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By Matt Sedensky
PALM BEACH — No place in this storied playground of the rich evokes as much history as The Breakers, and no one knows the sprawling resort’s story better than Jim Ponce.
Sixty years after first coming to work as a front-desk clerk at the hotel, 95-year-old Ponce still serves as the in-house historian, showing up every Tuesday to offer a tour to guests.
He dresses in period clothes, this day most notable for a red blazer, Panama hat and brass-handled ebony walking stick. And from the frescoed ceilings to the terrazzo floors, the 15th-century tapestries to the Roman arches, he guides visitors through one of America’s most celebrated hotels. He’s spent so much time here, he admits it’s as if his own history is entwined with that of the property.
“It certainly isn’t just a hotel to me,” he said.
As he guides several dozen guests through the ballrooms, parlors and hallways of The Breakers, Ponce offers more than just staid commentary on gilded ceilings, Venetian chandeliers and other tokens of excess. He tells of the gasp he heard when Princess Diana and Prince Charles entered the Mediterranean Ballroom for a dance in 1985, brushes with everyone from Bette Davis to Eleanor Roosevelt, even splitting a bottle of Moet & Chandon with Phyllis Diller.
“We love to drop names,” Ponce said.
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The Breakers was first opened under a different name in 1896 by Henry Flagler, the oil and rail tycoon who developed much of Florida’s eastern coast. Flagler’s name is invoked throughout the tour and Ponce pays a quiet tribute as he passes his portrait.
“The man himself,” he says softly, with a wisp of Southern drawl.
The Breakers twice burned to the ground, in 1903 and 1925. Ponce tells his roughly 30 visitors this day that the latter fire was blamed on the wife of the then-mayor of Chicago, who left a curling iron plugged in at the resort.
“Chicago girls are noted for that sort of thing,” he says to laughter.
Ponce tells of hearing the heartbreaking news of the fire as a boy, but The Breakers was rebuilt in stunning fashion, in just under a year.
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His own history at the hotel began in 1952, after finishing World War II service in the Navy.
He held various jobs at The Breakers and hotels around Palm Beach until returning in 1977 as an assistant manager. He retired in 1982, but never really left. He vows to keep coming as long as his health allows.
“He has perspective that none of us have,” said Kirk Bell, the hotel’s manager. “He has a history of the people that have come and gone — royalty, presidents, movie stars, people in all walks of life.”
Ask Ponce any question and he musters an answer. But ask him his favorite spot on the property’s 140 acres, and he has trouble picking.
“It’s so classically beautiful that it’s hard to say,” he said.
He knows what budget hotels are like; he spent some time as a Holiday Inn manager. And he knows luxury, too, rattling off the names of The Jefferson, The Greenbrier, The Homestead and other resorts of the well-heeled at which he has stayed. They’re all very beautiful, he admits, but he wouldn’t trade them for anything.
“They just don’t touch The Breakers,” he said.
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Ponce has his tour down to a science — the laugh lines, the gestures with his walking stick, the minute details on shades of paint and numbers of rooms and historical dates. With him at the helm, the Magnolia Room isn’t just another oceanfront parlor, it’s a glimpse of Old Florida life of afternoon teas and letter-writing by a crackling fire. That space above the Circle Dining Room isn’t just for intimate meals, it was a Prohibition-era hideaway for those craving a cocktail at dinner. He has no ghost stories to share, but tells of the hotel’s stint as an Army hospital, points out hidden features of a painting and gives a history of an elaborate gold ceiling.
Around each new corner, Ponce has another anecdote. And even as the tour concludes outside the Italian Renaissance landmark, he can’t help but think of one more.
“You got time for just a short story?” he asks.
And filled with delight, the guests lean in for more.
IF YOU GO
The Breakers: 1 S. Country Road, Palm Beach; email www.thebreakers.com, or call 888-273-2537. Tours with hotel historian Jim Ponce, 2 p.m. Tuesdays. Reservations required. Free for hotel guests, with reservations through concierge. Reservations for non-guests, call 561-655-6611; $15.