This story was originally published in RS 400, July 21/August 4, 1983 issue and an adapted version is also included in ‘Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson.’
West Palm Beach, FLA., Dec. 28, 1982 (AP) — Herbert Pulitzer Jr., the millionaire publishing heir, won custody of his twin five-year-old sons today as a Circuit Court judge awarded less than $50,000 in alimony to Mr. Pulitzer’s wife, Roxanne.
Judge Carl Harper, citing “flagrant acts of adultery and other gross marital misconduct,” ordered the thirty-one-year-old Mrs. Pulitzer to move out of the couple’s lakefront home in Palm Beach, where she had maintained custody of the children since the separation. Judge Harper’s ruling came after an eighteen-day trial in which there had been testimony about cocaine abuse, extramarital affairs, incest, lesbianism, and late-night séances. The trial ended in November.
The decision was so aggressively harsh that even veteran courthouse reporters were shocked. “I couldn’t believe it,” one said afterward. “He whipped her like a dog.”
“All history is gossip.” —Harold Conrad
THERE IS A LOT OF WRECKAGE in the fast lane these days. Not even the rich feel safe from it, and people are looking for reasons. The smart say they can’t understand it, and the dumb snort cocaine in rich discos and stomp to a feverish beat. Which is heard all over the country, or at least felt. The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious and confused, they act like wild animals.
That is the situation in Palm Beach these days, and the natives are not happy with it. There is trouble on all fronts. Profits are down, the whole concept of personal privacy has gone up for grabs, and the president might be a fool. That is not the kind of news these people want to hear, or even think about. Municipal bonds and dividend checks are the life blood of this town, and the flow shall not be interrupted for any reason.
Nor shall privacy be breached. The rich have certain rules, and these are two of the big ones: maintain the privacy and the pipeline at all costs—although not necessarily in that order—it depends on the situation, they say; and everything has its price, even women.
The autumn months are slow in Palm Beach. The mansions along Ocean Boulevard are closed up and shuttered for the hurricane season, which ends sometime in December, when the rich come back to the island.
That is when the season starts, the winter social calendar. From the Patrons Opera Guild Luncheon in November at the Colony Hotel, to the premiere of the Lannan Foundation Museum in early March, the action is almost continuous: white ties and golden slippers, charity balls at the Breakers, cotillion dances at the Bath and Tennis Club, and endless cocktail parties.
“Eighty percent of the world’s wealth is here during the season,” said a local decorator one night over dinner at Dunhills in the heart of the off-season. “It’s a very exciting scene to be part of.”
The autumn months are boring, he said. But it is a nice time to be here, if you don’t mind staying inside. The sea is wild, the beach is like Norway, and relentless monsoon rains lash the island day and night. Only servants go out in this kind of weather, and the only cars on the street are people taking care of business, for good or ill.
The business of Palm Beach is business, even on a rainy day in the off-season. Despite the town’s image of terminal leisure and luxury, the people who live here are very aware of their money, and they tend to watch it carefully. Displays of naked greed are frowned on, and business is done discreetly—or, failing that, in private. Some people sell real estate, some spend all day on the telephone, raving at their brokers and making $1,000 a minute on the stock market, and others buy fistfuls of speedy cocaine and spend their afternoons playing frantically with each other and doing their own kind of business.
There are hideous scandals occasionally—savage lawsuits over money, bizarre orgies at the Bath and Tennis Club, or some genuine outrage like a half-mad eighty-eight-year-old heiress trying to marry her teenage Cuban butler—but scandals pass like winter storms in Palm Beach, and it has been a long time since anybody got locked up for degeneracy in this town. The community is very tight, connected to the real world by only four bridges, and is as deeply mistrustful of strangers as any lost tribe in the Amazon.
The rich like their privacy, and they have a powerful sense of turf. God has given them the wisdom, they feel, to handle their own problems in their own way. In Palm Beach there is nothing so warped and horrible that it can’t be fixed, or at least tolerated, just as long as it stays in the family.
The family lives on the island, but not everybody on the island is family. The difference is very important, a main fact of life for the people who live here, and few of them misunderstand it. At least, not for long. The penalty for forgetting your place can be swift and terrible. I have friends in Palm Beach who are normally very gracious, but when word got out that I was in town asking questions about the Pulitzer divorce trial, I was shunned like a leper.
The Fastest Lane in the World
That’s the way it was last fall at the start of Pulitzer v. Pulitzer, and not even the worst winter rains in 40 years could explain why the town was so empty of locals when Palm Beach had a world-class spectacle to fill the dull days of the off-season.
The Miami Herald called it the nastiest divorce trial in Palm Beach history, a scandal so foul and far reaching that half the town fled to France or Majorca for fear of being dragged into it. People who normally stay home in the fall to have all their bedrooms redecorated or to put a new roof on the boathouse found reasons to visit Brazil. The hammer of Palm Beach justice was coming down on young Roxanne Pulitzer, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had married the town’s most eligible bachelor a few years back and was now in the throes of divorce.
A headline in the Denver Post said PULITZER TRIAL SEETHING WITH TALES OF SEX, DRUGS, OCCULT. The New York Post upped the ante with TYCOON’S WIFE NAMED IN PULITZER DIVORCE SHOCKER and I SLEPT WITH A TRUMPET. The Boston Herald American made a whole generation of journalists uneasy with a front-page banner saying PULITZER WAS A DIRTY OLD MAN.
It was an evil spectacle at best, and all parties involved in the case behaved like craven swine from start to finish. If it is true, as the Good Book says, that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” Case No. 81-5263 CA (D)03 K in the Juvenile and Family Division of the Circuit Court of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit in and for Palm Beach County, Florida, has yielded a foul and bitter harvest for a lot of people, and it is not over yet.
Some of the first families of Palm Beach society will bear permanent scars from the Pulitzer v. Pulitzer proceedings, a maze of wild charges and countercharges ranging from public incest and orgies to witchcraft, craziness, child abuse, and hopeless cocaine addiction.
The Filthy Rich in America were depicted as genuinely filthy, a tribe of wild sots and sodomites run amok on their own private island and crazed all day and all night on cocaine. The very name Palm Beach, long synonymous with old wealth and aristocratic style, was coming to be associated with berserk sleaziness, a place where price tags mean nothing and the rich are always in heat, where pampered animals are openly worshipped in church and naked millionaires gnaw brassieres off the chests of their own daughters in public.
