An underworld prizefighter turned bestselling fiction author and Hollywood screenwriter becomes a prominent Palm Beach attorney, establishing a Worth Avenue practice with an Ivy League sportsman who walked away from a pro career to enlist in the armed forces where a war wound forced him to switch World Series dreams for a law degree, resulting in the Coe & Broberg law firm that more than 80 years later endures as a Palm Beach institution.
The Palm Beach Daily News-Palm Beach Post photo morgue of as many as one million images has been donated to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s whose collection is already composed of more than four million images documenting the people and events that formed Palm Beach and Palm Beach County’s cultural, political, and social history from the 1950s until 2020.
Here are a few pages from the legal profession’s history at Palm Beach, especially the unlikely making of one of the town’s longstanding firms, and the Historical Society’s recent windfall from The Shiny and The Post, where fittingly, Palm Beach lawyer Charles Francis Coe was named the newspaper’s editor-publisher in 1947 when John Holliday Perry bought the publications from the E. R. Bradley estate.
Buffalo-native Charles Francis Coe became a lawyer in 1937 at age 50. He passed the Florida Bar exam having never attended law school, even though at one time his life might have led him to Sing Sing rather than Palm Beach’s private clubs.
“I count as close friends, writers, artists, actors, statesmen, pickpockets, gangsters, gamblers, preachers, priests, jockeys, merchants, detectives, millionaires, paupers, and even a few, a very few women,” wrote Coe in his 1944 autobiography Never a Dull Moment. To that list, Coe would add clients as challenging and complicated as Eva Stotesbury, Andrea Luckenbach, and Rockefeller granddaughter Muriel McCormick Hubbard.
Coe built a reputable legal firm, attracting the resort’s Main Line and North Shore swells, though never fitting the typecast image of a white-shoe Palm Beach lawyer associated with the likes of a Park Avenue firm decked out in Savile Row suits and pocket squares. First known as Coe & Crary with offices at Palm Beach’s First National Bank building, the former criminologist, radio commentator, and newspaper publisher expanded his practice with partners who each made their marks among Palm Beach County’s admired legal and judicial realms.
In 1948, having moved his offices from the Cartier Building to the Lanfranchi Building at 256 Worth Avenue, he hired an intern Gustave T. Broberg Jr., a former All-American basketball player, World War II veteran, and University of Virginia Law School grad. When Broberg passed the Florida Bar exam, he joined the firm and, a year later, became a named partner.
Broberg would share a desk with a young lawyer named James R. Knott, who Coe brought down from Jacksonville. Knott, one of Palm Beach County’s distinguished jurists, was also the longtime president of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County for whom the county’s annual historical award is named.
In 1950 Coe, Richardson & Broberg’s office manager Florence Cason was the first woman in Palm Beach County to serve on a jury, the state legislature having passed an act allowing women who registered for service to be called for jury duty.
Charles Francis Coe and Gustave Broberg were two inimitable personalities whose remarkable lives recall what the late Bob Leidy once observed, “Palm Beach was once a town full of characters.” Add to that, the resort’s directory of speed-dial lawyers that included a spirited mix of legal viewpoints, whether their expertise was will codicils, prenups and divorces, or criminal matters.
More than 80 years later, Peter Broberg, a former Major League pitcher who stepped away from a life in the dugout for courtroom decorum, carries on his father and Coe’s legacy at Palm Beach.
From boxing ring to book shelves to movie screens
Born at the turn of the 20th-century, Charles Francis Coe described his social activist father Francis Ulysses Coe as a crusader and his mother Anna Ostrander Coe as a martyr. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy where he developed boxing skills, becoming a pro welterweight after his discharge. His four-year stint in the boxing ring introduced him to gangland’s Runyonesque characters, gamblers, racketeers, molls, and gumshoes.
The next decade found Coe on a turntable of various jobs. It was then he began writing Prohibition-era short stories, first published in 1923 in such pulp magazines as Ace-High, Cowboy and Fight Stories. At night, he studied law books, partly to color his stories but also to hold on to his hope of becoming a lawyer.
“Without a thought in the world in 1925 I moved to New York to be a writer. Here was a business with no investment, no inventory, no turnover, and no hours. Here people lived in a world of their own creation. Here was my world; the world I had dreamed of; longed for; at long last found.” — CFC.
