On the mainland, locals dwelled on the Cold War, the Space Race, and fallout shelters while on the faraway island of Palm Beach, millionaire beachcombers were adrift as to where they could add an art studio to their hallways of on-trend rooms and what sparkle and YSL might trigger the most flashbulbs at the latest art gallery opening.
“It was like an endless happening, unbelievably fun and fabulous. Everyone came and there were so many people night after night, practically blocked traffic,” recalled Jimmy Barker, when I interviewed him more than a decade ago. The James Hunt Barker Gallery was a social and aesthetic nucleus for nearly three decades. Barker added, “Art is a world of fantasy. It is a necessary thing.”
In 1954, there were only three art galleries open during the season. By 1968, as the School of Palm Beach artists gained collectors, there were more than 15 galleries. Almost a decade later, there were 30 galleries, positioning the island’s art colony on the art world’s radar.
Already located on the imagination’s outer limits, Palm Beach’s art galleries were among the resort’s major attractions. That is until the early 80s when real estate offices began their pyramidal climb. Worth Avenue windows, once adorned with Bernard Buffet clown paintings and Cecil Beaton sketches, were replaced with photographs of staircases, swimming pools, and Sherle Wagner sinks.
1950: Art Type
For its January 1950 issue, Town & Country magazine chose artist Channing Hare as “the typical Palm Beach resident,” confident Hare represented the same chic standards shared with their Smart Set subscribers. After all, Hare’s eye-candy portraits were as in-demand as his presence at cocktail parties.
However much a larger-than-life bon vivant, Hare was a member of the Everglades Club and the Bath & Tennis Club. His 1929 marriage to Josephine Whitney Brooks (Mrs. John R.) Livermore was classic Palm Beach — the couple led separate lives but remained married until her death in 1965. Mrs. Hare resided in New York and Newport. Mr. Hare in Palm Beach, Ogunquit and Majorca, living with his then longtime partner, artist H. Mountford Coolidge.
Later, as a ménage à trois, including Hare’s protégé/companion, Stephen “Stevie” Hopkins Hensel, who took Hare’s name in 1970 when “Uncle Bunny,” as he called Channing, legally adopted him. The Hare-Coolidge-Hensel trinity shuttled between an eight-acre Via Tuscany estate in Winter Park, a Worth Avenue apartment, El Vedado villa, Ogunquit cottage, a Nantucket sea captain’s house, and Son Julia, a 95+ room palace on Majorca located near Sonny and Marylou Whitney’s casa grande.
Town & Country readers were in for a page-turner.
And while Channing Hare’s life and work made headlines alongside IKE, JFK, and Fidel, it often overshadowed Hensel’s work, his much younger partner. I was surprised to find Stevie, or Hopkins Hensel, as he was then called professionally, actually possessed the more multifaceted aesthetic as well as the liaison’s Social Register lineage.
Stevie Hare, as contemporaneous accounts referenced him during the last years of his too-short life, and Channing Hare, mates for more than three decades, along with Mary Gerstenberg Hulitar, the subject of Hensel’s 1965 portrait at The Four Arts, as well as her husband, fashion and style designer, Philip Hulitar, made for a considerable dynamic during the Jet Set era.
Stephen Hopkins Hensel
Stephen Hopkins Hensel was the son of Clarence Hopkins Hensel, a Wall Street investment banker, and Ethel Maud Anyon Hensel, the only daughter of James T. Anyon, an English-born chartered accountant who was among America’s first Gilded Age CPAs and founder of the American Association of Accountants. On the board of numerous corporations, including vice-president of the C. H. Hensel investment banking firm on Exchange Place, Anyon also amassed a real estate fortune. Today, he is regarded as the “dean of American accountants.”
Stevie’s great great-grandfather was Stephen Hopkins, for whom he was named, signer of the Declaration of Independence, ten-time governor of Rhode Island, and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. According to previously published bios, Hensel was born in 1922, attended the Kent School, and reportedly left Yale after his sophomore year. Stevie took up painting in New York. Sometime during the late 1930s, he crossed paths with Channing Hare, who featured a portrait of “Stevie” in a December 1940 show at Kleeman Galleries on 57th Street.
