A friend of some years, Clare O’Keeffe died recently, bringing to mind Palm Beach’s genealogical roulette wheel where grands and great-grands, steps and halves, great-aunts and even greater uncles, may live in close proximity but lead disparate lives. And, like extended families from many marriages aswim in the same gene pool, a Christmas card exchange or cocktail party nod may be their closest contact. The O’Keeffes were perhaps just one of many families that found divergent paths. Nonetheless, Palm Beach residents are often perceived as conforming to the same aspirations or clinging to preconceived paradigms when what makes 33480 endlessly fascinating is the diverse range and mix of individuals and lifestyles.
Clare’s lineage was rooted in a New England branch of O’Keeffes. Her father, Arthur Francis O’Keeffe was a prominent Harvard-trained plastic and reconstructive surgeon; her grandfather Daniel O’Keeffe headed FINAST (First National Stores), a grocery store chain. Seemingly afar, Anita Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was born on a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin farm, moved to Virginia, and married UVA dropout Robert Ralph “RR” Young. He was a precocious 19; she was a beautiful 24. The son of a prominent northwest Texas banking family, RR retired to Newport and Palm Beach with a Wall Street fortune before he was 40 to pursue gambling, golf, and rolling the dice as a railroad tycoon. These O’Keeffes shuttled between Palm Beach, New York, and Newport, with stopovers at White Sulphur Springs, while Arthur O’Keeffe’s family savored the summer calm of Oyster Harbors on Cape Cod not far from the Paul Mellons.
As Clare’s branch placed their name on buildings at The Four Arts, Norton Museum of Art, and Good Samaritan Hospital, among others, Anita’s name is affixed primarily with the building of Montsorrel, a Palm Beach architectural and engineering Neoclassical Modern masterpiece that has never been landmarked by local or national historic preservation commissions. Instead, Montsorrel has been linked with an aura of misfortune.
During the summer of 1964, when Clare’s parents sold their East Valley Road house in Montecito and moved to a Bermuda-styled villa on Everglades Island to spend winters on Palm Beach, Anita O’Keeffe Young was living across town, having announced plans to demolish her home, The Towers, an Addison Mizner-designed 1920s folly, and build Montsorrel, a 37,000 square-foot maison de plage set on nearly seven oceanfront acres.
For Dr. O’Keeffe’s family, life on Everglades Island was on a different plane, if not galaxy, than North County Road’s ambiance. Shielded by a privacy wall and Burns Detective Agency guards stationed along the perimeter, Anita had commenced building her magnum opus with 15-foot ceilings, centuries-old parquet de Versailles flooring, marble-clad walls, a cobblestone driveway with stones imported from the Belgian Village at the New York World’s Fair, and loggias with glass walls that vanished into the basement. “She always said she just wanted to keep occupied,” recalled Isabella Arden, a former social secretary of Mrs. Young’s.
Designed by renowned French architect Jacques Regnault, Montsorrel’s interiors were unmistakably Stephane Boudin of Maison Jansen, the haute Parisian firm that had advised the Youngs in 1950 at The Towers (Palm Beach), The Waldorf Astoria Towers (New York), and Fairholme (Newport, as well as notable notables, including their North County Road neighbors, Jayne and Charles Wrightsman, their royal houseguests, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during a White House restoration.
I first met Clare in 2009 when I interviewed her for a Shiny Sheet feature on the history of Everglades Island. “A simpler, more relaxed time,” she told me, reliving the serenity of living on an island in an island. At the time, Everglades Island’s developers, the Phipps-owned Bessemer Properties, established strict guidelines for resident owners. Houses must cost at least $20,000, have a 30-foot setback, no garage openings onto Island Drive, and not subject to speculative building.
The year before moving to Palm Beach, Clare had made her debut at Montecito’s Music Academy of the West Cotillion and graduated from Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill. Early on, Clare had told me, “People always ask me about Georgia (a cousin twice removed). They must think I am at least 125 years old.” Like her father, Clare had served on the O’Keeffe Museum board in Santa Fe. Dr. O’Keeffe’s middle name Francis honored Georgia O’Keeffe’s father Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe.
