Society Flaps South

On a recent Friday afternoon, Manhattan society hostess and art collector Beth de Woody was sitting in Terminal 6 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, awaiting her JetBlue flight to Palm Beach, when she ran into Caroline Hirsch, owner of Caroline’s Comedy Club, and her boyfriend, attorney Andrew Fox. “We were all hanging out in the lounge, discussing our seats, and my assistant had booked me in the emergency row, and it turned out we were all randomly sitting next to each other!” Ms. de Woody said excitedly. “Then we saw [Democratic National Committee member] Robert Zimmerman, and Andrew said as a joke, ‘Don’t tell me you’re 6D’-and he was! It was the four of us all together!”

Thanks in part to this bargain flight, Palm Beach is back, baby-in a way it hasn’t been since its 1950′s heyday. Sure, elderly “snow birds” are still walking two by two into Charley’s Crab for dinner at 5:30 on the button, but now, across Ocean Boulevard, 20-year-old surfers are shaking the saltwater out of their hair and former Limelight regulars are pulling up their bikini straps. Worth Avenue no longer reeks of Old Spice, but Marc Jacobs and Issey Miyake. The swerving cars on Royal Poinciana are more likely to be tipsy twentysomethings leaving cocktail parties than bottle-blond biddies looking for their privet hedges. The so-called “Bright Young Things” are packing Club Colette, the Everglades Club and the Institute of Contemporary Art. They party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, dine in Las Vegas–style restaurants at the chintzy new City Place, and raise their martini glasses at social benefits like the Preservation Ball.

Socialite Sale Johnson has a house there overlooking two golf courses and a pond. “It’s a totally refreshing, regenerating kind of thing,” she said. “It’s a recharging of your batteries.” She said Palm Beach was a nice respite from Manhattan nightclubs-which are “filled with people from Long Island and New Jersey” on the weekends-and the new money of Miami’s South Beach. She’ll go to the latter “if there’s something special like with Jay-Z, because Jay-Z’s a friend of mine,” she said, “but usually I just stay in Palm Beach.”

Psychiatrist-socialite Samantha Boardman agreed. “The generation that was originally going to Miami has been stolen away by Palm Beach. Maybe Miami’s aging,” she said. “The perception of Palm Beach as a retirement community-as God’s waiting room-is gone. Now it’s fun and young, with couples like the junior Fanjuls and Donahues living there full-time. It used to be the butt of everyone’s joke to be wheeled around down there with the old ladies whipping out their fur coats when it’s 70 degrees.” Now, she said, there has been an influx of new money into the area, with “huge houses and fleets of private planes.”

Jeffrey Podolsky, the New York editor of Tatler magazine and a convert to the pleasures of Palm Beach, cited “two major weddings”-publicist Liz Cohen’s and Marjorie Gubelmann’s-as tipping points of the last year’s youth movement. “As much as Palm Beach is still the bastion of big money, old and new, some of the young beautiful things have given a face-lift to the town,” he said. “Now they’re in the forefront of a new society that Palm Beach needs.”

Ms. de Woody said when she moved to West Palm four years ago, all of her friends were “shocked,” but this year it’s getting really popular.

“It’s kind of like the Hamptons,” she said. “People are seeing all the parties going on this year. There’s a lot of money this year, and a lot of events going on.” She mentioned several New Year’s parties and Dennis Basso’s birthday at Club Colette.

Of course, there are grumblers.

“You just have grotesque people clogging the roads,” said Dirk Wittenborn, producer of the documentary Born Rich . “I saw a guy driving this vintage Aston Martin, and I see he has a giant Havana cigar, and he lit it, and he tried to flip his sun visor but caught his cigar on the visor and burned it. Palm Beach is perfect for that.”

He said it was characteristic of how “all the old WASP resorts now have new rich people.”

The reasons for the surge of interest in Palm Beach among New Yorkers are at least partly financial. After all, as Martha Stewart has taught us, being rich is no excuse for being a spendthrift. When Bloomberg raised the real-estate tax 18.5 percent at the end of 2002, Palm Beach became even more attractive for its lack of a state personal-income tax, and more and more young people decided to take advantage. By becoming a resident of Florida-which you can do spending roughly half your time there-a 35-year-old investment banker’s income could increase by a double-digit percentage. And he’ll get more bang for his buck: A mansion on Ocean Boulevard broadcasts wealth much more effectively than an apartment in the Time Warner Center that no one will ever notice.

