Among a privilege few photographers assigned to capture Palm Beach's rich past on film is Bob Davidoff, who has been behind the camera's eye since 1958. Davidoff opened his tiny office on the west end of Sunrise Avenue and began photographing some the world's most recognized and influential people.
As The Breakers' official photographer, Davidoff covered all of the balls in addition to numerous private parties all over the island. It was a time when celebrities like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper were frequent visitors to Palm Beach. And all four of the island's balls - Heart Ball, Red Cross Ball, Cancer Ball and Hospital Ball - were held at the Everglades Club and later at The Breakers, where today more than 100 Palm Beach charity galas are held each season.
"Worth Avenue at Christmastime was a veritable Who's Who of the world," recalls Davidoff. "This was the era of the Jim Kimberlys, the Woolworth Donahues, the Gregg Dodges, the Marjorie Merriweather Posts. This was when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would come at the end of the season to visit friends and people would stay on to enjoy what came to be known as "the little season."
"Montsorrel, built for Robert R. Young, president of Pennsylvania Railroad, and now owned by leveraged-buyout guru Nelson Peltz, was the biggest mansion after Mar-a-Lago: The Royal Poinciana Playhouse was the place to be; and The Breakers would roll up its carpets by March," recalls Davidoff, whose office walls are cluttered with pictures of Palm Beach celebs - from Bob Hope, Henry Kissinger, Tony Bennett and Hugh O'Brian, to each of the last seven presidents and most of the nation's ambassadors.
Both before and after their ascension to the White House, the Kennedys were the island's most celebrated family. In 1933, Joseph Kennedy purchased what later became known as the "Kennedy Compound," where he and three generations of family wintered. The Mizner-designed house was built in 1923 for department store owner Rod Wanamaker and later remodeled for the Kennedys by architect Maurice Fatio.
During JFK's days as a senator, the family house at 1095 N. Ocean Drive drew visiting dignitaries, heads of state, even celebrities who were invited to the rather plain-looking beach house for impromptu parties and A-List gatherings. During Kennedy's presidential years, the unassuming Palm Beach home as known as "The Florida White House."
And Davidoff was appointed to capture the images of the Kennedys at play for all the world to see. "I would bring my pictures to what is now "The Palm Beach Post," where they would immediately be distributed over the UPI wire. The next day those very pictures were in newspapers throughout the world," smile Davidoff. "The Kennedys knew they could trust me to be discreet with regard to what I shot and what was distributed."
The Kennedy era ended in 1993 when the house went on the market for $7 million. It was finally sold in 1995 to John and Marianne Castle for a reported 4.9 million.
The Kennedys' longtime trust of Davidoff followed him into the '90s. At a gathering of magazine publishers at the Mar-a-Lago Club, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. was there to represent his magazine "George", shortly after its launch. Davidoff, as a resident photographer for the club, was on hand to capture what was one the most talked-about parties of the year - and to photograph one of the then-most sought-after bachelors.
"John, of course, knew me and remembered the photographs that I had taken of him along with his parents and his sister many years earlier," says Davidoff. "With everyone gathered around trying to get closer, he allowed me to photograph him. That privilege was earned."
Today's celebrity roster of Palm Beachers spans the spectrum of society: rock star Rod Stewart: media mogul billionaire John Kluge; political talk-show host Rush Limbaugh; musician and performer Jimmy Buffett; and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson are among the cast of influential people who call Palm Beach "home." Included in the fold are Orlando Magic owner and Amway founder Richard DeVos and Indiana Pacers owner and developer Mel Simon, who built their mansions farther south in Palm Beach's neighboring town of Manalapan.
Names like duPont, Post, Phipps, Dodge, Whitney, Cluett, Guest, Hutton and Vanderbilt are ever-present reminders of Palm Beach's past, and its ability to carry through to today, when names like Taubman, Trump, Lauder, Kohl, Goodman, Fisher, Gosman, Adler and Perelman are world captains of industry, representing everything from billion-dollar real estate holding companies to international cosmetics empires.
But beyond the changing names and faces that fascinate the local press and adorn the island's A-List events, Palm Beach has retained its mystique and quiet effervescence.
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