Clare was an avid New York Social Diary reader. We often exchanged e-mails and shared lunches. She was always candid, point-blank, with insightful perspectives on Palm Beach’s ever-changing but still same social caste of characters. During the 1980s, she worked at Palm Beach’s Brooks Brothers and Brazilian Court in marketing and sales before becoming a full-time Realtor, serving as president of the island’s Board of Realtors. Later, she spent much of her time as director of the Esther B. O’Keeffe Foundation, named for Dr. O’Keeffe’s second wife, portrait artist Esther Burger. After Clare’s mother Patricia died in 1978, her father married Esther, establishing a foundation during their 20-year marriage.
During Clare’s tenure associated with the family foundation, she established a formidable legacy of supporting education, medicine, and the arts, including at The Society of the Four Arts, Norton Museum of Art, Good Samaritan Hospital, Scripps Florida, Junior Achievement of the Palm Beaches & Treasure Coast, The King’s Academy, The American Heart Association, Center for Creative Education, and the Junior League of the Palm Beaches.
Clare’s interests could not have been more distinct from those of Anita’s, who became known as “the widow of … , the nation’s leading hostess for exiled royals, a socialite, a world-renowned gardener extraordinaire, Newport’s largest property owner, and someone who persevered when faced with devastating tragedies.
Anita O’Keeffe & Robert Ralph Young at Palm Beach:
Nuestro Paradiso – Casa Bella Porta – Villa Fontana
The Reef – The Towers – Montsorrel
During the early 1930s, Robert and Anita O’Keeffe Young (she never dropped her family name) added Palm Beach and Newport to their stationery. Having spent previous winter seasons in Boca Raton and Miami Beach, the Youngs checked into the Mayflower Hotel on the North Lake Trail in March 1933.
The following November, dubbed “newcomers” by a local society columnist, they enrolled daughter Eleanor at the Palm Beach Private School, leased Nuestro Paradiso on South Ocean Boulevard, designed by Mizner architect Julius Jacobs, and were tapped as new members of the Everglades Club.
In subsequent seasons, the Youngs leased Casa Bella Porta and La Fontana. At Newport for their first summer in 1934, they lodged at Hopedene, a Cliff Walk Georgian Revival designed by Peabody & Stearns with landscape by Beatrix Farrand. The following season, it was summer months at Vincent Astor’s Beechwood. With Eleanor launched among Palm Beach’s young set, crowned as the “Glamour Girl” of her debutante season in December 1936, RR went about becoming a railroad baron as well as a familiar figure at Havana’s Grand Casino Nacional and E. R. Bradley’s Beach Club.
“The best player I ever saw at The Beach Club was Robert Young who was a real gambler. He could stand to win money because when he went in there and when he won, he kept pressing his luck. He would go out and win $175,000 one night, take the money, and then, walk out. The next night, Young came back, and he paid his dues.” [Thomas S. Bohne, E. R. Bradley’s secretary / The Beach Club, Oral History Interview, March 30, 1962. Historical Society of Palm Beach County archive]
Palm Beach 1937
Having devoted December consumed by the whirlwind of their daughter Eleanor’s debut, Anita, Robert, and their budding deb arrived at The Breakers in January, with plans to move to La Fontana, the George Mesker’s Midtown Mizner oceanfront estate. When the Meskers’ plans changed and they wanted to be on Palm Beach in March, the Youngs arranged to be the first to lease Josephine Hartford’s (Mrs. Vadim Makaroff) new oceanfront house named The Reef, designed by Treanor & Fatio.
Apparently, Mrs. Makaroff was caught up in divorce proceedings with Russian yachtsman Vadim Makaroff, her second of four husbands. Hartford was the subject of Charles Burns’ insightful two-part series The Life and Times of Josephine Hartford on The New York Social Diary in January 2021. During the second week of March, Georgia arrived for a stay at The Reef, returning to New York at the beginning of April.
