|by Augustus Mayhew
Last week I toured The Breakers with James Augustine Ponce, the hotel’s historian and Palm Beach’s only designated Living Landmark, and spent time with Alexandra Fatio Taylor, making her annual pilgrimage to Palm Beach from Geneva, who though apart from today's Palm Beach remains a part of the island's legendary history. Jim and Alex are two of the resort’s most regarded historical personalities in a town where nearly everyone is/was a bold-faced someone somewhere at sometime.
Born in St. Augustine, Jim Ponce, 91, is a descendant of Florida’s oldest European family and may be actual proof the Fountain of Youth really exists. Please join the one-and-only Mr. Ponce and NYSD for a scroll through The Breakers.
|Mr. Ponce on Mr. Flagler ...
“My father buried Henry Flagler. The family business, Ponce Funeral Home, was located in St. Augustine. So, when word came that Henry Flagler died at his cottage at The Breakers, my father handled the local arrangements. The train left at ten, hundreds gathered along the tracks to pay their last respects. As the train crossed the San Sebastian River every locomotive in the FEC yard blew its whistle with an unending blast, all of St. Augustine knew Mr. Flagler had come home to his beloved Ancient City. The sound frightened my father’s horse, Nellie, who was at the station waiting to pull the hearse with Flagler’s body. When the train arrived, my father led the hearse to the private railway car and the pallbearers moved the body onto the wagon. The procession moved slowly, the streets filled with people. Minna Oliveras, a shopkeeper at the time, she was 105 when I spoke with her, told me she was there when Flagler was given a “once-around-the-plaza,” as was the tradition for the prominent, with all the shopkeepers standing at solemn attention. It was the defining moment of my father's life, as Flagler's life had become to all who came to Florida. It was a story told and retold around our dinner table."
|Palm Beach's Fascinating Fatios ...|
|Ever since the publication of Alex Fatio Taylor's now out-of-print book, Maurice Fatio, New York & Palm Beach, the stature of her father's houses and buildings has been greatly enhanced, insuring their continued appreciation as landmarks. More recently, Alex provided the material for the biography, Eleanor of Palm Beach, about her mother, Eleanor Chase Fatio (1901-1944), a poet and author whose Wisconsin lumber-and-banking family were members of Palm Beach’s international set. Although Maurice Fatio (1897-1943) might not recognize today's Palm Beach, its grand estates transformed into subdivisions, its once seasonal cottages now consumed by corpulent spec houses packaged in styles masking their voluminous cubic content, some of his most notable compositions, Il Palmetto, Casa Eleda, Villa Today and Casa della Porta, among them, remain definitive elements of the Palm Beach landscape. Alex visits to the island nearly every season, a tireless advocate for the preservation of her father's legacy.
Whenever Alex arrives from Geneva, she and I have lively exchanges over lunch about beach erosion and sub-prime mortgages, usually followed by a windshield survey of the island’s latest ups-and-downs, construction sites and demolitions. Considered by many Palm Beach’s most accomplished architect, Maurice Fatio is the subject of an upcoming monograph from Acanthus Press and his house designed for Pio Crespi in Dallas is featured in the most recent Architectural Digest. As well as her few opinions about most everything, Alex shared her many memories of Alice DeLamar (1901-1983), the reclusive heiress who lived in Palm Beach, New York, Weston and Paris. Last week our tour ended at James Hunt Barker's house, an old friend whose house was on fire, "we saw the smoke," as she was on her way to the airport for her last season's return to Geneva and who she had not seen since the tragedy that took the life of one of Barker's friends and left him exiled in his guest house.
|Alex created the book on her father around letters he wrote from Palm Beach and New York to his parents in Switzerland as well as original photographs and drawings for the architect's many projects. For her mother's book she worked with another author in telling the story of her mother's literary rise and her revel and romance in Palm Beach. Alex’s parents were among Palm Beach's most popular, their storybook life ended in her father's death at 46, and the following year, her mother's death, apparently overwhelmed with despair, leaving Alex and her brother, Pierre "Petey," to be raised by a housekeeper in Wisconsin.
