By Sharon Geltner
Royal Coconut Beach Lunch Club, the debut novel by a powerhouse Kravis fundraiser, is sold as a gossipy, scandalous, island tell-all. But in one respect it resembles the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club.
“The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
Although the publicity mentions “Palm Beach” four times, the novel doesn’t mention the island once.
Author Diane Bergner, vice president of development at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, has created a protagonist who somewhat resembles her. The fictional Julia Wild was a New York attorney who comes to Florida and pivots to nonprofit fundraising.
“Julia is thrilled to trade her legal briefcase for stiletto heels and a glam wardrobe when she accepted the position as a high society fundraiser at a prestigious performing arts center … supported by mega-donations from the ultra-rich … but the gala lifestyle is a minefield.”
While Julia is trying to break in at the “Addison Center for the Performing Arts,” problems abound. She discovers a dead body under suspicious circumstances. A huge check goes missing. At home, Julia’s overworked husband has gotten short tempered and she is tempted by the suave Ambassador J.J. Mendoza, an Argentinian billionaire whom she met on the social circuit.
Where do the characters meet and greet? The “Waterfront Club” and the “Sealine Club.” Also, the “Oceanfront Hotel,” which we learn is “by the beach” and “overlooking the ocean.” In the same paragraph.
Bergner is a beloved, 24-year Kravis employee who supervises nine and was instrumental in raising almost $7 million last year. “Not putting ‘Palm Beach’ in the book was intentional. I wanted to put in a little bit of distance,” she explained. The book takes place on a “barrier island two hours north of Miami on Florida’s east coast.”
Bergner wrote her book while still employed. That means no “trashy stories.” Island staffers who work in philanthropy, hospitality, interior design, real estate, etc. don’t divulge juicy details to keep their jobs.
As Douglas Elliman’s Guy Clark recently wrote in Dan’s Papers: “Someday, I should write a contrast and comparison of all the private clubs here, but that would mean I would never be invited back! And this Guy, who grew up in private clubs, appreciates an invitation, and knows how to keep his mouth shut, too. That said, my dance card is never too full, and I do make a very good dinner companion … hint, hint!”
And last February, local historian, tour guide and vacation rental businessman Rick Rose moderated a panel at the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County called “History’s Mysteries.” The subject was Palm Beach scandal. Apparently to avoid controversy, he warned the audience several times, “No Epstein. No Trump.” No one brought up Madoff.
Bergner has had an amazing career, making great use of strategic volunteering, including pro bono work at the Nassau County (N.Y.) Bar. Nearby Hofstra University saw her effectiveness and hired Bergner as a “public interest research fellow” to place students and attorneys in public sector careers.
After five years, she moved to South Florida at age 37 with her husband, who was in commercial real estate. (They’ve been married 42 years with two daughters who live in the area.) Once here, Bergner did volunteer public relations for the Kravis, then recruited attorneys for two years for the West Palm Beach law firm Gunster. The theater eventually hired her as a full-time sponsorship coordinator in 1999.
“I was on the ground floor, almost. I loved fundraising, I had met my calling,” Bergner said. “I’ve had a magnificent career.”
In her novel, Bergner realistically depicts staff sabotage and in-fighting. The phony boss who charms donors, is mean to employees and takes credit for their work, as well as the overworked husband and seductive possible new lover, feel true.
So does the challenge of dressing the part of a glamorous fundraiser. “My Ann Taylor … outfit had seemed professional this morning, but now gave off a dull vibe. I felt dowdy compared to this stunning, perfectly-put-together, fashionista.”
So do the private wealth managers who “… advised wealthy clients on sophisticated investment strategies, tax planning, and most of all, tax avoidance — all in the name of wealth preservation.”
But our hero, a virgin grant writer, is told to obtain $1 million in government funding. She succeeds. The neophyte also solicits $100,000 from a VIP donor and cold-calls a stranger to chair the gala. Both quickly agree.
The book opens on a yacht when the hero spies her boss having sex with a VIP donor. She tells her husband. Fifty pages later, she recounts the same incident but delays in telling her spouse.
The same sleazy boss takes a call from her secret lover, who is wrongly identified in the same paragraph as an unfamiliar “potential donor.”
Later, two friends are chatting in a car and one calls the other by the wrong name.
Diamonds “glisten,” when they should glitter or sparkle. Gardenias don’t give off a “delicious odor.” They have a scent or fragrance.
Bergner is funny and should show off more of her humor. A bondage scene with a Hermès tie. And when the hero spies a sex scene: “Never mind the spread legs. Think about the age spread, 25 years at least!”
Bergner said she was first inspired to write a novel “when ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ came out. I realized I could show fundraising from the fiction lens.”
“I want to be an author the rest of my life. This is not a one-shot thing.”
If the highly accomplished Bergner applies the same standards of excellence to writing that she does to development for a world-class institution, that could be some book.
Hopefully it will be set in Palm Beach.
Royal Coconut Beach Lunch Club, by Diane Bergner, 368 pp.; Meridian Editions, $19.99.
Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, available on Amazon and area libraries and bookstores.