Still, there’s also the communal daydream, bordering on delusion. According to its many boosters, Palm Beach epitomizes an America that is poised for massive technological and economic ascent, along with all the sizzle and sex and toys that go with it. If only, they tell themselves. If only this little engine of a town could show the country how to reclaim some of its bygone greatness.
Then again, you can imagine the founding fathers—and Logan Roy—all watching the Palm Beach boomlet and collectively shaking their heads, declaring, “You are not serious people.”
Palm Beach is a barrier island three quarters of a mile wide and 18 miles long, about an hour and a half from Miami’s main strip. Modern Palm Beach got its start in 1893, when the Standard Oil and Florida East Coast Railway entrepreneur Henry M. Flagler realized that Americans would buy more railway tickets if his train terminated at an American Riviera. Under the spell of the maverick Mizner, who evoked Moorish Spain in creating his colorful, Baroque-style buildings, Palm Beach grew during the Roaring Twenties into a charmed realm of grand houses with terra-cotta roofs, stucco arches, and white beaches. And for the next 100 years, the town became the South’s protected little shoal for old money.
Today, Route A1A runs down the shoreline, past Mar-a-Lago to the south and further on to Manalapan. Straight across the water, separated by three bridges, stand the gleaming new edifices of West Palm Beach, a would-be economic hub—which residents refer to, without irony, as “Wall Street South.” While visually reminiscent of other contemporary metro centers, WPB remains firmly in the shadow of PB. And yet, West Palm’s mainland geography has given it the ability to expand in ways its elder sibling cannot. The truth is that when West Palm began to mushroom, in the past dozen years or so, almost anybody who could afford a house in Palm Beach proper would not have been caught dead, or alive, residing on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway. But the law of supply and demand has finally made West Palm desirable.
Author and designer Steven Stolman, who has lived in Palm Beach since 1995, contends that “some saw West Palm Beach as the poor relation until 2019, when the ultraluxury condo tower, The Bristol, rose over the Royal Park Bridge and sold some units for $20 million. That’s what lit the fuse.” And herein lies the real issue: Palm Beach’s gold-coast real estate has long been held by wealthy families, some of whom are primarily rich in property. Many houses had become too big to be maintained or, due to building codes, too expensive to tear down. By the 1980s and then again in the mid-2010s, as prices started to rise, some of the old guard decided to sell. In this way, the gates were opened, and, in the view of many a Palm Beacher, the barbarians ran through.
It was just the beginning. In 2020, when COVID hit and remote work became the norm, more rich northerners fled their gridlocked Big Apple, thousands vowing never to return. PB and WPB absorbed the resettlers, many of them Republicans, who were attracted to the gestalt of a state so red, it offered up three GOP candidates for president early on in the race, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who has boasted that Florida’s flush real estate market has been partly a consequence of his hard-nosed policing policies and his decision to keep his state relatively “open” when others were in lockdown.
Maybe so, maybe no. But property listings reflect how this river of wealth has been flowing south. Small wonder that the Palm Beach Daily News, a.k.a. “The Shiny Sheet,” has become a must-read for keeping tabs on who’s buying what and for how much. Beauty heir William Lauder bought the late Rush Limbaugh’s house for $155 million. Fashion maven Tommy Hilfiger flipped his historic mansion on South Ocean Boulevard for more than $41 million, after acquiring it only four months before for just under $37 million. In 2021, private equity honcho Scott Shleifer, an adviser to Tiger Global Asset Management, purchased an oceanfront jewel for $132 million. A year and a half later, Oracle’s Larry Ellison snapped up Netscape cofounder Jim Clark’s Manalapan estate for $173 million—then the priciest home ever sold in the state. And, for now, maybe it will stay that way: Over the past few months, the stratospheric price tags seem to have descended to earth.
The egos haven’t, though. How else to explain the fact that native Floridian and Citadel founder Ken Griffin, who, as tallied by the Palm Beach Daily News, owns $500 million worth of beachfront property as well as two side-by-side commercial buildings on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, applied for and won approval for a 44,000-square-foot residence along 1,400 feet of coastline, which will make it the largest and most expensive estate in Palm Beach? According to reports, the property’s entire value will be an astonishing $1 billion. For his mom. Sure, Griffin’s wealth is estimated by Forbes to be nearly $36 billion. But, as Griffin confided during a talk last year for culture vultures at the influential Society of the Four Arts, “Mom’s home comes first.”
When old and new money mix, there’s an inevitable frisson, and nowhere can it be felt more keenly than at the valet station outside the Royal Poinciana Plaza mall. Old Palm Beachers snicker as they watch women new to the scene arrive in pink, yes, pink, Rolls-Royces, like a battalion of invading Barbies—a shocking display in a town accustomed to understated wealth. (Palm Beach is a place where people dress up to go to the pharmacy. There is even an unctuous TikTok account, which showcases label-loving PB residents describing their overpriced clothes.) But things have really gotten out of hand. “Certain aspects are unrecognizable,” says author Stolman. “Who wants to go for an ice cream and be run down by a Ferrari?”
Kelly Smallridge, who is the president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, isn’t afraid to gush that her town has “amassed up to 47 billionaires now.” That doesn’t mean mere multimillionaires get a pass. When Smallridge goes to The Breakers, the largest luxury hotel on the island, she says it teems with “models and money.” The bluebloods and the blue-haired may shoot some side-eye from behind their Jackie O sunglasses. But as they stroll into the Everglades or Bath & Tennis, another emotion stirs behind those shades: fear. Lamborghinis and mega-tanned invaders are a constant reminder that a new cohort is pushing up against their carefully erected barriers. And not only are the transplants greater in number, they are, worst of all, younger. This new migration has brought its share of horror stories—of newcomers poaching nannies, snapping up tee times and cosmetic surgery appointments, and emitting an overall tenor of rudeness and ruthlessness.
Some Palm Beachers see the benefits of having fresh blood in town. Celerie Kemble, an interior designer and native of Palm Beach, insists “there’s always going to be one lane of traffic that’s moving fast towards change and one that’s moving at its own pace. It still feels like home to me, and there are a lot more interesting people around.” Nick Hissom, 31, cofounder of Aktion gallery, agrees. “There’s definitely been a lot more diversity, integration, young people, mixing of age, culture, and industries.” Stolman adds that “despite the glare of the relatively recent spotlight, Palm Beach is still a one-of-a-kind paradise.” That said, Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, believes that while the volume of people has turned the towns, particularly West Palm, into a thriving metropolis, “there are legitimate questions of whether we have the infrastructure to accommodate it and whether it’s too much too soon.”