Newcomers must first navigate the financial and social implications of being “on the island” versus “off the island.” Owning a house on the island of Palm Beach still has more Old World cachet than having property in West Palm. But with West Palm expanding by the day, and with more land available, new-money New Yorkers are beginning to notice. Business 2.0 just ranked West Palm among the best places for high-paying job growth in the country.

And jetting down in a private plane or paying $800 on American is no longer the hip way to get to Palm Beach. JetBlue (average round trip: $250) has become a “winter Jitney” of sorts for the high-society set. JetBlue spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said that in just the past year, passenger numbers have increased by 35 percent. The airline started with two flights a day between J.F.K. and West Palm and now has 11. Delta’s discount airline, Song, is another option for low-cost flights there.

At two and a half hours, the flight takes no longer than the Hampton Jitney’s trek along the Long Island Expressway. But instead of cell-phone squawkers and share-house frat boys, Neue Galerie committee members mingle with Wellington polo players, and Manhattan art dealers air-kiss Wall Street power players. “It’s like the equivalent of when people knew each other on the Concorde to London.” Mr. Podolsky said.

“I take pride in it,” Ms. Boardman declared of the cheapie airline. “There’s a sense of fun in traveling. Everyone’s in the same class, eating Terra Blue chips and looking forward to their daiquiris. It’s like they’re all on their way to the clubhouse!”

And the JetBlue terminal at J.F.K. has become a clubhouse cafeteria of sorts, with Town and Country and Quest magazines prominently stocked at the Hudson News kiosk, flanked by palm trees. In the middle of the terminal, well-manicured hands pull Hermès wallets out of their pastel Jelly Kellys to pay for smoked-salmon cream-cheese maki at Deep Blue Sushi. Forty-year-old women smile through collagen-enhanced lips at the cheery ticket-checkers. They strut down the walkway to the airplane, past jazzy paintings of women stepping out of JetBlue jets and into a tropical setting where dashing men in suits photograph them as if they were old movie starlets.

At the beginning of a morning flight on Feb. 27, the pilot introduced one of the attractive young stewardesses.

“Abby, our resident celebrity, will be walking up and down the aisle giving out headsets,” he said in a Mr. Moviefone–esque voice. “She was on ER last night. She played a cadaver. She was also on Sex and the City , but we won’t be telling you what she did in that!”

Abby blushed as she walked past the rows of seats in a form-fitting navy suit, a navy polka-dot scarf tied pertly around her neck.

“Anyway, she’ll be walking up and down the aisles with headsets, and she’ll be tickled pink to give you one. Abby’s also an excellent pillow giver-outer. She’s good at blankets, too, but that’s Debbie’s job.”

Thirty-year-old women smirked in their shearlings and single men in baseball caps craned their necks, but not a single blue-hair could be seen shaking her wattle. Later, the other stewardesses, Molly and Debbie, passed out the Terra Blue chips, chocolate-chip biscotti, Doritos and Animal Crackers. “It’s easy, the service is great, and the cost of the flight is the amount you’d spend at a club one night in New York,” Ms. Johnson said.

Despite the avowed eager ness of the Palm Beach jet set to get away from the scene up north, savvy businesses back home know better. WithsuchrestaurantsasCafé Boulud, Chez Jean-Pierre and Cucina Dell’Arte opening, young people in Palm Beach have more New Yorky places to go.

Lining the upper level of City Place-a cross between a Las Vegas mega-mall and Disney World-are trendy new restaurants, notably Tsunami, an Asian-flavored offshoot of East Hampton’s NV Tsunami. Like many Hamptons nightspots, Tsunami functions as a restaurant by day and a dance club by night. And Resort, the 2003 summer “It” spot in Amagansett, is opening an outlet in West Palm in the spring.

At night, Palm Beach’s restaurants are impromptu parties unto themselves. On Friday, Feb. 27, about a dozen prominent New York partygoers sat around a table at Bice, another restaurant with a New York counterpart. Young socialites Celerie Kemble, Lulu de Kwiatkowski, Katherine Cohen, Fernanda Niven and Boykin Curry had flown into town earlier that day and descended en masse upon the traditional eatery. Later, they went to Cucina Dell’Arte, the new hip Italian restaurant that becomes a hopping bar after 10 p.m. on weekends, where Forbes heir Miguel Forbes stood at the bar in khakis and a red sweater, chatting up two blondes.