Fire in the Nuts
I ARRIVED IN PALM BEACH ON A RAINY night in November, for no particular reason. I was on my way south to Miami, and then out to Nassau for a wedding. Black ties, big boats, high priests, fine linen, and fresh crab meat: a strange gathering of a strange clan, but it would not be happening for two weeks, so I had some time to kill, and Miami, I felt, was not the place to do it. Two weeks on the loose in Miami can change a man’s life forever. It is the Hong Kong of the Western world, an extremely fast track for almost anybody, and dangerously fast for the innocent.
Not even the guilty feel safe in Miami these days. Monkey Morales was shot in the back of the head in a bar on Key Biscayne and no one who worked there even saw it. Not one of them. Bang. They were either lighting a cigarette at the time or mixing their own Margaritas, or so deeply involved with women that they couldn’t see anything at all. Someone was in the men’s room, sweeping up a cocaine spill, and one of the managers was out in the parking lot at a pay phone, calling collect to a midnight bank in the Caymans. When the police arrived, Morales — a key federal informant in a major drug case — was the only customer, slumped like a drunkard, with a sharp little bullet in his brain. So much for the Justice Department’s protecting its infamous informant against some of the alleged kingpins of the South Florida drug-smuggling trade.
“They ran like rats,” said one employee, who was seized and grilled by the police. “All I remember is a lot of noise in the parking lot and a cloud of white dust and a lot of Mercedes taillights.”
Indeed. Some people will tell you there is no law at all in South Florida, but that is an exaggeration. The truth is far more ominous. There is just enough law in South Florida — a 400-mile stretch from Key West on one end to Palm Beach on the other — to confuse the innocent and the guilty alike and to crank up some very dangerous illusions.
You can get a mandatory three-year sentence in the state prison for picking up a 100-pound bale of marijuana that happens to float past your boat while your’e fishing somewhere off Key Largo — or you can sell the same bale for $30,000 in Fort Lauderdale to a man with a police badge in his wallet, if you want to run the risk of hauling it in to shore and making a few phone calls to people who may or may not turn you in for a few dime-on-the-dollar reward.
Money is cheap on the Gold Coast and there is a lot of it floating around. A 13-year-old boy recently found a million dollars’ worth of big, finely cut diamonds in a brown bag on the railroad tracks near Hollywood one day when he was cutting school and just hanging around by himself and kicking rocks like Huck Finn. His aunt made him turn the loot in, but nobody claimed it, and his neighbors called him a fool. Which was true. There is no place for Horatio Algers down here on the Gold Coast; hard work and clean living will get you a bag of potato chips and a weekend job scraping scum off the hull of your neighbor’s new Cigarette boat.
There is a whole new ethic taking shape in South Florida these days, and despite the rich Latin overlay, it is not so far from the taproot of the old American Dream. It is free enterprise in the raw, a wide-open Spanish-speaking kind of Darwinism, like the Sicilians brought to New York a hundred years ago and like the Japanese brought to Hawaii after World War II, and not really much different from what the Israelis are bringing to Lebanon today. The language is different, the music is faster, the food is not meat and potatoes, but the message is still the same. Rich is strong, poor is weak, and the government works for whoever pays its salaries.
The Nature and Fate of the Rich
ANYWAY, AS I SAID AVOIDING MIAMI seemed like a good idea at the time, so I decided to stop in Palm Beach and have a look at the Pulitzer divorce proceedings, which were already infamous. The Denver Post, which I read for the sports, had carried enough bizarre headlines about the case to pique a layman’s interest. Big names in the mud, multiple sodomies, raw treachery, bad craziness — the Pulitzer gig had everything. It was clearly a story that a man in the right mood could have fun with.
And I was in that mood. I needed a carnival in my life: whoop it up with the rich for a while, drink gin, drive convertibles, snort cocaine, and frolic with beautiful lesbians. Never mind the story. It would take care of itself. It was ripe in every direction.
That is a dangerous attitude to take into anything serious. It mandates a quick hit, wild quotes, and big headlines. “The good old in-and-out,” as they like to say in the trade. Take it all on the rise, skim the top of the news, and run with it: let the locals do the legwork. We are, after all, professionals.
Divorce court is not a prestige beat in the newspaper business. It is a cut above writing obituaries or covering the Rotary Club, but it is basically a squalid assignment. Too much time in the courthouse can drive even cub reporters to drink. The trials are tedious, the testimony is ugly, and the people you meet on the job tend to have incurable problems.
The Palm Beach County Courthouse is not much different from others all over the country. It is just another clearinghouse on the street of broken dreams, a grim maze of long corridors full of people who would rather not be there. Young girls wearing neck braces sit patiently on wooden benches, waiting to testify against young men wearing handcuffs and jail denims. Old women weep hysterically in crowded elevators. Wild Negroes with gold teeth are dragged out of courtrooms by huge bailiffs. Elderly jurors are herded around like criminals, not knowing what to expect.
Only lawyers can smile in this atmosphere. They rush from one trial to another with bulging briefcases, followed by dull-eyed clerks carrying cardboard boxes filled with every kind of evidence, from rusty syringes to human fingers and sworn depositions from the criminally insane with serious grudges to settle.
The Pulitzer divorce trial was held in a small hearing room at the end of a hall on the third floor. The only furniture in the room was a long wooden table, a dozen chairs, and two coffee tables that were quickly converted for press seating. There was no room for spectators, and the only way to get one of the nine press seats was to be there in person at seven o’clock in the morning — or even earlier, on some days — and put your name on the list.
It was an odd situation, considering that the story unfolding inside was making daily headlines all over the world, but Judge Carl Harper said he liked it just fine. He was not especially fond of reporters anyway, and he clearly viewed the whole trial as a shame on the human race.
Under Florida law, however, he was compelled to allow one stationary TV camera in the courtroom so that the trial could be filmed for the public and watched on closed circuit in a room across the hall, where anybody who didn’t feel like squatting in the courtroom all day could watch the proceedings in relative comfort, with cigarettes and doughnuts from the courthouse coffee shop. Nobody checked credentials in the TV room, and on most days there were fifteen or twenty reporters around the monitor, along with a handful of spectators who wandered in off the rain-swept streets outside.
