“Palm Beach Fable”: that was the headline for an article written by Rosamond Bernier for the May, 1984, issue of House & Garden, featuring the famous but never-before-published rooms of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Wrightsman. In the same month of the following year the property would be sold and its contents put on the auction block with Sotheby Co.
I remember receiving this issue in the mail and pouring over the remarkable rooms contained within time and time again (I had subscriptions to all of the shelter magazines beginning at the age of thirteen). In the years since I am somewhat surprised that it hasn’t re-appeared in the blog posts of fascinated “designaholics” such as myself. I found this issue in a box and decided it was time to share the full story, with all of its sumptuous photography, once more.
Built in the nineteen-twenties by Maurice Fatio the mansion enjoyed a heady and glamorous life prior to the Wrightsman’s stewardship. In the thirties the richest man in America, Harrison Williams, and his wife, the great beauty Mona (who later become Countess von Bismarck), enlisted Syrie Maugham, at the height of her career, to bring her own brand of light and glamour to the eccentric spaces of this Mediterranean villa by the sea at 513 North County Road. The Harrison’s gave Maugham a retainer of $50,000 a year – big money at that time! Given the drawing room, the library, the terrace, and the pool Maugham extended her white treatment, covering everything in white, down to white fur rugs and white flowers everywhere.
An invitation to the Williams’s was highly sought after, and on one special occasion a newly married couple by the name of Charles and Jayne Wrightsman were among the newly anointed. The Wrightsman’s had been wanting to find a house in Palm Beach but hadn’t found anything they liked. When Jayne Wrightsman laid her eyes upon the verdant green salon enveloped by yards of Chinese wallpaper, and floating furniture in all-white, she thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. “I suppose that house will never come on the market”, said Mrs. Wrightsman. “Everything is for sale in the end.” said her husband, Charles. In the end, the Wrightsman’s didn’t have to wait for long, as the Williams’s got into financial difficulty and decided to sell the house. It wasn’t without effort, as the house soon became tied up in an unforgiving legal knot, but eventually Jayne Wrigthsman’s dream of owning the Williams villa by the sea became reality in 1947.
Sold to them “lock, stock and barrel” it wasn’t long before Jayne wanted to do something of her own with the interiors. With the end of World War II came an abundance of fine French furniture at great prices with the uncertainty of the Fourth Republic in France. The Wrightsman’s decided that they would require the expertise of an antiquarian, or someone such, to navigate the labyrinthine ins and outs of collecting fine French furniture and decorative arts. Initially they brought in Stéphane Boudin of Maison Jansen who installed fine boiseries, French antiques and porcelains, and parquets floors from the Palais Royal in Paris. He also installed all the curtains and recovered much of the existing furniture. In 1955 the Wrigthsman’s purchased an apartment in New York City and moved a vast amount of the best things from the Palm Beach home there, creating a never-ending spending spree filling up the house again.
Through the late fifties and the sixties the Wrightsman’s expanded their collections tirelessly from their travels afar. In time they would donate much of their enviable art collection, along with valuable antiques, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creating The Wrightsman Rooms – an enormous Rubens of Rubens himself; a Vemeer portrait of a young girl; the collection of Meissen birds that lined the walls of the library; the red japanned writing table that had belonged to Louis XV, that sat upon the Savonnerie carpet that had been made for the Grande Galerie of Versailles, which covered the floor of their main drawing room, and so much more. Stéphane Boudin continued to work for the Wrightsman’s for fifteen years, creating a painstaking replication of 18th-century French style. For many years the furniture in the main drawing room was covered in coral velvet with fringes exactly as it would have been in the 18th-century.
When Boudin became too ill to continue they brought in Henri Samuel, who would later become a close friend. Samuel brought a lighter look to the house, asserting a more approachable style, bringing in simpler things, changing carpets, and painting the entrance hall salmon pink, as well as restyling the reception room. That’s when “I started buying all that crazy ivory furniture”, commented Jayne Wrightsman.
Another house like this will likely never appear again. It’s size perhaps, but not its elevation of style and substance that a seemingly dying breed has left behind for us to merely dream about.
This post is based on an article written by Rosamond Bernier for the May, 1984, issue of House & Garden. Photography by Feliciano.