When The Saturday Evening Post published his “Me Gangster” story, its popularity led to a seven-part serial that became a book that was turned into a film. Just as silent movies were evolving into talkies, Coe’s story became a “photo play,” directed by Raoul Walsh. By age 40, Coe had become one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters.
Though married with two children, he spent his savings on a law library of text books, writing 12 hours and studying law books for two hours. By 1927 Coe was regarded as “the most popular American author on crime.” He was considered an expert criminologist having studied and observed the underworld, even listed in Who’s Who as an “expert penologist and criminologist.”
During the early 1930s, the Coes left their Bronxville estate for the annual Artists and Writers Golf Tournament held at Palm Beach. Coe and his second wife Ruth stayed at lakeside hotels, the Biltmore and Mayflower, becoming members of the Sailfish Club. In 1934 the Sailfish Club announced Coe had agreed to serve as the club’s president. The Coes bought a nine-acre ocean-to-lake parcel with sand dunes and a jungle at Hobe Sound near his friend, the renowned Gene Tunney. Palm Beach architect L. Phillips Clarke designed a rustic fishing lodge called “The Hut,” featuring an all-electric kitchen, a tackle room, and a two-story living room with native rock fireplace.
“Hour after hour, day after day, I spent in the lost places of the Loxahatchee River and the backwaters that wind through dunes, sand bars, and jungle. At night, I studied Florida law.” — CFC.
It was during Coe’s two-year tenure as club president that he embarked on fulfilling “after 30 years of planning, my one and only ambition, becoming a lawyer.” Coe wrote, “The state and its weird scenic grandeur laid hold of my affections.” While presiding over the Sailfish Club’s consolidation at its North Lake Way site and the closing of the club’s casino rooms at The Breakers, Coe sold the Hobe Sound property to Joseph Verner Reed. Then, he and Ruth bought a house on Garden Road in Palm Beach’s North End. There, he assembled a complete library of Florida law books, hired a special tutor, and for the next 14 months engaged in the intensive study of Florida law in between golf rounds and fishing trips.
During the summer of 1937 Coe applied to take the Florida Bar exam in the fall. In November, he received notification that he was one of twenty applicants who passed the exam. The following month, Coe leased “the large north office” at the First National Bank Building on County Road. At the same time, two West Palm Beach firms were also opening branch offices, Winters, Foskett & Wilcox and Williamson, Cain & Baugher who were later joined during the 1940s by Joseph Gunster, a former western Pennsylvania lawyer.
According to the Palm Beach Post and the town’s available records, Charles Francis Coe was the only practicing attorney in 1938 to “hang his shingle solely in the resort,” as others had established main offices in West Palm Beach, Miami or New York. Coe would move his firm to the Cartier Building on Worth Avenue before settling across the street at its long established 256 Worth Avenue location, first called the Lanfranchi Building before it was known as the Gucci Building. When Coe opened his office at Palm Beach, there were more than 150 lawyers with offices in West Palm Beach perched within blocks of the Palm Beach County courthouse.
Law & Order
Because of Palm Beach’s brief season during the Flagler era, the area’s lawyers first gravitated to downtown West Palm Beach. When the Town of Palm Beach incorporated in April 1911, a Miami attorney Mitchell D. Price served as the town’s legal advisor. As West Palm Beach was established as the county seat, lawyers from Titusville and Jacksonville opened footholds around the courthouse, including the Robbins, Graham & Chillingworth firm. Partner Walter S. Graham was also the editor and publisher of the Miami Metropolis newspaper. The Chillingworth lineage of attorneys would become among the county’s most prominent. Other notable early practitioners and firms were H. L. Bussey, Seward C. Kearley, a onetime Town of Palm Beach attorney, Dunkle & Metcalf, O. S. Miller, George G. Currie, and Jerome E. Wideman.
Having established the firm Wideman & Wideman after World War I with his brother Frank, who would later become a prominent US Attorney in Washington, Jerome Wideman was Paris Singer’s lawyer, establishing Singer’s Ocean & Lake Realty Company that built the Everglades Club. When the club opened in 1919, Wideman was the only member who resided in West Palm Beach.
Although New York lawyer Dudley Field Malone announced several times during the 1920s and 1930s he was opening a Palm Beach office, there are no accessible records indicating an office was ever opened. Nonetheless, Malone’s seasonal visits garnered him endless publicity. He organized lectures and benefits promoting women’s suffrage, attracting the nation’s best-known activists and reformers to events at the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Considering New York’s draconian divorce statutes, at one point Malone claimed Florida clients while at Palm Beach could obtain a divorce in France from his Paris office.