These were the bleacher seats at the Pulitzer trial, a strange and sometimes rowdy mixture of everything from CBS-TV producers to lanky six-foot women with no bras and foreign accents who claimed to be from Der Spiegel and Paris Match. It was a lusty crowd, all in all, following the action intently, sometimes cheering, sometimes booing. It was like a crowd of strangers who came together each day in some musty public room to watch a TV soap opera like General Hospital. On one afternoon, when Roxanne Pulitzer lost her temper at some particularly degenerate drift in the testimony, the bleachers erupted with shouting: “Go get ’em, Roxy! Kick ass! That’s it, Rox baby! Don’t let ’em talk that way about you!”
The Best Piece of Ass in Palm Beach
On the surface, the story was not complex. Basically, it was just another tale of Cinderella gone wrong, a wiggy little saga of crime, hubris, and punishment:
Herbert “Pete” Pulitzer Jr., 52-year-old millionaire grandson of the famous newspaper publisher and heir to the family name as well as the fortune, had finally come to his senses and cast out the evil gold digger who’d caused him so much grief. She was an incorrigible coke slut, he said, and a totally unfit mother. She stayed up all night at discos and slept openly with her dope pusher, among others. There was a house painter, a real-estate agent, a race-car driver, and a French baker — and on top of all that, she was a lesbian, or at least some kind of pansexual troilist. In six and a half years of marriage, she had humped almost everything she could get her hands on.
Finally, his attorneys explained, Mr. Pulitzer had no choice but to rid himself of this woman. She was more like Marilyn Chambers than Cinderella. When she wasn’t squawking wantonly in front of the children with Grand Prix driver Jacky Ickx or accused Palm Beach cocaine dealer Brian Richards, she was in bed with her beautiful friend Jacquie Kimberly, 32, wife of 76-year-old socialite James Kimberly, heir to the Kleenex fortune. There was no end to it, they said. Not even when Pulitzer held a loaded .45-caliber automatic pistol to her head — and then to his own — in a desperate last-ditch attempt to make her seek help for her drug habits, which she finally agreed to do.
And did, for that matter, but five days in Highland Park General Hospital was not enough. The cure didn’t take, Pete’s attorneys charged, and she soon went back on the whiff and also back to the pusher, who described himself in the courtroom as a “self-employed handyman” and gave his age as 29.
Roxanne Pulitzer is not a beautiful woman. There is nothing especially striking about her body or facial bone structure, and at age thirty-one, she looks more like a jaded senior stewardess from Pan Am than an international sex symbol. Ten years on the Palm Beach Express have taken their toll, and she would have to do more than just sweat off ten pounds to compete for naked space in the men’s magazines. Her legs are too thin, her hips are too wide, and her skin is a bit too loose for modeling work. But she has a definite physical presence. There is no mistaking the aura of good-humored outfront sexuality. This is clearly a woman who likes to sleep late in the morning.
Roxanne blew into town more than 10 years ago, driving a Lincoln Continental with a 60-foot house trailer in tow, a ripe little cheerleader just a year or so out of high school in Cassadaga, New York, a small town of 900 near Buffalo.
After graduation from Cassadaga High, she got a job in nearby Jamestown as a personal secretary to the general counsel for the American Voting Machine Corporation — a serious young man named Lloyd Dixon III, who eventually committed suicide. His father, who was later sent to prison, was president of AVM at the time and took such a shine to the new secretary that he hastened to marry her off to his other son, a callow youth named Peter, just back from the air force reserve, whose life would soon turn strange.
It is a long road from the outskirts of Buffalo to the inner sanctums of the Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club, but the first long step was easy. The newlyweds hauled their trailer down to West Palm Beach, where young Peter had often spent winter vacations with the family, and set up housekeeping in a local trailer park. The first year was tranquil. They both enrolled in local colleges and lived more or less like their neighbors.
Welcome to the Palm Beach Express
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IS INSCRUTABLE. Roxanne can’t remember and Peter Dixon won’t talk about it. The marriage turned sour, and the couple soon separated. The divorce was apparently bitter, although there were no children and no real property to get bitter about. The trailer was sold to gypsies, and Roxanne got half, which she used to finance the rest of her education at West Palm Beach Junior College. After she graduated, she went immediately to work for a local insurance agency, selling policies.
That is where she met Randy Hopkins, a main player in this drama, who at the time was also selling policies, to supplement his income as an heir to the Listerine mouthwash fortune. Everybody in Palm Beach is an heir to something, and there is no point in checking them out unless you want to get married. Hopkins was the real thing, for Roxanne, and soon they were living together.
These were the weird years in Palm Beach, with a sort of late-blooming rock & roll crowd, champagne hippies who drove Porsches and smoked marijuana and bought Rolling Stones records and even snorted cocaine from time to time. Some ate LSD and ran naked on the beach until they were caught and dragged home by the police, who were almost always polite. Their parties got out of hand occasionally, and the servants wept openly at some of the things they witnessed, but it was mainly a crowd of harmless rich kids with too many drugs and a giddy faith in the notion that rock & roll might really set them free.
Which it did, for a while — and it was just about this time, in the heat of the mid-Seventies, that Roxanne Dixon, who would later gain fame in newspapers all over the world as the best piece of ass in Palm Beach, moved in with Randy Hopkins and took herself a seat on the Palm Beach Express.
One of Hopkins’ good friends at the time was Pete Pulitzer, a 45-year-old recently divorced millionaire playboy who bore a certain resemblance to Alexander Haig on an ether binge and was known in some circles as the most eligible bachelor in town.
Pulitzer was also the owner of Doherty’s, a fashionable downtown pub and late-night headquarters for the rock & roll set. Doherty’s was a fast and randy place in the years when Pete owned it. John and Yoko would drop in for lunch, the bartenders were from Harvard, and Pete’s patrons were anything but discreet about their predilection for dirty cocaine and a good orgy now and then.
It was the place to be seen, and Pulitzer was the man to be seen with. He had his pick of the ladies, and he particularly enjoyed the young ones.
When his friend Randy Hopkins introduced him to Roxanne one night, he liked her immediately.
