Reese Palley, an Atlantic City legend who never lost his love for the town — despite the fact that he left it more than 30 years ago and was a public advocate for leveling it with “a bulldozer six blocks wide” — died Wednesday at his home in Philadelphia.
Palley, 93, grew up in Atlantic City, opened an art gallery and shops in the late Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in 1957 and carefully cultivated a reputation as his city’s “merchant to the rich,” even as the town’s own image suffered through entire poor decades. He also converted himself from a tenant at that historic hotel to its owner shortly before it was knocked down — and shortly after casinos were legalized in Atlantic City in 1978.
“I bought 27 acres at Park Place and Boardwalk (See Monopoly),” as Palley put it on his web site, reesepalley.com. “Not having any money, I bought a $16 million property from eager sellers with $100,000 down and an enormous mortgage due in nine months. Ten days after the papers were signed, I sold the property.”
The buyer was Bally’s, which built New Jersey’s third casino on the site. Palley and his partner, lawyer Marty Blatt, did very well but “the story has expanded umpteen times,” Palley’s widow, Marilyn, said Thursday. “They took the first offer and walked away. They weren’t greedy.”
Still, selling to the casino brought in enough money that “in 1979, he untied his line from Atlantic City and set sail on his circumnavigations,” his wife said — Palley literally sailed around the world in a 46-foot boat he named Unlikely.
He wrote about his sailing adventures in several books, and excerpted them on his web site. But while he was sailing, his wife says, he also “lived and set up businesses in China, in Odessa, Russia and Bucharest, Romania,” Marilyn said. Among his pet ideas were miniature nuclear-power plants — which he also wrote about in one of the nine books he authored.
He was known for his travels while he was in business in his Atlantic City days, too. To celebrate his 50th birthday, Palley chartered two jets to bring friends, family and customers to Paris for a weekend party.
Steven P. Perskie, a Palley’s friend of 50 or so years and and former state legislator and judge, adds that Palley took his Atlantic City business on the road and into the air on other occasions.
“He would periodically take people on flights to Paris for which he would pay, and he’d make that back because he’d sell them things,” Perskie said.
Marilyn Palley called her husband “a marketing genius” and said he helped his hometown stay busy while he mixed business with pleasure in his shops.
“In the years when Atlantic City was empty ... he would take over the hotel every December and bring in anybody who wanted to come in for the weekend. He’d put them up in the hotel, and they had to pay for their meals, but he’d have a weekend-long party in his shop,” she said. “So you’d have several hundred people wandering around the Boardwalk and in the shops and restaurants in the dead of winter.”
But for all his selling savvy and ability to cater to the wealthy, her husband was also an “extraordinary iconoclast” who wore his hair long and his beard wild, well before that became a fashion for men.
“Reese once ran for (Atlantic County) freeholder when he had very long hair, and he had a black and white billboard on the Boardwalk. It said, ‘Vote for me — you could do worse.’ That’s the personality, OK?” his wife said.
Palley served as a member of the New Jersey Lottery Commission, but was suspended by Gov. Tom Kean and pleaded guilty to violating ethics rules.
Perskie says his old friend — with whom he also had memorable fights — was “absolutely” a hippie ahead of his time, “and he gloried in it. He always wanted to be unique, in his philosophy, in his business style, he was always looking to set himself apart from the routine. And that included his physical appearance.”
After selling his property to the casino, Palley left Atlantic City in part because he said he didn’t want to try to do business in casinos.
“They always look at me as unpredictable. I look at them as constipated, too stodgy for my tastes,” he told The Press in a 1983 interview.
“He was perceived, not unrealistically as strange, as unique,” Perskie said. But Palley also had “incredible inherent charity and good will and he cared deeply ... for people who couldn’t take care of themselves. He was always looking to take care of the little guy — while he was making money off the big guy.”
As one of a struggling Atlantic City’s most successful merchants in the 1970s, Palley was a backer of the successful vote to legalize casinos in Atlantic City.
“He was on the edge of the politics, but in the middle of the economics of it, and he was always a larger than life figure,” Perskie said. “He brought a unique kind of visibility and ... style to it.”
Still, from the very far fringes of politics, Palley also advocated turning his beloved hometown into strictly a commercial district — all businesses and no residents. His formula for doing that was that super-sized bulldozer he told The Press about in a 2003 interview, one that could knock down blocks at a time.
That idea had no chance politically, “but Reese never had any hesitance about expressing himself,” Perskie said.
One way Palley expressed himself was with frequent letters to the editor of The Press over the years — often from homes in Philadelphia, Key West, Florida, and overseas, or on the sea. He may have followed events remotely, but he followed them closely, his wife said. He was a technology fan who got his first computer as soon as Apple put out its first computer in the 1980s and was waiting for his first Apple watch when he died. He read this newspaper, among others, online every morning before breakfast.
“He loved Atlantic City and it hurt him when the politics got crazy and greed got out of hand ... with the shortsightedness, when people weren’t looking at the future,” his wife said.
She sums her husband up in his favorite phrase: “He’d tell me, ‘I gotta be part of the action.’”
Along with his wife, Palley is survived by his children, Gilbert, Diane, and Toby; three grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and brother, Norman. His family plans a life celebration for Reese Palley at 1 p.m. June 14 at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square.