Reese Palley Comes 'Home' From A 15-year World Odyssey

Posted: February 03, 1994

Atlantic City art dealer Reese Palley was supposed to be famous for 15 minutes. And like those disco-dancing jet-setters he amused in the Age of Warhol, he was supposed to disappear.

He did go away, too. In 1979 he sold his glitzy Reese Palley art gallery on the Boardwalk and set sail around the globe on a 46-foot sloop, his Unlikely VII.

Now's he's back home, sort of, in Philadelphia, after 15 years. Is it his fault that newspaper reporters still knock on his door?

"It's not that I'm so exciting," he explains, trying to sound humble. ''It's just that everybody else is so dull."

Modest he is not. And never dull. But his trip around the world has weathered him. Left him more reflective.

"The sea is an emptiness where you see only your own reflection," he says, "with a lot of time to think about what's important."

At 72 he looks tougher and ruddier than that bony aesthete who once promoted porcelain birds in New Yorker magazine. His hair is whiter, and he wears boat shoes and cheerful sweaters instead of his trademark black turtlenecks of yore.

Life on the open sea "is not like going through a valley with birds and flowers and animals," he says. "Out there it's just you. No birds or flowers or animals to entertain you. No partial satisfactions or halfway terrors out there. It's a perfect state of being."

*

In 1970 aficionados of the New York art world gasped when Palley opened one of the first art galleries in the then unfashionable, now tres hip, SoHo district of Manhattan.

In 1971 they gasped again at his recovery of a long-lost Raphael portrait of Lorenzo de Medici. The next year they were all hyperventilating when he flew 725 guests to Paris to celebrate his 50th birthday. The New York Times described him as an "eccentric millionaire . . . wealthy and flamboyant."

He was broke, actually, but he dressed in black, wore young blondes on his sleeve, and drove a white Rolls-Royce. He featured himself in so many New Yorker magazine ads that his beatnik goatee, Woody Allen glasses and hurricane hairdo became a logo. By mid-decade his face had become the Golden Arches of the East Coast art scene.

In 1976 he bought the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in his native Atlantic City and sold it weeks later to the Bally Corp. for millions more than he paid.

Now he really was rich. He was famous.

He was bored.

"Fame doesn't satisfy," he decided, and so in 1979 he sold his Atlantic City gallery and split for the blue horizon, heading west "because that's the way the wind blows."

His circumnavigation began in Miami and took him and a few friends through the Panama Canal ("a gas") to the Galapagos Islands, and on to Tahiti.

"Not until you have made your landfall in Tahiti will anyone but your mother consider you a bona-fide blue-water skipper," he would write in his breezy 1984 memoirs, Unlikely Passages.

From Tahiti they sailed to Fiji, then New Guinea, and then Japan, where they spent a year. In 1982, eager to sail the Yangtze River, he told the Communist government he wanted to help it start a fiberglass- yacht-building business in Shanghai. Thrilled but confused ("I'm convinced they didn't know what 'yacht' meant"), the government agreed.

He stayed two years, sold his interest in the yacht company (it had a title so long he can't remember it), and cruised to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Borneo, Bali, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He almost started an airline in the Maldives, he says, but backed out when the government insisted he make the Libyan ambassador his partner.

In 1984 he made his shipmate Marilyn Arnold his third "and last" wife, and they sailed to India, where they lived on a vast hippie commune for nearly a year. Their mast was snapped in a storm on the Red Sea, and they spent a year in Israel and headed for Greece, "where you will dance and dance and dance until your senses leave you, and you never will want to leave."

But leave they did, and in 1987 decided to test the new spirit of Soviet glasnost by sailing into Odessa, capital of Ukraine. The presence of an American yacht so flummoxed city officials that the national government didn't know what to do. It cabled Soviet Prsident Mikhail Gorbachev and asked if the Americans could stay. Gorbachev cabled back that it was their government and Ukraine officials could decide for themselves, says Palley, and the answer was da.

"These were hopeful times," he recalled. Lines of Odessans quickly formed on the dock, offering the bearded American fabulous deals. His favorite: five Soviet submarines. "Sure," Palley replied. Only later did he learn they were ''under 200 feet of water and didn't float." No thanks, he said, but he and his companions did buy a 10,000-acre mushroom farm instead - something his Jewish ancestors could never do in Russia.

Eighteen months later, news of the Romanian revolution was crackling over the short-wave radio. The Palley crew decided it was time to shove off, and in early January, just days after the Romanian strongman, Nicolai Ceaucescu, was executed, Unlikely made good on its name: It sailed into the Romanian port city of Constanta on the Black Sea. And it is grimy, bewildered, post- totalitarian Bucharest that Palley calls home.

"Where else would you go for excitement?" he asks, turning his palms skyward, as if "Bucharest!" were the only answer.

"This was the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, one of the greatest events of the century, and I wanted to be there." If Romania was going to go capitalist, he wanted to surf the wave and, he says, "make a contribution."

It didn't hurt that he was a hero, a star, in Bucharest. True, this wasn't the Upper East Side. But in Romania "I was the four-eyed man in the land of the blind," he says with a laugh. During the next four years he "remade the face of Bucharest," he says, with Palley-RKU, Romania's first and largest advertising/marketing agency.

But all the while 4,000 miles of saltwater yawned between Romania and the United States, and if Palley wanted to join that elite club of sailors who had gone all the way around the world, he would have to cross it. In October, the Palleys refitted Unlikely and set out across the Black Sea, across the Mediterranean and past Gibraltar and headed east, for 2,300 miles across a rough Atlantic.

Unlikely's steering wheel broke, and the engine ran out of oil, but on Jan. 9 they sailed into sunny Antigua, near enough to Miami to count their circumnavigation complete, and flew "home" to Philadelphia last week.

"It was a real rite of passage," said Palley, who was reclining on a black- leather couch. "When people ask, 'What did you do with your life?' I can say I sailed around the world."

Palley was scheduled to share his experiences in a lecture last night at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, part of the museum's Sailing Adventures series.

The open sea, said Palley, "is the only place left in the world where you're free. On land, things get murky. You blame your doctor or your wife or your mother when things go wrong. But when you're skipper of a small boat at sea, there's no one to blame and no one to congratulate you. It's like you created the Big Bang. It's your own private universe."

And has the vast mightiness of the oceans humbled Palley?

He pauses. "Humble?" he asks. "I'm not sure that's a word in my vocabulary."

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