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.

Palm Beach is clubby in the most literal sense, and for a long time just a few of those clubs were open to Jews. When in town, Jews stayed at the Whitehall Hotel and drove over to the Sun and Surf Club, both bought in the early 1940s by Boston entrepreneur A. M. “Sunny” Sonnabend, who later started the Sonesta hotel group. After its founding in 1952, they had the Palm Beach Country Club for golf. It’s ironic in the extreme that the Shapiros live in a multimillion-dollar condominium at the Breakers, a resort that until 1965 was accused of not allowing Jews to stay there.

The Palm Beach Country Club remains the local center of elite Jewish social life. The club’s palm tree–dotted course spans the width of the island, from Lake Worth to the Atlantic. Its intricate dress code dictates that members must not wear shorts that rise more than four inches above the knee; after 6 p.m., men are required to don jackets and ties. Children under age 12 are generally permitted to dine only in the Ocean Grill, one of three dining areas at the club, though exceptions are made for Thanksgiving dinners and Passover Seders. The club’s directory shows that 80 of its 700 or so members maintain homes in or around Boston, with chichi addresses in the right suburbs and among the single-digit townhouses at the Public Garden end of Commonwealth Avenue.

In Palm Beach’s social pecking order, people sort themselves into groups based largely on how much money they have. At the country club, the hierarchy has four or five distinct levels. Other than sitting in the same dining room and playing on the same golf course, those on one level rarely have much social contact with members on the others. If a fundraising chair is assembling a charity committee and tries linking someone from the bottom tier with someone from the top, the committee fails before it begins.

I have a friend, a banker from Pittsburgh named Dick Nernberg, who’s easily worth more than $100 million. He’s not a member of the Palm Beach Country Club, but one day he was there as a guest to have lunch with one of the Boston Jews.

“You guys have a lot in common,” said a mutual friend at the club. “Dick here flies his own jet.”

“Why would I want to fly my own plane?” the Boston man said dismissively. “I’ve got two big jets and pilots to fly them.”