A World Unto Itself

Jan. 28, 2020

Indiscretion. Zenith. Aphrodite. Lady Sara. Gene’s Machine. Just a few names of the eye-popping mega-yachts which reside in disquieting regularity in front of equally eye-popping mansions. We have been saturated by our glimpse into the opulent wealth of southeastern Florida, beginning with the fascinating Henry Flagler history and continuing by our IntraCoastal Waterway route past a parade of current breath-stopping part-time residences and yachts from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton to Miami. There are not many Loopers here, as Loopers usually opt for lower-key, less extravagant, and more natural experiences. But, Steve and I are looping backwards as we head south—most Loopers approach the Keys from Florida’s west coast. We’ve seen this sort of lifestyle elsewhere, sprinkled around the Caribbean and other coastal areas but never in profuse succession like this. This is a world unto itself.


Shiney, impeccable mega-yachts all along the ICW of southeastern Florida await a professional captain—perhaps a 3-person crew—and a destination. 

Having been to Palm Beach years ago for a medical meeting, we almost passed on the Flagler Museum, Whitehall.  But we enjoyed revisiting the history, pondering again the business titans of the turn of the 20th century, those robber barons of the Gilded Age. Henry Flagler won his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner at Standard Oil, and was the innovative business mind behind the the centralization of the huge corporation’s holdings, giving birth to the Standard Oil Trust. He retired in his 60s and turned his attention to developing Florida, eventually purchasing over 2,000,000 acres of land and laying over 500 miles of railroad track along Florida’s east coast and, remarkably, all the way to Key West. His vision opened Florida to the rich and famous, with access to his luxury hotels by his railway, and the development of agriculture in service of the lifestyle. The Florida project was a money loser, and he joked that he would have been a wealthy man were it not for Florida, his assets having dipped to $150,000,000 at his death in 1913. Whitehall was a wedding gift to Henry Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lily Kenan; he was 71 and she, an accomplished young woman of high society at 34 years. The more-than-100,000-square-foot extravagant mansion in warm Beaux Arts architecture was created with attention to every aspect of design and living, from quiet spaces where deals were made, to the music room with a 1249-pipe Odell organ (calling for a resident organist) and Steinway upright grand ornamented with hand painted scenes, where Mary Lily hosted her literary friends, to the lavish grand hall and ball rooms. The Flaglers resided here only during “the season,” 6 weeks from early January through Washington’s birthday. It is easy to let one’s imagination play with images of their lavish life, but I also caught suggestions of a darker side to the history, which set me to googling over the course of the next days. I discovered that the Flagler story also includes a “love child” prior to their marriage who was raised by Mary Lily’s sister as her own; a Florida law which was instituted to make divorce for reasons of insanity legal was utilized only by Henry Flagler in order to divorce his second wife, and then was rescinded a short time later; and the tragedies of syphilis contracted by an early beau, nefarious lethal morphine overdosing, Mary Lily’s  unscrupulous, fortune-hunting 2nd husband (and said “early beau”), and a nighttime exhumation and gruesome graveside autopsy of Mary Lily two months after her burial. The plot would make for scoffable drama, were it not true. Finally in 1959 Whitehall was rescued from the indignity of  punishing use as a hotel and near razing, by Henry’s grand daughter; she created the foundation which secures it as a national landmark today. Flagler’s story is a stunning story of vision, an arrogant viewpoint regarding the masses, and a stomach for ruthless acquisition and power. 


Top to bottom: Steve in front of the Flagler Whitehall home; the Grand Hall with its perfect balance of mythology and classic architecture; the music room where the resident organist performed for the Flaglers daily and Mary Lily entertained her literary friends (note the Baccarat crystal chandeliers); the dining room, which seated only 24–overflow would have to take their meals at their nearby Royal Poinciana Hotel; Mrs. Flagler’s parlor, where the identity disclosed on caller’s card determined whether she was home or not. While much of the ornamentation in the mansion is painted in gold leaf, this room’s plaster work is plated with aluminum, a treatment many times more expensive than gold leaf at the time.  


Flagler’s personal railroad car was luxuriously appointed and simply bore the number “91.”

I will simply mention that we left Fort Pierce without a working generator. We had hoped to enjoy anchoring out on this next quiet leg of our journey—and we may once—but that means no AC electricity and a cold dinner and no morning coffee. Tonight we sit contentedly on our little boat in a marina full of newer and bigger boats in Coconut Grove, a western suburb of Miami. We were told by our sweet Costa Rican medical student/driver/tour guide that here in Coconut Grove one can live in a house, if prefer to the high-rise culture of the city. Here one can purchase a starter home for about $900,000. We look forward to a laid-back experience in the Keys after feeling wound a little tight this week. We’ll be leaving the ICW, which is known to be shallow down the chain, and cruising “outside.” “Outside” is the ocean, Hawks Channel to be exact, and we have an eagle-eye on wind, direction and speed. 


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