Palm Beach’s most sought-after trio — Stevie, Channing, and Mountford — lived together until Coolidge’s death in 1954. While Hare and Coolidge’s careers were already well-established, Stevie’s work first arrived on the Palm Beach scene in December 1945 at The Society of the Four Arts. The 24-year-old Hensel was awarded the William I. Donner Award for the best oil painting for his canvas titled Performers, “… executed in his unique manner that combines excellent workmanship, low-key color, a dash of whimsicality and satire, and a vast imagination.”
After his Palm Beach success, Hensel’s work was shown at Boston’s Margaret Brown Gallery where his work sold-out. Boston’s Museum of Fine Art acquired one of his paintings. Then, to New York’s Grand Central Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting.
“Detailing exact in treatment, mildly surreal in atmosphere,” wrote The New Yorker in 1947, describing Stevie’s work exhibited at his sold-out show at Grand Central Art Galleries. In 1948 Hensel’s work was selected for the Norton Gallery & School of Art’s Annual Contemporary America Exhibition. It was not until the 1956 season that he achieved his first one-man show at Palm Beach.
In 1970, Hare legally adopted Stevie. Although Hensel was from a prominent New York family and an heir to two New York fortunes, he took his adopted father’s name, making for yet another one of those only-in-Wonderland stories. Then on, he was called Stevie Hare.
The last, currently accessible, published feature on Stevie Hare was in 1974. Channing died in February 1976; Stevie, three years later, in 1979, at the age of 58. Of interest, I could find no published obituary for Stevie listed under any of the names he was known as during his lifetime.
“It has been an exciting life, never a dull moment. You see, it all amounts to the greatest pleasure I can possibly find anywhere.” — Stevie Hare. Palm Beach, March 1972.
Channing Weir Hare
Almost from the beginning of his artistic career in early 1930s Depression-era New York, Channing Hare garnered critical and financial success. Having attended schools in Albany, New York, and Bennington, Vermont, before attending The Art Students League of New York, by the 1950s when many artists priced their work between $100 and $500, Channing tagged his at $3,000. Having ascended into New York and Palm Beach’s social pantheon, his portraits were reported to command as much as $10,000.
From 1912 until 1917, Hare and his brother Irving lived in Bennington where his father, William Irving Hare was vice-president of the Bennington Scale Company. The same year Channing enrolled in a Manhattan art school, his family moved to Forest Hills Gardens, a Tudor-styled enclave in Queens. By the early 1930s, the Hares spent summers in Ogunquit and winter months in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, Florida.
As Hare began showing at Palm Beach, he and Mountford decided to spend more of the winter at Palm Beach rather than Winter Park. They first stayed at the Brazilian Court and The Villas before leasing Folie de Monvel.
Reigning as the town’s most popular portraitist, Hare’s first significant show was at Prince George Stroganof Scherbatoff’s galley on Worth Avenue. This was followed by shows at the Worth Avenue Gallery, first opened in December in 1942 by Mary Duggett Benson, in concert with the Washington Studio Gallery on Miami Beach.
Local critics hailed Hare’s talent “to portray a person not a physique” and “to express the human mystery by revealing worlds of personality by unusual angles of vision, notably by painting figures where the face is turned away from the audience, the eyes not hidden, but rather withheld from view while the individuality is expressed in a gesture of the shoulder, a curve of the back, and an arabesque of the neck.”
Palm Beach Style: 1950-1980
At Palm Beach, The Great Society came to describe the 400 guests who rubbed elbows at the Palm Beach Galleries’ Tuesday-night openings on Worth Avenue.
The Hulitars at Palm Beach
Mary and Philip Hulitar were transplanted New Yorkers who made Palm Beach their year-round home for more than 50 years, many of those dedicated to supporting The Society of the Four Arts, the town’s art and cultural center. The son of Michael Hulitar, a Hungarian diplomat, and an Italian mother, Cosmy, who began a painting career at age 81, Hulitar was born in Greece and moved to the United States at age 16. After a brief stint on Wall Street, he became a prominent fashion designer. After 18 years with Bergdorf-Goodman’s, he opened his own fashion house in 1949. Mary Gerstenberg was the daughter of a New York publishing house board chairman. Their diverse mix made for a harmonious partnership.
