The name "Air Force Beach" originated during the Korean War in the early 1950’s when Palm Beach County’s beaches were segregated. But the Air Force needed an out-of-sight place to train both black and white servicemen together. Because of its remoteness on the north end of Singer Island, the military chose this location.
John D. MacArthur, who at one time owned most of northern Palm Beach County and much of neighboring Martin County as well, had purchased the land years before. But he hadn't gotten around to developing this particular coastal stretch. More importantly, he didn't care about others who walked the long trek through the sea grapes to visit his private paradise.
Roderick MacArthur's May 1982 letter to Governor Bob Graham
Requesting that the clothing optional beach
be included in the State Park
In the late 1970’s, North Palm Beach was home to a large, unofficial, clothing optional beach. At the time, a nearly two-mile stretch of untouched beach hammock in North Palm Beach was known as Air Force Beach. Then part of insurance billionaire John D. MacArthur’s vast north Palm Beach County land holdings, today the beach is within the jurisdiction of MacArthur Beach State Park. The story how this nude beach was erased is worth noting as it is yet another cautionary lesson about repressive government acting against its own people. This is an American lesson. The positive news is that this historic mistake can and will be corrected. The goal for re-establishing a family-oriented clothing optional beach continues.
After MacArthur’s passing, four years of legal wrangling ensued ending in the donation of the land to both Palm Beach County and the State of Florida. Local naturists in solidarity with the conservative MacArthur Foundation asked the State to set aside a clothing optional section of beach. (See below: May 1982 Letter from Roderick MacArthur to Florida Governor Bob Graham requesting a designated clothing optional zone at Air Force Beach.)
"John R." wrote in 1997, "For anyone who cares to know the history, my grandfather left no instructions for the disposal of Air Force Beach, nor for the enormous fortune he bequeathed to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation." After John D. MacArthur died, his principal business, Chicago-based Banker's Life and Casualty Company aggressively proceeded with plans to build 600 luxury homes on the land.
When it was time for actually transferring the land donation in 1982, Roderick MacArthur suddenly died of a heart attack. In the final ebb of legal negotiations, Palm Beach County and the State of Florida quickly acquired the deed to the land without actually signing the prepared legal documents providing for a designated nude beach. With Roderick gone, the enactment and enforcement of the agreed upon provisions for a naturist section of the beach evaporated.
After the transfer of land closed in 1982, the State of Florida reversed its position and quietly removed the naturist set-aside from park plans, setting off years of cat-and-mouse skirmishes between park rangers and hiding naturists. While skinny dippers continued to visit Air Force beach in that final open year of 1982, few had anticipated that the State would actually follow through with reversing its negotiated stance and then set about forcefully closing the nude beach. Naturist protests in 1982 were matched with additional law enforcement. The climate shifted from tolerance to extreme intimidation of nude sunbathers, forcing them to comply or leave.
The Demise of a Neighboring Nude Beach
Remembering Air Force Beach
Today's MacArthur Beach State Park in Palm Beach County
According to the grandson, the real hero of Air Force Beach (and the eventual park designation) was his father and John D.'s son, Roderick MacArthur. "John R." wrote, "My father was appalled that so rich a foundation would find it necessary to squeeze more money out of a priceless natural setting. But in those days, Roderick MacArthur was just one vote on a pro-development board. After much difficult maneuvering over two years, the independent-minded Roderick was able to rebuild the foundation's board in his favor and then donate the land for a state park.
Roderick MacArthur was a maverick who cared deeply about the continued viability of the naturist beach as well as the flora and fauna of this unique stretch of coast. He insisted as part of the donation that a portion be officially designated for clothing optional use. Both Palm Beach County and the State of Florida initially agreed, while a careful stream of legal letters and conditions were crafted and exchanged between 1981 and 1982.