ONE THING LED TO ANOTHER, AS THEY say. By the time they got to court in early 1982, Pulitzer’s lawyer at the time, Ronald Sales, had this to say in court:
If it please the court, your Honor, this is a dissolution of marriage proceeding. We are here on the husband’s application for temporary child custody. The husband is the petitioner in the dissolution of marriage proceeding. He is Herbert Pulitzer Jr. He is 51. He is a hotel operator. His wife is Roxanne Pulitzer. She is 30 years of age, and she is unemployed.
The parties are married six years. They have twin sons, MacLean and Zachary, age four, who were born August 28th, 1977. We are here on the husband’s prayer for temporary child custody, which is contained in his petition, Docket Entry One. The proofs will show that Mr. Pulitzer is a gentleman, and he is a loving father.
The proofs will show that Mrs. Pulitzer is addicted to dangerous drugs — cocaine, Ritalin — and that she is also an inebriate.
Until around a month ago, she had an adulterous relationship with a drug pusher named Brian Richards. Now she has an adulterous relationship with another man. She sleeps until late in the day and she stays out all night, carousing with men and abusing herself with drugs and alcohol. Sometimes she is absent for several days at a time.
Mr. Pulitzer owns the house at 410 North Lake Way in the Town of Palm Beach, where his wife and sons reside.
Mrs. Pulitzer is not domesticated, and she has never taken care of the children. From birth, the children have had two nannies. Until April 1981, the children had two live-in nannies, and from April 1981 until January 13th, 1982, the children have had one live-in nanny.
The way that went is, from 10 days from the time they were born, she had a baby nurse, and then she had two live-in nannies until she fought with them and ran them off in April—since April 1981, that is.Since April 1981 until January 13th, 1982, she had one live-in nanny. [Mrs. Pulitzer] is not domesticated, the proofs will show. She cannot cook, sew, clean, make a meal or rake care of a child and makes no effort to do so.
The parties were separated at the end of August 1981. At the time the parties were separated, there was living in the house a woman named Estelle Godbout, a loving and responsible nanny.
On Wednesday, January 13th, 1982, Mrs. Pulitzer, in a fit of rage — because the ingestion of these drugs had altered her moods, the proofs will show — fired Estelle Godbout, and Mr. Pulitzer is fearful that the children may come to some harm.
He was content to leave them in the house because Mrs. Pulitzer had abdicated her responsibilities to this woman, with whom you will be impressed. She is a good, Christian, devout woman. But just a few days ago, Mrs. Pulitzer ran her off because she thought she was a spy, and now Mr. Pulitzer is fearful that his children may come to some harm.
The proofs will show that Mrs. Pulitzer’s man friend, who was or is the drug pusher, threatened to kidnap the Pulitzer children at one point, and Mr. Pulitzer had to go to the Town of Palm Beach Police over that.
Mr. Pulitzer has attempted to take the children into his custody, and Mrs. Pulitzer refuses to let the children see him. Mrs. Pulitzer encourages the children to call her new lover “Daddy.”
Incidentally, Mrs. Pulitzer’s new lover keeps his boat at Mr. Pulitzer’s dock and his gear inside Mr. Pulitzer’s house.
Mrs. Pulitzer may deny she is an addict — she may also deal in drugs — and being an unfit mother, and that she stays out all night with her boyfriend, but the overwhelming proofs will show that she was hospitalized in April or May of 1981 For cocaine abuse. The hospital records are under subpoena. Her first cousin and former nanny will testify that she is a cocaine abuse.
Now, I understand that this woman has proved adverse, but she gave us a tape, and it may be that we will introduce a prior inconsistent statement, but I can promise you if you hear it, you will hear a recording from her own first cousin, and one of the two nannies who took care of the children from 10 days after birth, that she is a cocaine abuser and an unfit parent.
A witness, a person will testify that she got religion for a few days, a couple months ago and attended an encounter group, and she told 17 people at the encounter group she was a cocaine addict and needed help.
A witness will testify that, while sitting in the neighbor’s yard — the witness being a neighbor — she heard Mrs. Pulitzer testify or say to a man that she was so strung out that she couldn’t wait until her next fix.
The yard man will testify that he found a vial of cocaine in her car seat. Actually, he will say he found a small bottle — and he will describe it to you — with a little spoon in it. He says he doesn’t know what it is. It had a white substance in it. The housekeeper will testify that she found drug paraphernalia in Mrs. Pulitzer’s closet; that is to say mirrors, razor blades, spoons and rice. I’m not sophisticated about these things, but I understand that they use rice to keep the cocaine dry.
The maid will testify that Mrs. Pulitzer stays out all night and returns home in the early morning hours. The last nanny, whom she recently fired, will testify that she stays out all night, stays absent for days at a time, that she brings her lover in the house where the children are and is intimate with him there.
So it just won’t be from Mr. Pulitzer’s testimony that the court hears that Mrs. Pulitzer’s personality has completely degenerated and that she is totally out of control.
She believes that she can do anything that she cares to do, and the paramount concern that the court ought to have is the welfare of the children.
Mrs. Pulitzer enjoys a presumption that she is the more fit custodian of the children of tender years — underlined — all things being equal, but all things are not equal here.
Pulitzer’s final pretrial offer, the last exit before going public in court and creating an international scandal, was $45,000 a year, plus a $200,000 house in Palm Beach, along with the Porsche and the jewelry —and the children.
They were Roxanne’s idea all along, said the husband. She took out her IUD without telling him, and suddenly she was pregnant with twin boys. Pete was shocked, he said. She knew all along that he didn’t want any more children. He already had three, in their twenties, from a 17-year marriage with his first wife, Lilly, a prominent fashion designer. One daughter had been hospitalized for heroin addiction, the son was accused in the courtroom of being a drug dealer, and the other daughter, a beautiful 26-year-old ex-model, with whom he allegedly committed incest when she was 16, was now married to a Palm Beach stockbroker.
At the age of 52, Pete Pulitzer, described in Town & Country as a “dashing millionaire” sportsman from Palm Beach, was not anxious to have babies. There was considerable testimony on this point later during the actual trial, but Pulitzer never flinched, and nobody asked him if he’d ever considered a vasectomy. Custody of the twins was the big issue, in fact, until the final week of the trial, when Roxanne’s lawyer outmaneuvered the judge and formally divulged pretrial testimony showing that Mack and Zack had been part of the husband’s final out-of-court settlement offer a few months earlier, an offer Roxanne had rejected.
Most reporters covering the trial were surprised at this revelation, but it was not mentioned in stories detailing the judge’s final decision, and it made no headlines in Palm Beach.
