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A look inside Palm Beach, where wealthy Canadians are one degree of separation from Donald Trump

TRUMP'S AMERICA

A look inside Palm Beach, where wealthy Canadians are one degree of separation from Donald Trump

Donald Trump is fast turning Mar-a-Lago into a winter White House. As Ian Brown pays a visit to Palm Beach, he ponders the uneasy accord between old money and arriviste politician – and whether the town's sizable contingent of wealthy snowbirds might help argue Canada's case at Trump's Florida court

Having bought the historic Mar-a-Lago for a song in 1985, Mr. Trump then added a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, turned the library into a library bar, and bought an adjoining $2-million stretch of beach.

Let's begin at the Everglades Club, the most exclusive of the exclusive clubs in Palm Beach, Fla., the most exclusive town in the United States of America, the village of millionaires and billionaires (30 of the 400 richest people on Earth own property here), where Donald Trump has a place called Mar-a-Lago that is emerging as the new Winter White House, and where the president elect is spending the holidays before his inauguration.

The Everglades Club didn't allow Jews or African-Americans as members for a long time, although insiders in Palm Beach claim that is no longer the case. It still isn't keen on all kinds of white people. Although the late Paul Desmarais, a francophone Canadian, was a member here, as are Thor Eaton (of the department-store dynasty) and Conrad Black (though his status as a convicted felon makes it difficult, at the moment, for him to travel to the U.S.), Donald Trump is not. You have to be recommended for membership. As one current and unnameable Everglades Club member puts it, "people who try to call attention to themselves wouldn't be welcome." (Hardly anyone in Palm Beach will speak on the record.) The Everglades Club is a very particular place. Members are not to use cellphones while on club property.

If you, a non-member, walk under the portico of the Everglades Club, at the foot of glistening Worth Avenue, the high-end shopping boulevard in Palm Beach, two things happen.

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At least six young men in white golf shirts, white shorts, white socks and white gym shoes jump to attention. They all want to valet-park your car. You do not have a car.

Then you are approached by an African-American man. He is wearing a frock coat and a tie and a pair of small, round, Ben Franklin-style spectacles. He is straight out of Dickens. He peers at you over his specs, and says, "Can I help you, sir?"

"What is this place?" you say, marvelling at the vast emerald golf course in the distance, marvelling, also, if that is the right word, at the optics of appointing a black man to do so visible a job for so many white people.

"I can't tell you that, sir," he says.

"Is it the Everglades Club?" you counter. You already know it's the Everglades Club, but you ask anyway. It's definitely not the Palm Beach Country Club, which the Jewish community started for its own kind, and which later became a melting point in the Bernie Madoff scandal, and where the initiation fee is reportedly $300,000.

"No, sir," he says. "It is not the Everglades Club."

And bingo, right there, you have the ultimate Palm Beach response, the ideal mélange of politeness and refusal, of manners and condescension, of give but give no more, whose implication is the town's unofficial motto: If you have to ask, you don't belong here.

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If it seems unlikely that Donald Trump, a man whose public persona is anything but well-behaved, would choose the snobbiest place on Earth to relax and regather as president of the United States, that adds just one more layer of complexity to both Palm Beach and Donald Trump: He craves confrontation, and Palm Beach has spent years disapproving of him and therefore satisfying his craving – at least until now, when his new status as president seems to be turning even Palm Beach's disdainful head.

Which may be something to remember here in Canada, the small country that needs to get along with the leader of the huge country next to it. When the Obamas leave Washington in three weeks, the direct line Justin Trudeau and his Liberals have enjoyed to the White House will be cut off. But a new back door to the White House may be opening here in Palm Beach via the knot of massively wealthy Canadians who have made the town their winter home for years.

To understand the rogue president-elect of the United States, and how (or even if) Canada can bend his will to our benefit, you have to get to know palmiest Palm Beach.


'It's just gaga money down there'

America's most exclusive community was invented in the 1880s by Henry Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil, for rich New Yorkers (Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Mellons) who wanted to spend their winters on a balmy 21-kilometre sliver of land an hour's drive north of Miami.