Letters from Georgia
GOK’s brief quotes from Palm Beach written in 1937 and 1958 are extracted from two sets of correspondence available online at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – Yale University website. I was unable to come across correspondence that may have transpired during Georgia’s several visits to Montsorrel, though her visits during the 1970s and 1980s are detailed in several biographical books about GOK.
Also, there is additional extensive correspondence between Eleanor Young and her parents among the Robert Ralph Young Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives. There is additional correspondence between Georgia and Anita, more than 100 letters, housed with the Anita Young Papers at the O’Keeffe Museum archive in Santa Fe. The O’Keeffe sisters remained close throughout their lives.
GOK wrote the March 1937 letters from The Reef to Alfred Stieglitz in New York. The later set, written in 1958, was from Palm Beach at The Towers, shortly after Robert Young committed suicide. Those were addressed to Betty Pilkington, Georgia’s secretary and companion at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
As transfixed as I was by O’Keeffe’s poetic Modernist use of words, her graphic writing script on unlined paper proved just as compelling. Capital letters with endless curls, loops, twists, spacing with ~ wavy lines instead of commas or dashes, words running into words, lower line caps turning up with unexpected intersections.
As the days passed, Georgia took walks on the beach, collected shells, and wrote of the shadows on the courtyard walls, the breeze, the bright moonlight, and how Palm Beach was a “play place … the play spot of the country.” About The Reef, she wrote, “Anita is perfect with it, and she certainly knows how to use it and enjoy it …”
As the weather changed, the Youngs would leave their NYC apartment at the Waldorf Towers, leasing houses for Palm Beach winters and Newport summers. Their daughter Eleanor’s ill-fated marriage to Robert Bacon had been shorter than the couple’s engagement, dissolved within several months at the end of 1939.
During the 1940-1941 season, RR and Anita took an apartment at the Everglades Club. RR could be found at the Seminole Club golf course where his golf placed him among the club’s best players, while Anita polished her backgammon skills. That summer, on a foggy early July morning their daughter Eleanor had just taken off from Newport airport in a small plane piloted by the recently separated Nicholas Embiricos, when their plane crashed a few miles south of the Cliff Walk. Eleanor and Embiricos were killed.
Upon their return to Palm Beach in January 1945, they leased a North End oceanfront estate, The Towers, from radio impresario A. Atwater Kent. President of the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company, Kent and his wife, the former Mabel Lucas, divorced in 1940. Although Kent began divesting his Palm Beach real estate the following year, he owned more than 60 properties on Palm Beach and in West Palm Beach, he did buy an additional 130-foot strip of ocean frontage adjacent to The Towers. In late February, Kent announced the sale of The Towers with 400-feet of ocean frontage to the Youngs.
The Towers: 1945-1964
548 North County Road
Built for William Madison Wood, known as the country’s “Woolen King,” the Addison Mizner-designed oceanfront house, described as built in a 12th-century Spanish style, was commissioned during the spring of May 1923, built and completely furnished seven months later as Wood requested to spend Christmas at Palm Beach. By then, Woods’ company owned sixty textile mills with more than 40,000 employees.
Despite his success, Wood retired, troubled by spells of sadness and futility following the deaths of his daughter and his son as well as suffering a stroke in late 1923. An ocean voyage to Europe was unable to lift his spirits during the summer of 1925.
The following season, after spending only a few weeks at his new home, he placed the house for sale and moved to The Breakers. Having decided Palm Beach to be “too far South,” Wood and his wife Ellen checked-out of The Breakers in January 1926, resettling 200 miles north at the Hotel Ormond. Overcome by health concerns, he took his own life on an isolated stretch in Ormond Beach, while his valet and chauffeur waited in his car for him to return from a walk.
Following his death, Wood’s estate sold The Towers to his next-door neighbor Harrison Williams who then sold it to Atwater Kent. The Towers was one of Kent’s several Palm Beach investment properties that he had begun buying during the early 1930s. Kent leased The Towers to Anita and Robert Young for the 1945 season and they bought the house that February. Although Kent had already “modernized” the house with designs by architect John Volk, RR and Anita called upon Maison Jansen to refresh the interiors.
