A Slim Aarons Palm Beach party for the Salvation Army’s “Christmas in Paradise” gala. 1950s style. The sounds of Sinatra. White dinner jackets. Retro gowns. A conga line. Synchronized swimmers in a hot pink pool. Pink and green palm trees. All meticulously planned by Decorator Co-Chairs Holly Holden and Hamish Ross, Co-Chairs Susan Cushing, Joan Parker and Missy Chilton. G-d had another plan: driving rain, violent wind, tornado threats, in short, a full blown tropical monsoon.
“Three days before the storm, we had to switch and pivot,” Susan Cushing told me. “Our outdoor beach party was no more. But, Hamish magically transformed the room into elegant fabulousness. It became a different party. The storm and ocean raging outside was a counterpoint to the fun, calm and positivity inside. And the cozy holiday vibe was in keeping with the Salvation Army spirit.
“This organization give their lives to serving others. And William Mikus, their Advisory Board Chairman, exemplifies that ethos.” She walked me over to meet him.
Mikus told me it all began for him on a stormy day, not unlike this gala’s. For a long time, friends suggested he get involved. He resisted. “Then we went to their gala ten years ago,” he told me, “it was such a sweet, low key, appropriate Christmas party. The centerpieces couldn’t have cost more than eight bucks. It all goes to the least, the last and the lost: the Salvation Army charges. Afterwards, our host asked me to come to a board meeting. That day was miserable, like today. There was a traffic jam. I was angry with myself for agreeing to attend. The bridge was up. I got angrier. Still, I keep my commitments. Just as I arrived, the sky cracked open and the sun broke through. I got out of the car to that intoxicating smell after it rains in Florida. A shaft of light hit me. Inside were the most charitable and decent people I’ve ever met: real people looking for real solutions to real problems.”
The Salvation Army wages war against homelessness and human trafficking. They work to get people coming out of prison back into society, to educate and deliver needy children from food insecurity. They find safe homes for abused women, help veterans. “So,” Mikus continued, “we are involved in every aspect of people in need here in Palm Beach County.”
Gala co-chairs are certainly fulfilling their talents. Holly and Hamish are long time decorators and more. Artist Susan Cushing lobbied for the Slim Aarons theme. Aarons is Cushing’s Patron Saint. Her paintings depict the same spirit of beauty and happy times, in keeping with her philosophy of positivity. Or, as she likes to quote Frank Sinatra, “You only go around once, but if you do it right — once is enough.”
Same can be said of Holden. Follow HollyHoldenDesign (Instagram) and you will feel at home from the castle to the manse (and vice versa). She is the Executive Producer and the host of PBS’ You Are Cordially Invited (which received an Emmy nom for its Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey episode). She has her own Holly Holden dress collection (inspired by Capote’s Swans) and a 35-year decorating career complete with coffee table books. We’ve learned many traditional mores from Holly and her Secrets to Lovely Living newsletter. Did you know that the napkin ring was created so family or houseguests could reuse their napkins?
Two years ago on Christmas, Hamish Ross was in Miami when he got the call that brought him up. “Philippe called me from Paris to ask if I could do something with his Palm Beach garden,” Ross told me. That would be Bilboquet owner and best friend Philippe Delgrange.
Hamish, a decorator whose clients’ tastes run the gamut from Park Avenue traditional to next gen modern, understands the Palm Beach sensibility very well. “My parents had a home in Harbor Island and I went to school in Lyford Cay,” he told me. “I know the tropical vibe. And now, I have four more garden projects here. Palm Beach has changed so much since I was young. From the art scene in West Palm to young families on the mainland, it’s not your parents’ Florida any more.”
We went from channeling Old Palm Beach to Old Miami, at Micky Wolfson’s Wolfsonian–FIU museum. Miami wasn’t even 30 years old in 1926 when Mickey’s father Mitchell and his brother-in-law founded Miami’s first movie theater under the Wometco banner. It even had one of the first air conditioners, an invention that turned this town around. In 1949, Wometco launched Miami’s first TV station. The company grew into a massive multimedia conglomerate that even included the Miami Seaquarium. Micky’s father served in World War II and as a Mayor of Miami Beach.
The Wolfsonian, built in 1927 as a luxury warehouse, was the storage for Micky’s European collecting. As his collection grew, so did its footprint. Finally, in the mid ’80s, the building’s owner told him, ‘Micky you’re my last client. Either buy it or get out.”
The timing was fortuitous. Mickey’s father Mitchell had passed a few years earlier. Mickey bought the building and created a museum, But first, he had to renovate. To do so, he bought the former Southern Bell building (including a basement phone line to Havana) to relocate his collection. It remains his storage to this day.
The collection? “Anything to make you believe something, buy something or do something,” Development Director Michael Hughes likes to quote Librarian Frank Luca. “A lot of losers,” Chief Curator Silvia Barisione likes to joke, referencing the statue that did not win the 1932 Olympiad art competition. Micky didn’t need the best example of a genre, just a good example, and one that spoke to him.
“The collection follows the industrial revolution toward the end of World War II,” Curator Lea Nickless told me. “But it covers the time from 1850 to 1950: everything from the decorative arts, fine arts, industrial design, architecture, World Fairs, colonialism, conflict, war. Mickey has never shied away from challenging imagery, so we have propaganda from the Third Reich and fascism in Italy. We cover the rise of modernity throughout the world through the lens of objects. Micky always collects not for intrinsic beauty, but for the idea behind the object, what the maker was trying to communicate. We have tons of posters used to persuade or promote ideologies, commerce or whatever.”
Eclectic, but all of a kind in vision. There are dark depictions of war by imprisoned soldiers, an art deco mailbox, a generator built in 1887. Stylistically ranging from Futurism and its offspring, Aeropittura, to abstraction; dynamism to quiet Umbrian landscapes. There are portraits of Benito Mussolini, devotional religious paintings, the first mass-produced home appliances, movie cameras, modernist dinnerware, Irish stained glass, World’s Fair memorabilia and Soviet propaganda posters.
We were given a tour of a current show — Silhouettes: Image and Word in the Harlem Renaissance — devoted to the art of Renaissance Harlem, called the New Negro Movement at the time, which was not part of Micky’s collection.
“We’re finding collectors from the same ilk that are coming forward,” said Director Casey Steadman, “Including these Harlem Renaissance materials. Micky was very much about the aesthetics of the object himself. If he sees a book that has amazing illustrations on the cover he’ll buy it irrespective of the author.”
I chatted with Event Creator/caterer Caron Cole, who had catered the breakfast tour. She grew up in downtown Miami (and went to school with my sister-in-law Alison Lehr Fryd). In those days, a high rise in Brickell was a three story mansion not a 500-foot behemoth.
There was the Firestone home, Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré’s. Ah, the old skyline, we sighed wistfully. In those days we saw palm trees when we looked across Biscayne Bay and traffic jams only happened up north. Thus is the allure of the past.