Standing at the bar at Mar-a-Lago, the outrageously ornate Palm Beach, Florida, mansion built by breakfast-cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the Roaring 20s and turned into a private club in 1995 by Donald Trump, I awaited the arrival of the 45th president-elect of the United States. He was coming that mid-November weekend, as he had done so often for the past 30 years. But in so many ways he was already there.
He was there in the minds of his club’s 500 members, who love the place enough to pay a $100,000 initiation fee, plus $14,000 in annual dues. He was there in the Trump wines we were drinking, from the Virginia vineyards run by his son Eric. And he was there in the adoring eyes of the bartender, who motioned to two portraits on the library bar’s walls, telling me, “That’s Marjorie Merriweather Post on the left and Mr. Trump—I mean, Mr. President—on the right.”
The portraits couldn’t be more different: Mrs. Post’s is small and plain, while Donald J. Trump’s, by Palm Beach artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, is monumental. Clad in tennis whites, with a ray of heavenly Palm Beach sun beaming over his left shoulder, Trump is depicted as a bronzed, blond-haired god, or, as a plaque at the bottom of the frame proclaims, “The Visionary.”
Most of all, though, Donald Trump was there as the protagonist of the newest chapter in Palm Beach’s history: the loud, new-money outsider who came to town—one of the richest and most insular towns in America—and, through the titanic force of his personality, forced the scandalized Old Guard to bend to his will. And it begins, really, with the word “no.”
Not one “no,” but a barrage of them. Starting with the unanimous “No” vote of the town council when Trump appeared before it, in April 1992.
Trump arrived in Palm Beach with his family in the 1980s, a snowbird who had flown in from New York. He was so impressed with the town, its beach, and its golf courses that he placed a security deposit on an apartment at the Breakers, the storied resort hotel and condominium complex overlooking the Atlantic. “He was trying to put two penthouses together so there would be enough room for his kids,” the Breakers sales director later said. But “it couldn’t be done.”
One winter evening in 1985, according to an account Trump later wrote in Trump: The Art of the Comeback, he was being chauffeured to a dinner party when he asked the driver, “What’s for sale in town that’s really good?”
“Well, the best thing by far is Mar-a-Lago, but I guess you wouldn’t be talking about that,” the driver replied, probably thinking that no mortal could afford it.
“I asked him what Mar-a-Lago was,” Trump recalled.
Hearing the gilded story of the biggest house in the richest town, Trump ordered an immediate detour. He was driven through the quiet streets behind whose 12-foot hedges resided the historically understated gentry of America—Kennedys, Du Ponts, Fords, Pulitzers—until they arrived at an estate as grandiose as the aspirations of the Queens-born, 39-year-old real-estate developer in the limousine’s backseat.
From the street Trump stared across the 17 acres of grounds at a phantasmagoria of a home that humbled even him. Mar-a-Lago was named for its location, the property stretching from the ocean to Lake Worth. With interiors designed by Ziegfeld Follies scenic designer Joseph Urban, it was the fantasy of “an American in love with the artistic splendor of Europe . . . [with] Hispano-Moorish tiles of Spain; the frescoes of Florence; Venetian arches to introduce and frame water passages… and a ninety-foot castle tower for unimpeded panoramas of sea and sly,” according to a description in Town & Country. There were 128 rooms over 110,000 square feet, with 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, a ballroom (where Mrs. Post held her celebrated square dances), a theater, and a nine-hole golf course.
“I immediately knew it had to be mine,” Trump wrote.
But it had been practically abandoned as a white elephant. Shortly before her death, in 1972, Mrs. Post left Mar-a-Lago to the U.S. government, with the intent that the estate be used as a winter White House for U.S. presidents. But Nixon preferred his friend Bebe Rebozo’s place, farther south, in Key Biscayne, and Jimmy Carter in the extravagant confines of Mar-a-Lago would have been like Donald Trump in, well, the peanut fields of Plains, Georgia. So Carter’s administration, faced with the estate’s $1 million annual taxes and maintenance costs, kicked it back to the Post Foundation in 1981, which didn’t want to shoulder the estate’s financial burden, either. The foundation put it on the market for $20 million.