When the Hulitars arrived on Palm Beach in April 1964, they first looked for a house to buy before leasing a house on North Lake Trail. Their five-acre Glen Cove estate on Valley Road was leased to Robert and Ethel Kennedy for two years. From North Lake Trail, the Hulitars moved to 124 Via Bethesda, designed by Howard Major, and Hulitar turned his sense of fashion design into real estate makeovers. They also bought the Paul Butler house, restored it, leased it, and bought another house on North Lake Way as well as a building on Worth Avenue. And so forth …
In 1970 the Hulitars bought the Philip Armour house set on 1.5 acres at 980 North Ocean Boulevard, turning a 1947 Wyeth-designed Midcentury Modern into Plaisance, a more traditional colorful country house. Mary Hulitar’s estate sold the house for $28.6 million in 2019, subsequently demolished.
Worth Avenue Gallery
310-347 Worth Avenue
In December 1942, Mary Duggett Benson opened a branch of the Miami Beach-based Washington Art Studio & Galleries at 310½ Worth Avenue. At the time, Benson was associated with heiress Alice Delamar. After an affair with actress Eva La Gallienne ended, Benson had a short-lived marriage with sculptor-artist Stuart Benson, followed by an involvement with Elsie de Wolfe, aka Lady Mendl, and for nearly a decade, worked as curator of Jules Bache’s formidable art collection.
Benson was also akin to E. Nash Matthews, founder of the Washington Storage company, today the site of The Wolfsonian-FIU. According to Agnes Ash, a Miami News editor at the time who later became editor of The Palm Beach Daily News, Matthews opened an art gallery in the early 1940s on the storage company’s ground floor, under the total direction of Dr. Eric Carlberg. During the Worth Avenue Gallery’s early years, Benson and Carlberg collaborated on various exhibits and artists.
When Carlberg died in 1953, Nash Matthews’ son, Ned, took over as director of the Washington Avenue gallery. Later, he briefly had an interest in the Worth Avenue Gallery along with Mary Duggett Benson who in 1958 had sole ownership of the gallery, according to corporate filings. She retired in 1965. While Alice Delamar was a magnanimous supporter of Mary Benson’s gallery work as well as a generous patron to many of the gallery’s artists, she was most probably not one of the legal owners of the Worth Avenue Gallery, as I was led to believe by two close friends of Delamar’s. The history of the Worth Avenue Gallery, as well as the nature of the relationships between the principals, remains incomplete.
Benson was soon joined at the Palm Beach gallery by a co-director, Emily Pierson (Mrs. Archibald) Rayner. Rayner’s husband was a real estate agent with Webb Brothers; her sister was New York artist and gallerist Betty Pierson Parsons. By 1946, and for the next decade, Betty Parsons was regularly sending paintings from her Manhattan venue to the Worth Avenue Gallery, as recorded by the voluminous Betty Parsons Papers at the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art.
“People have more time to pose in resorts,” confided artist Richard Banks, before his one-man show featuring Social Register notables opened in 1966 at Lillian Phipps Galleries on Palm Beach. Before opening her gallery in December 1965, Phipps was on the board of Palm Beach Galleries.
Mary Sanford called her as “the billion-dollar board” as the combined assets of the gallery’s directors was said to be worth more than $1 billion. With George E. Vigouroux Jr. as artistic director, Palm Beach Galleries opened on Worth Avenue during the go-go 60s. It was owned by several staunch art patrons, among them, Mary Duncan Sanford, Diana Guest Manning, Jane Kenney Volk, George Warner, Larry Sheerin, Barbara Whitney Headley and Lillian Bostwick Phipps.
In 1961 Wally Findlay invited forty friends to a surprise party at his Worth Avenue gallery where guests arrived and came “face to face with themselves.” But instead of a mirror-filled room, Mr. Findlay’s invitees were themselves the subject of a portrait exhibition created by Zito, Palm Beach’s most popular and skillful sketch artist.
Thus, the island’s social swells found themselves surrounded by caricatures of themselves, who better, as a work of art.