The Serenity Garden Tea House in the Heart of West Palm Beach is a quaint 1920’s Florida cottage that offers a menu of salads, sandwiches, soup, a quiche of the day, scrumptious homemade desserts and, of course, lots and lots of teas. The 2-page tea menu lists a variety of black, green, white, herbal and special blends that arrive at your table in traditional pots kept hot in snug tea cozies.
Each small room in the house is tastefully cluttered with found objects collected over the years from garden sales, consignments shops and flea markets.
I am having lunch with Lilly.
Lilly Pulitzer is sitting directly across the table and having lunch with me. She is enjoying a delicious looking pear and Gargonzola salad and reminiscing.
‘I went to college for two months. I didn’t know what I wanted to be and I couldn’t stand it so I quit and went to work as a nurse’s aide in Kentucky and then to a veteran’s hospital in the Bronx.’
Lilly is twinkly and warm, very attractive and terribly funny.
‘Jackie Kennedy and I went to boarding school together. She and I remained friends over the years. I can still picture her spoon feeding John-John on my kitchen floor in Palm Beach. She loved my sleeveless shifts. She wore one in a Life Magazine photo spread and BINGO every woman in the country wanted to own Lillys.’
A ‘Lilly’ is a short cotton shift in wildly coloured floral prints in pink, orange, yellow, blues and light green. It is somewhere between a chemise and a muumuu. According to Linda Marx in a 1982 People Profile, the designer’s annual gross at the time was approximately 15 million and sold in 31 Lilly Pulitzer shops nationwide.
Her riches to riches story is quite incredible. In 1952, when Lilly was 21 years old, she eloped with Peter Pulitzer, the playboy grandson of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
‘Five years into the marriage I was so miserable with awful anxiety attacks, I landed in a nuthouse. The psychiatrist treating me said I should find something to do, like a hobby. So three years later, I started selling citrus fruit growing in my husband’s Florida groves from the back of our station wagon. I opened a little stand and spent my days squeezing and selling the fruit. I was always covered with juice so I designed a cotton shift for myself in colours that matched the fruit. I hung the dresses in my juice stand priced at $22 and would you believe those shifts started outselling my freshly squeezed juice!’
Audrey, the owner of Serenity visits our table and asks how everything is. She says she has a request if it’s not too much of an imposition.
‘A group of ladies from the local chapter of The Red Hat Society are lunching in the front room and they would be thrilled if Lilly Pulitzer would autograph napkins as special keepsakes of their visit to Serenity Garden Tea House.’
As Lilly signs the napkins, she says, ‘When Peter and I divorced in 1969 no one saw it coming. Not even our 3 kids. We never fought. He found Roxanne and I found Enrique Rousseau, a Cuban aristocrat, movie star handsome and quite a character. He went to the Bay of Pigs in 1961 with his cigars, his houseboy and his tent while everyone else was sleeping in the mud,’ she giggles. ‘He lost his money in the sugar business and went to work for Peter. He moved into our house and in on Peter’s wife! We married the same year Peter and I divorced. Enrique passed away from cancer in 1993.’
‘My father was Peter and Roxanne’s neighbour on N. Lakeway,’ I say.
She looks up from the napkins and smiles. ‘You’re kidding!’
‘I am not. We lived at 345 N. Lakeway and your ex and his wife lived at 410. Everyone still refers to the house as the Pulitzer House. And even more strange, builder Mike Burrows bought the Pulitzer House in the early 90’s and sold it to fraudster Bernie Madoff when he bought my father’s house at 345 after my dad died. Bernie Madoff went to jail from the Pulitzer House.’
The fashion of the 1980’s is probably something we’d all like to forget and it certainly was not kind to Pulitzer’s preppy beach look. She filed for bankruptcy protection. In 1993 she was approached by two gentlemen who owned Sugartown Worldwide and after a slow start, they revived the label with Lilly as their consultant.
The line of dresses that bore the Lilly Pulitzer name expanded to swimwear, children’s and a selection of menswear.
‘There is always summer somewhere,’ she chuckles. ‘And happy never goes out of style.’
Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau passed away at home in April, 2013. She was 81 years young.