New York lawyer Jerome Gedney’s client, magnate Clarence Geist, built La Claridad on Golfview Road. After Mizner’s Boca Raton project collapsed, Geist took over the hotel, reinventing it as the Boca Raton Club. In 1923 Gedney married Madeline Pierson whose family at one time owned all of the oceanfront for what became the Town of Manalapan. Establishing the firm of Gedney, Johnston & Lilienthal in West Palm Beach, Gedney commissioned Addison Mizner to design L’Encantada in Manalapan.
Since the 1920s the Phipps family’s commercial interests had been represented by a Phipps Plaza legal office, headed by Raymond C. Alley and Meredith F. Baugher. When Alley and Baugher left the Phipps-owned companies during the 1930s, they both joined the joined the Williamson & Cain firm, forming Williamson Alley, Baugher & Burns. Having become a Florida resident in 1942, Joseph Gunster also became a partner. The following year, the firm became known as Williamson, Gunster & Baugher at their First National Bank offices while Alley linked with Drew, Burns & Middleton and opened offices in West Palm Beach. In 1950, Alley and Harold G. Maass formed Alley & Maass that today is the Alley, Maass, Rogers & Lindsay firm located at Royal Poinciana Plaza.
From the Underworld to the Top of the World
Charles Francis Coe was not only knowledgeable about felonthropy but also adept at philanthropy. Among Coe’s first clients was as counsel for Opportunity Inc, the town’s most significant charitable organization organized in 1939. He would become president of the Unified Drive, consolidating Opportunity Inc with the efforts of the YWCA, Girl Scouts and Milk Fund. As a board member of the Palm Beach Country Club, he incorporated the club for owner George MacDonald with Charles Munn as chairman. Coe’s first publicized divorce case was representing aviation pioneer Grover Loening in his separation from his wife Marka Truesdale who would marry Alexis Felix du Pont Jr. Coe’s practice grew quickly. By January 1940, the firm was named Coe, Fisher & Hamner with associate lawyer Russell Morrow and offices in downtown WPB’s Harvey Building as well as Palm Beach.
As the war in Europe continued, media baron John H. Perry called Coe to offer him the position as vice president and general counsel for the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America. For the next several years, Coe’s every move between Palm Beach, NYC, and LA was a national column item.
New York & Hollywood
“The law office with its buckram volumes, its mounted fish and animals, the huge rattlesnake skin and the tiny coral snake in alcohol; the chairs and desks and files; and ready to hand pencils and brief pads, Florida. It will be good to get back. It is the life I want.” -CFC, Never a Dull Moment.
My appreciation for literature is limited, Balzac, Pynchon, Beckett, Durrell, and sci-fi scenarios by J. G. Ballard. Life stories? The Education of Henry Adams. Nonetheless, however distant Coe’s world for me, his stick-and-move prose style, Coe does deliver the socker punch when sharing his reflections about Palm Beach, “… an undercurrent of the most deep-seated inconsistencies.”
Palm Beach … In so many words
1920s and 1930s novelists and screenwriters popularized Palm Beach life, predominately as a “background for the lightest and frothiest of mysteries and comedies,” whether the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts or Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. A longtime Palm Beach resident, Arthur Somers Roche featured Palm Beach in The Pleasure Buyers and What Price Paradise?
Author Ethel Pettit, Roche’s wife, exalted “the absurdities of small talk” in the whimsical novel Move Over. In her 1932 satirical The Rich are Always with Us, Pettit wrote, “Palm Beachers revel in illusions of grandeur amid looseness of morals, snobbishness, shallowness, pseudo cleverness, their struggling and striving to be amused.” Pettit’s story became a First National Picture starring Ruth Chatterton and Bette Davis.
Author Joseph Hergesheimer, who most often spent winters at an Everglades Club maisonette, showcased resort life in his 1933 collection of short stories “Tropical Winter: Soirees de Palm Beach,” described as “an ironical gem.”
In an interview, Hergesheimer observed, “It is possible to be satirical about Palm Beach or sentimental, but the lack of drama, passion, and human conflict, the material for a more serious attention was absent. Palm Beach was trivial. An existence without background and undignified by significant struggle. The tragedies there were light and thin like champagne, its problems hardly deeper than the deliberations at backgammon.”
