After Marjorie Merriweather died in 1973, we ordinary people discovered that she had willed Mar-a-Lago the federal government. She wanted it to be a “Winter Whitehouse”. Actually, she had originally offered it to the state of Florida, but they refused because of the estate’s high operational costs. Marjorie then made a better offer to the federal government, a fund that she had set up which would provide about $1 million a year for the maintenance of the estate. The federal government accepted her donation the year before she died. She thought she had fulfilled her dream to repurpose Mar-a-Lago a presidential retreat and a sanctuary for visiting dignitaries.
Richard Nixon was president the time the government received this inheritance, but it happened he had a best friend and confidant who lived in Florida, Bebe Rebozo. Bebe, whose real name was Charles Gregory, was a wealthy, successful bank owner and businessman, son of Cuban immigrants and living the American dream. He was also said to have had Mafia connections. Nixon was in the middle of the Watergate scandal when Marjorie Merriweather died, and he needed a friend more than he needed a fancy winter white house. He never even visited the place. But he spent so much time in Florida Bebe’s Key Biscayne place that the two of them were accused of having a homosexual affair.
In 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace, Gerald Ford took office. Ford preferred to use Camp David as his retreat, the same as all presidents had been doing 1942. Camp David is the official retreat for presidents, about 100 km. outside D.C. After Ford, Jimmy Carter became president, and he was even less inclined to be attracted to the extravagant Mar-a-Lago. The estate became a burden to the government, and the fund the Marjorie had left its upkeep wasn’t keeping up with its taxes and maintenance. Before he left office, Carter gave the estate to the Post Foundation. In 1981, it was put for sale for $20 million by the foundation. It was considered a white elephant until 1985, when Donald Trump came and unknowingly began to fulfill Marjorie’s dream.
Trump had been wintering in Palm Beach since the early 1980s, and liked the golf courses and the beaches enough that he had put a security deposit two penthouses in The Breakers, an historical hotel that had been in operation 1896. He wanted to put the two Breakers’ apartments together for his family, but the hotel wouldn’t allow him to do it. Actually, Palm Beach society did not want Donald Trump to own anything there. It is said that Trump was angry because he was not invited to join any the exclusive Palm Beach clubs, but he denies that.
According to Trump’s book, The Art of the Comeback, while his way to a Palm Beach party, Trump asked his driver what was for sale Palm Beach. The driver told him that the best thing on the market was Mar-a-Lago. Trump, ever impulsive, took a detour the way to his dinner party, and went to see Mar-a-Lago. An estate manager gave him a tour, and he fell in love with the 128-room mansion with frescoes of Florence, Venetian arches and a castle tower. It even had a 9-hole golf course.
Trump made an offer $25 million for the house, the 17 acres and all its furnishings and antiques. The Post foundation refused his offer. But Donald Trump is a scrappy guy and usually gets what he wants. There was beachfront property front of Mar-a-Lago for sale, a property that had previously belonged to Mar-a-Lago but had been sold to help cover expenses. a third party, Trump bought it. Then he threatened to build something really big and ugly it. According to his book, that was going to be his first wall. Because he owned the beachfront and because of his threat, Mar-a-Lago’s value deprecated lightening speed. Near the end of 1985, Trump was able to buy the mansion, the adjoining 17-acre property and all the furnishings for $8 million. The brash person that the traditional Palm Beach families were trying to ignore suddenly owned the most impressive home the town.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said that voters should consider the aggressive manner in which he acquired the Mar-a-Lago property proof that he could be a strong commander-in-chief. He even went so far as to say that he dealt with the difficulty of acquiring the property and the building permits a way that the United States should be negotiating with Iran, China, India and Japan.