At the time, Post’s three daughters gathered amid Mar-a-Lago’s splendor, fast falling to neglect and disrepair. Actress Dina Merrill (from Mrs. Post’s second marriage, to stock-brokerage founder E. F. Hutton) and her half-sisters, Adelaide Breevort Close and Eleanor Post Close (from their mother’s first marriage, to stockbroker Edward Bennett Close), made a decision that would lead to the changing of the guard at the historic house, according to Anthony Senecal, who, starting in 1959, worked at Mar-a-Lago for Mrs. Post as one of 35 dining-room footmen and later became Donald Trump’s butler there.
“Adelaide said, ‘I’m not going to put another dime of my own money into this place, and we’ll just sell it as is,’” remembers Senecal.
“And Dina Merrill said, ‘O.K., well, I’m with you,’ and then the other daughter said, ‘Well, yeah, I’m with you, too.’”
But real offers were slow in coming, until Trump took his detour on the way to the dinner party. “The estate manager gave him a tour of the house, and Mr. Trump told me later that he made the offer to the girls, by letter, I’m sure, of paying $25 million for the 17 acres, the house, and the furnishings,” Senecal says. “And they said no. They wanted more money.”
But soon, the wolf was not only at the door—he was also on the beach.
Trump offered $2 million for a beachfront lot in front of Mar-a-Lago—which Post’s foundation had sold earlier for $346,000. While Trump didn’t buy the property until he closed on Mar-a-Lago, The Washington Post reported, “he decided to play hardball. He said he bought the beachfront property directly in front of it through a third party and threatened to put up a hideous home to block Mar-a-Lago’s ocean view.” “That was my first wall,” he told the Post. “That drove everybody nuts. They couldn’t sell the big house because I owned the beach, so the price kept going down and down.”
“So they decided to take Mr. Trump’s last offer, and sold him the house and the 17 acres and all the furnishings for less than $8 million,” says Senecal.
MAR-A-LAGO’S BARGAIN PRICE TAG ROCKS COMMUNITY, read the headline of the January 5, 1986, Palm Beach Daily News. Adding insult to injury, Trump would later write of Dina Merrill that she was “Mrs. Post’s arrogant and aloof daughter, who was born with her mother’s beauty but not her brains.” Confronted with Trump’s assessment, Merrill told a reporter, “How lovely. He’s a charming man, isn’t he?”(Merrill could not be reached for comment.)
“In the beginning, most of Palm Beach’s Old Guard did their best to avoid him,” says Vanderbilt scion Whitney Tower Jr., whose family members have lived in Palm Beach for almost a century. But now Donald Trump was not only a presence to be reckoned with in Palm Beach—he owned its biggest and grandest house. Trump had another problem, though: he was going broke.
“THERE’S NOTHING THE OLD ELITE HATES SO MUCH AND FEARS SO PROFOUNDLY AS DONALD TRUMP’S CLUB.”
“I was many billions in the red, $975 million of that debt I’d personally guaranteed,” Trump would write of his dire early-1990s financial straits. “The banks were crawling all over me. The Gulf War had a disastrous effect on tourism. Cash flows were dwindling at my casinos. Then I missed a mortgage payment on the Castle in Atlantic City. All hell broke loose. Wall Street went nuts. . . . Then, after being pummeled by my bankers, Ivana turned around and sued me [for divorce] for $2 billion.”
One Friday, while meeting with his bankers in New York, Trump inadvertently mentioned that he was flying to Mar-a-Lago on his 727 for the weekend. Upon seeing his bankers’ displeasure, he blurted out, spur-of-the-moment, “Fellows, I’m going to subdivide the 17 acres of Mara-Lago rather than sell the house … [and] build mansions on the ground. I’ll call the project the Mansions at Mar-a-Lago. I’ll turn it into a moneymaker.”
When he publicly announced his plan a new furor ensued: a Palm Beach landmark was in the hands of Donald Trump, who wanted to subdivide it into mini-mansions!
“Red Alert—Mar-a-Lago,” read the urgent call to arms from the Preservation Society of Palm Beach.
A year of meetings and hearings ensued, with fiery rhetoric on both sides. After six hours of deliberation, the council rejected Trump’s plan by a unanimous vote. Trump, “who slipped into the meeting Thursday, just as the board was voting, had his response ready: ‘I’m going to bring a $100 million lawsuit against the town of Palm Beach.’” (In fact he would sue the town for $50 million.)
