Join the Club. Maybe Not! A Strange Tale of Two Worlds in Palm Beach

Originally written and posted March 2005.  Since that time, Bernie Maddoff has made one of the clubs featured in this piece famous (if impecunious,) so I’ve rewritten it a bit.  The following year I got to play golf at the Ridgeway Country Club, a formerly “Jewish country club” in Memphis, TN, which opened its membership to Gentiles.  I also have a much more active relationship with my old home town now than then.

If you’ve spent a lot of time in my Palm Beach material on this blog, you’ve probably figured out that most of this material comes from a long time ago. You also probably figure a lot of it has changed. And indeed much has changed in South Florida in the years since Buff roamed the overgrown back yards of this exclusive place, searching for rodents and other wildlife.

Every now and then I get to catch up on the news from Palm Beach, and I find out that, for some things, “plus de change, plus la meme chose” (more change, more of the same thing.) One of those concerns Palm Beach’s private clubs. The fact that they’re exclusive isn’t surprising; that’s the nature of the place. And, since we are on U.S. soil, the freedom of association (under attack by our courts, but still there) make it possible for private clubs to admit whom they want and to exclude whom they don’t. But there’s one rather insidious practice that hasn’t changed even with all of the other social changes we have experienced here in the U.S., one that has survived the coming and going of many of us.

Anyone who lived on the north end of the island had to pass a the Palm Beach Country Club, with its well manicured course and pristine clubhouse, to go anywhere. As we passed this place time and time again, I (a kid of nine or ten) wondered, “Why do we pass this place up to go to another club?” I grew up in a family where it wasn’t wise to ask too many questions, but eventually I was told that it was the “Jewish Country Club,” and since we were Gentiles, we belonged elsewhere.  (That “elsewhere” was the Breakers.)

This segregation was strictly enforced. There were “Jewish clubs,” there were “Gentile clubs,” and n’er the twain met. This enforcement could be brutal. In the early 1960′s a member of another of Palm Beach’s exclusive clubs (the Everglades Club) made the mistake of bringing her Jewish friend for lunch. She was asked to resign her membership.

I never fully understood this state of affairs. It made sense to me to pass the synagogue to go to Bethesda, but the club? My puzzlement was reinforced by another fact of life: the private clubs were segregated by Jew and Gentile, but the private schools were not. All through my years in school in South Florida, Jewish and Gentile kids were together. I had many Jewish friends and classmates. Sometimes things didn’t go according to plan. My brother made the mistake of calling a Jewish classmate a “Jew boy,” and same son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob responded by fracturing his jaw. (That’s one way to deal with anti-Semitism!) Both the valedictorian and saludictorian of my Episcopal prep school graduating class were Jewish. As the valedictorian gave her speech, her father listened with his concentration camp number tattooed on him, a reminder that he (and many other Jews) did well to be there at all.

This was all during the period when the public schools were being desegregated, a process which was challenging enough on its face but which was compounded by the way the Palm Beach County school system went about it. I am sure that at least some of the judges which ordered desegregated schools went to “segregated” clubs. Couldn’t someone have “connected the dots” on this issue? Couldn’t the elites have led by example, even if there was and is no legal compulsion to change? Evidently not.

Today we have over forty years of civil rights legislation under our belts, along with all of this “diversity” and “tolerance” business. But even today the clubs of Palm Beach–and many elsewhere in South Florida and beyond–are still divided between Jew and Gentile. Some clubs in other places have opened up on this matter. But dear old Palm Beach is “sticking with tradition” on this one. If the “Blue State” elites are really serious about maintaining their dominance, they can start by “leading by example” on an issue like this.

3 thoughts on “Join the Club. Maybe Not! A Strange Tale of Two Worlds in Palm Beach”

  1. I really enjoy your blog.
    I was “confirmed” in the Episcopal church when I was 12.
    After a wild ride on the wrong road, or least through a ditch, I’m at a Vineyard Church.

    I wonder, why are there funeral homes for black/white only?

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

      As you can tell, my voyage from TEC to where I’m at now has been an interesting one.

      I suppose that the funeral homes are another “private club” that need a little diversity. I will say that, here in Chattanooga, I have gone to visitations and funerals at black funeral homes and have been received with the utmost courtesy.

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