Palm Beach Social History

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The sketch, an illustration for an article published in 1913 by the now extinct Pittsburgh Press, may be the only known image recreating the ambience at one of the roulette tables within Palm Beach’s fashionably-formal and celebrated Beach Club. Interior photographs were never allowed within the club’s inner sanctum, according to local historians. Following Col. Bradley’s death in 1946, the club was demolished and the land donated as a park to the Town of Palm Beach. Since then, Bradley’s Beach Club has taken on much the same mythical status as many of its legendary guests.

Our Palm Beach members want quick action and thrills, roulette and hazard. Card games are not thrilling.”

–The Beach Club, Palm Beach, 1913.

“ … Go to Palm Beach, which is not exclusive, but merry, sumptuous and expensive and where there is a chance to meet many prominent men in the gambling rooms …”

–Advice from a social arbiter when asked by a new millionaire how to enter the ranks of the Social Register.

Long before private card games, beach cabana bookies, Jockey Club boxes at Hialeah, all-night escapades in Havana, backgammon double-or-nothings, and after-dinner jaunts to Nassau’s blackjack tables were the most essential pleasures of a Palm Beach season, sky’s-the-limit gambling at Bradley’s Beach Club was already an internationally-recognized Palm Beach institution. The Beach Club’s menu of spinning wheels and tumbling dice made it the resort’s most rapturous attraction. In between tea dances, cake walks and wheelchair rides, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Belmonts and Astors were held spellbound by the sights and sounds within Bradley’s gaming rooms.

Col. E. R. Bradley. 1941.

In 1931 when James Paul Donahue died from an overdose during a card game in New York, tabloid headlines claimed Donahue had overstepped his allowance, drowning in gambling debts accumulated at “… gambling haunts in Palm Beach…” Hardly surprising news as Palm Beachers have always enjoyed the company of their brokers and bookies whether indulging in locker room card games, side bet golf rounds or wagering on the boxing bouts at the old Oasis Club. After Florida legalized horse racing in 1931, Joseph Widener, along with many of his Palm Beach friends, were among the first to capitalize on pari-mutuel betting. In later years, when the island’s Kenya Club bartender was arrested for running a bookmaking operation during the 1980s and a raid on a Worth Avenue gambling house netted 27 arrests in 1997, residents most likely thought those nabbed deserved a place in Palm Beach’s social pantheon next to Col. Bradley rather than being booked and fingerprinted at Palm Beach County Jail.

With Palm Beach hotels filled with costumed bejeweled guests and its streets lined with imaginative picturesque houses, their facades as akin to stagecraft as any chapter of architectural history, Bradley’s Beach Club provided the resort’s ultimate experience, unrecorded activities known only to those there at the time, as shielded from outsiders and social historians as those pursued by today’s private clubs. For a select circle of players, it might have been the unbelievable ecstatic payoffs offered by the Madoff funds that made them such an irresistible sure-thing. For others, captivated by the spin of the island’s real estate roulette wheel, paying tulip-crazed prices only made Palm Beach a more alluring Shangri-La, however much of yesterday’s $75 million might add up to today’s $25 million. Although the Beach Club generation has nearly vanished, Palm Beach has never lost its appeal as a place that exists outside of an accountable dimension, where unwritten rules dictate that money doesn’t mean anything but is the only thing that counts.

Although more than a half-century has passed since the blue blood’s biggest bankrolls from 1898 until 1945 made the Beach Club the nation’s most infamous casino, the Who’s Who’s preferred House of Chance remains an influential part of Palm Beach’s social dynamic. Here is a look at some of the Beach Club’s forerunners and paradigms, spa town’s promising cures and roulette wheels, and some snapshots of the club that insured Palm Beach’s status as one of society’s leading meccas.

“My father once told me of a card game in a railroad car parked in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel where $10,000 bought one chip.” – Ector Munn.

Baden Baden, Monte Carlo, and Saratoga

By the 1880s Baden-Baden was one of society’s classiest gambling salons.
The Casino at Monte Carlo was among the most popular venues for the turn-of-the-century’s sporting set. Although, according to several reports, Monte Carlo’s betting volume was always short of Bradley’s Beach Club.
Built in 1870, Canfield’s Casino has housed the Saratoga Springs History Museum since 1911.

Several decades before the Bradley brothers opened their Florida clubs, Canfield’s Casino at Saratoga Springs was widely-regarded as the American “Monte Carlo.” Originally, the casino was built as Morrissey’s Club House in 1870 by John Morrissey, a retired prize fighter and NY congressman, who also built the race track and owned other gambling dens.

