Winging down to one of society’s most renowned annual events aboard one of America’s most opulent private jets wasn’t at allhard to take. We were leaving winter behind for sunny Palm Beach and its 44th International Red Cross Ball.
Aboard were the traditional stars of this event, a group of ambassadors and their wives (being shepherded, for her 40thvolunteer year, by the inde-fatigable doyenne Garnett Stackelberg).
Our host was Donald Trump aboard this dream plane. It’s a Boeing 727, planned to seat 125 as a commercial airliner, butreconfigured by “the Donald” to ensconce a mere 23 in luxurious comfort, with cloud-soft pale leather armchairs, gold-platedseat belt buckles, oil paintings, Waterford lamps, and a solicitous flight attendant.
Trump’s girlfriend, brunette model Melania Knauss was aboard.
At the airport, the limos of the socialites who would house the ambassadors in their Palm Beach mansions were waiting to whiskeveryone to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club.
Luncheon at the club, packed with ambassadors, hosts and ball biggies, was hosted by tall blonde Celia Lipton Farris, aball benefactor.
A few years back Trump bought this legendary Mar-a-Lago estate for $8 million and created a spectacular club with a $100,000initiation fee and $6,800 annual dues. The enormous and ornate property bordering both the lake and the sea boasts diningfacilities, grass and clay tennis courts, a croquet lawn, and a stunning spa that also offers international beauty treatments.Three miles away is the new $40-million Trump International Golf Club, the dramatic 18 holes complete with bridges andwaterfalls.
Mar-a-Lago was famed as the Florida home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Garnett Stackelberg recalled times when shepartied there as a friend of the late cereal heiress, who incidentally was a founder of the Red Cross Ball, ordaining that itbe a white tie-and-tiara event.
Mrs. Post too had her own personal aircraft she brought down each year from Hillwood, her Washington home, along with aplaneload of ambassadors, and Garnett and her now-deceased husband Baron Constantine Stackelberg.
That evening, ball benefactor Patrick Park, aided by Mary Fairbanks, welcomed almost 150 guests to his sumptuoushome, each to be plied with a lobster apiece—gently eased from its shell, claws intact, and reassembled in clever trompel’oeil style so it seemed just out of the ocean—followed by filet topped with sautéed slices of foie gras and a layer oftruffles. The wines excited everyone—both of the classic Médoc Rothschild Chateaux, Lafite and Mouton, two of the top fivefamed Bordeaux “greats” were among the famous bottlings, with lashings of Dom Perignon. Armloads of white roses cascaded fromthe ceiling corners, lit by concealed spotlights.
At The Breakers Hotel the night of the ball Marion (Joe) Smoak, Nixon’s former chief of protocol, lent his expertise tothe event as he does each year, checking every detail, then announcing the guests as they arrived. Each ambassador stoodbefore his (or her) national flag in the Gold Room receiving line, as the guests filed through, resplendent in white tie anddecorations. The beribboned medals were much in evidence and, for the ladies, an occasional tiara was sported. Greeting guestsas the International Chair was Celia Lipton Farris, statuesque in a white Stephen Yearick gown, and Zachary K.Shipley, chairman of the Palm Beach chapter, and son of Washington’s late Carl and Nancy Shipley.
In the Venetian Ballroom, the processional opened with Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia and Crown PrincessKatherine walking down the red carpet. Ambassadorial couples, in protocol order of precedence, then the chairmen paradedin, and the ball began.
From Washington were the Ambassadors of Finland, Columbia, and Ecuador (the latter ambassador, strikingIvonne A-Baki was much admired in a brilliant-studded, cobwebbed-topped dress), the Ambassador of Austria andMrs. Moser (who would host the Arts for the Aging membership party at the embassy on their return), the Ambassadorof the Dominican Republic and Mrs Saladin Selin, the Ambassador of Denmark and his wife, Dr. BirgitteFederspiel, the Ambassador of Slovenia and Mrs. Kracun, the Ambassador of Sweden and Mrs.Eliasson (the most ardent dancers on the floor), the Ambassador of Tunisia and Mrs. Atallah, and thenewly-arrived (3 months) Ambassador of Canada and Mrs. Kergin.
(Before they returned to the plane and their Washington embassies, they were to have yet another treat: Donald Trump invitedthe planeload and another 50 or so guests to a Super Bowl party at Mar-a-Lago the next day. The ambassadors played golf, someplayed tennis, then relaxed with spa treatments. A team of chefs grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken breasts on thepatio lawn as we watched the Super Bowl on a screen that covered the inside wall. The Slovenian ambassador was delighted tosee his first football game, ever, and interested to find that although the father of Melania Knauss is Austrian, her motheris from Slovenia.)
Among Washingtonians at the ball were Braddock and Denise Alexander (she dazzling in a John Galliano),Joe and Francie Smoak and daughter Mary Frances (both the Alexanders and the Smoaks have homes inWellington, polo center of the Palm Beach area), Bob Corby, Carmen Petrowitz (who sported a striking single-featherheaddress at the ball that would have endangered the eyesight of anyone within two feet), and frequent Washington visitorsBrownie McLean and Candy Van Alen. Stunning Mrs. James Keenan, who was an honorary vice chair, was noneother than the former Susan Goldwater, daughter-in-law of Barry, Sr., and one of Washington’s most popular youngwomen during her time here as a television correspondent and wife of Congressman Barry, Jr.
Neil Smith’s orchestra (a longtime fixture) played, dinner featured smoked salmon tartare with caviar,lavender-encrusted grilled rack of lamb, Veuve Clicquot, and those Motown legends, the Four Tops entertained, all making it agreat evening for guests, many of whom arrived from New York and Europe for the event.
Drawing special kudos and compliments for the success was the General Chair responsible for the whole event, Diana Ecclestone,in a magnificent white, beaded Vera Wang and a $2-million diamond tiara, loaned by Van Cleef & Arpels, ball sponsors alongwith Saks Fifth Avenue (most tiaras at the ball are loaners incidentally).
Diana is the wife of tycoon PGA developer Llwyd Ecclestone, and though she successfully chaired last year’s Heart Ball,she is the youngest International Red Cross Ball Chair ever to run this challenging event. As the evening drew to a close, shethanked her committee chairs and generous donors for their help, especially noting the support of past chapter Chair JeanneHabicht and the tireless volunteerism of May Bell Lin as smoothing the way to help make the night a $1 milliontriumph.