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.

On Christmas Day, there were two sittings for dinner
at the Palm Beach Country Club and an almost unprecedented turnout. It was as if the assembled families wanted to send the message that everything’s the same. It didn’t quite take. “It wasn’t a celebratory mood,” says one member. “The more you think about it, the worse it gets. It’s like a horror film where something horrible is growing in a Petri dish and spreads and spreads.”

For the Shapiro family in particular, it’s been impossible to find refuge. On another day at the Palm Beach Country Club, a member went up to Carl Shapiro as he was having lunch to commiserate over his enormous losses. Shapiro looked up from his plate and said, “I’m still eating.” It seems one of few pleasures he has left. His foundation is reportedly out $145 million, and he has personally lost $400 million. While Shapiro has not been accused of any wrongdoing, the real prospect remains that some portion of his fortune will be shown to be the product of Madoff’s alleged illicit dealings. Almost nothing is certain for him any longer.

Unlike his father-in-law, Robert Jaffe’s not even getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s with acid in their voices that his Palm Beach peers remind you how the former Louis Boston salesman married into his status. “He was looking for a rich wife, and Ellen was the best he could do,” says a woman whose father was involved with Boston’s Jewish mob. After the couple married in 1968, she relays, Jaffe “went strutting down Newbury Street, showing off that he was in the chips.” In December the Jaffes canceled an elaborate engagement party they had planned for their son, Steven. (One of the would-have-been guests recently called the Worth Avenue shop from which she’d bought an exquisite crystal piece as a wedding present: She wanted to renege on her order.)

The Jaffes have also stepped down from chairing this month’s Dana-Farber Discovery Ball at the Breakers. Howard and Michele Kessler have gamely picked up the slack, and the gala will go on as scheduled, if not quite as originally planned. In Palm Beach, nights like the Brigham extravaganza of two Decembers ago are a thing of the past. For this one, the dress code has been downgraded from black tie to cocktail dress, though it probably should be mourning attire.

Laurence Leamer, a winter resident of Palm Beach since 1994, is the author of Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, published last month by Hyperion. His website is leamer.com