Paradise Nearly Lost, Certainly Devalued

From the archives of The New York Times, presented here, abridged:

PAUL HALLINGBY JR. loves this Caribbean enclave’s coral-colored houses, its worn chintz, engraved stationery and imported household help. He treasures what he calls his ”old-fashioned beach house”: a $9 million, 6,500-square-foot villa with two circular driveways and a private beach.

Then there is the always-reassuring sight of the neighboring Lyford Cay Club, a pink mansion with Tara-style white columns, where Mr. Hallingby, a managing director emeritus of Bear, Stearns & Company, has been a member for 16 years. He and his friends Sandra McConnell, an Avon heiress, and Bill Paley Jr., a son of William S. Paley and his wife, Babe, appreciate the club’s conservative prohibitions. Couples must be married to stay overnight, public displays of affection are frowned upon and bikinis cannot be itsy-bitsy. Everybody still chuckles at the scolding Sir John M. Templeton, the British philanthropist, received for wearing white bathing trunks that went embarrassingly transparent when he hit the water.

The Lyford Cay Club.

”It’s a very pleasant social life,” Mr. Hallingby said of this thousand-acre gated resort community 12 minutes from Nassau. Here on ”Lifeless Cay,” as many residents have called it, there are no stores, no restaurants, no Manolo Blahniks.

At least, not at the moment. But the clicking of those sky-high heels is getting closer. The worlds of fashion, celebrity and, gasp, shiny new money, are invading this part of the paradise where the Duke of Windsor once reigned as governor. Where reasonable-sized villas once ruled, 50,000-square-foot houses are springing up. ”Who needs that?” Mr. Hallingby said. He is considering selling up and moving out.

Is the last bastion of civilized society in danger of becoming extinct? Like Southampton, N.Y., Greenwich, Conn., and most recently Palm Beach, Fla., Lyford Cay is being invaded by the young and the feckless. And almost nobody likes it.

So habitues of this Eisenhower-era retreat for the uber-moneyed set — Nicholas F. Brady, the former Secretary of State; the Bacardi family — now confront party-hearty spillover from nearby Paradise Island. That’s where Sol Kerzner, a South African developer, has built Atlantis, a gaudy $850 million resort, and revitalized the Ocean Club, an estate once owned by the Old Guard grocery heir Huntington Hartford. Beaches where Mr. Hartford once sunned in Bermuda shorts now host Leonardo di Caprio, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and the thong-clad Gloria Estefan.

”I have my own set of values,” said Peter Nygard, an outsider whom some call the Canadian Hugh Hefner. His hotly debated home is a 150,000-square-foot ”hut” — a Polynesian village by way of Robinson Crusoe with flocks of 300 peacocks, parrots and cockatoos free-ranging indoors and out, and a lagoon through the house. The spread is growing; he’s pumping sand daily to expand his stretch of beach on his five acres.

The typical Lyfordian blue blood, ”is afraid to step out of the box,” Mr. Nygard said, adding ”I’m part of a new generation.” Indeed, and it is taking root inside the gates, just half a mile from the Lyford Cay Club. Mr. Nygard, who is a self-made clothing designer and ”is somewhere over 50,” said he grew up in poverty in Finland, the son of a seamstress mother and a father who worked in a bakery. Now, he is worth more than $500 million.

”I have no choice whether to be old money or new money. I’m new money, based on a new set of values, and that’s based on merit,” he said, looking over a stream of purple steam belching from two 40-foot urns.

Hospitality chez Nygard is eye-popping, too. Where Mr. Hallingby’s housekeeper offers a cocktail to guests, Mr. Nygard offers a masseuse. He has four housemen who cavort on trampolines anchored in the ocean. He has a 40-foot dining room table that drops down to become a disco dance floor once dinner (and bird droppings) are cleared. On karaoke nights, scantily clad young women dance while he sings ”I Did It My Way” (his favorite song) until 5 a.m.

”Nygard Cay is a perfect neighbor for Lyford Cay,” he said, standing on his beach with a red and green parrot on his shoulder.