The Kennedys had a compound on the north end of the island (a New Hampshire postal worker tried to assassinate president-elect JFK in Palm Beach after he beat Richard Nixon in 1960). The Kennedys used to hang out at Green's Luncheonette, where today you might see Jimmy Buffett or Serena Williams or Rod Stewart. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter own here, and so did John Lennon and Yoko. Robert Wright (former CEO of NBC), Stephen Schwarzman (private equity), Robert Nederlander (of the theatre-owning family, and former general manager of the New York Yankees), Robert Kraft (packaging, and the New England Patriots), Douglas Daft (former CEO of Coca-Cola), and David Koch (one of the famous libertarian Kochs, backer of the Republican party, massive philanthropist) all winter here. Bernie Madoff had a place. People in Palm Beach stopped talking about the local destruction the Madoff storm caused only when Hurricane Trump came along.

There are so many millionaires and billionaires in Palm Beach, Malcolm Muggeridge once claimed that the raisable causeways connecting the island to West Palm Beach were drawbridges designed to keep the rabble at bay in the event of an insurrection.

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I have Conrad Black, a former Palm Beach resident, to thank for that information. "In fact," Mr. Black told Mr. Muggeridge at the time, the bridges lift "just to let the masts of the yachts go past," as they sail and dock up and down the famous Intracoastal Waterway, the 4,800-kilometre canal that runs from Boston to Texas.

Conrad Black sold his Palm Beach property, shown below in 2008, for $25-million in 2011. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; FRED DERYK/REUTERS

Palm Beach is different from nearby Wellington, where people like Rosemary Phelan (heir to the Cara food empire) have horse farms; and from nearby Windsor, which Hilary and Galen Weston put on the map; and from Lost Tree, the gated community a half-hour north of Palm Beach where such eminences as Jack Welch (of former GE fame) and Toronto mayor John Tory have winter lairs. "It's just gaga money down there in Palm Beach," says a long-time resident of Lost Tree. "If you don't have more than $100-million, you're not rich. You start all over again from the bottom, socializing down there."

The most expensive properties in Palm Beach stretch from the Atlantic Ocean on their east side to the Intracoastal on the west: Conrad Black sold his 21,000 square feet (which sat on three acres) for $25-million in 2011 while he waited to see if he would be cleared of charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. He was not, thus ending 35 years of wintering on the golden sandbar. But he's still friendly with Mr. Trump, who spoke in the Lord's defence at Mr. Black's last Hollinger board meeting, and offered to testify for him in court. Mr. Black makes no claim to close friendship, but the two men correspond.

Mr. Black has always been a shrewd observer of Palm Beach's wealthy: He once watched a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud ram into a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow which rammed into a Rolls-Royce Phantom V at the corner of Worth Avenue and North County Road. He divides Palm Beach into three distinct classes: multigenerational old money; somewhat gauche parvenus; and meritocrats of a more tasteful type. He puts Mr. Trump in the last category, and predicts he will be, in policy terms, a surprisingly effective president. Mr. Black finds him "a gregarious man, a very affable man," just "not a very clubbable guy." Although he wishes Mr. Trump had been more "adjectivally specific" (fewer uses of "huge" and "great"), "he himself is a gentleman: never raises his voice, never uses vulgarity, and is very courteous." He believes, in other words, that Mr. Trump's Archie Bunkerish campaign was just a tactic.

(There are people in Palm Beach who suspect Mr. Black's generosity may have an ulterior motive, now that a presidential pardon from Mr. Trump would let him return without hindrance to the United States. Mr. Black admits the thought has occurred to him, but "I would not waste his time with such trivialities.")


In 1995, Mr. Trump filed the first of a line of lawsuits suing Palm Beach for the noise caused by aircraft flying over the estate. Now that he is about to be president, planes passing overhead may have to fly another, more secure route when he’s at the estate.

Mar-a-Lago was built in the 1920s by breakfast-cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. She left it in her will to the U.S. government as a winter residence for presidents.

A 226-room platform

But if you really want to understand Palm Beach, and Donald Trump, and their mutually enabling addiction, behold Mar-a-Lago.

The crib where Mr. Trump keeps a suite of rooms, and spends Thanksgiving and winter weekends, was built during the 1920s by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the multiply-married breakfast-cereal heiress. She left it in her will (she died in 1973) to the United States government as a winter residence for presidents. Richard Nixon, Mr. Trump's idol, who later set up his own southern headquarters at Key Biscayne, was interested – the furnishings included a clock mantelpiece given to Ms. Post by Mussolini, to cite just one of its treasures – but the place cost $1-million a year in upkeep, and the Secret Service considered the jets flying overhead from Palm Beach International Airport to be a security risk. At least three attempts to develop Mar-A-Lago failed to find financing, and by 1980 it was considered a white elephant.