As the area’s most popular exclusive club, neither women nor locals were permitted in the gaming rooms. A large gambling salon was later added where men could play faro, roulette, rouge-et-noir and Boston. In 1894 it was bought by Richard Canfield who added the picturesque Italian gardens and a dining room with haute cuisine and stained-glass windows enhanced by zodiac signs. Political and religious anti-gambling forces strained Canfield’s resources, leading him to close in 1907 and selling the facility in 1911 to the City of Saratoga Springs. By the 1907 season at Saratoga, the NYT reported, “The roulette wheels are no longer spinning, in public that is…”

A former US Congressman and NY state senator, John Morrissey established Saratoga’s race track in 1863 and also its best-known gambling emporium, the Club House, later known as Canfield’s Casino.
As popular venues between jaunts to the race track, Saratoga’s gambling houses provided society with pleasurable fun and games, an early form of off-track betting.
Even The New York Times could not resist designating Saratoga as “The Wickedest Place in America.”
After several seasons as the focus of political and religious scrutiny, public gambling was shut down in Saratoga. Guests resorted to private clubs while newspaper editorials complained “…crowds can do nothing but sit on hotel porches and gossip.”
During its heyday the upstairs High Stakes Gambling Room at Canfield’s was where high-hats might drop a fortune. Today, the Saratoga Springs History Museum has recreated the gambling room’s original ambiance with much of the casino’s original furniture. Courtesy of Saratoga Springs History Museum.

Bacchus Club, St. Augustine & The Beach Club, Palm Beach

“The real reason for the popularity of Palm Beach is not its climate or its hotels; it is Bradley’s.” The New York World.

“The spin of the marble alone breaks the silence. When it falls, the croupier indicates the winning number by pointing to the board, sweeping the chips, cash, paper IOUs into the drawer without a word.” –The Pittsburgh Press report on The Beach Club, 1913.

In 1891, three years after Flagler opened the Ponce de Leon Hotel, pictured above, the Bradley brothers introduced casino-style gambling to Florida when they moved their Club Bacchus dine-and-dice operation from Chicago to a St. Augustine cottage on the corner of Cordova and Treasury Streets. “When the Bradleys moved on to Palm Beach, my father moved the Ponce family-owned funeral home into the Bacchus Club’s former location,” said historian Jim Ponce.
In 1896 Colonel Edward Riley Bradley (1859-1946) was reported to be in Palm Beach scouting locations to establish a private dining-and-gaming club similar to his St. Augustine venue. Eventually, Col. Bradley, as he was known as an honorary Kentucky colonel, bought a lakeside cottage directly north of Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel, or the “Pounce-On-Em Hotel” as some locals called it. It became the island’s most exclusive and popular diversion, giving Palm Beach a much-needed cachet.
Offering haute French cuisine and open only to seasonal out-of-state residents, much of Bradley’s operational formula appears to have been modeled after Canfield’s Casino in Saratoga, both establishments becoming widely-known during their time as the “Monte Carlo of America.”

