A lot of people may not know it, but there has been a crying need for a decent place to stay in Florida. Suzy Knickerbocker, the columnist who is to international society what Walter Lippmann is to international politics, spelled out the problem earlier this year. "Palm Beach," she complained, "is Milwaukee now, and Miami Beach makes Palm Beach look chic. Palm Beach is no fun—just a lot of rusty, dusty people you have not even heard of who have chased the other people away. There's no place the Glitter Group can go. That's where Connie Dinkler is so important."
Cornelia Vandegaer Dinkler, originally out of New Orleans but now of Atlanta, started taking things into her own dainty hands about two years ago. Connie is married to Carling Dinkler Jr., president of the Dinkler hotel chain, whose offices are in Atlanta, but the two of them have been hanging around Miami, golfing and fishing, for years. For a while, they had this 65-foot diesel yacht, but it was more trouble than it was worth. It was too big for fishing, too slow for water skiing and too small for Connie and Carling and their four children and the children's friends. And there was always the problem of a good captain. As Connie says, "The most difficult people in the world are yacht captains, French chefs and English nannies."
With all that in mind, the Dinklers and a bunch of other Glitterbugs were sitting around one day, trying to figure things out. What was needed, they decided, was a club that only the fun people could join. There would be a few tennis courts and a swimming pool and, of course, a marina where you could tie up your yacht.
That is how the Palm Bay Club was conceived. It actually was delivered to the world by Connie Dinkler last Fourth of July weekend on the western shore of Biscayne Bay, 65 miles south of Palm Beach and a couple of light years north of the Fontainebleau. The Glitter Group will not really arrive in force until this winter (in July most of its members were in Southampton and Newport or on somebody's yacht in Turkish waters). Even so, Connie was able to dig up a pretty good collection of fun people for the July sub-opening. Sir Sydney and Lady Oakes cabled from Nassau to hold up the ribbon-cutting ceremonies until they arrived. Bob and Rosemarie Stack jetted in from Hollywood. So did Jacques Bergerac, who has been married to Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Malone but is now between wives. Hugh O'Brian came from wherever he lives. Jock and Brownie McLean sailed their new boat down the inland waterway from Palm Beach and moored nearby, because the Palm Bay Club marina had not been dredged out yet. Pat and Marie Williams flew in from Dayton in their own private jet. Trish and Nicky Hilton would have been there but their invitation went astray, so they were stuck at Nicky's father's hotel in New York with nothing to do.
All that weekend Connie was in an absolute spin. She had eight Lincoln Continentals running back and forth from the airport picking up the latest arrivals.
Saturday night was the big night of the weekend. All day long there had been tennis matches between players like Vic Seixas and Mike Green and Karen Susman and her husband, Rod. Then, about 8:30 that night, Connie came into the main lounge of the club and, as she puts it, "All I could see was people. I thought to myself, this is my downfall. At last I've bitten off more than I can chew."
Chef William Houston served 380 roast-beef dinners that night out of the stainless-steel kitchen that Connie had practically designed herself. The guests danced to the Road Runners rock 'n' roll group out on the terrace by the swimming pool, but you could not say that everything went perfectly. It never does on opening night. Connie, who had been driving herself at flank speed since she awoke some 36 hours earlier, had kept herself going throughout the day by jumping into the swimming pool a couple of times without bothering to take her clothes off, but with the party in full swing she decided a tranquilizer was the only thing that would do her any good. She took one and then told the bartender to make all the drinks doubles. "That way," she muttered, "the guests won't mind the confusion."
The next day was Sunday, and the tennis tournament was still going on, but Connie took a little spin in Carlin' Darlin', the family's 25-foot Bertram, to get away from it all. When she got back to the dock she was herself again and called for some mushroom soup and champagne. Glitterbugs don't even look up at such moments. Later Connie awarded the trophies, and everyone agreed the Palm Bay Club had taken its first hesitant steps in a most promising manner.
