Dispatch: Reversal of Fortune

In Palm Beach, Boston’s Jewish elite created a glittering world that unwittingly helped make Bernie Madoff possible. Laurence Leamer reports from behind the winter retreat’s manicured hedges on what it looks like now that the party is over.

Turning their Rolls-Royces and Bentleys over to the valets, the splendidly attired couples slipped behind high hedges and glided their way into the private precincts of Palm Beach’s Club Colette. The 144 people who’d turned out for the evening’s proceedings, a charity-dinner dance to benefit Brigham and Women’s Hospital, included a veritable social register of Boston’s Jewish elite. Every night during the Palm Beach season there is one extravagant party after another, but even by those standards, this one would prove impressive. Daniel Ponton, Club Colette’s owner, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

It was December 14, 2007. A year earlier, Ponton’s doctors had found a fist-size benign tumor on the frontal lobe of his brain. When it came time to be operated on, he flew to Boston, where the Brigham’s Dr. Arthur Day performed the tricky 14-hour surgery. Ponton spent 10 days recuperating in the hospital’s Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, a state-of-the-art facility funded largely by the philanthropists’ $25 million donation. When he was healthy enough to return home, Palm Beach friends flew Ponton back in their private jet, equipped for the trip as a mini hospital with a bed, a private nurse, and ample quantities of Jewish penicillin, also known as chicken soup.

Ponton hoped tonight’s $2,500-a-plate event would raise $1 million for the hospital, and got the ball rolling with his own $500,000 donation. To entertain his guests, he brought in Argentinean tango dancers and engaged En Vogue, the Grammy-nominated R&B quartet.

I found myself seated at one of the Boston tables. For months I had been going out almost every night, researching a book on Palm Beach society, and these social occasions had grown increasingly tedious. But the atmosphere this evening was electric. In half a century, the Jewish population in Palm Beach had gone from a ghettoized minority to the island’s indisputably dominant cultural and intellectual force. And within that community, it was the Bostonians who ruled as the most charitable, the most intellectual, and the most cultured. They didn’t merely make cocktail talk; they had conversations, over topics ranging from the tiniest nuances of Palm Beach society to the great issues of the world.

At a nearby table sat Carl Shapiro, the most universally revered figure among these Bostonians. In 1971, he sold his women’s clothing company, Kay Windsor, and has since watched his investments make him a billionaire. Over the past several decades, he and his wife have given away an ample share of their fortune in a spectacle of generosity: more than $25 million to Beth Israel, where a research institute bears his name; $80 million to Brandeis University; $15 million to the MFA. The couple has donated many more millions to arts organizations in Palm Beach. Watching him at Club Colette, it was tempting to conclude that all that largesse was responsible for rewarding him with an enviable life extending well past the biblical threescore and ten. Then 94, he walked with the posture and thought with the acuity of a much younger man.

Shapiro has typically wanted his generosity publicly memorialized, his name affixed to the buildings his money puts up (Brandeis alone has three). This is not the kind of thing considered appropriate by Brahmin standards, but it’s raised few eyebrows on Florida’s Gold Coast, where charity is a kind of sport. “It’s not such a terrible thing if the benefactor’s name is publicized,” says fellow Palm Beach philanthropist Sydelle Meyer. “It motivates other people to think about giving. We all like recognition in this world, one way or another. And if people see other people’s names, they say, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice, and can’t I be there, too?'”

At another table this evening sat Shapiro’s daughter, Ellen, and her husband, Robert M. Jaffe. He was Ellen’s greatest treasure, a sixtysomething peacock in a black dinner jacket tailored to his tall, lean frame. He had an aging gigolo’s looks, with sleek black hair and a face that if not lifted by plastic surgery nonetheless looked not youthful so much as the caricature of youth.

There was no shortage of champagne toasts during the party, but by rights several of them should have been made to a man who was not in attendance. His name was Bernard Madoff. The then-70-year-old financial wizard was the son Shapiro never had. Shapiro had mentored him as a younger man, and Madoff had reciprocated by managing Shapiro’s money in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. It was Madoff, not Shapiro, who was the investor with the Midas touch; it was Madoff’s steady 10 to 12 percent annual returns that had magnificently padded the holdings of many in the room tonight. Of course, had Madoff been on hand, the gratitude would have been mutual. Because without the people in this scene, Bernie Madoff would not have become what he did. It was Palm Beach and its Boston Jews that unwittingly helped make Bernie Madoff possible.