Love and Antisemitism in Palm Beach, Florida

As a newlywed, Barbara Amiel desperately wanted to fit in with Conrad Black’s Palm Beach crowd. The only problem? His country club didn’t admit Jews

A photograph of Barbara Amiel and her husband, Conrad Black, in formal attire. The background shows a couple of palm trees.
The Walrus/Unsplash/Wikimedia Commons

For about forever, I had heard Palm Beach referred to as a glittering mecca, the ne plus ultra of luxury. Just filled with beautiful people who never had bad hair days, who wore gem-encrusted kirby grips, did poolside stuff in gorgeous caftans, and went to their own tennis courts behind their own pool houses, swinging racquets in zippered covers with shoulder straps—unlike mine, which must have had a cover once. At game’s end, they would jump casually over the net—and have you ever tried that? In my view, it’s castration time.

My first real trip to Palm Beach, as a potential resident, was in 1991, before Conrad Black and I got married. He took me to a big dinner in a very big house on South Ocean Drive that had a ballroom, and then he disappeared, leaving me alone to mingle with the host, hostess, and guests, a large number of whom were drunk. The place was alight with huge diamonds and shimmering gowns, and the people wearing them were over-tanned, over-made-up, and gesticulating with that sort of sway that drunks often have. Suddenly I felt like I was in the Palm Beach version of a Bruegel the Elder painting, but I wasn’t sure whether it was The Triumph of Death or The Fight between Carnival and Lent. After about forty-five minutes of “No, thank you, I don’t drink” and “She doesn’t drink?? Who brought her? What’s she doing here?” I fled to a back marquee, where I discovered Conrad at a table with his wine glass and a long-haired blonde (of course—although, to be bitchy, not an entirely natural blonde), pretty and of indeterminate age. She was weighed down with a mixture of inexpensive beads and the freakily huge real stuff. Just the two of them, head to head. I didn’t take kindly to it.

When it came time to leave and the blonde came up to say goodbye, Conrad introduced me to Kate Ford, the late Henry Ford II’s widow. I was unenthused. I clammed up when we all said our goodbyes, with that tight mean little mouth I can get, and Kate said: “Honey, you won’t get him that way.” In fact, she was as decent as they come and turned out to be one of the nicest people in Palm Beach.

About four months later, we got married, and that winter, we headed once more for PB. “Don’t freeze,” said Conrad as we were being driven along US Route 1 and the signs began to appear. “You’re going to really like Palm Beach.” This was one of the few mistakes about me he made.

Our first engagement as a married couple was a party at a long-standing friend’s house. “You’ll see,” Conrad said. “This will be different. The hostess of that other party was a well-known alcoholic with problems, and they were rude to you. Sara and Norman are dying to meet you.”

He was correct. It was different.

The evening began with “drinks in the loggia,” a destination that had been absent from my decorating experience but one I was to come to know well. “Come on in,” said Sara pleasantly. I liked her right away. The place was crowded. “I’ll be just fine here,” I told Conrad. “Go mingle.” I felt perfectly at home in spite of the slightly unfamiliar way the men dressed. To be honest, I sometimes thought that genuine Palm Beachers were a mutant tribe of humans that must have come out of the union of a golfer and a Belisha beacon. Azure-blue Kiton jackets with black-striped Fedeli shirts and cotton piqué trousers. Engineer-striped polo shirts with bright yellow trousers purchased from the aptly named Trillion shop on Worth Avenue.

Everyone had a glass in their hand and seemed a little excited. “You understand,” said the tall red-trousered man with harmonizing bright reddish face, who was the very first guest I encountered, “we simply can’t let the Jews into Palm Beach.”

I swear. This was the opening gambit. Honestly, you cannot make this stuff up. Shoo, shoo, I could hear Palm Beach say to me.

The unlikely topic had originated with the word, now seething around the party, that someone of Hebraic origin was not just developing something big in West Palm Beach but, far worse, was making a bid for an authentic Palm Beach home. And not just any home but one designed by the town’s toniest architect, Addison Mizner, in the estate section of Palm Beach proper instead of the condos past Sloan’s Curve, an area considered appropriate for such people and adorably known as the Gaza Strip. There were Jews in some of the big homes of Palm Beach proper, but each new arrival appeared, worryingly, to signal a mass influx.

“Why can’t you let them in?” I asked, genuinely curious and automatically excluding my origins from the question lest the man become embarrassed—though I needn’t have worried, as the genus Palm Beacher is not handicapped by embarrassment over matters of that sort. Anyway, I thought, his fears are needless. What members of my tribe would want to wear yellow or red trousers in loggias? I turned out to be very wrong on this point.

