Photographs by Harry Benson
Text by Hilary Geary Ross
Let’s travel to the most idyllic of places, Palm Beach, Florida. On this grand and private tour, seen through the eyes of the legendary photographer and gifted artist, Harry Benson, CBE, we have captured the very essence of this exquisite island. Harry’s quiet manners and relaxed demeanor disarm his subjects and present images of the lives and personalities that inhabit the island. His enormous creativity and vast experience draw the reader behind the scenes of this tropical paradise.
The fairy tale setting, a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean – 16 miles long with white beaches, turquoise water, dazzling private residences, immaculate golf courses, pristine tennis courts, museums, cultural centers, sophisticated clubs and restaurants and sunny weather – provides the glorious and glamorous backdrop for Harry’s portraits of the fascinating people who live here and truly make Palm Beach unique.
So how did this fairy tale start? Well, once upon a time, in early winter of 1878, a 158-ton Spanish barque, Providencia, sailed the storm-darkened waters off the southern coast of Florida. Her captain, perhaps giddy with Madeira wine, stood at the helm en route from the West Indies to Barcelona carrying a heavy load of hides, logwood, wine, cigars and, most importantly, 20,000 coconuts. At some point that night, the ill-fated vessel foundered on the barrier island we now call Palm Beach. It was those thousands of coconuts – or so the legend goes – that were either sold by the surviving sailors to the natives or, more romantically, scattered and sprouted into palm trees of such a density they gave rise to the island’s current name.
In time this oasis caught the eye of Standard Oil-magnate Henry Flagler, who decided it was the most perfect spot in the world to realize his dream to build a grand resort. The tycoon expanded his Florida East Coast Railway further south to ferry guests to his newly built and very grand Royal Poinciana Hotel. Opening in 1894, it was the largest and most glamorous of its type on the Lake Worth Lagoon. He also built the Palm Beach Inn that was later reborn as the Breakers Hotel, a world-class resort which sits on a vast acreage still privately owned by the Kenan family. The quote “build it and they will come” certainly could be applied to Palm Beach, as they came in droves. It was the beginning of the island’s definition as a resort.
Over the years, Palm Beach became synonymous with a heavenly climate, beautiful beaches and fascinating people. It did not take long for this sparkling little oasis to attract Colonel Edward Bradley, a businessman and philanthropist of Irish descent who opened up a storied beach club where members would not only dine royally but gamble too.
F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the casino “Bradley’s House of Chance.” His popular casino, with tables of chemin de fer, roulette, and blackjack added glamour and sophistication on a par with any international resort to the evening hours. The Colonel loved horses and developed a thoroughbred-racing stable, “Idle Hours Farm,” in Kentucky with a barn filled with champions: five Kentucky Derby winners, three Preakness winners and two Belmont winners! All his horses’ names started with “B.”
I have deep roots in this wonderful resort, as my grandfather, the novelist Arthur Somers Roche, penned his mysteries in his Maurice Fatio-designed house on Via Bellaria. What’s more, my mother, Patricia Ney, came here as a youth with her parents, Jeanne and John Murray, who were great pals of the famed Colonel Bradley, affectionately called Uncle Ed by my mother. In fact, the Colonel named two thoroughbreds after my mother and her sister: “Browneyed Pat” for my mother and “Beanie M” for her sister, Jeanne Vanderbilt. My mother would often head down to where you could find them racing at Hialeah, where Bradley had partnered with George Widener to develop a track just a tad south of Palm Beach.
In time, travelers from all over the world have found their way to settle in this sophisticated environment with its easy way of life, bright sunny days and entertaining evenings. This fabled history of glamour, elegance, and ease unfolds in the present day as the storied architecture and castles by the sea continue to astound and as newcomers are drawn to the island for all of the same reasons that attracted its original champions.
So, come with me on this private tour and we will take you inside beautiful houses designed by legendary architects such as Addison Mizner, Fatio, Marion Sims Wyeth, Howard Major, John Urban, John Volk and newer stars such as Tom Kirchhoff, and Jeffrey Smith, with landscapes by Mario Nievera, Jorge Sanchez and more.
I am sure that you will enjoy the visit! As the Alan Jay Lerner lyrics go, “In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot.” Or Palm Beach!
This brief “visit” is an edited excerpt from Palm Beach People (powerHouse Books, 2014), a dazzling portrait and insider’s view of a fabled and exclusive resort community and its high-profile denizens, as seen through the lens of master photographer Harry Benson and the words of society columnist Hilary Geary Ross.
All images and text descriptions were provided from the book:
“Palm Beach People”
Photographs by Harry Benson
Text by Hilary Geary Ross
powerHouse Books (November 24, 2014)
The book is also available at The Cultural Council’s
Roe Green Uniquely Palm Beach store