Charles Francis Coe wrote about Palm Beach in his 1944 autobiography:
“My hometown is one of the most famous towns on Earth. It has everything in profusion. It is I am sure the most generous, selfish, wise, brash, pretty, petty, tranquil, turbulent, gentle, and goofy town on Earth. It is Palm Beach, the most rarified social atmosphere in the country.”
“The little place is manicured twice a day, or oftener; the mansions sprawl, the shops glitter with priceless materials, the sun shines, the moon glows, the palms wave … Even sudden millionaires cannot ruin a town like that. No, not even sudden millionaires with the esthetic sense of hippopotami and the appetites of the gutter.”
“Most of the substantial residents are here for fun and not for concern over running the town. I am not a sedentary nature. I love action. I like that which is paradox. The town grows against its every desire, romance flourishes, and over it all, the air is redolent of a million blooms.”
“The season is a delirious attempt by cottagers to see to it that each social generosity is returned before the donor returns to the North. Under it all lies an undercurrent of the most deep-seated inconsistencies which are not in any sense personal but are in a sense dictatorial. There is far too much stress on possession in my home town. That is its major fault, I think.”
“Every Saturday afternoon I have a figurative death struggle with Maurice Fatio as partner against Amory Haskell and Ned Hutton. No man may ask more in life, I am sure.” — CFC, Never A Dull Moment.
Publisher & Editor
Palm Beach Post, 1947-1952
In 1947 John H. Perry called on Coe again, having acquired the Palm Beach Post, Post Times, and Shiny Sheet for nearly $1 million from E. R. Bradley’s estate. Perry Publications also owned six dailies and 15 weekly papers as well as radio stations in Florida. Beach Club impresario and thoroughbred owner, E. R Bradley took over the publications in 1934, foreclosing on a $100,000 debt owed by The Post’s publisher D. H. Conkling and Sheriff George B. Baker who owned the Palm Beach Times.
When St. Edward Catholic Church parishioners needed funds to pay off a debt for roof repair, they reached out to Charles Francis Coe during his tenure as The Post’s editor-publisher. Coe promoted the idea for an interfaith committee to deal with the circumstances.
“I got on the telephone and in about five minutes each with the three most prominent Catholics I knew, and the three most prominent Jews and Protestants, I had my committee,” Coe told TIME magazine in March 1951. Members included Joseph P. Kennedy, Jeremiah McGuire, Mrs. Frank. J. Lewis, Louis Horowitz, Carl Rosenbloom, A. M. Sonnabend, Ernest G. Howes, Messmore Kendall, and John H. Perry. The All-Faiths Committee organized an “America on the March” gala dinner dance, gathered auction items, and with Coe as auctioneer, the Patio nightclub extravaganza attracted more than 300 patrons and netted the necessary funds.
Soon after, the Temple Israel Building Fund in West Palm Beach needed help. “I don’t see why we can’t help them too. I’m for churches. They do a lot of good,” said Coe. A second benefit and auction contributed $65,000. Coe added, “I believe a good deal of bigotry was broken down by the committee. There’s a general feel of friendliness that wasn’t there before.”
After his initial year as a lawyer with Coe’s firm, the partnership was rebranded in January 1949 as Coe, Richardson & Broberg. Henry Ferguson Richardson, a Cornell and Harvard graduate was previously associated for several years with the Gibson & Gibson firm in West Palm Beach. At the same time, Robert C Kime and Neil MacMillan were office associates.
In the small world department, MacMillan, his daughter, and his grandson have been my lawyers for the past 40 years. “My father Neil MacMillan was always proud of having worked for Charles Francis Coe after he graduated from Stetson Law and starting his practice in South Palm Beach County,” said lawyer Carol MacMillan Stanley whose father first worked for Coe in 1948. “Coe must have had a kind streak to give a young unemployed GI with two toddlers and a young bride a chance. Dad always had nothing but praise for Coe, who he said always conducted himself with utmost integrity and character, a role model in those early days,” recalled Stanley.
