The Coconuts! A Palm Beach Party History

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Cocoanuts Ball, March 1, 1924. Whitehall, Palm Beach. Jack Stearns, Jane Sanford, Gertrude Sanford, and Maurice Fatio at The Cocoanuts’ Fifth Annual Ball. A celebrated Palm Beach private party’s history reflects the mix of fact and fiction that often characterizes the resort’s past. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers:1844-1996. College of Charleston Libraries - Charleston, South Carolina.

“There is to be a Tropical Ball given by a group of young men styling themselves The Cocoanuts at the Country Club tonight …”The Palm Beach Post, February 18, 1920, page seven.

On December 31, 1991 at The Breakers Golf Club several Coconuts offered conflicting timelines when a local reporter asked them to divulge the genesis of their New Year’s Eve party tradition: “Since before World War II,” Coconut Paul Ilyinsky said. “The first Coconut party was held in 1929,” according to Coconut Dick Cowell. “Approximately 1924,” said Chief Coconut Guilford Dudley who hosted the party at his house in 1987. “The late Chris Dunphy held the first Coconuts party at his home on New Year’s Eve,” replied another of the hosts.

Although most agreed “nobody seems to know just how many years ago,” other reports claimed this prestigious social fraternity was formed by the Oasis Club’s bachelor members during the 1920s. When The Cocoanuts was reinvented as The Coconuts on December 31, 1957 at Ta-boo, Ed Sullivan reported in his “Little Old New York” column that the “buffet party and dance” was started by twelve bachelors with Chris Dunphy, Charles Cushing and Milton “Doc” Holden named as co-founders. Five years later at Ta-boo, only Dunphy and Holden were credited as founders. Or, might this Prohibition-era revelry have first banded together in1933 after Prohibition was repealed? Considering The Coconuts celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1983, according to contemporaneous reports. Three years later, the consensus was the group began at the Oasis Club in 1935. Virtually impossible since there had not been a Cocoanuts Ball since 1927 and in 1933 the Bradley brothers had foreclosed the Oasis Club’s mortgage, shutting the club down.

According to Coconut Bob Leidy, “anything more than a basic awareness of its founding principles is unnecessary.”

In a 2002 article Coconut icon Bob Leidy admitted “knowledge of the Coconuts’ early days is sketchy …” Nevertheless, the report indicated the revel began in 1935 with ten bachelors who each invited four to six friends. Later, the number of host Coconuts was revised to include 25 bachelors and former bachelors. But, as Leidy emphasized, “anything more than a basic awareness of its founding principles is unnecessary.”

Even the venerated New York Social Diary offered its version of Coconutology in 2006: “The Coconuts held their annual legendary dance, a party that has been a fixture on the Palm Beach scene since the 1930s at the Flagler Museum. Originally conceived by Anthony J. (Tony) Drexel Biddle Jr. as a payback by himself and his group of social bachelors, the Coconuts New Year’s Eve Gala went dormant almost to the point of oblivion about fifteen years ago (1990) but now has transformed once again into Palm Beach’s most coveted New Year’s Eve invitation.”

Most recently, The Shiny Sheet wrote the 26-member male bastion’s ritual had been around “…for nearly 80 years. Or maybe 90. Nobody’s actually sure because — well, they’re Coconuts. What is known is that Charles Munn and Chris Dunphy, both of whom were single at the time, thought a jointly hosted party would be the ideal way to repay social debts incurred in season. Soon, one bachelor after another — none oblivious to the economic advantage of splitting the tab, rich as they were — joined, and The Coconuts was born.” If only The Coconuts’ genesis was as simplistic as The Shiny Sheet’s synopsis.

Instead, the group’s cachet is embedded within an inherent knot of legend and lore recast by the ever-changing generational perspectives of Palm Beach’s multiple social circles that were fragmented into episodic seasonal narratives. The resort’s customary historical fiction mixes together repeated gossip sprinkled with bits of truth crafted into a kaleidoscopic blend that makes for more of a good read than reliable scripture. Albeit, the Roaring ‘20s code of behavior for proper people probably dictated that it was good manners to forget one’s excesses during a fashionable all-night Dionysian bacchanal. With the introduction of private clubs and nightclubs, Palm Beach was no longer the programmed punch-clock social world it was during Flagler’s hotel era.

