, 2004

Some might say that the season officially is over in Palm Beach. Try telling that to Lilly Pulitzer. The designer socialite lives year-round in her “jungle” on the island, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s not the lifestyle in Palm Beach that’s so great,” Pulitzer says. “It’s the life–the sun, the light, the sand, great weather all year round. There’s swimming, sailing, tennis, golf. It’s a paradise. The eyes of the whole world were focused on this little sand spit!”

This “sand spit,” which received its name for its many palm trees, stretches about 14 miles long and a half-mile at its widest. The off-peak season finds its population hovering around 10,000 and swelling to about 25,000, when the “snow birds” migrate to its luxury shops on Worth Avenue, professional golf courses, ritzy hotels and ladies-who-lunch soirees to fritter away the winter months.

While the rest of us may not have the bankroll to finance this kind of affluence-at-ease lifestyle 24/7, we can enjoy Palm Beach right now during its offseason and experience what gives the island its panache. Traveling there just became more affordable.
“No one would mistake us for the Rockefellers,” says Laura Lee of Evanston. “But my husband and I like to go to Palm Beach every year or so to get away from it all. It’s not as crowded as Orlando or as trendy as Miami. Would we rather go in the winter when it’s freezing here? Yes. But we get a lot more bang for the buck going when people aren’t flocking there. It’s just like visiting any place else–you can optimize your money by going when it’s not as popular.”

Already Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.palmbeachfl.com) is touting its “value season,” a promotion luring commoners with reduced-rate hotel packages and gift certificates at such places such as the Ritz-Carlton and the famed Breakers. You’d think someone as tony as Pulitzer would want to keep outsiders away from her beloved island. But flip through her book Essentially Lilly: A Guide to Colorful Entertaining (HarperCollins, $30) and you get the sense that she enjoys nothing more than welcoming people into her home, and her neighborhood.

That’s what co-author Jay Mulvaney discovered.

When he went to Pulitzer’s home for the first time, he says, he had no idea what to expect. Visions of sitting by the pool, sipping exotic cocktails surrounded by tanned bodies in their best floral attire might have popped into his head. Truth is, he was put to work, just like everyone else. He now knows an ”invitation” to Pulitzer’s really means come on over and be ready to spread sprigs of dill on cream cheese-and-salmon toasts.

Still, Pulitzer’s parties are legendary and that’s what prompted the book. Mulvaney writes that it’s not uncommon to find socialites sitting next to firefighters, and everyone is having a good time.

”That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight,” Pulitzer says.

She begins the book with this setting: “In the heart of Palm Beach–a town famous for its clipped lawns and manicured hedges–lies a tropical jungle of banyan trees and palms, or ferns, ginger and heliconcia. Ripe mangos fall to the ground with a soft thud while flowering gardenias glisten against their dark green leaves. Lush and inviting, this jungle is a world set apart from the grandeur and the gilt that surrounds it on all sides. It’s a peaceful oasis.”

As a travel destination, Palm Beach has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the best vacation spots. The Kennedys. The Trumps. Rock stars like Rod Stewart. They’re all about Palm Beach.

Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, who owns a home in Florida, says, “Palm Beach is gorgeous. I can go there and have a great time without feeling like I don’t belong.” Laughing, he adds, “Look at me. I don’t always look like I belong.”

Pulitzer, who lived in New York as a child, moved to Palm Beach as a young woman. Although she came from a privileged background, she wanted to work. Since her husband owned orange groves, she started selling fruit to the cooks and maids of her friends, building up a business that eventually moved from the back of her station wagon to a store on Via Mizner, a popular shopping destination.

But there was one stain on the business’ success: juice and pulp on her clothes.

So she bought some fabric with bold prints and asked a local dressmaker to make her a few shifts. Pulitzer reasoned that the bright and busy dresses would mask the stains.

Soon, many of Palm Beach’s elite were wearing the same mess-proof dresses, including Jacqueline Kennedy.

”Jackie wore one of my dresses — it was made from kitchen curtain material — and people went crazy,” she says in the book. ”They took off like zingo. Everybody loved them, and I went into the dress business.”

Just the Kennedy’s vacationing there–and Jackie’s warm weather fashion statements–helped to give Palm Beach its cachet.
“[It really] hit the spotlight when JFK turned his father’s house into a winter White House,” Mulvaney says. “The Kennedys spent Christmas, New Year’s and Easter in Palm Beach.

“Palm Beach has come back in a big way over the past few years. I think it’s the fantastic contrasts here–famous socialites looking chic in simple cotton shifts, tracking the sand from the beach across their marble floors. Everybody comes [here], boldface names from society, Hollywood, Wall Street. The Kennedys, Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh. Bryant Gumbel was married down here. Prince Charles played polo down here.”

Palm Beach hit prime time when it got some good play on NBC’s reality hit series “The Apprentice.” Trump treated two of his winners to a day at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago home, which he renovated as a tribute to his then-girlfriend Marla Maples. The estate was originally owned by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

If it doesn’t look like you’ll be heading to Palm Beach anytime soon, fret not. You can get a little bit of that sunny feeling right here at home.

“Lilly’s Palm Beach style is based on a couple of key ingredients: color, fun, and simplicity,” Mulvaney says. “You can create that vibe anywhere, from the woods of Maine to the beaches of South Hampton to the shores of Lake Michigan. Use a lot of hot color with table linens, flowers and china. Invite a bunch of friends but throw a couple of interesting strangers into the mix.”
And, most importantly, according to Pulitzer, “Give everyone a job to do once they walk in the door. It really helps to break the ice.”

Contributing: AP

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