Where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream lap the white sands of Florida, the social season was kicking back to life in Palm Beach, a sparkling arc of sand and coral off the state’s east coast known as America’s Riviera. Among the featured attractions in January were the Duchess of York (formerly Sarah Ferguson), and Canada’s vacationing Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Although his whereabouts went unheralded at home, the Prime Minister and Mila Mulroney were front and centre in the glittering rituals that signal the start of another social season in the eastern winter headquarters of the rich and famous.
For this year’s traditional Palm Beach vacation, lasting from Jan. 6 to 19, the Prime Minister and his wife emerged from a private retreat—the multimillion-dollar home of Montreal pulpand-paper executive George Petty— to attend at least two major events.
But for a man with few vices who also has an inner-ear ailment that restricts his athletic endeavors, it was not all fun and games for the Prime Minister.
Says one friend: “He tends to be a bit like a caged lion the first couple of days he’s away; he paces round and round, and keeps heading for the phone to check back with Ottawa.”
The season’s first Mulroney sighting was on Jan. 11, at a gala fund raiser at which Mila Mulroney was honored.
There, the Prime Minister found himself flanked by two elegant women at the reception. As reported in the Palm Beach Daily News, Mulroney said jokingly: “See how hard it is being Prime Minister?” On Jan. 16, a photographer in a helicopter snapped a picture of the wife of Britain’s Prince Andrew sunning by the pool at a private beach house. The next day, the -
Mulroneys roared back into Palm Beach’s social whirl when a three-car cavalcade deposited them at an intimate barbecue, also attended by the duchess, at the home of American financial magnate Robert Fomon.
The Jan. 11 fund raiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was hosted by Canadian-born philanthropist Harry Weiss and his wife, Mary, at the exclusive Breakers hotel. In recognition of her fund-raising and promotional work on behalf of CF, the Prime Minister’s wife became the first recipient of the Mila Mulroney Commitment to Life Award. The 500 socialites in attendance applauded and nodded their approval when Mila appeared in a green floor-length gown with a green-and-white polka-dot bodice.
But when Robert Dressing, the U.S. national president of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, presented her with her award—two Steuben crystal stars rising from a marble base—it fell heavily to the floor, miraculously without breaking. The Prime Minister’s wife put guests at ease with a well-timed comment: “It’s a beautiful award—and it bounces.”
Apart from the two major social events, the Mulroneys apparently spent their time quietly with friends. In Ottawa, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office would say only that “the Prime Minister’s vacations are private matters.” There is an informal understanding between Mulroney’s office and most reporters in the parliamentary press gallery that coverage of the Prime Minister is suspended during his vacations—a practice that also extends to opposition leader Jean Chrétien.
When out of the public eye in Florida, the Prime Minister taps a holiday network of powerful friends. Among that inner circle is Paul Desmarais, the silver-haired owner of Montreal-based Power Corp.—and of a mansion on
Palm Beach’s South Ocean Drive. The Sudbury, Ont.-born industrialist has hosted an impressive list of Canadian politicians in Florida in past years, including former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Chrétien. The Mulroneys usually stay at the beachfront mansions of old Montreal friends. And on this year’s trip, the couple settled in at the Seminole Beach Road estate in a North Palm Beach development belonging to Petty, an old friend of the Prime Minister’s. Petty, chairman and CEO of the Montreal-based Repap Enterprises Inc., was a government adviser from the forest industry during the free trade negotiations.
One sign of the Mulroneys’ presence at the Petty residence was a large motor home— normally banned under local bylaws—parked in the driveway, apparently as a base for security officers. One neighbor said that she was stopped while strolling on the private beach in front of Petty’s sprawling brick-and-wood mansion by a U.S. marshal who “jumped out at me.”
Locals describe Petty as a reclusive and aloof figure. But Mulroney’s host attracted the attention of Palm Beach’s elite in October, 1988, when he and New York City financier Donald Trump formed a committee to fight noise from jet traffic around the Palm Beach airport. At the time, Petty lived in a home closer to the airport— where he had installed an electronic noise-measuring device on his roof. To raise money for the effort, Petty organized a $l,200-a-couple cocktail party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in January, 1989. But he eventually moved farther away from the airport, to his present residence.
During her annual visits, Mila Mulroney has scored points for her high sense of style on Palm Beach’s aptly named Worth Avenue, where purple bougainvillea cascade down the sides of elegant shops boasting items by the world’s top designers. The Mulroneys often eat at the street’s Café L’Europe, where dark-suited waiters serve Norwegian salmon at $27.50 a plate. There, their patronage is highly valued by manager Lidia Goldner. Said the restaurateur: “Mila is a lovely woman. She wears Ungaro.”
Despite the ambience, the Prime Minister seems to be a reluctant vacationer. Although he played tennis as a teenager, he has given it up because his ear ailment affects his balance. And he does not golf—a favored pastime in an area where Jack Nicklaus and several other pros live. Still, Palm Beach’s balmy temperatures, breezy atmosphere and, above all, the privacy from prying eyes in Ottawa are reason enough to draw Mulroney to the southern resort each January.
TOM FENNELL with THOM SMITH in Palm Beach and ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH and E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.