Q&A: Reese Palley

Art dealer, environmentalist, raconteur, author

What’s the title on your business card? I’ve had many. The title has been anything from art dealer to airline owner. I’m a peddler. Of ideas. I love to sell things. I opened what became a very famous [art] shop on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, labeled myself “merchant to the rich,” and took off from there.

The Washington Post once said your porcelain Boehm birds were “on the mantels of every Main Line socialite.” Exactly. That’s what made [our store] all that money. My partner and I bought the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel [in Atlantic City] and sold it to Bally. I had enough money after that to turn my back on my previous life and sail around the world. I also wrote at sea, and four years ago I started my first major book [Concrete: A Seven-Thousand-Year History].

Were you tired of wood and steel hogging all the construction-material press? It goes back to Atlantic City. The Marlborough-Blenheim was the first poured-concrete hotel in America and was engineered by Thomas Edison.

Why write The Answer, your new book about nuclear power? The origins of nuclear power in America lay in the Army’s need, in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, for plutonium. That’s why today we’re saddled with enormous, dangerous nuclear power plants that have so many problems. It’s like inheriting a tiger and you’ve got it by the tail and no one can figure out a way to let go.

You believe that rather than move away from nuclear energy, we need to downsize the plants? Mini power plants can be made inherently safe. There’s no alternative to nuclear power. Because of CO2 and global warming, we can’t afford to burn fossil fuels.

What about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale? It’s a spectacular disaster. Cleaner fuel does not affect global warming—25 percent of the eight billion tons of CO2 we put into the air today will still be there in 10,000 years.

Getting back to Atlantic City, you once compared it to Vietnam. I once said what Atlantic City needed most was a bulldozer six blocks wide. Nobody’s got the political will to address the minority groups that are inadvertently killing the city. In the ’80s, somebody said, “What are you going to do with the black and Italian populations that have homes there?” I said, “Move them all to Ventnor.” That did not go down very well.

What’s with the red beret? My wife, one of the strongest women in the world, is terrified of losing track of me. She bought the red beret and said, “Thou shalt wear it,” so she can find me in a crowd.

You’re 90 years old. What’s next? I’m organizing a national association of the unemployed to give voice to the least represented group in America. If you want to join, it will cost you $8 a year.
This article originally appeared in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.