“Happy bedlam” wrote social columnist Nancy Randolph in describing the 1937 Palm Beach season at the same time pointing out to her Palm Beach Daily News readers of the prevailing conservative undercurrent: “The trouble is this colony remembers the resort’s supreme Silliest Seasons of 1928 and 1929 when the stratosphere was the limit and the Eddie F. Huttons imported circuses and Broadway plays.” A decade later, the smart set appeared content with dinner party place cards rather than no-holds-barred costumed bacchanals. By then, the Huttons were divorced and Battle Creek’s cereal heiress turned ambassador’s wife was ensconced in Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
At that moment, Palm Beach was awhirl with fetes for Jane Sanford’s marriage to Italian diplomat Mario Pansa at Villa Marina. As well, the cottage colony was atwitter about the news surrounding the Wallis Simpson-Duke of Windsor affair since Mrs. Simpson had filed for divorce during the final months of 1936.
On 20 January 1937 The New York Times reported Rory Cameron had arrived in Palm Beach from London as a house guest of Harrison and Mona Williams. By then, Cameron’s serial-widowed multi-titled Australian mother Enid Lindeman Cameron Cavendish was married to her third husband Marmaduke Furness, 1st Viscount Furness and 2nd Baron Furness. A fortnight earlier, Sir Cecil Beaton had checked into Blythedunes, photographing Mona Williams for his upcoming exhibit at the Carroll Carstairs gallery in New York.
Down South Ocean Boulevard, Wallis Simpson’s old school friend Ellen Yuille Blair, whose sister Burks was Mrs. Carroll Carstairs, and her family were spending the season at their new ocean-to-lake estate designed by Treanor & Fatio with interior decor by Ruby Ross Woods and her new assistant Billy Baldwin. At Concha Marina, America’s most famous horsewoman Isabel Dodge Sloane was entertaining Eleanor and Maurice Fatio while preparing for a large dinner celebrating the Sanford-Pansa nuptials.
In Midtown at Casa dei Leoni, Ellen Glendinning Ordway’s mother Elizabeth Glendinning was hosting her first season of open houses without her husband Philadelphia financier Col. Robert Glendinning who died the previous spring. In March 1935, in order to spare the Everglades Club from a public foreclosure sale, Glendinning became one of the few shareholders of the Everglades Protective Syndicate that owned the club and its extensive real estate holdings until a decade later when the club became completely member-owned.
Here are some of Ellen Glendinning Ordway’s snapshots of the 1937 Palm Beach season at Bythedunes, Concha Marina, Casa dei Leoni, and the Blairs’ new villa.
1 January 1937
515 North County Road
A year before Paris Singer and Addison Mizner arrived in Palm Beach and popularized the Everglades Club’s ecclesiastical Spanish design, Dun & Bradstreet scion Robert Dun Douglass retained architect H. Hastings Mundy to design Blythedunes, a Tuscan-style stucco house on North Ocean Boulevard located north of Wells Road and south of the Palm Beach Country Club.
Although Alice and Robert Douglass’ U-shaped house had few decorative elements, its substantial size gave it comparable standing with the Phipps family’s Heamaw and Villa Artemis, the North End’s only other considerable oceanfront houses built by and designed by Vizcaya’s architect F. Burrall Hoffman.
Approached from North Ocean Boulevard when it ran in front of the house, the main entrance to the house was placed on the south side, reached by a flight of stairs leading to a wrought-iron gate that opened onto a central patio. The living and dining rooms were parallel to the ocean allowing spectacular views while opening onto the open courtyard. The north wing included the kitchen and service areas, enlarged in 1922 by architect Marion Sims Wyeth.
In April 1930 Robert Dunn Douglass sold Blythedunes for $350,000 to Harrison and Mona Williams. While they looked at houses, the Williamses took a seasonal rental further north up the ocean at La Guerida, the old Rodman Wanamaker place that Joe and Rose Kennedy bought in 1933. In New York, Williams and his second wife Margaret Edmona “Mona” Travis Strader Schlesinger Bush Williams, later Countess von Bismarck the Kentucky Countess, were ensconced at 1130 Fifth Avenue. When they were not aboard their yacht Warrior, they were at their Long Island estate, Paris townhouse, or at Il Fortino, their villa on Capri.
The popular New York-Palm Beach Treanor & Fatio architectural firm was immediately retained by the couple to draw up the plans to enlarge and renovate Blythedunes. Syrie Maugham was called in to refresh the interior. Until the house was finished in January 1931, Harrison and Mona continued to stay at La Guerida when they were in Palm Beach.
Although North Ocean Boulevard was closed following the Hurricane of 1928 and Bythedunes was now approached from North County Road, the new plans kept the original gated entrance through the patio. But rather than keeping the original Tuscan farmhouse ambiance, the architect introduced a grander scale, transforming the old living room into a reception hall, and abandoned the Tuscan motif, preferring a more modern 1930s British Colonial style.
Further additions included an expansive new southern wing with a 38-foot by 28-foot dining room, a 28-foot by 50-foot drawing room, a new loggia, pool, and guest suites. The resulting 28-room house set on five acres made for one of Palm Beach’s largest estates.
In March 1936 Harrison Williams bought The Towers, the Mizner-designed estate adjacent to the north of Blythedunes from the William Wood estate. Mr. Wood, the “woolen king,” had committed suicide. Then, Williams sold it to Atwater Kent. According to various stories, during the late 1940s the Williamses invited newlyweds Charles and Jayne Larkin Wrightsman to stay with them while they looked for houses; nothing they saw measured up to Blythedunes.
In December 1947, the Wrightsmans bought Blythedunes for $170,000. This began the final chapter for the house. In 1985 Jayne Wrightsman sold Blythedunes to Leslie Wexner for $10 million. Within days, Wexner demolished it.
By the time the enigmatic Harrison Charles Williams (1873-1953) married the much-younger Mona Strader Schlesinger Bush in 1926, the Ohio-born utilities kingpin’s various pyramidal investment holdings had combined assets of more than $2.8 billion, controlling as much as one-sixth of the nation’s electric and power companies. Having survived the stock market’s 1929 downward spiral, Williams wasn’t pinched until the passage of the Public Utilities Holding Act in 1935 limiting his ownership to below the prescribed 10 percent.
However low-profile his corporate holdings, Williams and his wife Mona, “the best dressed woman in the world,” traveled aboard their over-sized steam yacht the Warrior, making for a noticeable arrival at their every port-of-call. But, as too often the case, Williams lost a protracted multi-million judgment in 1952 and was convicted of having looted his companies since 1927. While his conviction was reversed on appeal due to the statute of limitations, his estate made a nominal settlement that still allowed his widow generous funds to keep her lifestyle afloat.
Jungle Road at South Ocean Boulevard
In 1921 architect Addison Mizner had designed and built Concha Marina for himself. The following season New York broker George Sloane and his wife Detroit auto heiress Isabel Dodge Sloane bought it from him.
31 January 1937
Ellen & Wolcott Blair’s villa
South Ocean Boulevard
Treanor & Fatio, architect. Ruby Ross Woods and Billy Baldwin, interior decoration
Casa dei Leoni
450 Worth Avenue
Gulf Stream Golf Club
Palm Beach – 1937. A final look.
Ellen Glendinning Frazer Ordway’s photographs are courtesy of the Lucius Ordway Frazer Collection©.