In March 1925, The Palm Beach Post’s social columnist Amy Lyman Phillips wrote about The Cocoanuts, “And I shall not write of them nor disclose their secrets, for there is no thrill in being a coconut, unless one can keep his identity a secret –and no good having such a fine secret society of gay young blades and cavaliers who dispense such lavish hospitalities unless their wishes be respected.”

Two years later, Phillips wrote, “Did see, as the eve progressed, many amusing things that, alas, they may not be printed. I vow if they were they would cause something of a sensation in our prim little Palm Beach …”

As the 106th Coconuts Ball is now a wrap, the following chronological survey is drawn from available records, aware that much of the group’s appeal rests on its story remain unknowable. The Coconuts’ discontinuous evolution from an unruly end-of-season masquerade ball to today’s The Coconuts of Palm Beach LLC formal black-tie, boutonnière and slippers New Year’s Eve party endures as coveted an invitation as it was over a century ago.

February 18, 1920
Palm Beach Country Club

The Cocoanuts — Addison Mizner, Caleb Bragg, James R. Hyde, James A. Blair Jr., and L. Rodman “Roddy” Wanamaker II — anonymously welcomed several hundred friends to an end-of-season social payback masked Tropical Ball beginning at 11 p.m. at the Palm Beach Country Club. Mizner transformed the club’s staid ambiance into a jungle, having produced tableau vivants and society events in 1890s San Francisco while he worked on his architectural apprenticeship. With society swells costumed as bootleggers, gypsies, tramps, and pirates, the evening’s lack of decorum and protocol became its draw.

Palm Beach Country Club, c. 1920.

After all, Palm Beach was intended as an escape from reality not an extension of it. Dabney’s Syncopated Orchestra, the first African-American to regularly play in a Broadway theatre, provided the all-night vibe courtesy of Flo Ziegfeld who brought the group to Palm Beach from his Midnight Frolic production at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Marie Louise Wanamaker Munn and Mary Brown Warburton performed a butterfly dance in between guests stepping the Lindy Hop, Charleston and Black Bottom.

Shortly before supper was served at 1 a.m, the five Cocoanuts were unmasked. Not surprisingly, most of the select partygoers were Philadelphia aristocrats — Main Line horsemen and clubmen — along with New York nobles — Wall Street financiers and railroad monopolists. Among them the all-night seaside jungle attracted, the expected Mr. and Mrs. chosen from the Everglades Club’s subscriber list, Stephen Sanford, Harold S. “Mike” Vanderbilt, Munn in-law Herb Pulitzer, and the soon-to-be bachelor Conde Nast. Husband-hunters included Betty Thayer, Constance Peabody, and the Pierson sisters, Suzanne, Emily and Betty.

1st Cocoanuts Tropical Ball, 18 February 1920. Palm Beach Country Club. Center, Cocoanut L. Rodman “Roddy” Wanamaker 2nd, with guests Lisa Norris, Elizabeth Sands, Barclay McFadden, and Charles Munn. Courtesy Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Philadelphia Evening Ledger.

18 February 1920. The Cocoanuts! “ … if everything that was said and done went into print — well someone would certainly write an editorial about it! And that would never do.”
Cocoanuts Tropical Ball, 1920. Cocoanut James Blair Jr. and Peggy Thayer. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
“ … Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham, as a peasant girl …” Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

March 2, 1921
Palm Beach Country Club

“Costume is obligatory … Marius and Francois outdid themselves in the supper which was served at 1:30 am. Leonard Replogle and Flo Ziegfeld, who were made-up as tramps, sat on the floor all night and shot craps.”

With The Cocoanuts’ first Tropical Ball memorialized in Palm Beach’s party pantheon, The 400’s best-known tycoons and footloose debutantes assembled at 11 pm for a Jungle Ball of “fast and furious fun,” ending sometime in the morning hours when breakfast was served at Bradley’s Beach Club amid the roulette wheel and dice tables. Guests were greeted by six masked Cocoanuts headed by Lawrence Waterbury and fellow Cocoanuts Caleb Bragg, James R. Hyde, Arrell Widener, Leonard Thomas, and Addison Mizner who once again designed the stagecraft at the Palm Beach Country Club.

“ … will neither give out their names nor those of their guests … Everyone is naturally on the qui vive …”
“ One of the very smartest parties of the year …”
Supper was served at 1:30 a.m.

