During Palm Beach’s early resort-town years at the turn of the 20th century, the island was a playground of decorum and decadence, a Gilded Age winter mecca for the nation’s financial and social elite engaged in an operatic turnstile of formality and pleasure.
There were nightly orchestra performances, tea dances, yacht races, vaudeville shows, fine dining, poetry readings, recitations and recitals, and a grapefruit cocktail called the “Forbidden Fruit”. Palmists divined destinies for elegantly clad corseted ladies who even “sea bathed” in the requisite ankle-length skirts, blouses and opaque stockings. Captains of industry rubbed elbows on the links, fishing piers and piazzas.
And there to chronicle it all was Palm Beach Life magazine.
Now celebrating its centennial, Palm Beach Life has for 10 decades been the de facto magazine for all things Palm Beach, from the “tastes and toilettes” of early 20th century resort-goers to the movers, shakers and lifestyles of today. With each issue, lively, smart coverage has engaged both initiated sophisticates and vicarious rubes.
From the outset, the magazine extolled the island’s “thrills that are not easily exhausted” on slick pages – long before the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce began promoting the island, not to mention that Palm Beach wasn’t even an official town yet (it was incorporated in 1911 ) and that the vast majority of the island remained a undeveloped jungle.
As with all early Palm Beach ventures, Palm Beach Life, got its start with a little help from Standard Oil baron and railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, who, by the mid-1890’s, opened up Florida as a winter beachhead for the wealthy by extending his rails through the state and building lavish hotels along the way.
In Palm Beach, Flagler unveiled the now-gone lakefront Royal Poinciana Hotel in 1894. It was a six-story behemoth with 1,150–plus rooms and three miles of corridors (stretching from today’s First Union Bank on Cocoanut Row to Royal Poinciana Way). Then Flagler added The Breakers, originally called The Palm Beach Inn.
It was at the Royal Poinciana where, in 1906, Flagler cemented a deal with one of the regular guests — respected Cleveland newspaperman Richard Overend Davies (also known as Col. R. O. Davies), a bespectacled English native who became a familiar figure in town in his white suit, white bucks, boater’s cap and pinky rings. The plan: Flagler would be a silent financial partner and Davies editor and publisher of a locally prominent news-publishing business.
First, they bought the existing newspaper in town — The Palm Beach Daily News, the oldest daily newspaper in Florida, which has been known for decades as “The Shiny Sheet.” Then Davies set sights on launching a magazine. With copyrights filed in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee in 1906, Palm Beach Life was born. The office: Suite 4 in the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Telephone number 1283. Cost: 10 cents an issue or a $1 for a season subscription, January through the beginning of April.
Billed as “An Illustrated Weekly Devoted to Society at Florida East Coast Winer Resorts and the South Generally” (coverage would later include Nassau and Cuba) the first issue, with 20 pages, debuted Jan. 12, 1907, a year Palm Beach was bustling with new arrivals. As the premiere issue reported, “Several hundred tourists from all over New England and the East filled the famous Palm Limited, which left New York Monday on its initial trip for the season.” The train headed to Washington, D.C., then southward to Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. The cars that rattled through St. Augustine, Ormond, Palm Beach and Miami were filled – “all indications point to unusually heavy tourist travel to the south during the next few weeks, “ the magazine posted.
Coverage in Palm Beach Life’s first issue, while eyeing resort life throughout Florida, zeroed in on Palm Beach, as it always has. Under the masthead, Davies noting the magazine’s “valued subscribers and friends,” wrote, “Palm Beach Life will be conducted … independent of, and free from, politics and religion, and devoted entirely to such subjects as are thought to be acceptable to the visitors each season…”
Davies likely was a man of his word, at least based on commendations bestowed upon him and his published obituary in 1929. He was one of the founders of Holy Trinity Church in West Palm Beach, where he served as vestryman, warden, treasurer and lay reader. His “outstanding virtues” and “wonderful personality” inspired loyalty and gained and held” friendships, according to a resolution in his honor from the West Palm Beach Typographical Union. It has been said Davies once contributed his favorite bulldog to a World War I benefit auction.
