Home > A Palm Beach Scandal

A Palm Beach Scandal
Author: Susannah Marren

PART ONE

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

ELODIE


Aren’t the women always rushed? Even if they appear to be graceful, ambling along the limestone path to the courtyard, it’s actually a quiet frenzy. More members of the Palm Beach Literary Society file in, the usual glossy and cultured forties to sixties crowd heading toward their tables, chattering among themselves. They are followed by the septuagenarians and octogenarians at a more measured pace. What is fresh are the twenty- to thirtysomethings—daughters and granddaughters of members. Each fixates on her iPhone as if there is no slightly bumpy ground to navigate. Every woman is dressed for her decade. Favored colors—sage green, buttermilk yellow, auburn, deep blues, and purple, left over from last season—show off the preferred designers: Oscar, St. John, Dolce, Kors, McQueen, Etro. Whatever their age, the sunlight flits across their faces as they search for their assigned tables. Women fan themselves with their programs, seeming eager to begin. As they assemble I pray no one trips or is displeased with her assigned location.

At the entrance of the main building, I stand in my peplum dress in blues and greens, and illusion pumps, welcoming the women. I watch how they half wave at one another. I wave back at everyone in a wide sweep. Too earnest, Elodie, my mother would warn me. Among the guests for today are loyal members, new members, probable members. For the latter two, I’ve scheduled this as an eight-thirty breakfast. “Awfully early. I mean, who in Palm Beach will be finished with their holistic Pilates, a Zumba water class … an early tennis match by then? It’s unheard of!” Nan Payton, the head of the board, said when the invitations were mailed. Snail-mailed.

Except for women who work, I had explained. And this morning Demi Dexter, the most in-demand cosmetic dermatologist this side of the bridge, Halley Hennes, a social worker for the VA Medical Center in West Palm, Tanya Lessinger, a public defender, and Maritza Abrams, the matrimonial lawyer chosen by wives, not husbands, are the first to sit down. Their wrought-iron chairs tip imperceptibly into the sodded earth; each straightens her shoulders and turns to beckon women she hasn’t seen before. Five—no, six unknown guests walk toward this table. Colleagues perhaps, out-of-towners from farther north than Jupiter, as far south as Lauderdale. Their nods and greetings are quiet—it is an early hour, no matter what my intention.

As their bodies wobble in their seats, I miss New York City, where I once worked at the St. Agnes branch of the public library on the Upper West Side. It was a diverse group in every way—men came, too, to hear novelists, essayists, screenwriters. This morning’s event is pegged the “Literary Ladies Breakfast.” Men could come, in theory, but they seem to prefer golf, tennis, or going straight to the office. I double-check, without spotting one male among us. From across the courtyard, the doyennes at Rita Damon’s table observe the newcomers warily.

The next tier of professionals is more predictable—a specific Palm Beach career crowd. Margot Damon, Rita’s daughter-in-law, and Peggy Ann Letts, both real estate agents at the Bailey Group. Kimberly Shawn, interior designer. Allison Rochester, who recently began working at High Dune, her husband’s hedge fund, selecting worthy causes to support. Betty McCarter, whose shop sells bone china and sterling-silver trays for the finest homes in the estate section. Coiffed and polished, they huddle as platters of mini croissants and mini pastries are passed. Although they have lived here for years, their accents become interfaced. Miami natives remain heavy on l’s and vowels, Southern drawls never dissolve, and a Bostonian cadence rises above the rest.

Last to be seated are those whom I know best. Ardent readers and lecturegoers who come to the library several days a week. There they pluck from the shelves and make requests from the waiting list. These include my mother and mother-in-law, who come together to anything and everything that is offered. As director of events at the Palm Beach Literary Society, I’ve fought for classes for children, adults, and seniors. There are six librarians whom I supervise, and we share this point of view. Instead of the old template of a private club, we have pushed for free programming. Still, this is an institution founded in 1925 by several Palm Beach matrons and designed by Maurice Fatio during his Italian Renaissance period. Change comes slowly. Long-standing members remain a steadfast clan, champions of this morning’s fund-raiser. To avoid stirring things up, we have selected a guest today who is respected and veritable.

And it’s a sold-out event. If I add this to our Best-Selling Authors Series, we have a compelling list. Lately I’ve been braver about following my instincts, wanting to mix it up. I’m proud of my endeavors, my choices for the Literary Society. I’ve brought in more poets, songwriters, an expert on Shakespeare and women, incendiary playwrights, and political writers. Yet I haven’t forgotten how I was watched when I first began. Let Elodie prove herself to the board, heighten an intellectual curiosity, attract admired authors, a calendar of events.

“Elodie?” Laurie, my assistant, tucks her wispy hair behind her ears. “I think it’s time.”

The chitchat is waning. I look around. The literary critic and feminist Julianne Leigh, this morning’s speaker, floats toward me in her boho chic persimmon maxiskirt and tan fringed suede booties.

“Oh, sure. Am I holding things up?” I ask.

When Julianne reaches me, Laurie and my mother both take their iPhones out for a photo op. Julianne and I oblige, arms around each other’s waists, our smiles radiating toward the tables. “Quite a crowd,” she whispers although her microphone isn’t on.

“I’m thrilled,” I whisper back. “Thank you.”

I go over my introductory notes in my head, although I know exactly what my words will be, since I’m a longtime fan of Julianne’s.

“Please, ladies, take your seats.” My voice is clear. I notice that although we are outdoors, there isn’t much air circulating. It could be the humidity—uncommonly high for November in Palm Beach. We should have held the event inside, where the air-conditioning is endless. Except for the setting—twelve tables among the allamanda bushes, birds-of-paradise, and Dombaya. Julianne Leigh hovers at the edge of the front row, waiting for my introduction to begin.

“It is meaningful that everyone is here today for our annual kickoff 2018/19 Distinguished Lecturer Series.” I lift the glass of water left on the inside ledge of the podium for the guest speaker. I take a sip and go on.

“I have long admired Julianne Leigh, ever since I first read her work when I was in college. Today she will discuss how the writings of Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Bishop have influenced her. She’ll talk about Smith’s humor, whimsy, and seriousness, and offer her insights into Bishop’s evocative language that describes atmosphere and place. I cannot imagine a better critic than Julianne to interpret these works. And I know that she’ll set us straight on that famous line of Smith’s, ‘I was much too far out, all my life. And not waving but drowning.’”

Applause as Julianne approaches, a whiff of her Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire preceding her hug. I gag, as if I’ve never been overwhelmed by a scent before. Swiftly I recover and meet her embrace. We swap eye contact, our resident intern snaps a photo, more applause.

As I step down, onto the lawn, I’m light-headed. I move away from the podium toward my mother’s table as if it is a goal line, suddenly nauseous. The sun shines too brightly and the clank of coffee cups and silver trays being placed on the tables sounds too harsh. I put my hand against my waist, flat although I’m fifteen weeks pregnant—after three miscarriages, nothing matters as much as my baby’s beating heart. My nausea turns to a kind of cramping across my entire middle to my back. I look out at the crowd, whose focus is entirely on Julianne. She begins by describing her ascension in the writing world as if it might be as easy as learning to ride a bike. She is captivating, melodic. I move myself along, daring to stare in one direction. My mother, in front to my left, gets up from her chair so quickly it falls onto the grass. She is staring at me with pity in her eyes.

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