“No one will emerge from this unscathed.” —Judge Carl Harper
All the evidence in the case was trundled around the courthouse in a grocery cart that some bailiff had apparently borrowed from a local supermarket. It contained everything from family tax returns to the tin trumpet Roxanne allegedly slept with while trying to communicate with the dead. The cart was parked next to a Xerox machine in the county clerk’s office on all days when the court was not in session, and under the curious provisions of Florida’s much-admired public-records statute, it was open to public inspection at all times. The contents of the cart were shuffled and reshuffled by so many people that not even the judge could have made any sense of it by the time the trial was over, but journalists found it a source of endless amusement. You could go in there with a satchel of cold beers on a rainy afternoon and whoop it up for hours by just treating the cart like a grab bag and copying anything you wanted for a dime a page. That was the press rate. The price to the general public was $1 a page, but nobody paid it, and the people in charge were more interested in collecting autographs than money. As long as we kept an honest page count, they left us alone.
I spent a lot of time poring over copies of the Pulitzers’ personal tax returns and financial ledgers submitted as evidence by the Pulitzer family accountants, and I have made a certain amount of wild sense of it all, but not enough.
I understood, for instance, that these people were seriously rich. Family expenditures for 1981 totaled $972,980 for a family of four: one man, one woman, two four-year-old children, and a nanny who was paid $150 a week.
That is a lot of money, but so what? We are not talking about poor people here, and $1 million a year for family expenditures is not out of line in Palm Beach. The rich have special problems. The Pulitzers spent $49,000 on basic “household expenditures” in 1981 and another $272,700 for “household improvements.” That is about $320,000 a year just to have a place to sleep and play house. There was another $79,600 listed for “personal expenses” and $79,000 for boat maintenance.
“Business” expenditures came in at $11,000, and there was no listing at all for taxes. As for “charity,” the Pulitzers apparently followed the example of Ronald Reagan that year and gave in private, so as not to embarrass the poor.
The 441 Club, or the Rich Are Different from Us
There was, however, one item that begged for attention. The figure was $441,000, and the column was “miscellaneous and unknown.”
Right. Miscellaneous and unknown: $441,000. And nobody in the courtroom even blinked. Here were two coke fiends who came into court because their marriage didn’t seem to be working and the children were getting nervous.
And the servants were turning weird and on some nights there were naked people running around on the lawn and throwing rocks at the upstairs bedroom windows and people with white foam in their mouths were jacking off like apes in the hallways . . . people screeching frantically on the telephone at four in the morning about volcanic eruptions in the Pacific that were changing the temperature of the ocean forever and causing the jet stream to move south, which would bring on a new ice age — and that’s why neither one of us could get any sleep for two years, your Honor, and the sky was full of vultures so we called a plastic surgeon because her tits were starting to sag and my eyes didn’t look right anymore and then we drove halfway to Miami at 100 miles an hour before we realized it was Sunday and the hospital wouldn’t be open so we checked into the Holiday Inn with Jim’s wife and ye gods, your Honor, this woman is a whore and I can’t really tell you what it means because the children are in danger and we’re afraid they might freeze in their sleep and I can’t trust you anyway but what else can I do, I’m desperate — and, by the way, we spent $441,000 last year on things I can’t remember.
Welcome to cocaine country. White Line Fever. Bad craziness. What is a judge to make of two coke fiends who spent $441,000 last year on “miscellaneous and unknown”? The figure for the previous year was only $99,000, at a time when the Pulitzers’ cocaine use was admittedly getting out of hand. They said they were holding it down to just a few grams a week, at that point, a relatively moderate figure among the Brotherhood of the Bindle, but the evidence suggests a genuinely awesome rate of consumption — something like 13 grams a day — by the time they finally staggered into divorce court and went public with the whole wretched saga.
The numbers are staggering, even in the context of Palm Beach. Thirteen grams a day would kill a whole family of polar bears.
Mandatory Death Penalty for Drunk Drivers; Blame It on the Blow
With Mrs. Pulitzer sitting at a table only an arm’s length away, Cheatham went on to say, “Your Honor, Jamie told me Roxanne was the wildest, strongest, best piece of ass that he ever had in his whole life.” —New York Post, October 4, 1982
That is not bad publicity in some towns, but it is definitely wrong for Palm Beach. And it is not the kind of thing most men want to read about their wives in the morning paper. A pimp might call it a windfall, but it is bad press with bells on for a fifty-two-year-old socialite known to big-time society page writers as a dashing millionaire sportsman from Palm Beach.
Or maybe not. History has judged F. Scott Fitzgerald harshly for allegedly saying to Hemingway that “the very rich are different from you and me,” but perhaps he was on to something Ernest couldn’t grasp.
What is the real price, for instance, of a seat on the Palm Beach Express? The island is more like a private club than a city. It is ten miles long and one mile wide, more or less, with a permanent population of 9,700. But these figures are too generous, and the real ones are lower by half. The real Palm Beach — the colony itself, the gilded nexus — is only about five miles long and three blocks wide, bordered on the east by a fine stretch of white beach and Atlantic Ocean, and on the west by palm trees, private piers, and million-dollar boathouses on the Intra-coastal Waterway. There is North Palm Beach and South Palm Beach and the vast honky-tonk wasteland of West Palm Beach on the mainland, but these are not the people we’re talking about. These are servants and suckfish, and they don’t really matter in the real Palm Beach, except when they have to testify.
The Rich Have Problems Everywhere
That is the weak reed, a cruel and incurable problem the rich have never solved—how to live in peace with the servants. Sooner or later, the maid has to come in the bedroom, and if you’re only paying her $150 a week, she is going to come in hungry, or at least curious, and the time is long past when it was legal to cut their tongues out to keep them from talking.
The servant problem is the Achilles’ heel of the rich. The only solution is robots, but we are still a generation or so away from that, and in the meantime, it is just about impossible to hire a maid who is smart enough to make a bed but too dumb to wonder why it is full of naked people every morning. The gardener will not be comfortable with the sight of rope ladders hanging from the master-bedroom windows when he mows the lawn at noon, and any chauffeur with the brains to work a stick shift on a Rolls will also understand what’s happening when you wake him up at midnight and send him across the bridge to a goat farm in Loxahatchee for a pair of mature billys and a pound of animal stimulant.
