Palm Beach Flashback Social Diary: Artful Exposures

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Palm Beach, 1961. Clad in the latest chic resort sportswear, Gertrude and David Nemerov strike a pose at the bar of their fashionable Palm Beach Towers penthouse apartment. Once regarded among New York's most prominent style arbiters, every aspect of their life would later be scrutinized and psychoanalyzed as their children became famous. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.

After the Palm Beach Towers opened its doors during the Mad Men era, it became a forerunner for the condominium movement that turned South Florida’s sublime seashore into the coveted high-rise Gold Coast. Sixty years ago David Nemerov left New York for Palm Beach to retire and reinvent himself as an artist. Settling at The Towers with his wife Gertrude, Nemerov died only a few seasons into his aesthetic pursuit.  At the same time, a Scotland-born Fleet Street photographer Harry Benson accompanied The Beatles on their 1964 tour.

Benson’s backstage shots made him as famous as the celebrities and headline stories he framed during the next five decades. On a recent Sunday afternoon at The Society of the Four Arts Gubelmann Auditorium, the documentary film Harry BensonShoot First  attracted a considerable audience. The film showcased many of political and cultural figures Benson photographed and was narrated by family members and friends who have worked with him, including DPC. For the Q & A following the 90-minute tribute, Benson recalled some of his experiences and most iconic f-stops. Here is a look back at the Nemerov family and some snaps of Sunday’s filmgoers and  21st-century Harry Benson.

Wild about Harry! When the Harry Benson documentary film finished and the house lights came up in the Four Arts Gubelmann Auditorium, the audience gave Shoot First enthusiastic applause.

Gertrude and David Nemerov
Palm Beach Towers – 44 Cocoanut Row

Gertrude Russek Nemerov (1901-1994) and David Nemerov (1895-1963) were among the first to check-in at the gleaming Palm Beach Towers, the sleek Midcentury Modern-styled six-story apartment-hotel that replaced the ghost of Henry Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel. As at home in their ten-room 888 Park Avenue apartment or Sutton Place residence as their lakefront five-bedroom aerie, the Nemerovs were joined by many of their friends who rendezvoused each winter at The Towers. Among them, industrialist and renowned art collector Nathan “Nate” Cummings who secured the penthouse across from the Nemerovs. Yet another penthouse with an aviary was taken by jetsetter the Maharani of Baroda (Sita Devi). As the chairman of the board of his wife’s family-owned Russek’s Fifth Avenue apparel shop, David Nemerov had directed the fur emporium’s transformation into a department store offering “French perfumes and silk lingerie.” In October 1957, he announced his retirement.

June 1956, newspaper advertisement.

No sooner had the Nemerovs unpacked than they declared they would live in Palm Beach year-round. Ensconced with air-conditioning and panoramic views, the couple could take the elevator to the complex’s Poinciana Room, offering the best Cantonese cuisine with Hawaii’s #1 chef, or step next door to Schrafft’s, located in the Royal Poinciana Plaza shopping center. Rather than become yet another real estate agent, David Nemerov set out to be a full-time artist. A former “Sunday painter,” he spent what became the last several years of his life painting still-lifes and landscapes in his rooftop studio. His motifs were popular among Palm Beach collectors with the Worth Avenue Gallery exhibiting his work. In November 1958 Ruth Butler’s Gallery 28 in New York showed fifty of his “vivid florals.” Among the Nemerovs’ houseguests were their equally creative three children, Howard, Diane and Renee. Born into a sheltered world of chauffeurs and nannies, each of them developed their own separate aesthetic path whether contrary to or enabled by their parents’ substantial wealth or flawed parenting skills.

In between cocktail parties and mah-jongg,  Gertrude, nicknamed “Buddy,” and David welcomed their youngest daughter, painter and sculptor Renee Sparkia, her husband novelist-artist Roy Sparkia. Among Roy Sparkia’s best-selling crime novels, The Vanishing VixenBoss Man, and my favorite title, The Dirty Rotten Truth. The couple’s representational Seven Wonders of the World (1963) simulated stained-glass 5-foot wide by 7-foot high panels were installed in the lobby of the Empire State Building, regarded then as the 8th Wonder of the World.  Also at Palm Beach, their son Howard Nemerov, the nation’s two-time poet laureate, novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and National Medal of Art recipient, whose novel Homecoming Game was dramatized for Broadway by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. During WW II, Nemerov and his wife Peggy Russell married in London.

