Prominent in the local Palm Beach news are stories about how many major and minor charity events—count ‘em 22 to date—have decamped from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, including the generally acknowledged social event of the year: The Red Cross Ball.
As it happens, being single and arguably respectable, I have been invited to a number of society events in Palm Beach over the past few years. But only once, two years ago, have I gone to The 58th International Red Cross Ball.
Our man has ‘major issues’ with proprietor
Since then, although invited to other Mar-a-Lago happenings, I have declined to darken its gigantic, cathedral “Doors of Kong” for the growing common reason: I have major issues with the proprietor.
It is good to see that I am now in a lot of serious company, including the American Cancer Society, the Salvation Army and the Palm Beach Zoo.
I should mention that a relative who knows me well expressed concern about my ability to comport myself in a manner appropriate to decent society. She had previously admonished me not to be snarky because in Palm Beach they “don’t understand snark.” Taking offense at the suggestion that I am occasionally not in full Puritan control, I ran this advice by several lady friends all of whom concurred.
Notes on the Mar-a-Lago Red Cross Ball
The Red Cross Ball is a black tie, no exceptions, no variations, no excuses event. I had previously shipped down my tux, pre-tied, strap-on, black bow tie, ruffle shirt, and cummerbund on the theory that this outfit might be of more potential use in Palm Beach than in gray, billable-hours D.C. (*See partial correction at end.)
The Red Cross Ball can be sensory overload for beginners”
I did, however, come up short in the matter of footwear. I was advised that “evening slippers, sometimes called smoking slippers” would be appropriate. A quick search of my wardrobe revealed that I did not, in fact, have any slippers, my preference being to walk around in Gold Toe Black Fluffies, a great sock, and classic Chuck Taylors.
So I scurried off to the Shoe Carousel in nearby downmarket Boynton Beach where I scored a pair of on-sale $59 black no-lace loafers. Fortuitously, the Carousel sponsors a special discount day for the local geezers on Thursdays.
A club for ‘aspiring oligarchs”
The Red Cross Ball is an annual event historically held at Mar-a-Lago, formerly Marjorie Merriweather Post’s (of Post Toasties fame) major estate on Palm Beach Island, and is currently a club for aspiring oligarchs. The initial membership fee doubled to $200,000 this year, which is best not to think too much about.
Incidentally, the proprietor at the time was suing Palm Beach County for damages to his property. His grievances focused on the coming and going of airplanes from West Palm Beach International Airport inconveniently situated a couple of miles from his establishment.
The proprietor at the time was suing Palm Beach County for damages to his property”
The Red Cross Ball is a monster happening, with somewhere in the ballpark of 700 invitees. And Palm Beach generally views it as the high point of the social season and one that requires gentlemen to dress in full penguin. I came fully prepared with tux, accouterments, and shiny, Shoe Carousel black loafers…and Fluffies. (See above.)
For a short while at the event I was left to my own devices—not necessarily a good idea—to wander about the huge pre-dinner cocktail party.
About the ladies. . . and gents
The ladies in attendance seemed radiant in elaborate gowns. They must have employed legions of dressmakers, jewelers, manicurists, hairdressers, waxologists, sundry cosmeticians and estheticians, plastic surgeons, personal trainers, Zumba masters and psychotherapists. Many of the women looked like third or fourth replacement parts for original, used spouses and lady friends previously found wanting by their gentleman escorts.
As for the gentlemen, they were both distinguished and essentially undistinguishable one from the other in black outfits with occasional raffish plaid accessories and sashes and great haircuts. From their expressions, they seemed much pleased with things.
Festivities opened up at a huge cocktails-and-snacks gathering under a glass roof over a giant lavish space. Can’t, after all, have too many superlatives.
The Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra, playing classical favorites, provided the Tchaikovsky background music: “O.K., girls move it, swans are up in five minutes.” The orchestra impressed me as surprisingly good, a judgment possibly influenced by return visits to Israel’s vodka and the dried apricot booth. (See below.)
