Reese Palley, 93; ran art gallery at Shore, sailed around world

Reese Palley with a limited-edition plate designed by Tapio Wirkkala, which the former art dealer in Atlantic City called his favorite object. Behind him are totems designed by his wife, Marilyn. (CHARLES FOX / File Photograph)

Reese Palley, 93, a flamboyant entrepreneur, art impresario, adventurer, promoter of eccentric business enterprises around the globe, and public scold on matters as diverse as nuclear energy and how to revive Atlantic City, died Wednesday, June 3, at his Philadelphia home.

In 1994, upon his return from a 15-year, around-the-world sailing jaunt aboard a 46-foot sloop called Unlikely, Mr. Palley observed in an Inquirer interview that "it's not that I'm so exciting . . . it's just that everybody else is so dull."

He left on the travels after selling business interests in Atlantic City, including a hotel and the Boardwalk art gallery he had operated.

Mr. Palley was "very complicated, very excitable, very distractible," son Gilbert said from New Mexico on Thursday.

During his sail around the world, his father "opened a sewing machine needle factory in Russia" that was rather short-lived, Gilbert Palley said.

On that same sail, "he started an airline company in the Maldives, using old Grumman Goose airplanes." The amphibious commuter planes were introduced in the 1930s to fly financiers to Wall Street from their Long Island homes. It was another brief adventure.

"He would go from project to project to project," said his son, a former Chestnut Hill Hospital physician who for the last five years has been an emergency physician in the Navajo Nation.

"Always the adventurer and iconoclast," Mr. Palley's wife, Marilyn, said, "Reese believed every moment of life is an event."

About his long adventure, he told The Inquirer upon his return in 1994, "the sea is an emptiness where you see only your own reflection, with a lot of time to think about what's important."

Born in Atlantic City, Mr. Palley graduated from Atlantic City High School, was the valedictorian in the first graduating class at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and studied at the London School of Economics, his wife said.

In 1957, she said, he opened his art gallery on the Boardwalk outside the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, selling the porcelain figures of animals and birds produced by Edward Marshall Boehm.

In the 1970s, he owned a second store, on Walnut Street near 17th Street in Center City, she said.

"In 1976," The Inquirer reported in its 1994 piece, he bought the Marlborough-Blenheim, "sold it weeks later to the Bally Corp. for millions more than he paid," then sold his art gallery in 1979, and was off.

Gilbert Palley said that after high school, Mr. Palley studied optometry at the University of Alabama for three years, then was drafted and sent as an optometrist to an Army base in the Aleutian Islands.

Mr. Palley later told his son that he had been there with the novelist Dashiell Hammett and the future TV newsman Marvin Kalb.

After his London studies, his son said, Mr. Palley "worked in his father's jewelry store on Tennessee Avenue and Atlantic."

When he opened his own shop, he said, Mr. Palley "was selling fine china, Danish furniture, and for a number of years ran a Danish design studio."

He wrote several books. Daughter Diane said the last of them, The Answer, was "the most important, because it involved the use of small-output nuclear reactors as an answer to world power needs and the problems of climate change."

Gilbert Palley recalled that his father "wrote a lot of letters to the editorial boards, both in The Inquirer and the Atlantic City Press."

Many of them focused on Atlantic City and "how the city was mismanaged over the years. He had a lot of these wonderful ideas, and about how he could make them work."

One of his ideas, which he expressed colorfully and controversially, was to turn the city exclusively into a tourist attraction - a "Disneyland with casinos," he called it in one Inquirer article - and find housing elsewhere for its struggling residents.

But that moment had passed, he later suggested.

"One of the expressions I got into a lot of trouble with is, what Atlantic City needs is a bulldozer six blocks wide," he told Newark Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine in 2012 upon the opening of the Revel casino. He was dubious of politicians' claims that casinos would lift city residents out of poverty.

Besides his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Palley is survived by daughter Toby, a brother, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and former wives Bella Alexander and Gloria Romanelli. Gilbert Palley's wife, Robin, is a former reporter for the Bulletin and the Philadelphia Daily News.

A life celebration was set for 1 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, 1906 Rittenhouse Square.


wnaedele@phillynews.com

610-313-8134@WNaedele

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