Nakedness is a way of life in Palm Beach, and the difference between a picnic and an orgy is not always easy to grasp. If a woman worth $40 million wants to swim naked in the pool with her billy goat at four in the morning, it’s nobody’s business but hers. There are laws in Florida against sexual congress with beasts, but not everybody feels it is wrong.
“My roommate fucks dogs at parties,” said a sleek blond in her late twenties who sells cashmere and gold gimcracks in a stylish boutique on Worth Avenue. “So what? Who gets hurt by it?”
I shrugged and went back to fondling the goods on the shirt rack. The concept of victimless crimes is well understood in Palm Beach, and the logic is hard to argue. No harm, no crime. If a pretty girl from Atlanta can sleep late in the morning, have lunch at the Everglades Club, and make $50,000 tax free a year fucking dogs in rich people’s bedrooms on weekends, why should she fear the police? What is the difference between bestiality and common sodomy? Is it better to fuck swine at the Holiday Inn or donkeys in a penthouse on Tarpon Island? And what’s wrong with incest, anyway? It takes two hundred years of careful inbreeding to produce a line of beautiful daughters, and only a madman would turn them out to strangers. Feed them cocaine and teach them to love their stepsisters—or even their fathers and brothers, if that’s what it takes to keep ugliness out of the family.
Look at the servants. They have warts and fat ankles. Their children are too dumb to learn and too mean to live, and there is no sense of family continuity. There is a lot more to breeding than teaching children good table manners, and a lot more to being rich than just spending money and wearing alligator shirts. The real difference between the Rich and the Others is not just that “they have more money,” as Hemingway noted, but that money is not a governing factor in their lives, as it is with people who work for a living. The truly rich are born free, like dolphins; they will never feel hungry, and their credit will never be questioned. Their daughters will be debutantes and their sons will go to prep schools, and if their cousins are junkies and lesbians, so what? The breeding of humans is still an imperfect art, even with all the advantages.
Where are the Aryan thoroughbreds that Hitler bred so carefully in the early days of the Third Reich? Where are the best and brightest children of Bel Air and Palm Beach?
These are awkward questions in some circles, and the answers can be disturbing. Why do the finest flowers of the American Dream so often turn up in asylums, divorce courts, and other gray hallways of the living doomed? What is it about being born free and rich beyond worry that makes people crazy?
Nobody on the Palm Beach Express seemed very interested in that question. Instead, the community rallied around poor Pete Pulitzer when the deal started going down—even through eighteen days of weird courtroom testimony that mortified his friends and shocked half the civilized world. The most intimate aspects of his wild six-year marriage to an ambitious young cheerleader from Buffalo were splayed out in big headlines on the front pages of newspapers in New York, Paris, and London. Total strangers from places like Pittsburgh and Houston called his wife at home on the telephone, raving obscene proposals. Vicious lawyers subpoenaed his most private belongings and leaked whatever they pleased to giggling reporters. Any tourist with a handful of dimes could buy Xerox copies of his personal tax returns or even his medical records for ten cents a page in the Palm Beach County Courthouse. His privacy was violated so totally that it ceased to exist. At the age of fifty-two, with no real warning at all, Herbert Pulitzer became a very public figure. Every morning he would wake up and go downtown with his lawyers and hear himself accused of everything from smuggling drugs to degrading the morals of minors and even committing incest with his own daughter.
The only charge Judge Harper took seriously was Roxanne’s “adultery,” which was denied so many times by so many people that it came to be taken for granted.
No adultery was ever proved, as I recall, but in the context of all the other wild charges, it didn’t seem to matter. With all the vile treachery among friends and cheap witchcraft and champagne troilism all day and all night in front of the servants while decent people were asleep or at least working at real jobs for sane amounts of money, what mainly emerged from the testimony was a picture of a lifestyle beyond the wildest and lewdest dreams of anything on Dallas or Dynasty or even Flamingo Road.
Nowhere in the record of the Pulitzer trial is there any mention of anybody who had to go to work in the morning. There were nannies and gardeners, hired boat captains and part-time stockbrokers and a Grand Prix driver and a French baker and at least one full-time dope dealer. But there was nobody who ever had to get time off from work to come in and testify.
“I did the dirty boogie but they called it something else.” —Terry McDonell
“He told me that if I didn’t sign those documents, he would take my children. He said he had the power, the money, and the name. He said he would bury me.” —Roxanne Pulitzer, in court, November 15, 1982
The husband was never pressed to confirm that quote, if only because of the general gag order imposed by Judge Harper on all parties involved in the trial, in order to prevent any loose talk with journalists until he made his decision. The order was routinely violated, but not flagrantly, and in the end it didn’t make much difference. The judge performed the burial for his own reasons, which he explained in a brutal nineteen-page final opinion that destroyed Roxanne’s case like a hurricane. In the end she got even less than her lawyer, Joe Farish, whose fee was reduced by two-thirds. He got $102,500 for his efforts, and the wife came away with $2,000 a month for two years, no house, no children, a warning to get a job quick, and the right to keep her own personal jewelry and her own car. The whole package came to not much more than Pulitzer had spent on the day-to-day maintenance of his boats in 1981, which his accountants listed as $79,000.
The $441,000 the couple spent that year on “miscellaneous and unknown” was four times what the wife was awarded as a final settlement after six and a half years of marriage and two children.
It was nothing at all. A little more than $100,000 on paper and in fact less than $50,000. There are dentists all over Los Angeles who pay more alimony than that.
But we are not talking about dentists here. We are talking about a dashing millionaire sportsman from Palm Beach, the town’s most eligible bachelor—a wealthy jade of sorts who married an ex-cheerleader from the outskirts of Buffalo and took her to live sex shows and gave her jars of cocaine for Christmas.
In a nut, Herbert “Pete” Pulitzer rented the Best Piece of Ass in Palm Beach for six-and-a-half years at a net cost of about $1,000 a month in alimony, and when it was over, he got the house and the children, along with everything else.
Roxanne was awarded about 10 percent of this, to be paid out over two years or until she remarries. The judge gave her two weeks to get out of the house where she’d been living for seven years, and Herbert took physical custody of the twins immediately.
