Legacy of the International Red Cross
By Jana Soeldner Danger
When wealthy guests attired in designer gowns and elegantly cut tuxes swirled across the dance floor at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach during the International Red Cross Ball, it was worlds away from when pioneer nurse Clara Barton stanched the blood of wounded soldiers on the front lines of the American Civil War. But both are chapters in an organization that has been supporting military personnel and providing disaster relief since the 1880s.
The ball itself, one of the regional chapter’s most important fundraisers, has a long history. It began in 1957, the creation of Marjorie Merriweather Post. At 27, the young socialite inherited the Postum Cereal Company, which became General Foods, thanks largely to Post’s personal business savvy. She was well-known for her expensive tastes and lavish homes, including the 115-room Mar-A-Lago, where she hosted Palm Beach’s first Red Cross Ball. Post was known for her generous charitable donations, so staging an elegant affair at her home was very much in character. “She wanted to bring New York-style philanthropy and excitement to Palm Beach,” said Red Cross regional chief of development Amy Mauser.
An International Event
Today, the ball is a full-blown international event, sparkling with celebrities, dignitaries, politicians and philanthropists from all over the world who arrive in planes and limousines for a magical night of elegance and glamour. Celebrities attending this 58th anniversary event included actress Shirley MacLaine, singer Wayne Newton, who performed at dinner, and actor William Shatner. “Over the 58 years, the ball has raised $100 million that’s gone toward the mission of the Red Cross,” Mauser said. This year’s ball carried the theme Around the World in 80 Days. “It was fitting that Shirley MacLaine was a guest,
as she had a part in the movie,” said event chairman Patrick Park.
The evening dripped glamour. At the entrance, flaming torches lit up a colorful collection of international flags. The cocktail reception offered fine wines and luscious hors d’oeuvres from 20 countries, as well as music by the Palm Beach Symphony. Guests entered Mar-A-Lago’s breathtaking Grand Ballroom for dinner and dancing. Putting together an event of such magnitude requires skill, savvy, and perseverance. Park was in charge of making sure all the moving parts, fabulous decorations, outstanding cuisine, and memorable entertainment, worked together. “We had 700 guests and a staff of over 150 people. It was amazing!” he said. The experience of serving as chairman may be challenging, but it’s also satisfying. “I enjoy charity work and bringing people together,” Park said. “The Red Cross helps so many people in need through all kinds of tragedies, whether it’s earthquakes or war or terrorism. People say Palm Beach is the gala capital of the world, and it probably is. This is a night that captures the imagination and attention of everyone.”
How did the American Red Cross get its start? It began with the efforts of an unconventional woman who saw a need and did something about it. Clara Barton’s love affair with healing began when she was 10 and nursed her brother David back to health after he suffered severe injuries falling from a horse. Eventually, his doctors gave up, but she persisted and her efforts paid off. He made a complete recovery. As an adult, Barton learned from her father about the Civil War effort, and in 1862 got permission to work on the front lines. After nursing soldiers in close proximity to several battles, she earned the nickname, “Angel of the Battlefield.” In one instance, a bullet tore through her sleeve, and although it did not strike her body, it killed the soldier she was tending. Barton never married, probably realizing the restrictions marriage put on women of the time. After the war, Barton was introduced to the Red Cross while traveling in Geneva. She returned to the U.S. and founded an American chapter. For years she served as president of the American branch, which met for the first time at her apartment in Washington, D.C.
Today, the Red Cross responds to disasters worldwide and locally. “In Palm Beach, we’re putting a lot of time into a fire safety campaign,” Mauser said, adding that the chapter responds to a fire in a single family home every 20 hours. Although South Florida has been lucky to avoid hurricanes for several years, shelters must remain ready. The Red Cross also acts as a liaison between military service personnel and their families, both when they are deployed and when they come home. More than 90 percent of Red Cross work is done by volunteers, Mauser said. “Whether it’s someone like Mr. Park chairing our ball or people who wake up in the middle of the night to go out to a fire, we couldn’t do it without them.”