The estate had been on the market without a single serious offer for five years – the town of Palm Beach even approved its demolition at one point, to make way for smaller homes – when Donald Trump bought it for $7-million in 1985. Think about that: The place Marjorie Post left for the use of presidents was bought by Donald Trump, turned into a private property to make a profit, and, now that he is the president, will serve as a place the president lives – a situation well within the blurry zone he maintains between his personal financial interests and the interests of the presidency. Some Palm Beachers find this infuriating. "It's not a private residence, " Steven Stolman, a long-time resident, designer and entrepreneur, points out. "It is a hospitality facility. It is ludicrous that the president of the United States would want to reside in a hospitality facility, when there are so many other facilities available, like Camp David and the White House, designed to accommodate the needs and the image projected by the office."

Having bought the historic building for a song, Mr. Trump then snapped up an adjoining stretch of oceanfront for $2-million, restored the house to its original splendour (58 bedrooms, 126 rooms in all, 17 acres, five clay tennis courts, a nine-metre marble dining table), added a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, turned the library into a library bar, and then tossed in a few personal details.

In the grand Mediterranean entranceway, a framed page from Variety, displaying the ratings of The Apprentice, Mr. Trump's reality show, is nailed to the wall. And of course there is The Visionary, the famous Ralph Wolfe Cowan portrait of Donald Trump in full tennis whites. Mr. Trump, 41 at the time, resembles Elijah ascending to heaven, as painted by, say, the genius who designed the cover of Tomb Raider.

Mr. Trump's next stroke of genius was to transform Mar-a-Lago into a private club that can also be rented as a public venue. Unlike the Everglades Club or the nearby Bath and Tennis Club, Mar-a-Lago is open to anyone who can afford to join. The price: $100,000 (though Mr. Trump gave a membership to Conrad Black), plus annual dues of $14,000. Members who wish to stay overnight can rent rooms that run to $2,000. Mar-a-Lago is known to have produced as much as $25-million a year in revenue for Mr. Trump.

The non-discrimination membership rule also applies at both nearby Trump golf clubs – the International in West Palm Beach and the National in the town of Jupiter. "The Trump golf club is a gong show," sniffs one deeply established member who plays at the Everglades Club. "If you can make out a cheque, if you got out of jail yesterday, you're in."

Charity balls and celebrity weddings – Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley honeymooned there – keep Mar-A-Lago in the news. Mar-a-Lago is most important as Donald Trump's personal platform, on which everyone automatically sees him. Hears him, notices him. As he once told one of his many Palm Beach architects, "It doesn't matter if you get a good article, or a bad one. It just matters that you get your name in the papers."

He has a fearless genius for doing so, much to Palm Beach's chagrin. In 2006, Mr. Trump installed a 24-metre flagpole and commensurately huge American flag on the club's grounds. The pole broke Palm Beach's bylaw regarding flagpole heights. (Another prohibits whistling in the street after midnight.) The county fined Mr. Trump. He sued. They later settled (slightly smaller flagpole, but bigger than the town wanted, plus $100,000 Mr. Trump was to donate to charity).

By then the town was familiar with Mr. Trump's methods. In 1995 he filed the first of a line of lawsuits suing Palm Beach for the noise caused by aircraft flying over Mar-a-Lago on their way to and from Palm Beach International. One of his complaints alleged that the town was discriminating against him because he allowed African-Americans and Jews to be members. Ironically, now that he is about to be president, planes passing over Mar-a-Lago may have to fly another, more secure route when he's at the estate. Not so ironically, since the election, his Secret Service detail has commandeered the overflow parking lot at the nearby Bath and Tennis Club as a security observation station. One can only imagine what this does to blood-pressure levels at the B&T, as it's known locally. "He got his way," points out Shannon Donnelly, society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. "He always gets his way."

(One question among many that surround Mr. Trump and his motives is why he created an open, non-segregated club. "Did he do it for the right reason?" one long-time Palm Beacher asks. "Because he was deeply moved by discrimination? Or did he do it for revenge?"– for instance, because he hasn't been asked to join the B&T? Is it possible Donald Trump would never want to belong to a club that wouldn't have him as a member?)