“They’d turn the place into Miami,” he replied. “Big buildings, noisy tourists, everything.” I gave him my nodding sympathetic look. “You don’t have anything to drink,” he said.

“No, I’m in recovery.” Which I was. I’ve led a sheltered life, I thought.

About three nights later, I was at a Palm Beach home for a dinner and dance. I was well into my practised version of the fixed-grin-and-tilted-head approach while I foxtrotted, although my animation never approached the frothiness of another newcomer, New Jersey–born Lynn Forester, later Stein, now Lady de Rothschild courtesy of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. When talking, Lynn uses an extended giggle, irrespective of subject matter, in place of any comma or punctuation mark. My dancing partner, Norman Murphy, and his wife had taken us to lunch the day before, at the Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club, which, it was emphasized to me as we arrived, was very exclusive. As we danced, I realized Norman was well into the Scotch-and-soda or gin-and-tonic part of the evening, and although it had not handicapped his skills on the dance floor, his thought processes appeared loosened.

“I got a letter about you,” he said.

“A letter?”

“Yes. They reminded me that my membership would be endangered by bringing unsuitable people into the club. The B and T, you know.” He did a lovely full turn, dipping slightly, only to find my shoe was on his foot. Not deliberately but with surprise.

“Unsuitable?”

“They don’t have Jewish memberships,” he said.

“But I don’t want to join.”

“They prefer not to have you inside the club.”

As we drove home, Conrad could see trouble looming. I could barely speak. “Did you know?”

“I don’t believe it anyway. He was just trying to show off.”

“Don’t believe what?”

“That they actually sent him a letter. Perhaps they telephoned. But Palm Beach is much more than that.”

“How much more? Are you a member of the B and T?”

“No, I am not. I belong to the Everglades Club.” I knew the Everglades Club. It was housed in a formidable building, also designed by Palm Beach god Mizner, at the end of Worth Avenue, with a huge parking lot, tennis courts, and an immense expanse of lawn and golf carts.

“Well, that’s a relief at least. I assume I can go to lunch there?”

“I’ll check into it. If you can’t, we will fight that.”

My newly cultivated patina of the well-mannered lady buying playful little place-card holders at Mary Mahoney’s on Worth Avenue vanished with a blink. “Check into it? Have you been taking your children and former wife into a club that might, and probably does, in the splendid Palm Beach manner, bar Jews and never tolerate Blacks?” Knowing Conrad’s total lack of prejudice when it came to colour, creed, or diet, I thought I was on a winning wicket. I did not yet know his aunt and uncle were B and T members. Later that season, they would visit us after a game of tennis, their racquets neatly zipped up.

“Why did you leave?” asked Conrad, puzzled at my disappearance as his elderly relatives sipped cool drinks.

“I didn’t want to contaminate them.”

His reply was perfectly reasonable from his point of view: “They are old people who would be horrified to know how you felt. Most people don’t have a preoccupation with Jews like you.” This was in fact a rational answer, but then most people aren’t Jews. Conrad didn’t seem to think anything was amiss. If his club was prejudiced, he would change it. “There’s a very nice Jewish golf and tennis club,” he said. “I go there often. And there’s the Beach Club. Anyone can join it. Furthermore, there’s a synagogue on North County Road. A very large building.”

“But every one of your friends that I have been introduced to so far is a member of the Everglades and the B and T. Why on earth would I want to mix with them?”

Here I was, married to this wonderful man who had only one problem: the town in which he lived for a few months each year had clubs to which he belonged that would not admit his wife. Well, you do feel a bit peculiar, rather like the cow in a field of zebras. I wondered vaguely how the Bath and Tennis Club’s membership committee knew of my religion. It’s true I bash on about it here, but not there. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to at least behave like a Christian. I was dressed in the most gentile clothing I had, having quickly realized this was the way to go. My mother’s words to me when I was about six years old came back: “One day,” she said, “if you marry a non-Jew, he will call you names.” This was odd, given that my mother became a non-Jew herself a few years later and married a gentile, but it’s the thought that counts.

