Palm Beach exposi sells out, enrages socialites

While locals fume, stores can't keep it in stock.

Published December 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Author Ronald Kessler has received tepid, if not stinging, reviews of his latest book, "The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America's Richest Society." But while critics tried to knock the wind out of the HarperCollins title, Kessler's exposi about Florida's parvenu paradise sailed to the No. 28 position on Sunday's New York Times extended bestseller list; and with the holiday season at hand and a controversy brewing, the book is bound to go even higher.

"The Season" -- which opens with a vignette about a 57-year-old recently widowed socialite who left the corpse of her 90-year-old husband in a funeral home while she finished a grueling 40-day schedule of social commitments -- has not only incensed book critics; it has also riled some locals.

Virginia Jacobus, owner of the Classic Bookshop on South County Road, says that a disgruntled woman called to protest a recent appearance by Kessler at the store. "She was very upset that we were having a book signing, and I did the best that I could to talk to her and make her not so upset," said Jacobus, adding that her store, located right off posh Worth Avenue, has sold more than 400 copies of "The Season" in the past month. Down the street, the Palm Beach Book Store's owner, Candice Cohen, reports having sold more than 300 copies.

Despite its extraordinary local success, some Palm Beachers maintain that the book doesn't represent their vision of the enclave. "If this were the only book I had read about Palm Beach, I wouldn't recognize the town," says Linda Rawls, editor in chief of the Palm Beach Daily News (known locally as the "Shiny Sheet"). "These people are not Palm Beach -- that's all I can say."

Former Daily News publisher Agnes Ash wrote a scathing review of the book in Sunday's paper. "Kessler's Palm Beach skeletons don't rattle. Those crumbling old bones have the shock value of talcum powder ... Stephen Birmingham, John Ney and Cleveland Amory sliced up Palm Beach with panache because they had better access and greater control of the scalpel. They didn't take themselves so seriously."

Kessler, a 55-year-old former Washington Post reporter and the author of "Inside Congress: The Shocking Scandals, Corruption and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill" and the Joseph Kennedy biography "The Sins of the Father," marvels that anyone would find his latest effort offensive. "Is it because the book reveals the degree of anti-Semitism in the town?" he said. "Is it because some of these people come off as vacuous, despite their wealth? Is it because some of them would say it reveals too much of the sex and too many other personal activities that go on? What exactly is it? The book just generates tremendous reactions one way or the other."

Kessler can probably count on New York real-estate developer Donald Trump for moral support. Trump, who vacations in Palm Beach, has flown Kessler down to the area on his private plane. He has also invited Kessler there for a New Year's party at his club, Mar-a-Lago. While some critics think Kessler let the Donald off too easily in "The Season," Kessler defends him. "People in Palm Beach aren't sure why they don't like him," Kessler said, "But the fact is, on basic character issues, he's a very solid guy."

"Some people who don't agree with some of the observations that Ron has made might take issue with it," said Franklyn P. de Marco Jr., co-owner of a popular local restaurant and bar, Ta-bso. De Marco thought that the book was "80 percent accurate" and says he only took exception to Kessler's observation that prostitutes frequented his establishment. "The ones that some of the people [in the book] were pointing to were some local ladies," de Marco said, "dressed badly."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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