|Madoff victim Jerome Fisher and Madoff recruiter Robert Jaffe (left) nearly came to blows in Palm Beach, says host Donald Trump.|
The scene was a society party at Donald Trump's famed Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. One guest was Robert Jaffe, 64, who had recruited investors for Bernard L. Madoff, the money manager who last week admitted to a Ponzi scheme in which he lost $50 billion of his clients' money. Another was 78-year-old Jerome Fisher, founder of the upscale shoe store chain 9 West, who reportedly lost millions with Madoff and was upset by Jaffe's presence at the club Saturday night.
According to Trump, the two almost came to blows. "It was as if these people were born to be prizefighters," Trump said in an interview yesterday. Fisher did not return a call seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Jaffe said, "This categorically did not happen."
Nonetheless, despite the scores of Palm Beach residents and Bostonians who have lost money with Madoff, Jaffe is still scheduled to preside over the Discovery Ball, a gathering of socialites and philanthropists Feb. 21 at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. In 2006, the last time Jaffe and his wife, Ellen, cochaired the fund-raiser for Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, they helped raise $2.25 million.
The situation highlights how the Madoff scandal has upended a crucial part of fund-raising for many of Boston's world-renowned hospitals. For years, the hospitals have gone to Palm Beach seeking donations from rich donors, many of them snowbirds or transplants from the Boston area. They hold lavish events at hotels and private parties at homes in an effort to attract donations.
Now, with many donors out millions, that strategy is being reevaluated.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for instance, is reconsidering a March event in Palm Beach aimed at impressing donors with the hospital's latest medical advances.
"Because of the economy, we had already planned to scale back the extent of it," said Paul Levy, Beth Israel's chief executive. "We are considering what further steps we might take in light of the Madoff news because it affects too many people in Palm Beach. We don't need as large a place and we might want a place that's a little more modest." At its 2007 gala, Beth Israel touted $15 million in gifts, though not all of the money was raised at the event.
"I don't know if it makes sense at all" to have the Jaffes chair the Discovery Ball, said Trump, the hotel and gambling tycoon, and a Dana-Farber contributor who attended the ball last year. "I don't know the level of animosity or hatred, but I got a bit of it the other night."
Other hospitals had already begun to rethink their fund-raising approaches before the Madoff scandal broke.
Tufts Medical Center, which has held a Palm Beach event for the past two years in conjunction with Tufts University School of Medicine, will not hold one this winter.
"We decided several months ago that with the economy the way it was, this wouldn't be the most productive year," said Brooke Tyson Hynes, a spokeswoman. "We'll reconsider it in the future."
Children's Hospital Boston also scaled back a Palm Beach event prior to the scandal.
"We had decided before the economy was a problem not to hold an event but to instead engage in personal visits" with potential donors, said Janet Cady, president of the hospital's fund-raising trust.
Boston hospitals have looked to Palm Beach residents for donations for about 15 years.
In the late 1980s, many of Massachusetts General Hospital's key donors who once lived in Boston and throughout New England asked the institution to hold events in and around Palm Beach, according to James E. Thompson, vice president for development at Mass. General.
The hospital holds an annual event, called an educational session, in which doctors speak about research at the hospital, followed by a reception. This year's session, scheduled for Feb. 3 at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach, will go on as planned, said Thompson.
"We want to be sensitive and we've spoken to many of our key friends," said Thompson. "We're hearing that it's important that MGH continue to be in front of its key friends and contributors and that they want us to come. That doesn't mean all our close friends and competitors are as well off today as 12 months ago."
Brigham and Women's Hospital is planning a series of events over three days starting Jan. 22, highlighted by a dinner at The Breakers.
"We're not changing our plans at this point," said Jim Asp, vice president for development.
He added, "The current uncertainty means donors are looking very carefully about the support they provide. They're taking a bit of a pause before they make some of their decisions. This is a time when it's important for us to stay close to our donors."
But Dana-Farber has by far the biggest Palm Beach presence, with a full-time office and a schedule of events spread over five weeks, including a kick-off party, a preball dinner, "breakfast with the doctors," a dinner for "major donors," and the ball itself.
Bill Schaller, a spokesman for Dana-Farber, said that as cochairs of the Discovery Ball, the Jaffes' role is to "encourage attendance as well as to help raise funds." He downplayed the significance of the Palm Beach events, noting the institute holds 500 events a year and many raise more money than the ball.
The Jaffes have donated to Dana Farber at previous Discovery Balls, Schaller said. Ellen Jaffe is the daughter of Carl and Ruth Shapiro, who have given millions of dollars to Boston's major hospitals, including $27 million last year to Dana Farber.
Despite the Madoff scandal, some Dana-Farber supporters say they are looking forward to the ball and the Jaffes' leadership. Sandra Krakoff, a trustee of Dana-Farber who is on the steering committee planning the hospital's Palm Beach fund-raising events, said invitations to the ball will soon be mailed.
"My relationship with the Jaffes is nothing but cordial, and since I'm not an investor, I have no problem with them," she said from Palm Beach. "I know they will do a great job. They always do a good job."
A Palm Beach resident on the committee planning the Discovery Ball said he is unaware of anyone who has reneged on a pledge to the event because the Jaffes are cochairs.
"How people feel in a month is a different story," said the committee member, who requested anonymity. "He was the contact man for Madoff in Palm Beach. . . . These people have lost a lot of money, and people can get angry."
Meantime, the Jaffes have been keeping a low profile. An engagement party for one of their sons, scheduled for Saturday at Palm Beach Country Club, has been canceled.
"Obviously, it's a devastating time for so many," said Alyson Seligman, a family spokeswoman.
Jenn Abelson and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at email@example.com.