SInce 1982, there have been periodic requests for the State to reconsider the original plan for naturism at the park’s extreme north end. But the idea has repeatedly floundered. The most famous of which occurred when Toni Anne Wyner staged a highly attended freedom of expression demonstration beginning in February 1991. Similar annual demonstrations were subsequently held each February up until 2004. She wore only the U.S. Constitution and reconfirmed her right to express herself as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Her subsequent legal challenges worked their way all the way up to the Supreme Court and ended in her favor, thus paving the way for what should be a naturist beach at MacArthur Beach State Park. Nonetheless, local authorities continue in their failure to see this as their ultimate defeat. To this day, hold-out naturists can occasionally be found clustered along the dune line at the park’s far north end, usually surrounded by a homemade privacy barrier.
The most surprising part of the Air Force Beach saga isn’t that people regularly skinny dipped this shoreline. The hand-wringing part of the story is how close Palm Beach County came to paving over two miles of pristine, reef lined, ocean-to-lake land. If Roderick MacArthur hadn’t stepped in and guided the donation of land to government, a wild and beautiful stretch of beach, with one of the country’s most productive sea turtle nesting spots, could have been erased.
Nowadays the beach is largely empty. The throngs of happy nude visitors who frequented the beach until 1982 may be a distant memory. But hope remains. Nude beach activists, inspired by flourishing and accepted nude beaches at Fort Pierce's Blind Creek Beach and North Miami's Haulover Beach are restarting the conversation again. These two successful clothing optional beaches have attracted many new tourists from as far away as Canada and Europe. Surrounding hotels and restaurants are seeing increasing revenues from a new source of tourists that had previously avoided Florida. Almost all these visitors are family-oriented people who are comfortable with skinny dipping in their home countries or regions. It's time for a reset and an opportunity to regain the vision advocated by Roderick MacArthur. To right historic wrongs, we must: 1) invite back the clothing optional beach; and 2) construct a memorial marker to Roderick MacArthur inside MacArthur Beach State Park. He is the true hero in this story. Both are glaring missing traditions at MacArthur Beach State Park. Let's fix this and in the process, infuse the surrounding area with new vitality.
Essay by C. Flick
Sources of information:
• Palm Beach Post article by John R. MacArthur (grandson of John D. MacArthur), Saturday, August 9, 1997
• Palm Beach Post article by Barbara Marshall, July 14, 2015
• Roderick MacArthur's letter to Governor Bob Graham - advocating for a naturist beach, May 21, 1982
• Legal documents between the the MacArthur Foundation and the State of Florida
When it came to his shoreline property, MacArthur had a relaxed attitude about who visited his beach. Naturist or clothed, he didn't care. It became common knowledge among beach-goers walking the path to the ocean that a left turn led to the clothing optional area while a right turn led to a more conventional swim suit experience. The two existed adjacent to each other in peace. By the late 1970’s, Air Force Beach had a reputation as the nation’s largest nude beach, something MacArthur seemed to relish. At the time, reported estimates of weekend visitors averaged around 5000 nude sunbathers. Unfortunately, Local law enforcement took an oppositional approach, periodically invading MacArthur's haven and arresting unsuspecting skinny dippers.
John R. MacArthur, the grandson of John D. MacArthur, wrote the following in a 1997 Palm Beach Post article about his mid-1960s childhood visits to Air Force Beach, "I suppose I knew that we were swimming off private land owned by my grandfather, but the beach was actually open to anyone who wanted to use it; the old man never tried to keep visitors out, which is why the nudists found it so congenial. Air Force Beach was public as a matter of fact long before it became public as a matter of law."
If you visit MacArthur Beach State Park today, a memorial plaque located outside the visitors center assigns credit for the environmentally-motivated donation of this land to namesake John D. MacArthur. According to his grandson, nothing could be further from the truth. "John R." wrote in 1997, "My grandfather was not an environmentalist. He was first and foremost a ruthless and unsentimental real-estate developer." He also confirmed that his grandfather was indeed a naturist who liked to skinny dip at Air Force Beach. But he had virtually no appreciation for nature. Had his grandfather not succumbed to smoking-related lung cancer, he likely would have developed Air Force Beach with expensive homes. But fate intervened with John D.'s death in 1978.