Elements of the food court
Consistent with the international “Around the World” theme, there were sprinkled about a number of set-ups sponsored by different countries where national specialty foods and beverages could be sampled. I naturally avoided the British booth and made a couple of jerk chicken roundtrips to the Jamaican place.
As mentioned, I also learned about and dipped the muzzle several times into the Israeli vodka, which, until then, I didn’t know existed. Good stuff. Then again, as I think about it, I couldn’t recognize bad vodka. It’s hard to understand the distinct advantages of Swedish vodka made with prehistoric glacier water. In any event, I made it a point to avoid humiliation by not falling into a punch bowl or into any one of a number of dangerously unmarked indoor ponds spread about the floor.
The place was a swirl of colors, outfits, constant movement, air kisses and noise. Included in the gathering were a number of full formal-dress U.S. Marines. They served as escorts to the red carpet celebrities scheduled to be ceremoniously introduced later in he evening. Yes, Virginia, there was a red carpet.
Eventually, a search party had been sent out to find me at the mobbed cocktail event. They found me casually leaning on a railing overlooking one of the ponds and mostly innocently contemplating the cleavage on display. I particularly wondered about the engineering infrastructure (flying buttresses, cantilevers, two-sided tapes, cross beams, elastics, and wires) necessary for keeping it all in proper place.
The proceedings then adjourned to the Master Ball Room, where tables were set up for dinner, dancing, and a number of speeches.
They found me casually leaning on a railing overlooking one of the ponds and mostly innocently contemplating the cleavage on display”
The band, a bunch of (about eight) white guys in white dinner jackets, was called something like the Sultans/Kings/Dukes/Arch Dukes/Princes/Some Royalty of Swing.
Shirley MacLaine, Wayne Newton, William Shatner and Donald Trump
As things turned out, I had a great view of the head table. There was Shirley MacLaine, next to her, Wayne Newton and his wife, on the other side of the table were William Shatner and wife, and then Donald Trump with his current consort.
Ms. MacLaine was not nearly as spacey as I thought she would be. She appeared mostly pre-occupied with the movie, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” showing on big screens throughout the place. She was looking for herself in her role as an Indian Princess about to be burned at the stake. The Princess was happily saved at the last minute. I asked her if doing the movie seemed like yesterday. She said that yes, it did. Ms. MacLaine seemed mostly uninterested in the proceedings but was, to the extent called upon, cordial to admirers. She disappeared at the first opportune moment.
What can you say about Wayne Newton? He’s a living symbol of all that is right and wrong with Las Vegas. I remember, years ago, going to see his long-running show at a rundown casino in Vegas. The cheapo lobster-steak combo platter at the restaurant there was a good deal. Wayne had his own gift shop in the lobby.
As a general observation, my tonsorial efforts should not have been in the same county as Newton’s and Trump’s shellacked coifs of great splendor.
Wayne’s hairdo looked as if a nocturnal woodland creature had nested on his head. He had big shiny white choppers (Newton that is). The guy looked Lugosi pale, surgically enhanced, and chemically preserved: very natural as is said in far less festive venues.
A discomfited William Shatner
William Shatner seemed uncomfortable being at The Ball. Possibly this was because Leonard Nimoy’s funeral was scheduled at the same time. He seemed to chat only as much as necessary. I told him that I liked his album, though in truth, he sounded like a singing dog. No, I didn’t add the dog part. He informed me that he did a number of albums. Always the last to know.
Donald Trump was occupied granting audiences to a number of attendees. Much fawning and idol worship by supplicants was in evidence. The guy was absolutely in his element as beneficent master of all his subjects and all he surveyed.
Voices in the crowd yelled, “Trump for President.” A surreal moment even then.”
For a guy who had been screwing over investors and contractors in a number of his enterprises for years, Trump had somehow emerged from the slings and arrows of outrageous litigation and bankruptcies as a living symbol of wealth, class, and refinement. This was apparently the view of the many at the Ball who could not pay sufficient homage.