Needless to say, these antics have not endeared Mr. Trump to the posh residents of Disneyland For Billionaires. Whatever else Palm Beach is – a town of 8,600 (96-per-cent white, 87 per cent speaking English as their first language, a median age of 67) – it is unfailingly well-mannered. "It's very courtly," Mr. Stolman explains. "I like to say it's genteel and gentile, even though the town is half Jewish." He continues: "It may not be the most enlightened. And it certainly has its warts, with regard to discrimination and other dark issues. But Palm Beach is built on manners. And that's why people had such problems with Donald Trump when he appeared on the scene. He was confrontational, not courtly."

"He's one of the outliers in town, who flaunt tradition," says one Canadian Palm Beach business titan. "Back when they were selecting the Republican candidate, I don't recall a lot of people who were supporting Donald Trump."


Mr. Trump speaks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago.

Pardoning a president-elect

But suddenly – now that Mr. Trump has been elected president, now that he is no longer just a spectre but a reality, and a powerful one at that – all may be forgiven. In the same way that Mr. Trump may have opened a non-discriminating club because (among other reasons) it made good business sense, the wealthy burghers of Palm Beach have begun to embrace Donald Trump because they always do what's good for them. "Now that he's been elected," the titan adds, "people seem to be more interested."

Fancy that. Palm Beach's disdain turns out to be as liquid as the assets of its residents. At American Thanksgiving, during Trump's first postelection visit to Palm Beach, even Canadians flocked to his golf courses to have their picture taken with him. Last week, on Christmas Eve, the capacity congregation of 500 souls at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church – where Donald Trump and Melania Knauss married in 2005, him for the third time – leaped up and applauded, shouting "Hear! Hear!" and "Congratulations!" when the presidential-couple-elect tried to sneak into the 10:15 evening service through a side door.

He may not have as much money, at $3.7-billion and No. 156 on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in the world – although given his invisible tax returns, who knows? – as, say, his Palm Beachmate David Koch ($42-billion, and No. 7). But Mr. Trump has fresh success, and that matters more. He beat the odds, the naysayers, the establishment itself. Hell, he beat the Koch brothers, who refused to support his anti-free-trade candidacy.

"Yes, he's unpredictable," says another Canadian corporate bigwig in Palm Beach, who worries about a Trumpian America retreating from the world, and abandoning trade pacts. "And no one knows the next thing that's gonna come out of his mouth. But he clearly wants to change up Washington, and that sentiment seems to have taken hold here. It's at least exciting to watch."


How Floridians voted

In Sarasota, Fla., on election night, Doug Saunders discovered the people who elected Donald Trump were a lot more well-off and segregated than election watchers foresaw.

'Billionaire agoraphobe'

If the point-one per cent of the one-per-centers in Palm Beach who once looked down on Dirty Donald have now come around to his charms, and countries from Israel to Japan to Russia are now longing to be his pal, will the high-earning Canadians in Palm Beach be able to get a piece of Mr. Popularity? Given that we, like, elected a brazenly sunny Liberal and thank our stars for single-payer health care?

It won't be easy. Mr. Trump is famously reclusive, and not just within the gilded heights of his Trump Tower in Manhattan. In the past, before security was a concern, he was famous at Mar-a-Lago for dropping in on charity events and working the crowd in the dining room. "Donald Trump would come around to all the tables and say 'Hi, how are you? Great to see you!'" explains an heir to two generations of wealth. "He was like a glorified maitre d'. And now he has elevated himself."

But he has never been one to wander far from his own properties. "They stay at Mar-a-Lago, and they go to his golf clubs," one Palm Beach resident notes, referring to Mr. Trump as "a shadow resident" and "a billionaire agoraphobe." Ms. Donnelly, the Daily News society editor, has spotted him a few times on Worth Avenue, coming out of Tiffany. "That's about it," she says.

No one can remember his eating even at Chez Jean-Pierre, the favourite Friday-night dining spot of the biggest moguls. From the brilliantly stocked bar – getting a table as an outsider is like finding diamonds in a parking lot – you can watch women who seem to be in their 60s, who are dressed to the nines (knee-length mink stoles, bouclé Chanel suits, gemmed pendants the size of demitasse cups, strings of pearls like mooring ropes, wide pavé bracelets encircling sparrow-like wrists), dine with men who seem to be in their early 70s (subtropical sports coats or blazers in any shade of blue, loafers, striped shirts, no socks).