Judge Harper had run the whole show with an evil glint in his eye, enduring a shitrain of perjury from both sides and day after day of relentless haggling and posturing by teams of Palm Beach lawyers and a circus parade of rich fools, dumb hustlers, and dope fiends who were all getting famous just for being in his courtroom—where smoking was not allowed, except for the judge, who smoked constantly.
That should have been the tip-off, but we missed it. The judge had made up his mind early on, and the rest was all show business, a blizzard of strange publicity that amused half the English-speaking world for a few months and in the end meant nothing at all.
Let the Trials Begin
Toward the end of the trial, it rained almost constantly. Logistics got difficult, and my suite overlooking the beach at the Ocean Hotel was lashed by wild squalls every night. It was a fine place to sleep, wild storms on the edge of the sea—warm blankets, good whiskey, color TV, roast beef hash and poached eggs in the morning . . .
Fat City, a hard place to wake up at six o’clock and drive across the long, wet bridge to the courthouse in West Palm—just to get your name on a list so that you could spend the rest of the day locked into the bowels of some sleazy divorce trial.
But it had to be done. The trial was big news on the Gold Coast, and even the common folk were concerned.
One morning, when I got there too late to make the list for a courtroom seat and too early to think straight, I found myself drifting aimlessly in a dimly lit bar on the fringes of the courthouse district—the kind of place where lawyers and bailiffs eat lunch and where the bartender has a machine pistol and the waitresses are all on probation, or maybe parole, for one reason or another . . .
The bartender was trying to find limes for a Bloody Mary when I asked him what he thought about the Pulitzer divorce case.
He stiffened, then leaned quickly across the bar to seize my bicep, wrapping his long, gray fingers around my arm like tentacles, and he said to me: “You know what I think? You know what it makes me feel like?”
“Well . . .” I said, “not really. I only came in here to have a drink and read the newspaper until my trial breaks for lunch and— ”
“Never mind your goddamn trial!” he shouted, still squeezing my arm and staring intently into my eyes—not blinking, no humor.
I jerked out of his grasp, unsettled by the frenzy.
“It’s not the goddamned Pulitzers!” he shouted. “It’s nothing personal, but I know how those people behave, and I know how it makes me feel.”
“Fuck off!” I snapped. “Who cares how you feel?”
“Like a goddamn animal!” he screamed. “Like a beast. I look at this scum and I look at the way they live and I see those shit-eating grins on their faces, and I feel like a dog took my place.”
“What?” I said.
“It’s a term of art,” he replied, shooting his cuffs as he turned to deal with the cash register.
“Congratulations,” I said. “You are now a Doctor of Torts.”
He stiffened again and backed off.
“Torts?” he said. “What do you mean, torts?”
I leaned over the bar and smacked him hard on the side of his head.
“That’s a tort,” I said. Then I tossed him a handful of bills and asked for a cold beer to go. The man was slumped back on his rack of cheap bottles, breathing heavily. “You whoreface bastard,” he said. “I’ll kill you.”
I reached over and grabbed him by the flesh on his cheek.
“Where is your dog, swinesucker? I want to see the dog that did this thing to you. I want to kill that dog.” I snapped him away from me, and he fell back on the duckboards.
“Get out!” he screamed. “You’re the one who should be on trial in this town! These Pulitzers are nothing compared to monsters like you.”
I slapped him again, then I gathered my change and my mail and my newspapers and my notebooks and my drugs and my whiskey and my various leather satchels full of weapons and evidence and photographs… I packed it all up and walked slowly out to my red Chrysler convertible, which was still holding two feet of water from the previous night’s rain.
“You skunk!” he was yelling. “I’ll see you in court.”
“You must be a lawyer,” I said. “What’s your name? I work for the IRS.”
“Get out!” he screamed.
“I’ll be back,” I said, lifting a small can of Mace out of my pocket and squirting it at him. “You’d better find a dog to take your place before you see me again — because I’m going to come back here and rip your nuts right off your ugly goddamn body.”
The man was still screaming as I got in my car and drove off. People in the street stopped to stare — but when he begged them for help, they laughed at him.
He was a Doctor of Torts, but in the end it didn’t matter. A dog had taken his place anyway.
Why Would They Testify Against Me?
Roxanne is a star now. She was on the cover of People and a featured celebrity guest on network TV shows like Good Morning America. The Best Piece of Ass in Palm Beach is a curious case these days: from the ashes of scandal and defeat, she has emerged as a cult figure of sorts, a kind of National Bitch for the Eighties.
The courts have yet to make themselves or even the law comfortably clear with regard to Roxanne’s status as a public figure in terms of libel law, so I think we should watch this aspect of the story with a keen eye. Remember Mary Alice Firestone. But my own working guess is that the courts will continue to kick the shit out of Roxanne at every opportunity. Her own lawyer made her a public figure when he deposed Herbert and got all that buzzword-headline talk about cocaine and lesbians and trumpets, which he then leaked to the Miami Herald.
“Ten pounds,” she said. “That’s how much I would have to take off.” We were talking about the possibility of her doing a nude spread for one of the men’s magazines, something on the order of a Rita Jenrette appearance in Playboy, with a little less leg. Dark humor, and it was out of the question, of course, until the trial was over. What would that horny old bastard of a judge say if she suddenly turned up in a naked centerfold in some skin magazine on sale in the courthouse newsstand?
What indeed? There is much in the evidence to suggest, in fact, that the judge would not even have blinked. He had seen all he needed to see of Roxanne Pulitzer at that point, and a handful of naked pictures wasn’t going to make much difference either way. She had already made her personal impression on the court, and it was not one that she and her lawyers had hoped for.
The language of Harper’s final judgment in the now infamous Palm Beach divorce case of Pulitzer v. Pulitzer left little doubt that he had taken one long look at Roxanne and concluded that she was a raging slut, a homosexual adulteress so addicted to drugs and drink as to pose a direct threat to the welfare of her own children, who were removed at once from her custody.
The decision stripped Roxanne Pulitzer naked in a way that no Playboy or Penthouse photographer would want to put on film. The message was clear: let this be a lesson to all gold diggers.
The Death of Rock & Roll
Long after the Pulitzer divorce case was finally over — after the verdict was in and there were no more headlines, and the honor of Palm Beach had been salvaged by running Roxanne out of town; after all the lawyers had been paid off and the disloyal servants had been punished and reporters who covered the trial were finally coming down from the long-running high that the story had been for so long that some of them suffered withdrawal symptoms when it ended … Long after this, I was still brooding darkly on the case, still trying to make a higher kind of sense of it.