They even served Trump labeled champagne. I didn’t see the man drink it. I like to think that he knew the stuff was awful and got both the small and the larger joke. Both were unlikely.
The next event, once all were seated at the tables, with lights dimmed, was the ceremonial presentation of the various dignitaries, celebrities, honorees, ambassadorial types, Red Cross officials, Ball organizers, and others. A spotlight shone as a uniformed Marine provided an escort as a number of those thusly recognized advanced down the red carpet. This was all to what sounded like Pomp and Circumstance provided by the Tsars, or something like it. They told the audience not to applaud for each one of the dignitaries. There was no problem complying (This was all going on for a long time.)
After this came the presentation of the colors, the flag, that is. Four or so U.S. Marines came marching in with wooden rifles and two big flags, performed an intricate set of moves, and ultimately, flags unfurled, stood at attention. The Royal Swingers played the Marine Corps Hymn. The Marines who served as escorts were at the front of the room standing at attention before the Grande Reyes de Swingo. Finally, finally, came the National Anthem. All rise. Play ball.
Indignities at dinner
The lights came on and it was time for dinner.
On the tables was mushroom soup-colored bowls, as things turned out, filled with mushroom soup. On top of the soup were little bits of delicate leafy vegetation that looked like decoration at the bottoms of the bowls. This mattered because the lady on my right, thinking the bowl was empty, plopped her purse in the soup. The guy on my left did the same thing with his napkin. Because of all the splashing about in the soup, my tuxedo ended up slathered. Luckily, or maybe not so luckily, I have a high tolerance for many indignities.
I hadn’t until later gauged the very obvious magnitude of my soup issues.
In any event, the illogical consequence of the great soup splash-in was that ultimately I lost my glasses: a story for another time.
Trump’s pre-presidential acolytes
Dinner itself was good, if not particularly notable. Generic music from the Royals played softly in the background. The real event featured a continuous circling of guests from the lesser tables around the main table where there was a whole lot of grinning, praising of celebrities, and pleasure at being recognized. Trump was particularly comfortable surrounded by eager acolytes.
After dinner, there were a great number of speeches from representatives of the Red Cross (including the head of the organization), each of the celebrities, the organizers of the event, and, I’m sure, miscellaneous others. Each expressed deep respect for all the important work done all over the world by the Red Cross and how much the Red Cross needs our support to continue this work.
Wayne Newton explains his stint with the draft
Wayne Newton’s spoke about how he was unfortunately rejected by the draft because of bronchial asthma. So that his patriotism was not to be questioned, he made sure to tell the crowd that, notwithstanding this disability, he travelled all over the world entertaining the troops. This received a round of applause. I imagined Wayne Newton entertaining some poor schmo coming out of some jungle or desert hell.
Later there was a fund raising effort run by Mr. Newton at center stage to sell 80 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne to the crowd at $1,000 per bottle. Between exhortations to the audience to ante up, he provided some Vegas entertainment. It included a little guitar riff demonstrating how multitalented he is. Sales stalled at 40 bottles at which point someone in the audience stepped up to buy the remaining 40. A round of applause followed his announcement that he would give a bottle of $1,000 hooch to each of the Marines in attendance.
Not surprisingly, Newton expressed his thanks by launching into his signature “Danke Schoen.”
At some point during the speeches Mr. Trump received an award in recognition of something. He acted surprised, if not humbled. He gave a little speech. Voices in the crowd yelled, “Trump for President.” A surreal moment even then.
Finally they opened the dance floor and guests immediately mobbed the space. That’s when I knew it was time for me to edge out. I received a text the day after the ball that asked if I made it home O.K. I replied that I didn’t drink that much. The return message said it all: “The Red Cross Ball can be sensory overload for beginners.”
*Small correction: The ball is white tie. White tie and decorations, actually. But most of the non-diplomats get by with black tie, which is acceptable.
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