Col. Bradley and his brother John, known as Jack, were 50/50 partners for all their ventures in Chicago, New Orleans, New Jersey and Palm Beach, including hotels, restaurants, horses, race tracks, and private clubs. “My grandfather, Tip Reese, would go hunting with Jack Bradley in Alaska,” recalled David Reese, whose father Claude Dimick Reese, “Mr. Palm Beach,” was Colonel Bradley’s godson. Above, a 1905 newspaper account of Jack Bradley’s five-month safari across Equatorial Africa tended by a staff of 130.
As visitors crossed the Flagler railroad bridge, The Beach Club’s prime location at the western tip of Main Street’s north side made for one of their first impressions of Palm Beach. To the north, Sidney Maddock built the Palm Beach Hotel in 1902; followed the next decade by the construction of the Fashion Beaux Arts shopping center. “The letters “B C” are all you would see etched on the glass door, standing for Bradley’s Casino rather than the Beach Club,” laughed Jim Ponce.
“Gambling was illegal in Florida but always practiced among certain social circles,” said Jim Ponce. Above, a turn-of-the-century image of roulette play in London, characterized as “Man’s Enemy.”
This daily ad appeared in the The Palm Beach Daily News. Long before the Everglades Club, the B & T, and the Palm Beach Country Club were established, the Beach Club was society’s preferred refuge. Col. Bradley’s wife died suddenly during the 1920s while the couple was enjoying a round-the-world cruise. They never had children and he never remarried.
Col. Bradley and Jack Bradley incorporated The Beach Club with Thomas “Tip” Reese, a formidable Palm Beach presence who supervised much of the club’s operation when the Bradleys were away, especially membership. Tip Reese was also the first treasurer of the Everglades Club. After its inaugural year, escorted women were permitted, making it the first place in the United States where women gambled at the same tables with men.
Although gambling was illegal in Florida, The Beach Club’s charter permitted it to conduct “ … such games of amusement as the management of the same and its members may from time to time agree upon.”
One of Pololand’s immortal players, Lawrence Waterbury (1877-1943), his Beach Club membership card shown above, was known as one of the sport’s “Big Four.” In 1932 Waterbury married Carrie Louise Munn Boardman, sister of turfmen Charles and Gurnee Munn. In a 1937 issue of Vogue, Col. Bradley was featured in an illustration depicting Hialeah with the Munn brothers, Joseph Widener, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and “Butch, their bookie.” The Munn family’s company was American Totalisator “AmTote” which at one time held a monopoly on all the pari-mutuel betting machines utilized at race tracks in the US and UK. In 1941, the Munns bought Miami’s Tropical Race Track, along with partners Herb Swope, Alfred K. Vanderbilt and William Rhinelander Stewart, from a member of Al Capone’s mob. Capone controlled much of gambling in South Florida during the 1940s and 1950s.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there were many years when guests gambled 24/7. “People in Palm Beach do not play to win but for amusement because it is fashionable and not necessary. Here gaming is a pastime rather than a concern for money gains. ” – The Beach Club, 1913.
Nearly every season brought improvements to the club including a two-story octagonal gaming room modeled after the Royal Poinciana Hotel’s octagonal great salon. Behind the main room’s dimly-lit latticework, twenty armed and uniformed Pinkertons stood guard over the action at six roulette tables and two hazard tables. “During WW II, I went to the Beach Club for dinner with a friend who was a member, and also in uniform. We were not permitted in the gaming rooms but dined in another wing of the club. All I can recall is the food was wonderful and seeing a lot of green and white, Bradley’s colors,” remembered Jim Ponce.
While this might best be choreographed in tune with a Keystone Kops tap routine, I was fascinated by these security instructions. The Beach Club was never known to be robbed or raided except for the highly-publicized 1915 raid that closed the club for a few minutes. Image courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beachers were “aflutter” when they awakened in March 1915 to read this headline, the subject of national news. Although no gambling paraphernalia was found during the raid, a grand jury was convened to investigate a private investigator’s allegation that Bradley’s was one of the nation’s largest gambling operations. None of the club’s fifteen prominent “members” ever responded to subpoenas, including John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy’s father who was a close friend of the Bradley brothers who had been coming to Palm Beach since 1900. Shortly thereafter, “… the whirr of the roulette table, the rattle of chips and the voices from the dealers could once again be heard at Bradley’s …”
Out for a spin on Worth Avenue, Col. Bradley was known for keeping a loyal staff of approx. 50 men and 20 women who were housed within the Beach Club’s compound. Married couples were not hired as they were believed to pass gossip among each other about the club’s guests. The staff was paid only once at the end of every season. Of course, this did not include the customary regular cash envelopes paid to local and state politicians and law enforcement officials. Noted for his many philanthropic endeavors in Kentucky and Palm Beach, Bradley was most generous to local Catholic and Jewish charities.
This letter, part of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s collection, finds the usually generous Bradley counting every penny.
Chemin de fer and baccarat were added during the club’s later years. “Whenever my father had a meeting with Bradley, he always stopped first in the kitchen where the chef gave him a box of the best French pastries you can imagine,” said David Reese.
Col. Bradley was undoubtedly the 20th century’s finest horseman. He owned his first horse in 1898. He bought his Kentucky showplace, the 1,300-acre Idle Hour Farm, in 1909. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1921, 1926, 1932 and 1933 as well as numerous Preakness and Belmont winners. His Idle Hour Farm is today’s exclusive Idle Hour Golf and Country Club.
As part of settling his brother’s more than $7 million estate, Jack Bradley sold Idle Hour Farm’s horse stock, considered the finest in America, to the King Ranch, Ogden Phipps and Jock Whitney.
In 1947, an estate auction, a Palm Beach tradition, was held at Bradley’s. The Historical Society of Palm Beach County collection contains original ephemera and artifacts from the Beach Club, including IOUs, chips and Col. Bradley’s will.
The Maddock family, among Palm Beach’s pre-Flagler era pioneers, owns three of the mahogany gaming tables from Bradley’s Beach Club. Shown above, each of the tables has a locked center drop drawer, utilized for chips, markers, IOUs, and cash. While Bradley’s accepted IOUs from club members, accounts were expected to be settled within 24 hours. According to legend, if a member lost a considerable amount, Col. Bradley would offer the opportunity to roll for double-or-nothing.
The Beach Club’s gaming tables allowed patrons to clearly see there was nothing beneath them that could alter the roulette wheel or the throw of the dice.
At their historic lakeside house, the deconsecrated Bethesda Church building, interior designer Mimi Maddock McMakin and her husband, Realtor Leigh McMakin, use the more than century-old gaming tables, still in their near original condition, for a myriad of functions.
Remodeled during the 1980s, Bradley Pavilion is the only structural fragment remaining of Pleasant View, Col. Bradley’s house that was attached to the Beach Club. Across the street to the north, Jack Bradley built a Dutch Colonial-style house, known as Villa Sonia, later owned by the Louis Kaufmans. Harold S. Vanderbilt lived next door to Jack Bradley until Vanderbilt bought Mizner’s El Solano on South Ocean Boulevard.
Bradley Pavilion features a unique pagoda-style mantle.
Ten years after the Royal Poinciana Hotel was demolished, the Beach Club was torn down, leaving only the vestige from Bradley’s house and this plaque, commemorating one of Palm Beach’s most unique landmarks.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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