A white glow suffuses the restaurant (the food is the work of Jean-Pierre Leverrier, who trained in Montreal); everyone uses the flashlight on their phone to read the menu. The conversation is subdued but constant, cones of purring intimate chatter from which a single distinct word pops out again and again like a series of tiny balloons: "Trump." It's only when the patrons stand up from their tables and begin to walk out, at a pace that suggests they have been recently subjected to a blast of thermonuclear shock, that you realize how old everyone really is, how much plastic surgery they've had.

Can the Canadians in that set get the reclusive and disdainful Mr. Trump to listen to them? The answer lies in the way Palm Beachers influence one another.


Mar-a-Lago has produced between $15-million and $25-million a year in revenue for Mr. Trump.

Lots to be thankful for

Let's take a drive around town with Lawrence Moens.

Mr. Moens is Palm Beach's most eminent real-estate agent. From his black Bentley, which is so quiet and smooth he could rent it out as a spa, he can show you all the houses he has sold and even lived in over his life in Palm Beach.

He was responsible, in 2008, for selling a 62,000-square-foot, 18-bedroom house Donald Trump owned at 515 North County Road, in Palm Beach's more relaxed and family-oriented North End. It was the highest price ever recorded for a single home in Palm Beach history – $95-million. Mr. Trump had bought the house for $41.4-million. He sold it to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a controversial and splendidly divorced ($550-million to his former wife, Elena) Russian businessman turned offshore banker who made his first fortune cornering the Eastern European potash industry. These are the sort of details that make life in Palm Beach deliciously interesting.

The house has since been torn down. The land is currently for sale: three empty lots of two acres, each staring over the ocean at $40-million apiece. That sort of thing happens a lot in Palm Beach, too. "It's a great place," as Mr. Moens puts it, "to park a lot of money."

The North End of Palm Beach is quiet and pretty, street after street of tunnels of hedgy green. Charles Bronfman lives a few blocks away; Gerry Schwartz, the private equity genius, and his wife, Heather Reisman, who founded Indigo, have a big, $11-million French-provincial pile behind a massive hedge closer to town; Brian and Mila Mulroney are around the corner, in a six-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot stucco two-storey behind a 5 ½-metre hedge; there's a basketball net and backboard in the driveway. It's said to be worth more than $4-million.

Mr. Moens turns the Bentley around. A few minutes glide by. By now we're in the South End of Palm Beach, on South Ocean Boulevard, in the stretch known as Billionaires Row. Paul Desmarais's widow, Jacqueline, and her kids live in that place, famous all over town for its perfect putting-green front lawn facing the ocean.

Another house Mr. Moens is selling is the latest thing in high-end residential real estate: a brand new modernist place, 11,000 square feet on the Intracoastal, six bedrooms upstairs, and the master bedroom, with separate his and hers dressing rooms and bathrooms downstairs, sold fully furnished, down to the rugs and the art and the handbags in her handbag closet and the M&Ms in the dish on the kitchen counter, for $42.5-million. "I think it's a good buy," Mr. Moens says. "Great place to park a lot of money."

And, a little further down the road, there's Mr. Moens's own former house, at 850 South Ocean Drive, which he sold to Toronto investment adviser Ira Gluskin and his partner, Maxine Granovsky Gluskin, for $22-million. Mr. Moens bought it in 1991 for $2.18-million, according to news reports. The house was designed by architect Julius Jacobs in the late 1920s in the Mediterranean-Moorish style for which he was known after he left the firm of Addison Mizner, who established his own fame by designing the Everglades Club. The house next door was once owned by Steve Stavro, the grocery magnate and Toronto Maple Leafs owner. Later on it was owned by a shopping-mall magnate from Ohio who went to jail for bribing a politician. You get all types in Palm Beach, despite the formal segregation of the tribes.

The Gluskins don't belong to Mar-a-Lago, but they are known to be members of Club Colette, a dining emporium where Mila Mulroney held Brian's surprise 75th in 2014.

Everyone who was anyone came to that bash: Mr. Mulroney has been going down to Palm Beach to winter, one week on and one week off, for 20 years. Hilary and Galen Weston were there, as were David Koch and Stephen Schwarzman and Rita and Charles Bronfman and Rush Limbaugh and many others. Brian Mulroney sang a song.

