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.
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
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…”
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.