Across from The Towers, the Youngs had acquired a several acre plot that Anita developed into a flower and vegetable garden. An advocate of organic gardening, Anita insured her guests the freshest home-grown vegetables, setting aside a patch for beets, spinach, lettuce, beans, carrots, and peas, along with her prized amaryllis bulbs and gladioli.
As RR pursued the acquisition of the New York Central Railroad, Anita was busily buying up Newport real estate. Once Young attained the prized NY Central line in 1954, with the bankrolls of fellow Texans Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, he might have realized the outcome was not the desirable ends that would allow him to make a turnaround. “Little Caesar,” as some describe him, might have felt overwhelmed “by his inadquacy to reverse the railroad’s fate.”
At Fairholme in September 1957, the Youngs undertook the installation of a $150,000 swimming pool measuring 70 x 30 designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. During the next three months, RR sold more than 70,000 of his 100,000 shares of New York Central railroad stock in three separate sales, selling one of the blocks the week before Christmas at $16 per share, the stock’s lowest point since 1950. That November, talks began that would merge NYCR with the Pennsylvania Railroad. While NYCR appeared afloat, questions arose whether Young might no longer believe he could save America’s railroads, as automobiles and airplanes captured America’s misguided post-WW II imagination.
And then, in late January 1958 …
For most of his life, Robert Young was an aspiring poet. He once wrote where he would like to spend eternity: “No dank churchyard for me! I would toss in the sparkling sea, To pulse at night, At the surf’s edge, In the starlight.” Rather than rely on Florida and New York newspaper reports to learn about Young’s life, I poured over several Texas reports quoting longtime family friends and classmates, who shared concerns about Young’s mental health, having suffered “two nervous breakdowns.” And yet, no one had sensed “an inkling of undue despair,”although associates expressed “a mood of black despair over his poor health.”
From Newport, Anita went to the New York apartment where her sister Georgia joined her, planning to accompany her back to Palm Beach “for a week or ten days … to help get her settled in the house.”
Of Palm Beach and The Towers, GOK observed, “The waterfront and the town are beautiful. The house … extremely elegant ~ lavish … Anita has made it quite wonderful. My paintings look quite wonderful as she has them hanging.” [Alfred Stieglitz / Georgia O’Keeffe Archive. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University]
During the summer months after her husband’s death, Anita was consumed with real estate projects. As the largest property owner in Newport with a portfolio of more than 500 acres, including more than 200 acres on Ocean Drive. For years after Young’s $8 million estate was settled, Anita was involved in numerous real estate transactions, as properties were rezoned for apartments and commercial uses.
At Palm Beach, on Thursday evening, April 2, 1964, Anita hosted a dinner party for 36 honoring the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, encamped then at Arthur and Suzy Gardiners, where guests shaked and shimmied, dancing “The Surf” and “The Bird” to the beats of Cliff Hall’s orchestra, for what would be last large event at The Towers before it was demolished.
545 North County Road
From the 1950s through the 1970s, Palm Beach’s wrecking ball took down many of the town’s architectural treasures including, El Mirasol, Playa Riente, Casa Bendita, Casa Florencia, Casa Joseto, La Fontana, and Los Incas. When Casa Bendita was demolished in January 1961, the new owner said, “Great old palaces are no longer attractive in Palm Beach. The demand is for less pretentious but strictly modern dwellings — small luxury estates.” No sooner had Trosby Galleries auctioned 400 pieces from Casa Bendita, than Anita O’Keeffe Young demolished The Towers, replacing it with a greater grandeur decked out with gilt, glaze, gold leaf, and ormulu.
In the months before The Towers was leveled, Anita was meeting with her architect Jacques Regnault and longtime Maison Jansen designer Stephane Boudine. A Miami architect Gerard Pitt (Columbia University, 1907) was retained for the working drawings that are on file at the Town of Palm Beach. Watts Development Company, established by West Palm Beach contractor Vivian J. Watts, who had been in the building business since 1946, and William G. Wallace, chief civil engineer, headed up the construction team. Just as construction was to begin, Anita’s butler in Newport, Raymond du Moulin, age 31, died suddenly at Fairholme.