“I’m no longer in the mood to compromise,” he told the Palm Beach Daily News the day after the ruling, with his then girlfriend, “a bikini-clad Marla Maples,” in the backyard of Mar-a-Lago. “I gave [the town] an opportunity, and they blew it. Now, I’m going to get everything I’m entitled to.”
Trump would later say that what he really wanted was to turn Mar-a-Lago into a private club—and some insisted he was miffed at not being invited to join the Bath and Tennis Club. “Utter bullshit!” he told Marie Brenner in this magazine in 1990. “They kiss my ass in Palm Beach. Those phonies! That club [the Bath and Tennis] called me and asked me if they could have my consent to use part of my beach to expand the space for their cabanas! I said, ‘Of course!’ Do you think if I wanted to be a member they would have turned me down? I wouldn’t join that club, because they don’t take blacks and Jews.”
Some Restrictions Apply
In Palm Beach the private club to which you belong is not only your playground: it’s your platform, signaling who you are socially, economically, and culturally. Membership at the Bath and Tennis Club announces your arrival, and survival of an onerous vetting process, including backgrounds and bloodlines. “I know people who moved to Palm Beach, got blackballed at the B&T, and left town,” says one observer. The B&T, as its name implies, is the town’s premier lunch, pool, beach, and tennis club, its crescent-shaped, red-tile-roofed clubhouse overlooking a prime stretch of beach just across the street—but to its members’ mind-set, a world away—from Mar-a-Lago. It’s a lovely place where it’s always summer, where gentlemen in Vilebrequin swimsuits and linen shirts and ladies in pastels and pinks with sweaters over their shoulders socialize in much the same way they did when the club was established, in 1927.
“The B&T is frequented by heirs of old-line American industrial families with household names,” says book publisher Adrian Zackheim, whose former father-in-law was a member. “It’s considered bad form at the B&T to ask people what they do, because many of them don’t have regular jobs. A typical B&T obituary describes the deceased as ‘an avid sportsman.’ Instead, you’re better off asking them what they hunt.” Quail, duck, or pheasant?
Likewise, if you’re a member of the Everglades Club, you’re part of a heritage that has included such names as Vanderbilt, Whitney, Du Pont, Kennedy, Cabot, Pillsbury, Scripps, and Hilton. According to a longtime local, membership requires multiple nominations, letters of approval, and an excruciating vetting process in which three “No” votes from members means you’re out. So tight were the Everglades restrictions that “the old rule, to my understanding, was no member should bring a guest who would not be approved for membership themselves,” says the publicist and former Palm Beach resident Paul Wilmot. They weren’t kidding. Famed socialite C. Z. Guest and her husband, the polo champion Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, were suspended after they hosted a 25th-anniversary party that included cosmetics queen Estée Lauder and Nancy Reagan confidant Jerry Zipkin (not coincidentally, both were Jewish). The current seasonal aristocracy includes Cuban sugarcane brothers Pepe and Alfy Fanjul; Trump’s incoming secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross; local social doyenne Pauline Pitt; security-services king Thomas C. Quick; and billionaire David Koch.
If you’re Jewish, there was a club for you, too, the century-old Palm Beach Country Club, “the top primarily Jewish club in the country—nothing else even comes close,” says a member. Other members have included Wall Street legend Henry Kaufman; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; private-equity-firm chieftain Henry Kravis; Seagram scion Charles Bronfman . . . and, infamously, Bernie Madoff, who found many of his victims there.
This was the genteel and closed world of private clubs in Palm Beach prior to the arrival of Donald Trump. Ironically, because of their tight restrictions and penchant for keeping people out, they became the Achilles’ heel that enabled Trump to alter the exclusionary culture of Palm Beach forever.
Getting nowhere with the Town Council on his Mar-a-Lago subdivision proposal, Trump needed a “fix-it person,” says Richard Rampell, the head of a prominent local accounting firm and the brother of the attorney who would help clear the way for Trump into Palm Beach, Paul Rampell. “So Trump meets with my brother, and my brother comes up with an idea to convert Mar-a-Lago into a private club that is open to everyone,” Richard Rampell tells me. At the time, Palm Beach’s Waspy private clubs had what he calls an open secret: as Trump claimed, they didn’t admit Jews or African-Americans.
