December 16, 1991 12:00 PM

A FEW DAYS BEFORE WILLIAM KENNEDY Smith’s rape trial began in West Palm Beach, a young brunet who works at a bikini shop came out of Sprinkles ice-cream store in the more fashionable venue of Palm Beach proper. She was wearing one of the latest local rages—a Kennedys Easter Tour T-shirt, which features a frisky, trouserless Ted Kennedy holding a foaming schooner and lists the night spots the family supposedly visited last March 30 when Smith allegedly raped a young woman. The brunet, who was slurping a (Moira) Lasch’s lime sherbet—named after the state prosecutor—was set upon by two photographers from the British tabloids.

“Can you take your jeans off, though?” said one. “So it’s, like, just the T-shirt?” She ducked into a store and put on bicycle shorts. “Okay, good. Just stand there,” said the photog. “Now pull the shirt down tight…and spread your legs…wider…wider…”

“Why?” the young woman fretted. She did it, though. The photographers clicked away as she stood before a receding row of royal palms running down to the intercoastal waterway. On the other side was the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

As the Smith trial got under way last week, hordes of reporters descended upon the town, some from as far away as Japan and Brazil. Tourists clamored daily for the 16 courtroom seats set aside for the public. And hawkers were out for the quick buck, from the T-shirt street vendors to stores like Sprinkles, which has boosted business with its new trial-theme flavors—Teddy’s Best, Lupo lemon sherbet (for Judge Mary Lupo) and Willie Vanilli banana-nut ice cream.

Meantime, residents were doing their best to keep the whole business out of sight and mind, tending instead to their enormous hedges and high-society soirees. “This town is not interested in the Kennedy trial,” says a local official. “There was allegedly a little fling, and now this nonsense is costing our taxpayers a fortune.”

The press certainly wasn’t treating the trial lightly. The Cable News Network and Court TV televised the proceedings live, but coverage was no less intense outside the courthouse, where a thicket of TV cameras on tripods sprouted. Right behind, other photographers appeared like a line of snipers in a high parking garage. During jury selection, the press pack blanketed Smith and his attorneys when they arrived at the courthouse. “It got a little rough,” says a photographer for the Palm Beach Post. “I lost a shoe one morning. People were getting equipment knocked out of their arms. They had to pull Smith into a side door to get him away from us.”

But the real chases, the cowboy coverage, took place far from the courthouse as reporters pursued the 30-year-old woman who has accused Smith of rape. One free-lance photographer working for the National Enquirer says he was staking out the alleged victim’s home in Jupiter, Fla., when she hopped in her car and look off. “She went down a six-lane highway doing 90, trying to get away from me,” he says. “Then she made a left turn from the right-hand lane, blew through a four-way stop sign and lost me.” Others in the ravening press horde were also pushing the very edge of the media envelope. A Current Affair has set up something of a parallel courtroom universe, which includes a shadow six-member jury. Says the show’s correspondent, the duck-tailed Steve Dunleavy: “The jury’s being picked right now by Amy Singer of Trial Consultants, Inc. They’ll be as close as possible in background to the actual jurors, and they’ll watch the trial on TV. We’ll track their reactions each day. They earn $50 a day, you know. That’s five times what the real jurors get.” At Au Bar, the nightclub where Smith and his accuser began their encounter, the techno-rap music track ratchets up, and bodies start to surge and bump on the dance floor. Everybody here—tourists, old satyrs, trust hinders, the staff—can thank the scandal for saving the club. Until Smith began the worst date of his life here, Au Bar was about to go under. Now business is brisk, thanks in part to tourists from around the globe forking over the $10 cover charge to see the place. “I’m keeping the whole case at arm’s length,” says Roxanne Pulitzer, whose notorious divorce from publishing heir Peter Pulitzer created its own sensation in Palm Reach in 1982. She is sitting at a table with her 14-year-old twins, Mac and Zac, and her French boyfriend, Jean de la Moussaye. “I certainly don’t believe anything in the media about it. If I did, I’d believe I slept with a trumpet.”

When the subject of the Kennedys threads through cocktail conversations these days, it’s likely to be old gossip: someone grumbling that the family gets away with not paying taxes on their estate, since the Kennedy compound is reportedly owned by a foundation that aids the retarded, established in honor of Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his sister Rosemary. Yet when the alleged rape does come up among the Palm Reach elite, the majority of people seem to believe Smith was set up and that his accuser is not a nice girl. After all, who is she anyway? they ask. She doesn’t live in Palm Reach. She’s an outsider.

There have also been complaints that the trial has brought to light a rarely seen slice of Palm Beach life—the young, the rich and the coked-up. “There’s this crowd here in their late 20s and 30s who don’t do anything but sniff, freebase and have affairs,” says local radio talk show host Jack Cole. The Palm Beach grapevine, he adds, has it that several residents involved in the Smith case arc concerned above all that their drug habits will become public. But for the most part, life in Palm Beach goes on as before. “It’s a wonderful place to live because it’s a sanctuary,” says Helen Bernstein, who has been basking here for 21 years. “People come to Palm Beach with a desperate urge to have fun before our heart attacks. We’re wrapping ourselves in a pink cloud.”

There were signs that the party was petering out for the press. On the eve of the trial, reporters threw themselves a bash at Bradley’s Saloon, featuring a Judge Mary Lupo look-alike contest. (Three women entered wearing black robes; the winner look home $100.) They also enjoyed the special house cocktail, Sex on the Beach—a mix of melon and raspberry liqueurs and pineapple juice served in rivulets down the groove of a 300-pound block of ice called the Luge. But before the first week of the trial had ended, a hangover of sorts had set in. When CNN’s Charles Jaco, who has been covering the case for weeks, was asked if he was tired of it all, he made a gagging motion with his finger. “They call us the Little Whores on the Prairie,” says Jaco, who distinguished himself during the Persian Gulf War. He gestures to the parking lot outside; the courthouse, filled with vans and satellite-dish trailers. “Oh, for a cruise this time of year!”

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