Having worked on several projects with Boudin, including the Harry Winston Building in New York. architect Jacques Regnault studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Listed in Who’s Who in France, Regnault was associated with Banque de France and Petit Palais architect, Alphonse de Frasse and Luis d’Aublet who designed civil buildings and palaces. Regnault served as a Town Planner for the city of Nice, as well as chairman of Academy of Architecture, 1963-1966. He was married to Jacqueline Delbee.
Montsorrel was Watts’ largest project, complicated as much perhaps by his unfamiliarity with French centimeters as Mrs. Young’s standards, described as “finicky.” Judge James R. Knott wrote in 1979 that Watts was “evidently unnerved and took his own life before the construction was finished.” This explanation of events was repeated by a Shiny Sheet columnist in 2011. Yet, another writer observed that Anita had solved many crises, including “nothing less than the suicide of her construction manager.” Anita’s longstanding interior designed Stephane Boudin died after a lengthy illness in October 1967. Maison Jansen’s director Pierre Delbee stepped-in as the house was being completed.
During the 1970s, Anita entertained with a series of “little dinners,” according to Suzy. Montsorrel’s air-conditioning was said to be “full force, so cold you could store furs in the drawing room.” Some guests suggested friends bring along mufflers and gloves if invited for tea. Among her houseguests, Tucky Guest, artist Jane Pickens Langley, protocol chief Wiley T. Buchanan and his wife, Dow Chemical heiress Ruth Hale Buchanan. While she rarely, if ever, went to see Georgia in Abiquiu, GOK and Juan Hamilton visited her on their way to New York for Viking’s publication of her autobiography during the late1970s.
In 1984, a Lear jet landed at the West Palm Beach airfield carrying 96-year-old GOK who was taken to Montsorrel so that she could share nurses and caregivers with her sister who was reportedly suffering from throat cancer. Agitated by the drastic change from her routine in Santa Fe, GOK’s condition worsened, and she was flown back to Santa Fe. Anita died on February 19, 1985, in Newport, buried next to her daughter and husband. Georgia died at 98 in 1986, her ashes scattered at the Ghost Ranch. Distant but always close.
Although The Shiny Sheet’s obit reported Anita “was the secretary to and then the wife of Robert Ralph Young,” I found this unlikely since RR was 19 when they married, only completed his sophomore year at UVA, and spent his time sharpening his poker skills. After perusing available public records, court documents, and investigations into their finances and Alleghany holding company, I sensed RR and Anita were full partners in many transactions. She was as adept and savvy as her husband. Today, RR might be encouraged to speak publicly about his efforts dealing with depression’s debilitating effects. Anita’s will provided for members of her family. She left Jayne Wrightsman her collection of French books who had sold Blythedunes to Leslie Wexner.
Following the auction on October 22, 1985, Sotheby’s auction rooms in New York were transformed into a simulated Mediterranean villa ballroom for “The Palm Beach Ball,” to benefit the National Foundation for the Facially Disfigured, co-chaired by Chan Mashek. Sotheby’s directed the sales of Montsorrel and Fairholme as well as the furnishings. The Newport house was placed on the market in January 1985 when Anita was quite ill. The house and its famous travertine marble-paved swimming pool had sold quickly for a record-breaking $1.8 million to consummate Palm Beachers Chan and John Mashek.
It took nearly two years to find a buyer for Montsorrel before it sold for the most-ever $18 million in June 1987. For exterior and interior modifications, the new owners brought in Parish-Hadley in 1987. Four years later, Ferguson Murray & Shamamian were retained to refresh and modify the entrance, motor court, pool area, floor plan, and other enhancements, according to accessible public records. Anita’s slat houses and greenhouse on the more than four-acre west parcel were transformed into an approx. 25,000 square-foot total living area in 1991.