With the specter of his lawsuit still hanging over the council, it voted 4-1 to approve Trump’s plan, and those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, become members of the other clubs now had a club of their own. Naturally, the question when it comes to Donald Trump is always: Was it for him or them? “He basically opened Palm Beach up … to make a buck,” says Laurence Learner, author of The President’s Butler, a novel about a “flamboyant” New Yorker who becomes president. “But he did it, and a lot of people in his shoes at that time wouldn’t have done it.”
Trump instructed his attorney to settle his $50 million lawsuit against the town, and the selling of the Mar-a-Lago Club began, with typical Donald Trump bravado, MAR-A-LAGO CLUB MEMBERSHIP LIST A REAL WHO’S WHO, read a December 12, 1994, Palm Beach Post headline, noting that Steven Spielberg, Henry Kissinger, Lee Iacocca, Denzel Washington, Michael Ovitz, Norman Mailer, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others, had joined. The club’s membership director added, in a later article, that Princess Diana and Prince Charles, then separated, “each filed their own application and paid their own $50,000 initiation fee.” But in March, Trump admitted that he had merely sent the royal couple and the other celebrities unsolicited offers for free honorary membership. According to The New York Times Magazine, he later declared, “I believe everyone’s going to accept.” (Many, if not all, declined membership, according to media reports at the time.)
DONALD TRUMP CHALLENGES AGREEMENT WITH TOWN, read the full-page Palm Beach Preservation Foundation ad, alerting all citizens to appear at a special Town Council hearing on September 16, 1996, at which Trump would appeal to end certain restrictions—affecting noise and traffic, etc.—that had been part of his agreement with the council for approval of his club.
“At the insistence of Mr. Trump’s representatives, this Special Hearing comes at a time of year when many residents are away,” read the preservation foundation ad. Nevertheless, every seat in the council chambers was taken, with 72 citizens standing in the back, when the meeting began at 9:30 A.M. Trump and his attorney had already implied that he and his club had been discriminated against because many of its members were Jewish, and, worse, that the council members who had placed the conditions on him had not placed those restrictions on their own clubs. The council members were “more than pissed off,” says Richard Rampell, as this “put them on the defensive.”
Before the meeting, Paul Rampell had sent the council members copies of the movies Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—in which Katharine Houghton brings Sidney Poitier home to her parents, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy—and Gentleman’s Agreement, the 1947 film in which Gregory Peck plays a reporter who masquerades as a Jew to write a story about anti-Semitism.
“It was quite contentious,” recalls Lesly Smith, who, as president, presided over the meeting of the Town Council. “It was supposed to last for an hour, and I believe it went until two A.M.” When the council agreed to drop only three restrictions—the ban on photography at the club, a requirement for advance reservations to use certain facilities, and a requirement that Trump put 10 percent of room-rental revenues into a fund for restoring the estate—his lawyer circulated a copy of a new lawsuit against the town.
To Trump’s detractors, it was proof of ruthless bullying by him; to his supporters, a sign of strength. “Well, my God, the man is a born winner!” Toni Holt Kramer told me in her grand Palm Beach home. A former Hollywood reporter and the wife of retired car dealer Robert David “Bobby” Kramer, she is the bubbly blonde founder of the Trumpettes, Donald Trump’s most die-hard fans. During the campaign the Trumpettes shouted their allegiance to their hero from sound trucks, and later in the halls of Mar-a-Lago, where they celebrated his victory. “Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to win!” Kramer enthusiastically told me. “People who succeed can’t always be delicate debutantes!”
‘There is nothing the old elite hates so much and fears so profoundly as Donald Trump’s club,” wrote Learner. Beauty-pageant contestants, rock stars, nearly naked lovelies poolside! On top of that, Trump recruited the likes of Celine Dion, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Billy Joel, and Diana Ross to sing in concerts in a 10,000-square-foot tent (since replaced by the 20,000-square-foot Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom) Trump erected on his front lawn. “The tent wasn’t a good noise container,” says Leslie Shaw, a former member of the Town Council. “And you would have limos coming from Fort Lauderdale and Miami and friends flying in from all over.”
