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Conrad Black Headshot

Farewell, Playground of the 1%

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My first experience of the astonishing town of Palm Beach was in 1969, when I returned (via Mexico), from 10 days in Cuba, (an accessible country to me as a Canadian). I needed ideological detoxification after my time in the grinding deprivations of the communist paradise, and landed in the right place. On my second day in Palm Beach, at the corner of Worth Avenue, (the so-called Fifth Avenue of the south) and County Road, I heard a gentle rumpling of fenders and tinkling of parking light glass on the road, sounds that repeated themselves a few seconds later. I turned to see that a Silver Cloud had been gently
rammed by a Phantom IV, which had been lightly nudged by a Silver Shadow (all Rolls-Royces). I knew then that I was, in all respects except geographically, a long way from Cuba.

As a young person, I suffered from heavy and frequent colds, didn't like winter sports, and found the cold, lunar, hivernal darkness of the North depressing. So I returned to Palm Beach, which had once had the reputation of a lively town (in the days of Bradley's Casino and Rudy Vallee's movie about it). Its fantasy mansions made no compromise with the last 50 years of evolving sociology, and were magnificently maintained, however numerous the personnel necessary to service them.

The town was visually rich and creamy, like a banana split, and as vulgar and self-indulgent, but also invigorating, as a symbol, like a freakishly baroque Calder mobile, pendulous and opulent and slightly degenerate; of unselfconscious American capitalism. The house of the town's founder, (and Florida's original developer), Henry Morrison Flagler, and his railway car, The Rambler, are preserved, and the Moorish, Tudor, Provencal, Spanish monastic, Palladian, Georgian, Romanesque, Arabesque, Byzantine, Grecian, Bermudan, Cape Cod, and Bauhaus mansions, as well as the indescribably eclectic and organic homes, were a unique townscape. I found them pleasing and impressive, though preposterous, a visual opportunity to share vicariously in the enactment of the dreams of the great American capitalists, especially of the early years of the century and the Roaring Twenties.

Evidences of American industrial and financial history unobtrusively abounded, from Marjorie Merriweather Post's monumental Mar-a-Lago (now owned by Donald Trump), with its imposing clock given by Mussolini, and some paintings given by Stalin; to the stained glass windows in St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church donated by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst.

I bought a house for my young family in 1980, and moved to a larger home with splendid ocean and Inland waterway views (that we had admired from afar), in 2000. Approximately a third of the town's seasonal population seemed to be the detritus of old and long under-worked families, where the men had surnames as first names and Roman numerals after their names, (Harrison Wegentheler VII), and the women had rather odd nicknames. A third was a slice of the spivvy parvenus churned up by U.S. socioeconomy where it brushed with international cafe society; and a third were meritocrats, exceptionally successful people who had made a lot of money themselves. They laid claim to status in Palm Beach with the purposefulness of Marines conducting an amphibious landing, and the old families hung on to their status with the tenacity of drowning men clinging to a raft.

Over the years, I got on well socially in Palm Beach, though I rarely appeared at the well-meaning but slightly coma-inducing galas trotted out in aid of every conceivable ailment. An acquaintance referred to his social regime as nightly "organ recitals" because of the incessant references to medically treated body parts. After the beginning of my legal travails, Main Street News, where we had had an account for nearly 25 years, closed our credit and demanded my housekeeper pay cash only for our daily newspapers; there were regular unsolicited stink-bid offers for our house, which was not for sale apart from a couple of particularly difficult months.

The chief of police, acknowledging that some of his officers stayed in other Palm Beach homes, complained publicly that I had allowed the vice chief to stay rent-free in my guest house after his messy marital separation. And the local newspapers lost no opportunity for malicious misreporting of my legal problems. This all happened as the financial system melted down in 2008, and almost the entire financial leadership of the country, as well as the political class, the central bankers, the financial media and academic economists, were exposed as insouciant, negligent, inept, and in many cases, self-destructively greedy.

When I was a guest of the people at a federal prison in central Florida, from 2008 to 2010, awaiting the Supreme Court vacation of the spurious counts that inexplicably survived the trial, my wife stayed in Palm Beach in order to be able to visit me more often.

She was not made to feel overly welcome by many formerly warm acquaintances. When the Supreme Court did unanimously vacate the remaining counts in my spurious indictment, I returned to Palm Beach, as it was the only place where I retained a home in the U.S. I got around well socially, but with all that had happened, I found I had less toleration than previously of many of the opinionated, table-pounding Palm Beach dinner guests.

We loved our house, and liked having guests stay with us there, and it is a well-organized, well-served town, and many interesting people come and go. But I was tiring of it and while I could not embrace my wife's opinion -- from the first day she first set foot in it -- that Palm Beach was the last place in America she wanted to be, I did see it as an increasingly self-important and slightly silly little place. Having beaten off the prosecutors' obscene four-year effort to force its sale, when I got a reasonable offer, I decided I had other applications for the resources our home represented, as an investment and as a huge cost center.

After the persecution I have endured in the United States, I am persona non grata there, and it is, as a place to live, patria non grata to me also. It has been six months since we left Palm Beach and I have not missed it for a moment although, I confess, the glorious sunsets I watched from our terrace and the chatter of sea-birds running along the empty beaches occasionally flash before me: sunsets and chattering sea-birds offer more thoughtful fodder for the mind than most other aspects of Palm Beach.

When I published my book about my legal persecution two months ago, one of the promotional indignities was an interview with Vanity Fair magazine. It was a half-snide and often inaccurate article that demonstrated the difficulties of trying to make a serious point in an unserious place. But I did make the points that I had committed no illegalities and had been vindicated, and that I was rigorously unimpressed by the whole American prosecutocracy and its oppressive apparat.

And I said, in response to a question, that though I valued many friends from Palm Beach, and liked the town and our house there, I had tired of some dumb, rich, loud people to be found there. This was misreported in the local Daily News as a description of everyone I knew there. I was disappointed to learn, last week, that some people whom I know took this report literally, as (maliciously) reported.

This gives me a long-awaited opportunity, deferred almost 30 years, to write that the Palm Beach Post-Times and Daily News are such abominably stupid, boring, poorly edited and vulgar products, they would cause Gutenberg to regret that he had invented the press and moved the world on from illuminated manuscripts. Never in 30 years was either of them capable of writing anything accurate or even coherent about my wife or me. I don't doubt this defective journalism extended to many other subjects- insofar as any subjects other than people ever truly engaged those papers -- and it certainly extended to their political reporting, about the most banal I have read, which is saying something after years of my monitoring hundreds of newspapers. I don't expect to miss Palm Beach, but wish the town and most of its inhabitants well, and will look forward to seeing Palm Beach friends again, though not necessarily there.

But the thought of never again hearing of its unutterably fatuous media, dumbed-down to Jules Verne science-fiction depths of excavated vapidity, fills me with liberating and triumphant thanksgiving.