I turned over the problem of the Everglades Club in my mind. Secretly I wouldn’t mind being a member: the parking lot was very handy to Worth Avenue, and the snob factor of membership, with the little insignia on the car windshield, quite pleasurable. I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone there. I could even be an exquisitely dressed thorn in their side. Perhaps the co-founder of the Everglades, Paris Singer, son of the sewing-machine inventor, had got fed up with assumptions that he was Jewish—the sewing machine, after all, being closely connected with the schmutter business, along with an ambiguous name like Singer—and ended speculation by creating an exclusive club that would confirm his God-fearing antecedence as an antisemite. Singer’s father had his own question mark, with suggestions, always denied, that he was of Hungarian Jewish origin—or somewhere “like that.” Frankly, in my view, you don’t name a male child Paris unless you are Jews from Bucharest. Still, I couldn’t quite put aside the larger picture. “I do not wish to join your Everglades Club,” I told the beloved. “You can have your clubs.”

Matters escalated when it was confirmed that not only could I not become a member but, at the Everglades, a popular destination for dinners and parties, Conrad could not take me in even as his guest. Nor could I go there for a party. “You can take a prostitute off the street as a guest,” I said, “if she is dressed appropriately—no T-shirts in the restaurant and no track pants on the premises—but you can’t take your wife there because she is Jewish. This is a blood libel.”

Conrad went on a rampage. He rounded up heavy-hitting seconders to nominate me for the club, among them former US Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Alexander Haig, Paul Desmarais, Brian Mulroney, Page Lee Hufty (a scion of Standard Oil), and a raft of other notables.

“Please,” I suggested, “let’s not do this. I don’t want to be a member.”

“This is important,” said Conrad.

“To you, but not me,” I replied.

But, oh hell. If your husband is gung-ho on it—and Conrad was now in his determined mode—there was nothing to do but graze the Lilly Pulitzer florals. On the appointed day for my interview, I arrived with Conrad at the Everglades and was shown into a small room where several people sat facing me. My hair was blown dry neatly by my fashionable low-profile PB hairdresser, George Elliott, but I couldn’t do the daytime Palm Beach thing of pulling it off the face with a headband or tying it at the back of my neck. My head is the wrong shape and my hair not thick enough. I had not purchased a Lilly outfit for the interview. This was an investment I was not prepared to make, and anyway I would have looked faintly ludicrous in her prints.

The interview was a complete letdown. Everyone was extremely polite and listened courteously as I explained I really didn’t want to join the club or impose myself on it, only I would like to occasionally have lunch or dinner with my member husband. “Really, I quite understand your right to choose your members and have no wish to interfere with that.”

There had been some previous negotiating, of which I was dimly aware, that involved everyone accepting that I was Jewish but quietly letting me pass.

“What would that make me?” I had asked Conrad. “Something ethnically stateless? Or just not what I am?”

“They will accept you as my openly Jewish wife or I will resign from the club,” said Conrad. “Don’t shirk this. We had to do it at the Toronto Club for Irving Gerstein.”

“Do what?”

Turns out Conrad had spearheaded a movement to admit the first Jewish member to that exclusive club. “Myself, Fred Eaton, and Galen Weston,” he said. “We told the committee we would resign if Irving was not admitted, as there could be no other reason than race and religion.” (I remembered this when Gerstein eagerly joined in the movement to chuck Conrad out of the club Conrad had got him into.)

“I really don’t wish to pretend to be something I am not,” I now told the three or four gentlemen who were looking at me with benign expressions. This, strictly speaking, was not entirely true because I had spent a good deal of my life pretending to be one thing or another. And probably there was nothing to be read in their faces. They had decided beforehand and the whole thing was pro forma.

“Nor,” I added, “do I want to be a crusader. If you feel that I am not an appropriate member, I will make no public fuss. This will be a matter for my husband and myself.” God, I sounded like I was reading off a prompter with the “How to Be Self-Righteous” speech on it.

Honestly, you can never please your own tribe. When I was admitted as a full-blown, acknowledged, even devout Jew, you’d think I’d switched sides and betrayed my ancestors. The Palm Beach Jewish community rose as one. “You should have demanded an additional dozen Jewish members with you,” said Marjorie Fisher, and she wasn’t even Jewish but was married to Max Fisher, a super Jew and philanthropist. “Otherwise,” continued Marjorie, “they did it because you live in London, are married to a gentile, and won’t be around much.” This became the popular view, and I got a lecture from Al Taubman, who had been turned down when he applied. With customary skill, I’d managed to piss everyone off.

Excerpted from Friends and Enemies: A Memoir. Copyright © Barbara Amiel, 2020. Published by Signal, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Barbara Amiel
Barbara Amiel has been a columnist for the Times of London, the Daily Telegraph, Maclean's, and the Sunday Times, as well as the editor of the Toronto Sun (and the first woman to edit a major daily paper in Canada). She also worked as the vice-president of editorial for Hollinger newspapers and co-authored By Persons Unknown, which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award.

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