On April 8, 1958, The Palm Beach Post reported: “Mr. and Mrs. Allan Arbus have arrived from New York City to be the guest of Mrs. Arbus’ parents Mr. and Mrs. David Nemerov at the Palm Beach Towers.” Diane and Alan Arbus had taken up commercial and fashion photography, their work appearing in Harper’sGlamour and Vogue. Within months of their visit to Palm Beach, the couple separated. For the next several years Diane Arbus focused her Rolleiflex on the disregarded. Her portraits gathered from circus sideshows, tenements, drag shows, and nudist camps, made for a series of images that placed her at the forefront of 20th century art. “She was a famous figure around New York carrying around this big load of cameras. She was a delicate girl, even her speaking voice was delicate,” recalled Gertrude Nemerov in a local newspaper interview following her daughter’s death in 1971.

Advertisement, 1955. Washington D.C. architect John Hans Graham was a prominent Midcentury Modern designer of International-styled apartment buildings and shopping centers. Born in Vienna, Graham studied architecture and engineering at the University of Prague (1937) before moving to the United States and receiving a degree in architecture at the University of Illinois (1943). Having opened his Washington D. C. office in 1948, Graham designed the Flamingo Apartments (Philadelphia, 1951) and the Park Towne Place (Philadelphia, 1957-1959), modeled on Le Corbusier’s Habite D’habitacion. Graham’s 33,000-square-foot Wheaton Co-op Shopping Center in the Maryland suburb was designed in association with architect Louis Kahn. At Detroit’s 21-story Windsor Tower (1965), Graham collaborated with Mies van der Rohe. The recipient of a 1952 AIA Medal, John Hans Graham was honored by the Town of Palm Beach for design excellence at the Palm Beach Towers (1957).
June 1956, newspaper advertisement.
Cornerstone plaque, Palm Beach Towers, 1956. Making for the largest building permit in Palm Beach’s history since the 1920s building boom, The Towers was considered the largest apartment complex in Florida.
Palm Beach Towers, 1961. Gertrude Russek Nemerov and David Nemerov seated in the living room of their five-bedroom penthouse holding a TIME magazine featuring President John F. Kennedy on the cover. During Palm Beach’s brief Camelot Era, the Palm Beach Towers became the site for press secretary Pierre Salinger’s daily briefings when the president was in town. “No summer in the south of France could compare with the summer here in Palm Beach,” David Nemerov once told an interviewer. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
Palm Beach Towers, 1961. Gertrude Russek Nemerov catches a glimpse of herself in a bedroom mirror with small framed photographs of her children atop the bureau. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
Russek’s Fifth Avenue, advertisement. Gertrude’s family business was a New York institution for several decades, closing in 1959.
Diane Arbus, David Nemerov, newlyweds Renee and Roy Sparkia, and Gertrude Nemerov. Renee and Roy’s wedding in 1947 was at the Nemerov’s Park Avenue apartment. Renee’s older sister Diane was her maid of honor. The same year, David Nemerov became president and CEO of Russek’s.
Gertrude Nemerov, center, with her son-in-law novelist-artist Roy Sparkia and her daughter Renee Sparkia, artist. During the early 1960s Renee and Roy had exhibitions at the Norton Gallery of Art and the Palm Beach Institute. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
February 1962. Palm Beach Daily News, article. Roy and Renee working on one of their sculptures with a view of The Breakers in the background.
During the early 1960s, Roy Sparkia and Renee Nemerov’s innovative artworks were shown at Palm Beach, Southampton and New York.
Palm Beach Towers, c. 1961. David and Gertrude Nemerov with Roy and Renee’s innovative artwork shown at the Norton Gallery of Art. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
Palm Beach Towers, penthouse bedroom, 1961. Gertrude Nemerov. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
“A Chinese Party., Penthouse Life.” Palm Beach Towers, 1961. Gertrude and David Nemerov. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
Artist David Nemerov. “I have a regular schedule at Palm Beach — get up at 6 each morning and work until noon in my studio here in our apartment,” Nemerov told The Palm Beach Post in December 1958. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
Painting. David Nemerov, artist. In 1963 Lord & Taylor and De Pinna’s added paintings to their merchandise line, among them, works by David Nemerov. Courtesy Pamela Hoffpauer Gottfried.
David Nemerov, right, and philanthropist and art collector Nate Cummings, pointing to one of Nemerov’s landscapes depicting the view from his penthouse at the Palm Beach Towers. Cummings made extensive donations from his renowned Impressionist and 19th- century art collection to the National Gallery of Art, The Metropolitan Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Canadian corporate titan was the founder of Consolidated Foods that later became the Sara Lee Corporation. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.
At ease, 1961. David and Gertrude Nemerov lounge in their Palm Beach Towers penthouse. In 1963 David Nemerov died suddenly (“Department store executive and Father of poet, dead at 68,” NYT headline). Eight years later, Gertrude moved to an oceanfront condominium at The Patrician on South Ocean Boulevard where she lived until the early 1980s when she relocated to New Mexico. Courtesy Alisa Sparkia Moore, Nemerov family collection.

