The Colony, a rich history…
an interview with Mr. Jim Ponce.
Jim Ponce was a Manager of the Colony Hotel in the 50’s and 60’s. Behind his impeccable manners and distinguished looks, I perceived the smile of a person who had countless anecdotes to share. We settled into comfortable armchairs in the lobby. He smiled, glanced at a delicate flower arrangement and began to share his innumerable memories.
Everybody knows that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor enjoyed coming to Florida to visit their friends and enjoy a good Polo match. They would usually spend their stay as guests at friends’ homes, however one year, in the early 60’s, they decided to reside at the Colony Hotel. It was so funny – he chuckled – romantic elderly ladies would shyly inquire if they could sit in the Lobby, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the couple as they walked by. Discretely holding a magazine, they could eventually see a very assertive Wallis Simpson walking a few steps ahead of her husband, the former King of the British Empire. Wallis Simpson loved tuberoses. The Vice Regal penthouse, which was located on the top floor, was filled with such roses, and as you know, they have an appallingly pungent smell. When you opened the doors, their scent could positively knock you down. But she was a very friendly lady and except for a strong difference of opinion with the Chef, everything went on beautifully. In hindsight, the incident was quite amusing. In keeping up with the Colony Hotel’s reputation for it’s excellent cuisine, the Chef had prepared a delightfully tasteful menu. The guests of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were to enjoy not only the taste and appearance of the banquet, but also delight in its irresistible aroma. The Duchess had ideas of her own. She had decided to put a long arrangement of gardenias as the centerpiece of the table. Naturally gardenias and delicate gastronomical aromas do not match, so after long debates, it was decided that the gardenias, placed on a 3 level dais, would make a triumphant entrance in unison with the flaming jubilee dessert.
Jim Ponce sipped his mineral water and turned his eyes towards the ceiling. Then he smiled and continued to share his memories.
It is sometimes very difficult to be punctual when you are a very important and a very busy person running a business empire, but I can assure you that I had the privilege of meeting the most punctual person I have ever known, Mrs. Marjorie Merriwether Post. The former Mar-a-Lago owner offered her residence to the US Government to become the Winter White House. Unfortunately President Nixon had to decline for security reasons and today it is owned by Donald Trump. Like all of the ladies who grace the Colony Hotel with their presence she was always impeccably dressed and kept two rooms filled with garments and two full-time girls who would iron her outfits as she needed them. Mrs. Post married a steel magnate from Pittsburgh and it was my honor to drive her and her new husband to the West Palm Beach airport where they were to take off on their honeymoon. As we entered the compound and much to my confusion, they started walking in opposite directions. Coolly she turned around and said: “Not your Lear jet my dear, my Lear jet”.
The Colony Hotel welcomes guests from all over the world. One of our visitors was the Maharani from Baroda. A sophisticated and lovely lady who expected fresh coconut milk daily, which ended up costing $1.00 a piece, which for that time was a considerable price to pay. She also enjoyed champagne and it was de rigeur that only Dom Perignon 1959 be served. True to detail, she would pull down the serviette enveloping the bottle and make sure it was the correct year. During her lavish dinners, we encountered some problems finding Dom ’59s!
Over the years the Colony Hotel has been honored with the visit of memorable guests. I can still hear the laughter of Liza Minelli running in the lobby. The deliciously wicked sense of humor of Victor Borge and the then little known Bill Blass. Then there was the eternal smile and the joie de vivre of Liberace. The young George Hamilton, whose charm and playfulness remain untouched. A witty and delightful Phyllis Diller, whom I had the pleasure of picking up at the Miami International airport, and who, upon entering her suite at the Colony and seeing a Pony of champagne, requested the immediate presence of its mother. I cannot forget the charming and eternally smiling Porfirio Rubirosa. It is quite understandably to see why the wealthiest and most powerful women were inevitably attracted to him and ultimately ended up at the altar. There must be a reason why he was nicknamed Ruby, he was a gem of a person.
The Colony Hotel prides itself for its sophistication and the total privacy it offers to its guests. We have been very fortunate to meet unbelievably interesting individuals. Among them the former King Hussein of Jordan, who always had the need of learning something new, like water-skiing in Cypress Gardens. I must admit, it was quite a challenge. It was 7am on a Sunday when I received a phone call from Washington DC. The King required a bathing suit and cash to be able to attend his water-skiing lesson. The General Manager of Saks on Worth Avenue happened to be an acquaintance and with a little help from Tom Anderson from Channel 5 and its ensuing publicity, the King’s personnel chose two entire racks in the King’s size. In the hurry – the King’s lesson was to leave for his lesson at 9am – they only had time to average the prices. As for the cash, my good friend Jesse Newman opened the Palm Beach bank on a Sunday morning thus allowing the lesson to start.
I have good memories of the Camelot years. When President Kennedy came down to the Kennedy compound or the Winter White House as it was called, the old Annex of the Colony was rented for his staff and the secret service. All telephone lines would be switched over to the White House switchboard and it was quite hilarious to have room service orders for four cups of coffee called in directly from Washington. In those days, JFK would ride by on the promenade in an open convertible and wave at the bystanders. The same day of his inaugural, Judy Garland, who was staying at the Colony, flew to Washington having been invited by the President. In the hurry, she forgot a blue sequin dress in her suite. I was asked to rush the outfit to West Palm Beach airport where a fighter jet had just landed from Homestead Airbase to pick it up. Needless to say, Ms. Garland looked her very best during the inaugural ball.
In the past two years President Clinton, President Bush, Governor Bush and Gov. Crist have all been guests at the hotel.