“I really only know my father through his letters, his houses and buildings, and also, from hearing about him by people who knew him and enjoyed his company. I can’t remember my father except just before he died when my mother took him to Chicago for some kind of special treatment. That is my most vivid memory of him," said Alex.
|While many of Maurice Fatio's designs were notable, here are a few views of the house some consider among his best, Casa della Porta at 195 Via del Mar, Palm Beach, as seen in photographs from a 1970 Historic American Building Survey.|
|Our lunch talk turned to Alice DeLamar, the only daughter of Captain Joseph Rafael DeLamar (1843-1918), who died after becoming known as the "Mystery Man of Wall Street" and amassing a mining fortune, leaving Alice one of the era's most gilded heiresses. At 18 Alice Delamar inherited $10 million but unlike some of her deb contemporaries, who collected titles, husbands and misfortune, she became an benefactor and patron, supporting artists, writers, choreographers and architects.
“Alice’s best friend was my mother-in-law, so when I divorced my husband, of course, Alice insisted that my four children and I move in with her in Weston… what a world. She had her own nature preserve on hundreds of acres. She knew my parents, and really, she knew everyone,” said Alex.
|Capt. DeLamar had built houses that his daughter considered embarrassments, the 1902 Cass Gilbert-designed Beaux-Arts showcase at 233 Madison, now the residence of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland, and Pembroke, a titanic-sized Glen Cove heap, that left her tearless when she sold it in 1920 to MGM founder, Marcus Loew, whose son, Arthur Loew, later demolished it.
"My Lorenzo the Magnificent," is how Addison Mizner referred to DeLamar, first meeting the architect in Palm Beach through his nephew, Horace Chase, when Mizner was living at 720 South Ocean Blvd. and his work was in demand. And, while Mizner and DeLamar enjoyed each other's company and she considered him "her favorite uncle," they were both members of the Everglades Club, when Mizner's experienced a downturn following his Boca Raton fiasco, it was DeLamar who supervised and subsidized a book about his work, commissioning Ida Tarbell to write it and Frank Geisler (1867-1935) to photograph the architect's work.
"Alice DeLamar drove Frank Geisler around Palm Beach in the back of a pick-up truck so Geisler would have the best perspective for his photographs of Mizner's houses," said Donald W. Curl, the Mizner scholar who detailed Mizner and DeLamar's relationship in a new introduction for the Dover 1992 edition of Florida Architecture of Addison Mizner. "Miss DeLamar chose all the photographs and wrote the captions," said Curl.
After having 100 gold-tooled, leather bound and slipcased "Edicion Imperial" published, DeLamar called the book, her tribute to Mizner's genius, "Flowers for the living instead of the dead."
Curl added, "Although DeLamar and I exchanged many, many letters, we met only once, the day she came to the Historical Society and introduced me to Alex Fatio. I don't recall her answering any of my questions, she was, let's say, shy. "
"Don Curl and I have talked about putting our letters from Alice in a book," said Alex. But, I don't know what happened to Alice's scrapbooks, although she was never photographed, everyone who came to her house was photographed and she had them bound into photo books that after she died I thought her lawyer at the Cromwell office kept. Anthony Baker always said he might know someone who could maybe get a hold of these books but now Anthony is gone. It has been more than 20 years, and still, I have never known what happened to Alice's photographs," she explained.
"I was with Alice at the end. I had driven her to the hospital in South Norwalk at three in the morning. Her cook would bring her things but she couldn't eat. She had liver cancer but that is not how she died. They had taken her for an X-ray, left her standing ,waiting unattended, and she fell, hit her head and never recovered.
|'Sue them,' those were the last words I ever heard her say. Her father had pretty much dictated the terms of her will, much of it going to Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and, I think, Columbia," said Alex.
"The last year of her life Alice had Eva Chevalier drive her around looking at cemeteries in Connecticut and New York. She was cremated, her ashes shipped to a cemetery in West Palm Beach, her eternal resting place, of all places," Alex said.
Our last stop on our hard-hat PB tour was James Hunt Barker's, his Wyeth-designed Brazilian Avenue house still a shuttered burned-out shell, we walked back to the guest house where everything was boxed and packed.
"We were suppose to close on Tuesday but the buyer said he couldn't get financing, so we are not closing, and my code enforcement fines continue to add up," said Barker, tending to last-minute details before heading to his historic Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk for the summer.
|For all of Palm Beach's priceless real estate and granite countertops, its fashionable shops, drop-dead cars, swell menus and clipped hedges, Jim Ponce, Henry Flagler, Alex Fatio, Alice DeLamar and Jimmy Barker are a reminder that it is really the island's history of remarkable personalities that make Palm Beach like no other place in the world.|
|Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.|