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Mollie Wilmot; Palm Beach Socialite Played Host to Cargo Ship in 1984

October 07, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mollie Wilmot, a Palm Beach socialite who lived next door to the Kennedy family estate and regularly entertained the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in grand style, was not used to having uninvited guests.

But after a 197-foot Venezuelan freighter slammed into the sea wall of her oceanfront mansion one stormy November morning in 1984, Wilmot simply fell into the role of gracious hostess: She served finger sandwiches, caviar and coffee to the ship's 12 Spanish-speaking crew members, and martinis to the swarm of journalists who showed up at her door.

Wilmot, who good-humoredly endured her 15 minutes of fame and grew to have an affinity for the 660-ton guest that overstayed its welcome, died in her New York City apartment Sept. 15.

Wilmot left instructions not to reveal her age, but longtime friends estimated that she was in her early 80s. The cause of death was not disclosed.

The Mercedes I, an empty cargo ship, had anchored off the Florida coast Thanksgiving night 18 years ago during a fierce coastal storm that generated 15-foot waves.

But around 6:30 the next morning, the freighter pulled loose from its mooring, crashed through Wilmot's sea wall and lodged itself within feet of her swimming pool.

Wilmot, a thrice-divorced department store heiress, had spent Thanksgiving evening with the Pulitzer family and then come home and gone to bed.

When a maid woke her at 9:30 a.m., Wilmot later told a reporter, she initially thought the maid was announcing the arrival of "the man who was coming to photograph my home for Town & Country."

Instead, the maid informed her that a "barge" had crashed into the sea wall.

Wilmot told the Associated Press that she was speechless when she first saw the beached freighter in her backyard.

"It was like the QE2 coming up, this huge monster," she said.

Wilmot canceled the Town & Country photo shoot, but there was no lack of photographers at her home that day or during the next 103 days before the Mercedes finally checked out of its plush berth.

The novelty of a huge freighter stuck in a Palm Beach socialite's backyard was simply too good a story to ignore. News helicopters constantly circled overhead and reporters, some from as far away as Sweden, camped out in Wilmot's backyard.

Overnight, the socialite with the blond hair, large white-frame sunglasses and white Pekingese named Fluffy became an international celebrity.

Ever the attentive host, Wilmot fed the freighter's crew--and their pet cat--for 10 days until they flew home to Venezuela.

She also had hot cocoa served to the reporters stationed outside.

As officials wrangled over who was responsible for removing the freighter--the Venezuelan company that owned the ship was bankrupt--Wilmot's neighbors dropped in for cocktails to discuss their ideas for what to do with what came to be known as "Mollie's Mercedes."

Some joked that Wilmot should hang Christmas lights on the beached freighter. Others suggested she open a restaurant, a discotheque or a casino.

Camera-toting sightseers, meanwhile, flocked to the pricey neighborhood to view the hulking eyesore that obscured Wilmot's million-dollar ocean view.

"It certainly has aroused tremendous curiosity," she told the Associated Press seven weeks into her ordeal. "I don't like all the people coming around, but I understand.

"I'm still absolutely in awe of the thing every time I look out there."

Inspired by the saga of Mollie and the Mercedes, two local DJs wrote a song called "The Wreck of the Rust Tub Mercedes."

A postcard featuring an aerial photo of the ship lodged in Wilmot's backyard sold about 145,000 copies in Germany, and local entrepreneurs sold freighter-shaped chocolates, Mercedes baseball caps and T-shirts.

When a local bar had a Mollie Wilmot look-alike contest with customers decked out in blond wigs and her signature white-framed sunglasses, the fun-loving Wilmot served as a judge.

Born Mollie Netcher in Chicago, Wilmot was an heiress to the Boston Store fortune and spent much of her youth in Europe.

She spoke fluent French and was known for her wit, sense of style and philanthropy, which included the Multiple Sclerosis Society and equine research at Cornell University.

Wilmot bought her one-acre Palm Beach estate on North Ocean Boulevard, just south of the Kennedy compound, in the early 1960s.

"There's a strong possibility that if the boat had washed up on the Kennedy property," she told People magazine in January 1985, "it would be gone already."

Wilmot tried to escape the constant intrusions and media glare, but she couldn't evade her newfound notoriety.

In New York that January, she was greeted in the street by strangers who knew her name. She even saw herself on TV when she switched on the set in her Hilton Hotel room in Istanbul.

When she returned home in early February, no progress had been made in removing the freighter.

It took 105 days before Wilmot's backyard leviathan was finally removed, at a cost of $220,000 paid by the Florida Department of Natural Resources.

On March 6, 1985, rusting and stripped for salvage, the Mercedes was finally towed a mile off a Fort Lauderdale beach and sunk to make an artificial reef.

The sunken Mercedes became a popular spot for divers, and one couple even used it as the setting for an underwater wedding. Wilmot, however, declined an invitation to attend.

Although Wilmot complained a decade after the Mercedes' unexpected arrival that "no one ever lets me forget about it," she named one of her yearling racing colts "Raise the Mercedes."

She also kept the ship's bell as a souvenir and had three framed photos of the freighter on her wall.

Wilmot, who had no children, is survived by her sister, Francice Bushkin, of Santa Barbara.

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