So far, hardly a soul outside the Glitter Group would have given a thought to the Palm Bay Club had it not been for a nosy Miami reporter who in the fall of 1964 heard rumors of strange doings on the western shore of Biscayne Bay. The reporter had a look and found Connie standing in a maelstrom of bulldozers, plasterers, carpenters and various types in hard tin hats carrying blueprints and tape measures. Connie paused long enough to explain to the reporter that the fixtures in the ladies' room would be gold-plated and the tennis courts air-conditioned. She added that she had "practically become an alcoholic" testing bar stools in the Miami area before she found the type she wanted.
In a way, it is a pity that the club had to be finished at all, for one of the fascinating sights provided by the International Jet Set this past spring was Connie Dinkler masterminding the building of the club, standing in her Capri pants and Pucci blouse, her silver-blonde tresses waving in the trade winds while the rough-hewn types in the tin hats sweet-talked her through the mysteries of the building trade. "Honey," one of them would say, draping a big hairy arm over her petite shoulders, "d'ya think we ought to run them ducts up through the basement peristands or over on the other side where the caplans break through the overstanchions?"
"What'll it cost?" Connie would ask, fixing the beefy building man with her lovely blue-gray eyes.
"Can't just say right now, honey," the beefy one would reply, "but just let me worry about that. The main thing is we gotta know whether to order the lever-fillings to go with the winchets if we're gonna run them out that way."
"Bring me the cost sheets and we'll decide when we see the figures," Connie would say, grabbing a phone with her free hand and telling the operator to get her the man at the carpet factory in Atlanta and the man down at city hall in charge of the easements and the lawyer—and quick. Between commands and sugary southern entreaties and swinging her shapely little figure, Connie might suddenly turn to someone nearby and drawl, "Isn't it time we broke out something cool to calm our nerves? How 'bout just a little glass of champagne to break the heat of the day?"
What Connie Dinkler finally created is so quietly elegant and apropos that one might not even know it is sitting there just a few hundred yards from all the secondhand car lots and cut-rate beauty parlors that line U.S. Highway No. 1. Entering through the white brick columns guarding the entrance, one slips up the curving driveway between rows of palms, past a parking lot that never seems to contain anything less awesome than a Ferrari or Fleetwood. Passing a couple of stucco utility buildings, one arrives at the covered portico, which is so soft-spokenly aristocratic it could easily serve as the backdrop for a perfume advertisement in The New Yorker.
In the reception hall the muted good taste prevails despite such necessary functionalism as a reception and registration desk. The glass walls are deeply tinted to ward off the Florida sun one has traveled so many thousands of miles to enjoy. The interiors are in soothing deep browns and avocado greens. A magnificent 15th century Spanish breakfront houses the club trophies. Tucked into a corner of the dining room-sitting room is a bar of polished slate inlaid with teakwood.
Beyond the tinted glass doors are the swimming pool and the three tennis courts and beyond that the nine-story, black-on-white high-rise with its 65 condominium apartments and, adjoining that, the yacht marina. Overlooking it all is a 13-story, white-on-yellow high-rise apartment house—no part of the Palm Bay Club, of course, but still a building that dominates the scene in much the way some overprotective mothers hover over their offspring at dancing school.
The marina is worth more than a mention, for it will be the pulse of life at Palm Bay. When finally completed it will take 50 yachts of just about any draft less than that of an aircraft carrier at the modest rental of 15¢ a foot per day. Some Palm Bay Club members—Leon and Carola Mandel, for example—have yachts that nearly scrape bottom in mid-Atlantic, so it has taken months to complete the dredging beneath the 13 acres of Biscayne Bay that belong to the club.
If the marina is the pulse, then the three tennis courts must be considered the heartbeat of Palm Bay life. Tennis is the game that knits together the sort of people who will be descending on Palm Bay by yacht and Cadillac. It is to the Glitter Group what drawing-room repartee was to the toffs of the 18th century. At the Palm Bay Club and a few dozen similar sunny places where the Group gathers, there are always these well-made athletic men of young-to-middle age and their splendidly turned young ladies. Not too many of the men are ever seen with their wives, if they have them. The girls are unmarried and alluring. All day long they wear their white, closely tailored tennis clothes, playing in them, eating in them, drinking in them until it is time to change into their blinding sports jackets and slacks and their jewels for the evening on the town. So far as anyone knows, they have no homes of their own. They eat their meals at clubs and restaurants. They sleep in rooms for transients. They talk endlessly on the telephone, particularly in public places. The men earnestly discuss business deals. Their money materializes magically without visible drudgery. It is for these handsome people that the Palm Bay Clubs of the world exist.