The premier issue of Palm Beach Life fulfilled Davies’ promise. Inside, regular columns — most of which would remain staples into the 1950’s — included “Among the Palms,” a roundup of hotel social news and entertainment, including 30-piece house orchestras under the direction of Francesco Miglionico, and late-afternoon tea dances in the Poinciana’s lush Cocoanut Grove, which was bedecked in exotic Japanese lanterns. The reporting was stately: “The opening of the Poinciana would not be orthodox, in truth could hardly occur, without Mrs. John H. Shultz of New York. Her queenly presence has added dignity and grace to the first dinner of each season for twelve successive years….Mr. and Mrs. Flagler are expected at Whitehall on Wednesday the sixteenth…Their palatial home on the shores of Lake Worth is, in spite of its magnificence, essentially a home and, as such, is greatly enjoyed by those favored by the gods…”
“Among the Palms” also served up the scoop on Mr. Huggins, a regular winter visitor and confirmed bachelor who “may have been off his guard” when “a weak place in his armor” gave way to “saucy Cupid’s arrow.” “Mr. Huggins is warmly congratulated upon not only having won a pretty widow (whom he met at one of the hotels’ “pinochle corners”), but also upon having acquired an interesting little daughter five years of age.” Buzz about the hotels’ top-flight anglers revolved around John Pullman of Brooklyn, N.Y.: “A week ago he landed a 250-pound shark from the (Breakers) pier with rod and reel, the battle lasting two and a half hours. Few have met with greater success in their piscatorial efforts than Mr. Pullman.”
Another column, “Tastes and Toilettes,” took the pulse of fashion ins and outs. “The frock of crepe, voile, silk mousseline, chiffon cloth and kindred materials made for wear during the heated season will now re-enforce a winter wardrobe in a most satisfactory fashion, especially if that winter be spent at Palm Beach… Winter never brought out more charming getups than those seen this season at Palm Beach. There are so many girlish fads in vogue that the prettiest toilets have a Frenchy air that has never before been so marked as now.”
Much news revolved around “motoring” by yacht and car. Consider the times: Private steam-powered yachts had become prevalent — some rivaling great mansions in luxury and workmanship — and automobiles were a thrilling novelty introduced scant years before Palm Beach Life’s debut. Hailing Palm Beach’s “Third Annual Motor Races and Carnival” on Lake Worth “with the fastest and best-known motor boats in the country,” the magazine account regaled a Venetian-style finale to the event, describing it as “a mimic bombardment of two fleets, gayly decorated barges, suggestive of the floating galleys of the old Roman emperors, together with the illumination of the famous gardens of the Royal Poinciana, and display of fireworks, (presenting) a scene only to be compared to the wondrous descriptions of the Arabian Nights.”
Other news? Life on the hotel links and tennis courts, and society news from New York, where Palm Beach Life also become de rigueur reading material. While there were no bylines in the magazine at the time, Palm Beach Life’s staff included none other than the gutsy, big-hearted straight shooter who would become “dean of Florida newspaperwomen” during her lifetime, Ruby Edna Pierce, affectionately known as Miss Ruby, kept copious records on Palm Beachers – but never printed a negative word about them. Hired in 1907, she quickly rose to the position of editor — a post she held until 1954 — and categorized Palm Beach society this way: Old Guard (“They know who they are and don’t give a hang if their names never appear in print. They are the ones we prefer to write about…with discretion”), the international set, socialites and “the monkey set,” begging for attention with their “ridiculous shenanigans,” Like Davies, she as well-liked, but never considered herself a Palm Beacher. “You’re working press,” she reminded the magazine staff. “If Palm Beach wants you, it’s because you keep your place.”
As for Davies, who acquired Flagler’s interest in the magazine after Flagler’s death in 1913, he remained publisher until 1925, succeeded by his newspaperman-son Oscar, who for years made his permanent home in Palm Beach and once was a police commissioner and Town Council member. The senior Davies died in 1929 after a trip around the world, having caught a cold along the way through Western Europe, Egypt, China or even Papua New Guinea that developed into a fatal case of pneumonia. The West Palm Beach Typographical Union’s resolution in his honor, notes, “Col. R.O. Davies had a wide range of information on public affairs and public men, and his keen intelligence and strong common sense guided his opinions and conclusions on public questions in the early days…. The good that men do sometimes lives after them.…”
Palm Beach Life, for one, has. Over the decades, it has grown and evolved with the times. Now part of Cox Enterprises Inc., a privately held media company that also owns the Palm Beach Daily News and The Palm Beach Post.
By M.M. Cloutier