Eighties music blared from a static-ridden sound system, but no one seemed to mind. As the night progressed, more and more men in their 30′s and 40′s wearing starched polo shirts piled around the wooden bar. Some ordered tropical drinks while others knocked back beers.

And when the sun rose on their hangovers, they worked through the pain and the dehydration with a few rounds of upscale golf. The first thing you notice about Donald Trump’s new nearly 200-acre golf course, Trump International, which sits about two miles from Palm Beach International Airport, is the massive, gaudy crystal-and-gold-leaf chandeliers that line the halls of the clubhouse. The 240 members each paid a $300,000 initiation fee and will pay yearly fees of $15,000. Mr. Trump plans to expand the club by adding another nine holes to the course and approximately 100 members to the club.

Two million cubic yards of dirt were moved to build Mr. Trump’s golf club, and an entire farm of royal palm trees was reportedly planted on the grounds. The course was designed by Jim Fazio, brother of Tom Fazio, one of the most prolific course designers in the nation. The men’s and women’s locker rooms have pine and mahogany lockers with engraved nameplates. The former has its own dining room and billiards table; the latter, a card room with flowing pink drapes. The head golf pro, Lee Rinker, knows all the members by name, and on Feb. 27, he waved to former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese as the gridiron great was leaving.

Golfing is one draw; horseback-riding is another. On the riding circuit, equestrians from New York fly down every weekend to compete at Wellington in the show ring or on the polo field. Ms. Johnson flies to Florida with her teenage daughter Daisy, who is a competitive rider, on a regular basis. Standing outside the show ring at the Wellington horse show, Mama Johnson described a recent dinner she attended at Jane Holzer’s Palm Beach home.

“She’s, I think, one of the more fun people here,” Ms. Johnson said. “Last time, it was a very mixed group of people-from Jim Palmer to Gabriel Byrne to Ashley and Rusty Holzer to Mark Badgley of Badgley Mischka.”

Ms. Johnson also hobnobs with the horse-showing crowd, which includes entertainment celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Lorraine Bracco and Glenn Close, whose children ride.

“They rent here every weekend,” she said.

On Saturday around 3 p.m., while the horsy set was hitting the saddle, Range Rovers and Mercedes started rolling down Dixie Highway, the shopping strip known for its antiques, and extremely popular despite its depressing strip-mall-laundromat ambiance. Two new restaurants have opened there, Rhythm Café and the Tea House, both of which have a funky décor-artsy without the fartsy. It’s a place where shoppers come to play the name game as much as to browse the bamboo book shelves.

Back on the island, young women in white pants, silk halter-tops and matching Birkin bags peeked into such stately Worth Avenue stores as Isabel’s and Kassatly’s. With their bright contrasting colors-one promenader braved a peacock-blue sweater paired with tangerine Capri pants-the denizens of Worth Avenue looked like they had taken a Ralph Lauren or Hermès display case a bit too much to heart. They were wearing all the clothes that usually end up on the sale rack in New York-the outfits even Muffie Potter Aston might put in the back of her Southampton closet. Many of the men were dressed like little dollies, with plaid shorts matching their pink (or salmon) shirts, little neckties and peekaboo handkerchiefs. They can wear bow ties at 3 in the afternoon, whether they’re 6 or 60.

Lilly Pulitzer’s new line, complete with hot pants, miniskirts and tankinis, caters to the new Palm Beach bimbo, and even Steven Stolman, famous for his tablecloth-patterned Jackie O. dresses, has targeted a lower age range with his dresses’ diving décolletage. “Now, instead of Belgian shoes with no socks, it’s Diamante sandals and wearing Indian-inspired funky Allegra Hicks costumes,” Mr. Podolsky said.

Since the 1920′s, Palm Beach, however snobby, has had its reputation for harboring eccentrics. Terry Allen Kramer comes to mind. So does the late Listerine heiress Sue Whitmore.

“It has always been a sunny place for shady people, with a darker underbelly, and now the darker underbelly is very appealing,” Ms. Boardman said. “Southampton and Lyford Cay is so much more of a homogenous group. In Palm Beach, there is sort of this acceptance of difference. You’ll have these old farts’ houses and these brand-new, hideous monstrosities right next to each other. In New York, they would never see each other.”

She seemed to think about this for a second before she added, “I mean, it’s not that different-it’s not like the Avon lady is knocking on your door!”