E. P. Taylor, a Canadian brewer and racing magnate, bought Lyford Cay in 1954 from Sir Harold Christie, a powerful Bahamian developer, for the purpose of creating the ultimate international country club. Then he hired Henry Montgomery of Britain’s Bass-Charrington brewery fortune, who had serious European connections, to offer lots to the right people: Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Stavros Niarchos of Greece, Henry Ford II, the Aga Khan.

Mr. Taylor ran Lyford like his own private club until 1971, when he sold it to the members, ensuring that its standards would continue after his death. His dictatorship was replaced by committees on everything from croquet to decoration.’

Samantha Gregory, a Manhattan socialite who has spent holidays [on the Cay] since she was 8[:] ”It’s like the 1950’s,” said Ms. Gregory, who was born in 1974. Fifties is code for ”really boring,” she admitted. Still, she added, ”it’s a timeout.”

She, too, has noticed cracks in the pink-stucco facade. At the club, where she sees the same people who have been serving her ice cream since she was a little girl, she also notices a lot of faces she doesn’t recognize. And a lot of un-Lyford-like behavior, too.

As one 30-something member of the club put it, ”The newer people can be very aggressive, very loud and really mean to the staff.” Not to mention, they seem lightfingered. Last year, more than $30,000 worth of towels bearing the club crest were stolen. (The total hasn’t come in yet on purloined club-crested glasses.)

”It’s happened everywhere,” said Letitia Baldrige, the maven of manners, who first visited Lyford Cay in the 60’s. ”Palm Beach certainly. Greenwich. Conn., Southampton. I shouldn’t be so regional. The Riviera, my goodness — when I first knew it, it was very straight-laced, well behaved and well manicured. Now, thanks to the new colony, anything goes — nudity, sex in public.”

Last year, many Palm Beach residents, worried that their own posh sandbox was becoming overcrowded, headed for the rigid structure of Lyford Cay, where club membership has grown to 1,000, from 100 in the 60’s. Even if they can patiently handle the two-year waiting list and afford the $65,000 entrance fee, plus $7,000 a year in dues, the Floridians aren’t entirely welcome. Old Guard Palm Beach just isn’t Old Guard enough for Lyford Cay.

”It’s getting much more like Palm Beach,” sniffed Elizabeth Moffett, a septuagenarian who vacationed here with two husbands and is now a frequent guest. In the early days, ”everyone had money, and no one talked about it,” she said, adding, ”Now, it’s who has the most caviar and the biggest bottle of Champagne.” Her host, who asked not to be identified, said she saw visitors from Palm Beach renting houses in the compound for $5,000 a day. ”They were all overdressed, wearing all their gold jewelry and always asking where the next charity party was,” she said.

Here, life is purposefully low key, in a way that seems oddly normal and strangely suburban given the trust-fund babies lurking behind every bush. People set great store by the club’s greasy hamburgers and slow service. There are family barbecues and limbo parties, and members travel the roads by golf cart.

”The reason people are fleeing back to Lyford from Palm Beach is because of the infusion of vulgarity that’s creeping up from Miami and down from the newly rich New York crowd,” said R. Couri Hay, a Couristan carpet heir and the society editor of Palm Beach magazine and Hamptons magazine.

Yet, Mr. Hay acknowledged, ”it’s the only haven of gentility and etiquette and family life left.”

Strong words, but perhaps true. Why else would the tempestuous actor Nicholas Cage drop by, pulling up to Mr. Hallingby’s driveway in a white stretch limousine accompanied by beefy bodyguards. Mr. Cage was house hunting in the Bahamas, and if the vehicle didn’t make his outsider status perfectly clear, his Rodeo Drive wardrobe did: orange pants dripping with crystals, a lime-green shirt and a straw sombrero.

Mr. Hallingby said he was certain the actor wouldn’t buy. He said, ”We’re not happening enough for someone like him.”

Editor’s Note: …and hopefully remain that way.

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