A North End resident since 1950, Broberg devoted time to children’s sports programs, coaching the Worth Avenue Merchants Little League team. He also served as president of Thrift Inc, a resale shop at 254 Worth Avenue, where sales were donated to 15 area agencies and hospitals. Among them, the Crippled Children’s Society, Salvation Army, Lions Industries for the Blind, Animal Rescue League of the Palm Beaches, Youth Baseball Association, Braille Club, and the Babe Ruth League. For more than 20 years Broberg served as Palm Beach’s “Your Honor,” Municipal Judge for the town’s Resort Court.
From the 1930s until the early 1970s, the published reports of Palm Beach’s Resort Court are must-reading for anyone who doubts how much Palm Beach once had in common with Winesburg, Ohio. After Prohibition was repealed, Palm Beach became a 24-hr. town. One resident was arrested for public intoxication twice in the same day. The Sunset Road resident with 35 homing pigeons was ordered to release the pigeons in the Everglades, only to have them return to Palm Beach. No matter how many town ordinances governing the feeding of feral cats, Palm Beach’s legendary serial offenders, the “Cat Ladies” became some of the town’s best-known outlaws.
When Joey the kangaroo escaped from the Brooks family backyard on Seabreeze Avenue, the police put out an APB. Although LIFE magazine was going to do a feature on Joey, and Caroline and David Kennedy came to visit, the town banned Joey, ordering the owners to move their Australian pet to the Dreher Park Zoo or face violation of the town’s wildlife ordinance. Teenagers who appeared in Judge Broberg’s court “disheveled with Beatles haircuts” were held in contempt and ordered to get haircuts and reappear. For a time, surfers were considered delinquents, until the Circuit Court overruled the town’s ban on surfing.
When Broberg announced his resignation in 1972, Mayor Earl E. T. Smith declined to accept it. Instead, the Mayor and Town Council unanimously passed Resolution 6-72, thanking Broberg for his 22 years of invaluable service meting out justice in an impartial manner to residents for their every infraction.
Broberg’s son and law partner Peter Broberg told the Palm Beach Post he was not surprised by his father’s reluctance to accept the honor, “That’s his nature, he’s never been able to bang his own drum. He’s never afraid to get his fingernails dirty coaching but he’d rather someone else get the credit.”
After an eight-season stretch as a Major League pitcher, Peter Broberg left the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1979 for law school at Nova Southeastern. Then joined his father’s legal team at Coe & Broberg’s Worth Avenue office, focused on estate planning and real estate. A lifelong Palm Beach resident, Broberg still attends reunions of his former teams, Washington Senators, later known as the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Seattle Mariners.
Charles Francis Coe and Gustave Broberg were larger than life, exceptional iconic achievers, whose disparate paths converged at Palm Beach where residents appreciate that it is one of the few places where the exception becomes the rule.
Historical Society gains PB Post-PB Daily News photo archive
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s collection of more than four million photographs has recently been enhanced with images from the Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Daily News and Palm Beach Life magazine, adding as many as one million images and 700 linear-feet to its archive.
Organized in March 1937 with Palm Beach’s Bishop Nathaniel Seymour Thomas as honorary president and Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth as president, the Historical Society of Palm Beach’s founding members included John Brelsford, Jerome Gedney, James Owens Jr, Dr. Frederick Herpel, Harold Sweatt, Ralph W. Reynolds, Dr. George Waterman, and Roscoe T. Anthony. The organization’s first 135 members held their meetings and programs at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. For many years, the Historical Society was located on Palm Beach at Whitehall, The Society of the Four Arts, and the Paramount Building, before moving to its present location in the 1916 Courthouse that houses the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum.
In the summer of 2019, the HSPBC curator with a team of assistants and volunteers began assembling the newspapers’ photographs from their South Dixie Highway news bureau, packing and moving more than 550 bankers boxes in just ten days. Two years and one pandemic later, the Historical Society continues working to consolidate the collections.
The HSPBC has begun digitizing the images with several thousand already accessible. The latest collection is stored in nearby facility close to its main location at the 1916 Courthouse, 300 North Dixie Highway. The Research Center is committed to making the collection available to researchers, students, and patrons. To schedule a research appointment please contact the Research Director, Rose Guerrero at email@example.com
HSPBC’s 2021 Archival Evening will honor the scope and extent of the Society’s collections, ranging from archaeological relics to contemporary artifacts that make Palm Beach County like no other place in the world. The various archival collections are available for both naming and underwriting opportunities. For more information, please contact the Director of Development Taylor Materio at firstname.lastname@example.org