February 25, 1922
Palm Beach Country Club

The 1922 Cocoanuts included Lawrence Waterbury, Caleb Bragg, James R. Hyde, Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, William A. Slater, Joe Widener, Richard Hoyt, Paul Rainey, Wadsworth Lewis, and the controversial Flo Ziegfeld. At the previous Cocoanut’s Ball, Flo Ziegfeld’s “stage beauties” created a stir when they stepped off stage, cavorting with invited guests during the early morning hours. Weeks earlier, The Breakers reportedly banned Ziegfeld’s long-legged show-stoppers from the hotel’s bathing beach after complaints from more reserved hotel guests. Each Cocoanut wore a phosphorescent mask imported from Paris by Ziegfeld.

1922 Cocoanuts Ball pre-party at Villa del Sarmiento, Tony Biddle’s Mizner-designed house on South Ocean Boulevard. L. to r.: Jane Sanford, Bill Ryle, Julian Sloane, and Gertrude Sanford. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1844-1996, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, South Carolina.
The 1922 Cocoanut Ball attracted 150 Pierrots, Pierrettes, Turkish sultans, and Venetian Ladies. Among the guests, Chris Dunphy who was also the new manager of the Palm Beach Country Club.
Mai Frelinghuysen, Peggy Thayer, and Cordelia Duke. Historical Society of Palm Beach County. Inset: The 1922 Cocoanut Ball attracted 150 Pierrots, Pierrettes, Turkish sultans, and Venetian Ladies. Among the guests, Chris Dunphy who was also the new manager of the Palm Beach Country Club.

March 2, 1923
Palm Beach Country Club

“A strictly private ball … the etiquette of invitations … the scene is one of rare beauty … Meyer Davis orchestra … the ultra-smart younger set.”

“To Whom It May Concern” notice published in the local newspapers. Many costumes were “ drawn upon from Ziegfeld’s theatrical wardrobes.”

February 28, 1924

“… Many wore the same costumes they wore to the Everglade Club’s Fancy Dress Ball … one of the most handsomely staged they had ever attended … magnificent mansion of Grecian architecture … more commodious than the Country Club … supper was served in the patio at 2 am, entertained by two toreadors with guitars …

The 18 Cocoanuts of 1924 — Stephen Sanford, Caleb Bragg, William Averill, James Hyde, John Fell, Flo Ziegfeld, Fred Inman, Joseph Riter, Harold S. “Mike” Vanderbilt, John M. L. Rutherford, Addison Mizner, Thomas Robertson, Maxwell “Buddie” Norman, Ellis Postlethwaite, Frederick Mills, Frederick Sears, Owen Kenan, and Oliver Perrin — greeted 400 “gorgeously arrayed men and women” at the entrance to Whitehall’s French ballroom. The Meyer Davis and Malcolm Johnston orchestras played until dawn.

Cocoanut Ball, 1924. Whitehall. L. to r.: Maxwell “Buddie” Norman, Jane Sanford, Chris Dunphy, and Warner Jones. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1844-1996, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, South Carolina.
Cocoanuts Ball, 1924. Whitehall. Jane Sanford. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1844-1996, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, South Carolina.
Beginning at 4:30 am, Club Montmartre opened to serve “a delicious breakfast of cakes and waffles prepared to order …” accompanied by the club’s orchestra. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1844-1996, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, South Carolina.
6:30 a.m. After Party at Ralph Strassburger’s house for breakfast. L. to r.: Frank Iglehart, Nils Florman, Jane Sanford, Doc Holden, Jack Stearns, Ralph “Strassi” Strassburger, Gertrude Sanford, and Chris Dunphy. Courtesy Gertrude Sanford Legendre Papers: 1844-1996, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, South Carolina.

March 4, 1925
Palm Beach Country Club

“the most brilliant one ever … they do not wish to make their names public.”

Whether 1925 or 2015, guests were asked to present invitations at the door, no matter who they might be or whose houseguest they are or …
“… their list of guests is never printed, but includes the names of Palm Beach’s most important society.”
“Marooned in Jungle and not a Drop?” Cocoanuts 1925. Sheila Byrne, left, and Mai Frelinghuysen, right,embrace Capt. Alastair Mackintosh, center, with a what appears to be a flask in his back pocket. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

March 5, 1926
Palm Beach Country Club

“… bachelors, with two exceptions … jolliest, most exclusive event of the Palm Beach social season.”

