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Subject: Mollie Wilmot, Socialite

September 17
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Date Posted: September 27, 2002 1:33:46 EDT

Mollie Wilmot, the socialite with the oversize white sunglasses who rose to celebrity in 1984 when a tanker ran aground at her Palm Beach, Fla., mansion, died on Sept. 17 at her apartment in Manhattan.

She was always reluctant to give her age, and newspapers and wire services have reported ages from 73 to 78. The Albany Times Union, which regularly noted her attendance and choice of jewels at horse races in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said longtime friends estimated that she was in her early 80's.

Paul Wilmot, a former husband, guessed 73 was closer. At least that is what she told him.

Gary Quattlebaum, who owns the Quattlebaum-Holleman-Burse Funeral Home in West Palm Beach, Fla., declined to give the cause of death. Newspaper reports said she had had a long illness.

Her principal residence was in Palm Beach, Mr. Quattlebaum said. She had no children, and her sole immediate survivor is her sister, Francice Bushkin, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and declined to be interviewed.

Mrs. Wilmot rose to prominence the day after Thanksgiving in 1984, when a maid awakened her. Madame had callers to her one-acre oceanfront estate, next door to the estate of Rose Kennedy on North Ocean Boulevard Drive.

"I thought it was the man who was coming to photograph my home for Town & Country," she said in an interview in The New York Times.

Instead, in a town that reveres privacy, it was visitors who had arrived unannounced something her frequent visitors like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor just wouldn't do.

"Let's have coffee first," Mrs. Wilmot sighed.

She finally padded out to the patio in her dressing gown to find a 197-foot Venezuelan freighter pounding her seawall into concrete chips. A freak tropical storm had driven the ship, a rust bucket named the Mercedes, hard against her wall.

She said she was terrified by the thought of huge Venezuelan rats escaping from the ship, but overcame her dread and served finger sandwiches, caviar and freshly brewed coffee to the crew of 10 and martinis to the journalists who showed up.

She also fed the ship's cat, which the crew later gave to her. The cat, by then known as Mollie Mercedes, was passed on to her neighbors, the Pulitzer family, who immediately sent it to the beauty parlor for a thorough fluffing and then outfitted it in velvet collars decorated with gold.

Such trappings were typical of the Palm Beach way of life that Mrs. Wilmot had known since she bought her mansion from Princess Evangeline Zalstem-Zalessky in the early 60's. Mrs. Wilmot brought her touch to the mansion, covering the walls of the grand drawing room with leopard-print fabric and laying the skins of lions and zebras on the gleaming floors. She displayed oceans of flowers, always white ones, the only floral color she truly liked.

Soon after her purchase, Mrs. Wilmot was forced to put up with Secret Service agents who overran her property to protect her neighbor, President John F. Kennedy. The agents were less of a bother than a very large boat in the backyard. But still.

Her elegant, sometimes ostentatious, costumes demonstrated a decidedly personal signature, particularly her huge sunglasses. The Times reported in 1990 that she wore a watermelon-pink Yves Saint Laurent silk suit to lunch in the Saratoga racing season. At a party there in 1998, The Albany Times Union said, she wore leather pants and a tight T-shirt with the slogan "Please Keep Cool."

She exuberantly moved from charities, particularly ones related to dancing and horses, to art auctions. Her philanthropy included the New York City Ballet, the National Museum of Racing, the National Museum of Dance and equine research at the Veterinary College of Cornell University.

Mollie Netcher was born in Chicago, though she told The Times Union in 1998 that she was born at the Ritz Hotel in Paris "feet first, six weeks early and with all my eyelashes."

She was named after her grandmother, who began as a clerk and underwear buyer in the family store and became such a driving force that she was known as "the merchant princess of State Street." Her parents, Charles and Gladys, inherited the business, the Boston Store.

Mrs. Wilmot graduated from the Foxcroft School. She was married to and divorced from Eddie Bragno, a wine merchant who is now dead; Albert Bostwick of the polo family; and Mr. Wilmot, a fashion publicity agent.

She traveled with the jet set, but always seemed to make it back to Saratoga Springs for the thoroughbred season. Her arrivals at her stately Greek Revival residence would be heralded by a moving van from Manhattan that carried silver, china, couture fashions and, perhaps, one of her smaller Picassos, according to The Albany Times Union.

She declined to use local laundries, sending most of her clothing to Manhattan for cleaning "and the more important things to Delaporte in Paris," she told The San Francisco Chronicle.

She liked to keep nice things nice. There was the incident of the French commode, which kept her and Mario Buatta, the society decorator, from speaking to each other for eight years. She lent Mr. Buatta the antique cabinet for the Winter Antiques Show in 1985. When she arrived at the show, she was shocked to see "nasty pots of geraniums on my beautiful commode."

Mrs. Wilmot stormed out of the show, followed by the commode. Mr. Buatta insisted that the flowers were azaleas, but that made no difference, The New York Times reported. They reconciled when both were asked to work for the Saratoga Designer Show House in 1993.

Inarguably, her most dramatic moment occurred when the ramshackle freighter visited her. Helicopters carrying cameramen buzzed overhead for months, after it turned out the ship's owner was bankrupt and the boat was stuck.

Palm Beach residents became nightly visitors, doing what they do best, sipping cocktails and offering tongue-in-cheek suggestions on what Mrs. Wilmot might do about her problem. A bar had Mollie Wilmot look-alike contests, and many customers wore blond wigs and large white-framed sunglasses. Mrs. Wilmot judged.

After she had waited for more than a month for the Mercedes to be removed, after what turned out to be just a third of its stay, Mrs. Wilmot was firmly convinced of one thing.

"There's a strong possibility," she said, "that if the boat had washed up on the Kennedy property, it would be gone already."

If it all sounded like a movie, that is exactly what the Walt Disney Company thought. For 10 years, it tried to make a film, "Palm Beached," that was supposed to star Melanie Griffith or Bette Midler. It languished in development and died.

Mrs. Wilmot came out strongly against having Ms. Midler portray her. The actress had just appeared in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

"Disney wants to be flamboyant, to turn Palm Beach into a Beverly Hills," Mrs. Wilmot said in an interview in The Times. "And I don't think that's fair."

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