Palm Beach’s residential-noise ordinance stipulates that events must end at 11 P.M. How long did Mar-a-Fago’s events go? “Until two,” says Shaw, which resulted only in a nominal fine. As the parties ramped up, day and night, so did the ire of neighbors, including the Bath and Tennis Club. In 1998, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Jennifer Lopez spent Easter Sunday weekend at Mar-a-Lago. One lunchtime the couple took a stroll on the beach, coming to rest on a beach chair beneath the Bath and Tennis Club’s picture windows, where they commenced what columnist Shannon Donnelly would later call the “Horizontal Rumba.”
“They crawled into one of the Bath and Tennis chairs and were doing the big nasty right beneath the Bath and Tennis’s picture windows with all of the grandmothers having lunch with their grandchildren,” remembers Donnelly, who broke the story in the Palm Beach Daily News.
But there was one commotion Trump himself couldn’t abide, and it came from above: airplanes flying over Mar-a-Lago. The flight path from Palm Beach International Airport passed directly over the estate, with planes flying over so noisily and so frequently that Trump felt the airport’s director “had a vendetta against him,” recalled Richard Rampell.
Trump wanted the county to move the airport, so he organized a “Noise Pollution Action Fund” with his neighbors, and, naturally, filed lawsuits. He sued Palm Beach County four times over the planes, but it was his 1995 lawsuit for $75 million against the county that would turn the noise into Trump gold.
Son of a Beach!
The county had advertised 215 acres of barren scrubland for lease south of the airport, near the county jail. Only one interested party had responded: Trump. He offered to drop his lawsuit in return for the county’s leasing him the land for 30 years, beginning at $438,000 a year, with an option for longer. Since the county had already paid a Washington, D.C., law firm a quarter of its $1.1 million commitment to fight Trump in court, the county officials accepted the offer. “This is the classic win-win situation,” one of the county’s attorneys told a local newspaper.
But the big winner was, once again, Donald Trump. In 1999, the seemingly useless scrubland became the site of the Trump International Golf Club. Again, he got the property at a steal, and after moving an estimated three million cubic yards of earth and transplanting 1,000 oaks and 700 royal-palm trees—with “an unlimited budget” Trump estimated at $40 million—he opened an 18-hole, Jim Fazio-designed course, also as a private club.
“In the beginning, [the initiation fee] was up to $250,000—or less—depending on who you knew and how he thought you fit in,” says an informed source. “It was all about him being the greatest P.R. man who ever lived. He’s always saying, ‘This is the greatest! He’s the greatest!’”
“It’s a beautiful course, and he had some very good members there, but after the crash of ’08 a lot of people got Madoffed,” says another member. “He lost a lot of members. So he started selling limited memberships. People who joined for six figures were all of a sudden seeing people who bought memberships for less.”
Meanwhile, Trump has not stopped waging war with the town, “over sprinkler systems and fireproofing methods for the 16th century Portuguese tapestries that hung on his walls . .. over photo shoots, concerts and charity benefits . . . over ficus hedges,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. In 2006 he sued the town over his American flag. Not just any flag, but a Trump-huge, stadium-size flag atop an 80-foot pole in front of Mar-a-Lago—double the height allowed by local ordinance. When Trump was fined $250 a day, he sued the town for $25 million. But when the fines for the flag reached $120,000, Trump finally moved the pole and lowered the height, while reaping some good publicity by promising to donate $100,000 to veterans’ charities.
“He always wins,” says an exasperated resident. “And now his club is the winter fucking White House.”
On the morning of Trump’s arrival in Palm Beach, I drove down South Ocean Boulevard to Mar-a-Lago, to find that it has been turned into a fortress, protected by land, water, and air by the Secret Service and other agencies. Awarded the high-security status of the presidency, the club has indeed become the winter White House that Marjorie Merriweather Post envisioned, incidentally causing all of Donald Trump’s remaining conflicts with Palm Beach to suddenly vanish.
Commercial and private flights can no longer fly in its airspace when the president is in residence.
He can fly any size flag on any size flagpole he desires on his grounds.
His latest lawsuit against Palm Beach County was dropped.
And the Old Guard that once so angrily cursed and condemned him have gone mute, with what one local society member calls “amnesia.” Another says, “Everyone is lining up to kiss the ring. People are pissed off about what his comings and goings will do to the traffic here. But the fact is, against every pundit and the odds, he is the most important man in the world.”
Yes, Donald Trump was arriving not merely as the new president of the United States of America. More pertinently to these privileged few, he is now King of Palm Beach.