Wilbur Ross, the turnaround king worth $2.7-billion, was there too, with his wife, Hilary. This is where things get interesting, and one way things could work for Canada in Palm Beach.

Mr. Ross is Mr. Trump's nominee for secretary of commerce. He lives three houses away from Tarpon Point, the waterside home of George and Susan Cohon. Mr. Cohon is the Toronto-based founder of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. – the guy who famously took McDonald's to Moscow. (Mr. Cohon was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Mikhail Gorbachev – the same award former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, had pinned on him by Vladimir Putin.)

In his two decades of wintering here, Mr. Cohon has met Donald Trump only twice, not well enough to call him. "I would never impose on him, unless the government of Canada asked," he says, as we stroll around his property, looking at his paintings and sculptures and his three-metre statue of Vladimir Lenin (long, fascinating story) and his bountiful avocado tree. He keeps his boat, McHappy III, tied up on the Intracoastal, on the other side of the property; his grandchildren love to sleep on it when they come for the holidays. "But I know Wilbur Ross. I know him well enough to call him." Given that the most likely issue of contention between Canada and the U.S. under Mr. Trump will be trade disputes, Wilbur Ross is a guy you want to call.

And of course there's Brian Mulroney. Contact-wise, Mr. Cohon says, "he's in a league of his own." Added bonus: Mr. Mulroney's children have known and even partied with the Trump children off and on since university. "All these people may not know Trump," son Mark Mulroney, an investment executive with National Bank in Toronto, says of the Palm Beach Canucks. "But all these people might have one degree of separation from him, and know people who know how to get through to him. I think it's important, because people don't know anything about the guy. They don't know how you influence this guy."

It would be reassuring if Canada could somehow get to Mr. Trump's ear. Of course, a question at least as big is: Does the president-elect devote even a fraction of a synaptic pulse to Canada?

"You start to ask the question," another senior Canadian executive with a winter home in Palm Beach admits, " 'How important are we in the world?' We don't really matter in global affairs. We're only 34 million people. I just hope that we're not inadvertently swept into these global issues."

Or as the always sanguine Conrad Black remarks of Mr. Trump: "His view of Canada is much the same as most presidents: What a wonderful world it would be if all the other countries were as easy to deal with as Canada." But "if anybody in Canada thinks they are going to get Donald to build a nation of windmills, and turn all America into a bicycle lane or a place for carbon taxes" – in that event, "if they are very, very polite, he'll give them a free ride on Trump Cruise Lines back to where they came from."

George Cohon doesn't know yet whether Mr. Trump will be a good president. But, he says, "he's the democratically elected president of the United States. He deserves a chance." It's an increasingly common opinion among the Canadian contingent in Palm Beach. They think of themselves as realists.


At Publix, see and be seen

Here's a funny thing: In Palm Beach, for all its privilege and privacy, complete strangers talk to each other without hesitation. Passersby on Worth Avenue ask how you are. No one is fazed by this. Maybe it's the graciousness that great wealth was once famous for producing. George Cohon started coming to Palm Beach 20 years ago for two reasons. One was its undeniable beauty. The other was the interesting people he met everywhere he went.

Not all of them are the kind of people you expect. One afternoon in a Palm Beach supermarket – a supermarket with valet parking, but still a supermarket – I met a woman wearing an employee's apron and a hair net. She was staffing a table of salsa samples in the cracker aisle. She was in her fifties, had grown up in the northeast, and now lived in Palm Beach with her boyfriend, who was in the financial game.Lots of customers stopped to ask which aisle had a certain item – pickles, milk, cream cheese – and most of them stayed to chat. She seemed to be gathering information for a vague artistic project. "The scale of interaction here," she said, "is so intimate that people make these close connections. People come to interact and socialize and relax. They drive here in their $125,000 cars, and they get seen, not just by other club members. And I think it's the scale of the island, and the climate, that makes that happen. It's the light-jacket weather."

But in Palm Beach you also see money everywhere, and you feel its lurking presence. The Balatro Vintage store is racks of pristine Chanel suits for $1,400. They could be 10 times that amount in the Chanel store next door. The service in Palm Beach restaurants is so polite and attentive, you forget people are being nice to you because you might be really, really rich.