Outfitted in “all sorts of wonderful rags and white wigs, “ fifteen incognito Cocoanuts greeted more than 300 sheiks and buccaneers. Designer Chamberlain Dodds crafted “a veritable futurist black-and-gold jungle with black velvet draperies … hundreds of balloons in rainbow colors.” The guest list was “cloaked in secrecy.”

March 1926. The Cocoanuts Ball fast became Palm Beach’s most exclusive social event. Above, a newspaper report claimed that “The relation of the Cocoanut Ball to the early departures is the limited number of invitations to the ball … many women who have not been invited have persuaded their husbands to leave before it is held.” Saved the embarrassment of having to explain why they were not at The Cocoanuts Ball.

The Cocoanuts Ball “… the only one really important function remains …” Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
“Golden coconut trees and the golden ceiling of the grove… released hundreds of balloons which floated among the merry throng of dancers.”
L. to r.: Cocoanut Flo Ziegfeld as a “chorus girl deluxe” with high heel shoes and balloons; Marjorie Oelrichs and J. E. R. Carpenter Jr. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
Henry Carnegie Phipps, center, with Mai Frelinghuysen and Mrs. Joshua Cosden.

March 4, 1927
Oasis Club

“… the most spectacular … a picture of enchantment with strange and unreal mingling with persons torn from the pages of history and fable… given by fifteen bachelors … transformed into a coconut grove … Marjorie Oelrichs came as a ricksha boy. Alice Delamar dressed as a sailor. ”

Guests marveled at Joseph Urban’s transformation of the Oasis Club for the 1927 “Ball of the Cocoanuts”, having all but fainted weeks earlier when Urban’s stagecraft was unveiled at Mar-a-Lago and the openings of the Bath & Tennis Club and the Paramount Theatre. Palm Beach had been Urbanized. In a break with tradition at the all-male club, the receiving line included the Oasis Club’s president Tony Biddle’s wife, wearing a pink satin and chiffon pajama costume with a headdress finished with pink pompoms, and Mrs. Harris Hammond, Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton, and Mrs. John M. L. Rutherford.

Costumed as the ultimate Indian princess, Marie Louis Wanamaker Munn received a standing ovation when she made her entrance into the Oasis Club, although she did not win first prize. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
L. to r.: 1927 Cocoanuts Ball, Oasis Club. Mary Brown “Minnie” Wanamaker Warburton. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County; Cocoanuts’ Ball 1927. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.
L. to r.: Dressed as a “dashing toreador,” Chris Dunphy was the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.; “… The best party of the year …”
L. to r.: Ellen Glendinning Frazer Ordway and Joe Harriman; Mary Glendinning and Persifor “Persi” Frazer III. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.
Cocoanuts 1927. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Left, Fifi Widener and Doc Holden; Right, Mr. and Mrs. John Fell. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.


Cocoanuts suspended “after much agitation.”

February 1929. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

December 31, 1957

The Coconuts were revived.

The Coconuts at Ta-boo, December 31, 1957. The only known narrative report on the first Coconuts gathering since 1927, published January 2,1958. With the Bachelor’s Ball held in New York as a pre-Christmas event, Seminole Golf Club director Chris Dunphy put together a few of his fellow golfers with notable gentlemen from the New York-Newport-Palm Beach social triangle for an after-dinner private New Year’s Eve party. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

Coconuts invitation, c. 1960. The only phenomenon more allusive than the history of the Coconuts is answering the question “Who is Chris Dunphy?” as Sports Illustrated magazine published in May 1960 to “explore the mysteries of his origin … almost as many versions as there people who tell it.” Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.

L. to r.: Ta-boo, c. 1960. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary; Coconuts at Ta-boo, c. 1960. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.
“Seven of the Coconuts” at Ta-boo. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.

“The Fraternal Order of Coconuts.” Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.
Mollie & Mike Phipps. Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Diary.

December 31, 1967

Jane Dudley and Chris Dunphy. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.
Coconut Bob Leidy and Mrs. Virginia Mower. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.
Wendy Vanderbilt and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.

December 31,1969

“… an evening of pure pleasure … frivolity at its finest.” Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection.

December 31, 1970
Coconut Room at Ta-boo

“People have been known to leave town when they failed to get their telegram-invitation in early December. An understatement, believe me. Flee is more like it.”

Charles Van Rensselaer, social columnist, The Palm Beach Post.

