James Green watched in surprise days after Donald Trump's election as a horde of protesters marched on Palm Beach, a normally placid Florida barrier island, to the gates of the president-elect's beloved Mar-a-Lago club.
"That was one of the first times I thought: Palm Beach is getting to be the centre of the universe," Mr Green, a local lawyer, recalled.
The feeling has only intensified. For a 13-mile strip of sand known as an insular enclave of the very old and the very wealthy, Palm Beach is experiencing a burst of cultural relevance in the Trump era — and not entirely in a good way. There is the travelling circus that accompanies the polarising president on his regular visits to the island.
Soon after taking office, he famously entertained Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, at Mar-a-Lago while ordering a missile strike against Syria. A suspected Chinese spy was recently arrested inside the club.
Wilbur Ross, Mr Trump's wealthy commerce secretary, prowls Palm Beach, as do Henry Kravis, the private equity billionaire, and property magnate Stephen Ross, to name a few. In addition to big business beasts, Palm Beach also has a claim on one of the age's greatest scandals.
The disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein used his Palm Beach mansion — among other residences — to sexually abuse underage girls procured from poor neighbourhoods on the mainland. Mr Epstein committed suicide in his jail cell in New York last month while awaiting trial.
Other, lesser eruptions have also brought outside attention to a place where towering hedges and other, less visible barriers are meant to deflect it.
Months before Mr Epstein's arrest, Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots football team and a Palm Beach regular, was one of 25 men charged with procuring sex from a nearby massage parlour — something he denies. That was hardly as lurid as the recent case of a prominent local developer who, according to court papers, made an indecent proposal to another developer's wife as the price of sparing them foreclosure.
"It's just the kind of place that attracts powerful, connected people. And the next thing you know, they become cabinet secretaries or sex offenders hanging in jail," quipped Shannon Donnelly, the longtime society columnist at the Palm Beach Daily News, more commonly known as the Shiny Sheet for its smudge-free paper. "We've never felt so close to power," she added.
Palm Beach has known presidents before. John F Kennedy used to spend winters here and even had a Cold War-era bunker. It has also known scandal — from the rape trial of Mr Kennedy's nephew, William Kennedy Smith, in 1991, to Bernard Madoff, the financial fraudster who fleeced fellow members of the Palm Beach Country Club for years before the 2008 financial crisis.
Running beneath the recent shenanigans is a fresh ingredient: an influx of new money from wealthy hedge fund managers — many of whom are fleeing high taxes in New York and Connecticut and threatening to upend the island's traditional order.
The old guard was reminded of its ascendancy earlier this month when Ken Griffin of Citadel paid $99m for a plot to extend his already sizeable oceanfront estate just up the road from Mar-a-Lago.
"For every big name that makes the news there's a dozen smaller ones," said Dave Goodboy, who launched the Palm Beach Hedge Fund Association when he decided to leave New York in 2013. It is now up to 1,600 members and counting — although many are residents of the wider Palm Beach County. "It's the best move I ever made," Mr Goodboy said. "I love it here."
Others may take more time to adjust. "There's California weird and there's Florida weird," one recent arrival remarked, trying to explain the peculiarities of his new home.
Palm Beach was developed in the late 1800s by Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil tycoon, who brought the railroad and built the magnificent Breakers hotel, a gilded-age palace. Mr Flagler, who at 71 took a third wife who was 37 years his junior, also set a Palm Beach precedent for wealthy old men seeking young women. ("That's the whole point of acquiring power, isn't it?" Ms Donnelly observed.)
During the social season, which runs from Thanksgiving to Easter, the population swells from 9,000 to more than 30,000, and — like exotic birds returning in the winter — flocks of Rolls Royces and Ferraris arrive on transport trucks.
Part of its appeal, say residents, is that it has the intimacy of a village — albeit a fantastically wealthy one. "For me, the most amazing thing about Palm Beach is that for well over a century it's maintained itself as this community for wealthy Americans," said Laurence Leamer, a longtime resident and best-selling author of, among other books, Mar-a-Lago: Inside The Gates of Power at Donald Trump's Presidential Palace. "There's nothing else like it."
That intimacy is preserved by a frenetic schedule of charity and social events and by keeping the outside world at bay. The island is shielded from neighbouring West Palm Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway, which some refer to as "the moat". While its beaches are technically public, there are no sidewalks and scant parking to accommodate outsiders. Until the 1980s, when Mr Green prevailed in a legal challenge, gardeners, domestic servants and other workers — many of them African-American and Hispanic — were required to carry special Palm Beach identification cards while on the island.
Mr Trump may be reviled by many of his critics as a racist. But they may be surprised to learn that in Palm Beach he is regarded as something of a reformer — albeit a financially motivated one. When he converted the historic Mar-a-Lago estate into a club in the 1990s, he threw its doors open to anyone who could afford it. By contrast, Palm Beach's oldest establishments, The Everglades Club and the Bath & Tennis Club, were seen as unwelcoming to African-Americans and Jews.
"Probably the best thing the guy has done in his life is to open up Mar-a-Lago," Mr Leamer said. "The dirty little secret of Palm Beach is anti-Semitism."
If Mr Trump has become Palm Beach's most public face, Epstein was something else: a recluse. In spite of a now well-publicised picture of him at Mar-a-Lago years ago with Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, he rarely joined the island's social scene, say several regulars from the circuit. "I've lived here for 20 years. I've never seen the guy once," one said. Another called him "a creepy hermit."
Epstein's house sits at the end of a narrow road with dense foliage and looks on to the Intracoastal — not the ocean. It is unexpectedly common and unadorned beside the splendour of many of the island's Mediterranean-style mansions. On a recent afternoon a tradesman paused outside the house to regard it. "Infamy!" he announced.
To some locals, the Madoff scandal was more traumatic: Palm Beach residents were victimised by one of their own. Fortunes were lost. Friendships were destroyed.
But to outsiders who have observed them, the Epstein saga reflects unpleasant truths about the island's inhabitants and the era. "It's rich versus poor," said Jose Lambiet, who served for six years as the acid-penned gossip columnist for the Palm Beach Post, donning a black tie for parties at least three times a week. He is now a private investigator and, in an odd twist of fate, occasionally works for Palm Beach residents he once skewered.
"The Epstein story to me is proof that the rich have achieved no-touch status in this country," Mr Lambiet declared, noting the unusually lenient plea agreement granted to Epstein in 2008.
Ms Donnelly was more diplomatic, but no less troubled by what she calls a tragedy — not a scandal. "Rich people who have power," she said, "don't like to think that they abuse it."
Written by: Joshua Chaffin
© Financial Times