It was fitting, then, that the fate of the Palm Bay Club should have been decided by a crisis over the tennis courts. Connie Dinkler wanted them to be air-conditioned because once, on a trip to Palm Springs, she had seen a sunken, air-conditioned court in the backyard of a rich chain-saw magnate. In the early stages of Palm Bay's construction, when the builders were excavating below the surface to install the air conditioning for the courts, they struck an abandoned seawall. So there was no place to put the air conditioners. Nonetheless, Connie still wanted the best courts she could buy, with or without air conditioning, so she found a firm in New York that produces a green surface called cork turf. It bounces the ball like grass, dries in 25 minutes and is as easy to maintain as cement. It is expensive, though, and Connie spent $46,000 on her three tennis courts before she was through. "I don't know mediocrity," she explained.
Up until that point, the Palm Bay Club had been the joint venture of Connie Dinkler and a darkly handsome, middle-aged man named Walter Trout-man, who is familiar to the readers of gossip columns as the midnight escort of beautiful movie ladies. Walter and Connie had originally agreed to go halvers on the club when the proposition was still in the dream stage. As construction progressed, Walter felt Connie was pouring too much money into polished slate bars and gold fixtures and cork turf, and the difference of opinion finally came to a head over the tennis courts. So Connie phoned her banker and made arrangements to buy out Walter's share, including his penthouse on top of the condominium apartments that goes on for room after room after room with sunken bathtubs and a terrace almost large enough for another couple of tennis courts in case the first three get too crowded. To make her point about the kind of place she wanted, Connie went ahead and lighted one of the courts for night tennis with twice the candlepower deemed necessary for the likes of Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver. On a clear night you can read the stock quotations in The Miami Herald on the center court.
To keep out the creeps that might be attracted to such a place, the original invitations to join were mailed to the thousand or so people on the Dinklers' Christmas card list, and already 1,400 have sent in their annual dues, which are moderate—$100 for local family membership, $50 for out-of-towners. The local members include the mayor and some right-thinking politicians and Miami bankers and whatnot. The top dressing, though, is an indisputable who's who of the Glitter Group. There are Bill Leeds, the tinplate heir, Alberto Bacardi, the rum heir, and the Cornell Wildes and Fess Parker and Eva Gabor and her husband, Dick Brown, and a whole bunch of people from Dallas. A lot of these have gobbled up the condominiums at anywhere from $19,000 for a one-room studio apartment to $42,000 for the two-bedroom and sitting room variety to upwards of $100,000 for one of the penthouses with their four bedrooms and 5,000 feet of floor space.
At that price the owner gets a life membership in the Palm Bay Club and a 10% discount on things like yacht moorings. The casual visitor can rent one of the 36 transient rooms for $25 a day or a studio apartment on the bay for $35. In Miami those are bargain-basement rates, but the main thing is you get none of the creeps and the riffraff.
Connie Dinkler has no expectation of getting her $4 million back for a long time—probably about 20 years. She hardly needs it. Not long ago Carling ("Junior," as Connie calls him) sold the family hotel business to a holding company for an estimated $22 million. All but 7-year-old Kendel, the youngest of their four children, are either married or away at school and college. Carling, who is a wiry and energetic man in his mid-40s, can commute back and forth from his office in Atlanta, keeping a car at both airports.
Anyone who wants to see Connie roaring through life like a tropical hurricane will find her this winter bursting unexpectedly through doors at the Palm Bay Club, battling mediocrity. So far, she has been successful. "Connie," one of her friends told her recently, "you have created the 51st state."