In Raptis Rare Books, a brilliant new dealer on Worth Avenue, the most expensive book on the shelves is a first edition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, at $160,000. Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, a first edition inscribed by the author and queen of libertarianism, still in its rare original dust jacket, is going for $75,000. Rand is easily the most widely read philosopher in town, for her championing of individualism over communal values, for her theory of selfishness as a virtue. The book will likely fly off the shelf: Donald Trump and half a dozen of his richest cabinet nominees are Ayn Rand fanatics.

On Royal Poinciana Way, at Nick & Johnnie's bar, where you can see the 70ish walkers adjusting their cufflinks and pocket squares as they warm up for an evening of romancing wealthy widows at the Leopard Lounge in the Chesterfield Hotel, there's a Rand quote written on the mirror behind the bar: "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values." The achievement of one's values: When does that ever happen to most people? Apparently it happens often enough in Palm Beach to write it on the wall of a popular bar.

In this town, the possibilities are always endless. Partly it's the weather, which is mostly sublime, and partly it's the light, which is a form of visual sorbet, and partly it's the sea air, which freshens everything. But mostly it's the lure of money, immense, bottomless piles of money being spent on $240,000 diamond-and-turquoise wrist ropes at Richters, on $225,000 sculptures of six-foot-high dollar signs covered in flashing light bulbs, on whatever the buyer can afford.

One afternoon in a clothing store called Trillion (yes) I finger a sweater on a mannequin. Bernie Madoff used to shop here; Henry Kravis reportedly still does. "That's the latest model," the owner of the shop called out, helpfully. "I made it lighter, with less of a collar to pull, and replaced the three buttons with two buttons, to give it a more tropical feel. Let me know what you think."

I think it's beautiful. There are 27 pastel hues of cashmere sweater on display, all the colours of sand. The two-ply cashmere is from Scotland; the three-ply from Bologna; the single-ply is from Monza. The shirts are so soft I want to marry them. Each one is made in Italy by no more than three young women wearing white linen smocks. The owners of Trillion do not think Donald Trump's presidency will disrupt much more in Palm Beach than the traffic and the Intracoastal – when he is in town. "No. Not at all. Why would it? We've had presidents here before." On the other hand, they refuse to say whom they voted for. "Not relevant." No one wants to offend a rich client.

Then I discover that the pullover costs $900. There's no price tag: If you have to ask, you can't afford it. Eventually this mantra becomes an internalized idea in Palm Beach, and you grow accustomed to walking around with a greed headache.

Palm Beach, as many have discovered, is a surprisingly deep and interesting place, full of hugely accomplished and curious people who know how to get things done. But it is also America's billionaire showcase, the zenith of the American material dream. I once mentioned to Christian Angle, another prominent real-estate agent in Palm Beach, that I found the notion of a 65-metre-long polished white marble driveway – we were driving on one at the time, in his Porsche – at least silly, and possibly shameful. Who would buy such a thing? "Any buyer from any place who wants the ultimate in luxury," Mr. Angle replied. He paused. "You forget that the United States has grown famous and prominent as the land of capitalism. You may not be able to achieve in other countries what you can achieve in the U.S."

If you have the chance to achieve it, that is. What you could have and what you can't have live side by side in Palm Beach, the capitalists' paradise, incessantly contradicting each other, just as they do in all of capitalism. In this way, the town is like Donald Trump, who is about to become its presidential avatar. Mr. Trump, the billionaire, promises he will revitalize the economy by standing up for American workers. At the same time, just before Christmas, Mar-a-Lago – the Winter White House where Mr. Trump has been writing his (allegedly short) inauguration speech – received approval to hire 64 foreign workers. The club offered its wait staff an annual raise of less than one per cent, to $11.13 an hour.

Someone once said "Palm Beach has the most phonies in the whole word. But they're the best phonies in the world." I think it was John F. Kennedy, though it might have been a line in a movie. Donald Trump embodies a related paradox: He is the Palm Beach pariah who's now the pride of the town, elected president against all predictions, mostly by Americans who would have to ask the price of a sweater and then stumble out blushing into the bright sunlight of Worth Avenue, who might even have to take a low-wage job parking Maseratis and Mercedes for a club that would never have them as members.

It's a place where you can see and yearn, but seldom touch. Isn't that always the set-up?

The Canadian capitalists who end up arguing this country's interests in the waterside living rooms and sun-kissed loggias of Palm Beach might want to remember that.


With files from Rick Cash


Ian Brown is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter: @BrownoftheGlobe


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