I have a fatal compulsion to find a higher kind of sense in things that make no sense at all. We are talking about hubris, delusions of wisdom and prowess that can only lead to trouble.
Or maybe we are talking about cocaine. That thought occurred to me more than once in the course of the Pulitzer divorce trial. Cocaine is the closest thing to instant hubris on the market these days, and there is plenty of it around. Any fool with an extra $100-bill in his pocket can whip a gram of cocaine into his head and make sense of just about anything.
Ah, yes. Wonderful. Thank you very much. I see it all very clearly now. These bastards have been lying to me all along. I should never have trusted them in the first place. Stand aside. Let the big dog eat.
Take my word for it, folks. I know how these things work.
In the end it was basically a cocaine trial, which it had looked to be from the start. There was no real money at stake: Peter Pulitzer ended up paying more money to lawyers, accountants, “expert witnesses,” and other trial-related bozos than Roxanne would have happily settled for if the case had never gone to court in the first place. A few of the reporters covering the trial sat around a gray Formica table in the Alibi Lounge during one of the lunch breaks and figured out that the trial had cost Pulitzer about a half-million dollars in real money and perhaps a million more down the line, for no good reason at all. Here was a man who normally earned almost $700,000 a year just by answering his phone a few hours a day and paying a secretary to open his mail — something like $60,000 a month just to mind his own store, as it were—who somehow got himself whipped into such a hellish public frenzy that he didn’t even have a bed to sleep in except on his boat for at least a year, and he was spending all his time raving crazily at his own lawyers at $150 an hour instead of taking care of business, which was naturally going to pieces, because all the people who worked for him, from his accountants and psychiatrists all the way down to his gardeners and deckhands, were going mad from fear and confusion and constant legal harassment by vicious lawyers and always worried about saying something by accident that might get them either fired or locked up for perjury, and in the midst of all that he let one of his hired dingbats come into court with a financial statement so careless and flagrant and arrogant that the simple fact of his filing it would have been cause for public outrage almost anywhere else in America except in Palm Beach County. There are a lot of people in this country who spend $1 million a year, and some of them pay no income tax at all. Nelson Rockefeller was one of them, for at least one year in the late Sixties or early Seventies, and there were two other years around that same time when he paid less than I did …
Epilogue: The Song of the Gilded Swine
It is to the poet a thing of awe to find that his story is true. —Isak Dinesen
I am living the Palm Beach life now, trying to get the feel of it: royal palms and raw silk, cruising the beach at dawn in a red Chrysler convertible with George Shearing on the radio and a head full of bogus cocaine and two beautiful lesbians in the front seat beside me, telling jokes to each other in French …
We are on our way to an orgy, in a mansion not far from the sea, and the girls are drinking champagne from a magnum we brought from Dunhills, the chic and famous restaurant. There is a wet parking ticket flapping under the windshield wiper in front of me, and it bores me. I am giddy from drink, and the lesbians are waving their champagne glasses at oncoming police cars, laughing gaily and smoking strong marijuana in a black pipe as we cruise along Ocean Boulevard at sunrise, living our lives like dolphins …
The girls are naked now, long hair in the wind and perfumed nipples bouncing in the dull blue light of the dashboard, white legs on the red leather seats. One of them is tipping a glass of champagne to my mouth as we slow down for a curve near the ocean and very slowly and stylishly lose the rear end at seventy miles an hour and start sliding sideways with a terrible screeching of rubber past Roxanne Pulitzer’s house, barely missing the rear end of a black Porsche that protrudes from her driveway …
The girls shriek crazily and spill champagne on themselves, and the radio is playing “The Ballad of Claus von Bülow,” a song I wrote last year with Jimmy Buffett and James Brown and which makes me nine cents richer every time it gets played on the radio, in Palm Beach or anywhere else.
That is a lot of money when my people start adding it up. I am making 99 cents a day out of Palm Beach alone, and 10 times that much from Miami. The take from New York and L.A. is so massive that my accountant won’t even discuss the numbers with me, and my agent is embarrassed by my wealth.
But not me, Jack. Not at all. I like being rich and crazy in Palm Beach on a pink Sunday morning in a new red Chrysler convertible on my way to an orgy with a magnum of French champagne and two gold-plated lesbian bimbos exposing themselves to traffic while my own song croaks from the radio and palm trees flap in the early morning wind and the local police call me “Doc” and ask after my general health when we speak to each other at stoplights on the boulevard …
The police are no problem in Palm Beach. We own them and they know it. They work for us, like any other servant, and most of them seem to like it. When we run out of gas in this town, we call the police and they bring it, because it is boring to run out of gas.
The rich have special problems, and running out of gas on Ocean Boulevard on the way to an orgy at 6 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of them. Nobody needs that. Not with naked women and huge bags of cocaine in the car. The rich love music, and we don’t want it interrupted.
A state trooper was recently arrested in Miami for trying to fuck a drunk woman on the highway, in exchange for dropping all charges. But that would not happen in Palm Beach. Drunk women roam free in this town, and they cause a lot of trouble — but one thing they don’t have to worry about, thank God, is the menace of getting pulled over and fondled by armed white trash wearing uniforms. We don’t pay these people much, but we pay them every week, and if they occasionally forget who really pays their salaries, we have ways of reminding them.
The whole west coast of Florida is full of people who got fired from responsible jobs in Palm Beach, if only because they failed to understand the nature of the Social Contract.
Which brings us back to the story, for good or ill: not everybody who failed to understand the nature of the Social Contract has been terminally banished to the west coast. Some of them still live here — for now, at least — and every once in a while they cause problems that make headlines all over the world.
The strange and terrible case of young Roxanne Pulitzer is one of these, and that is the reason I came to Palm Beach, because I feel a bond with these people that runs deeper and stronger than mere money and orgies and drugs and witchcraft and lesbians and whiskey and red Chrysler convertibles.
Bestiality is the key to it, I think. I have always loved animals. They are different from us, and their brains are not complex, but their hearts are pure and there is usually no fat on their bodies and they will never call the police on you or take you in front of a judge or run off and hide with your money …
Animals don’t hire lawyers
This story and others are also available in the anthology, ‘Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson.’