During the mid-1960s Harry Helmsley and his New York real estate organization acquired the Palm Beach Towers. Following his 1972 marriage to Leona Roberts, the couple took an 1,800-square-foot penthouse apartment at The Towers. Eighteen months later during Thanksgiving weekend both Harry and Leona ended up at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach with knife injuries, making for one of Palm Beach’s unsolved “cold cases.” Harry had a minor wound in his arm and was released; Leona was stabbed in the chest and spent a week in the hospital, according to newspaper reports. Whether there was actually an “intruder” or whether it was a case of domestic assault has never been resolved.

In 2002, after some residents described the lobby as looking like a nursing home with an institutional look, the Palm Beach Towers undertook a three-year $2.5 million renovation headed by Habitat Interiors, a local firm headed by designers Ken Elias and Robert Lagna. ” We redesigned the reception desk and introduced the cherry-and-elm wood paneling for the front desk, stairway panels, and the lobby’s square concrete columns faced with mirrors,” said Elias. “We also enhanced the space with area rugs, accessories, and custom seating areas,” the designer added.

Palm Beach Towers

Palm Beach Towers. View from the lobby mezzanine west toward the lakefront and West Palm Beach skyline. “I believe the original glass was removed after one of the storms,” remarked Ken Elias.
Palm Beach Towers, kidney-shaped pool and cabanas looking northeast across the terrace. Fur bathing suit cover-ups were once an accessory for resort wardrobes.
Palm Beach Towers, lobby looking toward the reception area and the south wing. The lobby’s mirrored columns were updated with custom cherry-and-elm panels.
Palm Beach Towers, the view from the expansive lobby to the west.
Palm Beach Towers, lobby looking toward the north wing.
Palm Beach Towers, lobby view northwest from the mezzanine perspective.
Palm Beach Towers, lobby carpet view from the mezzanine. “We designed the rug especially for The Towers,” said designer Ken Elias.
Palm Beach Towers, lower level view from the central staircase. “The marble wall is original,” said Elias.
Palm Beach Towers, tile mosaics located on various elevations.
Palm Beach Towers, kidney-shaped balconies.
Palm Beach Towers, north wing’s southerly elevation view from port cochere entrance up to a penthouse apartment.
Palm Beach Towers, entrance looking up toward the south wing.
Palm Beach Towers, staircase view from basement looking up to ground floor. “We designed a new custom area rug, recovered the staircase and brought in the cherry-and-elm panels for the central staircase,” remarked Ken Elias.
Palm Beach Towers, staircase view from ground level looking down toward basement level.

2 April 2017
Harry Benson: Shoot First
The Society of the Four Arts – Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium

The Palm Beach showing attracted more than 500 filmgoers.
Harry and Gigi Benson at The Society of the Four Arts.
Jason Laskey, Susan Lloyd, Michael James, and Maribel Alvarez.
John Loring, Scott Huston, and Val Selleck.
Martin and Audrey Gruss.
Marge Dyer, Lynne George, and Diane Vasic.
L. to r.: Georgeann Ballou.; Jeanne Chisholm.
Richard and Sara Mesirow.
Regine Traulsen and Bill Diamond.
Cindy Barosky and Ruth Epstein.
The Gubelmann was at near capacity.
Kit Pannill.
Jane Manus.
Bob Nederlander, Gil Maurer, and Harry Benson.
The audience at the Gubelmann.
Following the film, Phil Bergmann, right, the Four Arts music and film programmer, moderated the Q and A with Harry Benson.
Most of the audience stayed for the interview with Harry though for many it was time to turn on their iPhones.
The lobby of the O’Keeffe Gallery Building where the Gubelmann Auditorium is located.
A meditative moment in one of The Four Arts Gardens before heading home.
Photographer Harry Benson. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur

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