December 31, 1972
Club 265 – Royal Poinciana Way

Chris Dunphy with Estee and Joe Lauder. In May 1975 Dunphy passed away at his El Vedado home, age 94, leaving no none relatives. In Dunphy’s official biography published in 1935, the celebrity golfer gave his birth date as 1889, making him 86 at the time of his death. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.

December 31, 1974

Sargent Shriver, Ann Downey, Michael Paull, Winston Guest, Rose Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, and CZ Guest. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.

December 31, 1975
Poinciana Club

Emilia and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.
Mrs. Ogden Phipps and Lilly Pulitzer. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.

December 31, 1976
Poinciana Club

The Coconuts cancelled their NYE event one month before it was scheduled. Palm Beach Daily News, 5 November 1976.

December 31, 1978
Breakers Beach Club

“… recently revived after years of neglect … this year for the first time at The Breakers … bachelorhood is no longer a prerequisite…”

Chief Coconut Charles Amory with Charles A. Munn, honorary chairman, Dennie Boardman Beverly Bogert, Rex Cross, T. Bedford Davie, John R Drexel III, Guilford Dudley, Alfonso Fanjul, Walter S. Gubelmann, John Ben Ali Haggin, John D. F. Hamilton, James A. Hannah Jr., Rodman A. de Heeren, Albin Holder, Phillip Hulitar, Paul R. Ilyinsky, James Kimberly, Edward B. McLean, Peter Mulholland, Edmond Monell, Peter Pulitzer, Leverett Shaw, Earl E. T. Smith, Garrick Stephenson, T. Suffern Tailer, and General William T. Young.

December 31, 1982
Breakers Beach Club

“… Members are permitted only four guests each …”

December 31, 1984
Breakers Beach Club

“… affair that’s been going on since 1935 …”

CIA director William Casey with his wife Sophia, left, and Estee Lauder, right. Courtesy State of Florida Archives, Bert Morgan Collection.

August 1986
“Beware of falling coconuts …”

Palm Beach Daily News, August 3,1986.

December 31, 2010
Flagler Kenan Pavilion at Whitehall

“… 400 guests at Palm Beach’s oldest private party … breakfast and disco for the younger crowd … “

Having celebrated previously at The Colony Pavilion before moving to the Flagler’s Kenan Pavilion in 2005, The Coconuts celebrated their 80th Anniversary in 2007, as “the granddaddy of chic Palm Beach parties.”

Back row: Jay Maddock, Daniel Hanley, Peter Summers, William Matthews, John Mashek, and David Koch. Middle Row: Piper Quinn, Troy Maschmeyer, Michael McCarty, Robert Leidy, William Surtees, and Laddy Merck. Front Row: Blakely Page, Harold Paull, Wilbur Ross, Richard Cowell, Jr. Alex Fanjul, Chris Meigher, and Girard Brownlow. Capehart Photography.

December 31, 2013
Flagler Kenan Pavilion at Whitehall

“… a night to remember … town’s oldest most prestigious private party … 25 Coconuts welcomed more than 300 guests … the finest of Palm Beach traditions.”

White dinner jackets became a thing of the past as Coconuts took up tuxedos. 1st row: David Ober, Dan Hanley, Blair Meyer, Kane Baker, David Koch, Will Matthews, Peter Summers, Leonard Lauder. 2nd row: Michael McCarty, Jon Ylvisaker, Percy Steinhart, Troy Maschmeyer, Laddy Merck, Girard Brownlow, Chris Meigher, Piper Quinn. 3rd Row: Jack Grace, Richard Cowell, Willie Surtees, Alex Fanjul, Rodney Dillard, Harold Paull, Wilbur Ross, Blakely Page. Capehart Photography.

December 31, 2017
Flagler Kenan Pavilion at Whitehall

“… 30 minutes of fireworks underwritten by David Koch …”

Row 1, from left: Blakely C. Page, S. Christopher Meigher III, Alexander L. Fanjul, Wilbur Ross, Girard P. Brownlow III, and John r. Grace. Row 2: George F. Merck, Michael R. McCarty, Leonard Lauder, Troy Maschmeyer Jr., Oliver Quinn, and Hunter Beall. Row 3: Paul Maddock Jr., Percy Steinhardt III, William M. Matthews, Kane Baker, David Koch, and Alexander Griswold. Row 4: Christopher Orthwein, Daniel Hanley, W. Blair Meyer Jr., George Summers, and Bingo Gubelmann. Capehart Photography.

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