Trump did some renovating, such as adding the Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom that has walls inlaid with $7 million worth of gold leaf. He also installed four gold-plated sinks in the Ladies’ Room, a cost of $25,000 each. Trump used Mar-a-Lago for a winter home quite a few years, and the old, moneyed families in Palm Beach did their best to avoid him. But being accepted socially suddenly became a secondary problem. His businesses took a downturn and Trump was facing bankruptcy. As a matter of fact, he was billions in debt, and his wife Ivana chose that time to sue him divorce, asking for a settlement of another $2 billion. He decided to turn Mar-a-Lago a sub-division of mansions, partly to please the bankers he owed. The idea of a subdivision of mini-mansions absolutely horrified the Palm Beach residents, as old money believes that you either have a large secluded mansion or you don’t – there is no in-between.
But building what he wanted wasn’t to be so easy, with or without money. He needed a permit the town council. They held meetings for a full year before they voted. And when they finally voted, the town council voted his sub-divisions unanimously. Trump was furious and immediately announced that he was going to sue the town of Palm Beach for $100 million. Trump exaggerated his threat and it ended up that he sued the town for a mere $50 million.
The Palm Beach city council met again, perhaps of fear because Trump made another threat: this time he said he was going public with the fact that Palm Beach’s private clubs did not admit Jews or Afro-Americans. During this time of contention, Trump came up with the idea to make his new property a private club. The council held a revote, and his renovation was approved 4 – 1. Trump eventually instructed his lawyers to settle his $50 million lawsuit against the town of Palm Beach and it was never brought to trial and we ordinary folks never found how much he profited. Then he got busy selling memberships to his newly invented Mar-a-Lago Club.
The club opened in 1995 and began to make money two different levels. As a private club, it charged $200,000 as a non-refundable initial fee to become a member. That fee was halved in 2012 after the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, which affected many affluent Palm Beach residents. There is also $14,000 annual fee, and an additional $2000 to be spent food annually. One of the things on the menu, by the way, is meatloaf that is supposedly Trump’s mother’s recipe. When Trump took office president in January 2017, the fee was upped to $200,000 again. There are about 450 members, and they pay for dining and shows and about $1000 a night to sleep in a suite or a cottage. There is also a venue for weddings and balls and banquets that can be used a fee. The club accepts between 20 – 40 new members a year. According to Trump’s financial disclosures, Mar-a-Lago generates $29.7 million a year in revenue. It is estimated to be worth $300 million nowadays.
Human beings populate Palm Beach, and they are a diverse and unpredictable species. Now that Trump is president, some residents have become more friendly and enjoy being invited to Mar-a-Lago, but many others still dislike him and everything he stands for. The town continues to enforce restrictions his club, and he continues to sue the town. He has sued the town because they denied his request to lift restrictions about media photography. He has sued the town because he claimed the town’s requirement that half of all club’s members must be town residents was unconstitutional. He has sued the town because he claimed that the mayor and president of the city council have financial interests competing clubs. He has sued the town because of airport noise, calling the air traffic over Mar-a-Lago “deliberate and malicious”. He got the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to change some flight patterns, but as part of the settlement Trump had to lease 215 acres the county, on which he built the 18-hole Trump International Golf Course. He has sued the town to try to prevent it from putting a second airport runway. He has sued the town because of racial and ethnic discrimination. After winning the presidency, there was a no-fly zone imposed his estate, so he doesn’t have to worry about noise anymore. Mar-a-Lago was also exempted the town ordinance that prohibited helicopters from landing on residential properties while he is president, another win for Trump. At the time of this writing, Trump was considering three club members for ambassadorships.
President Trump has been criticized for spending so much time at Mar-a-Lago taking office. The estimated cost to the federal government for each weekend there is over $3 million. Palm Beach city hall claims they have to spend $60,000 in police overtime for every day he is there. The residents are angry because they can no longer do any recreational boating when he is in town. The Secret Service has to figure out his security and that of his 4 grown children while he is hobnobbing the Mar-a-Lago restaurant or playing golf off the estate grounds on his golf course. The Coast Guard needs to be deployed keep watch in the ocean off shore when he is in residence. The Palm Beach International Airport closes down when he comes town. And meanwhile, the New York City police say they are spending $500,000 a day to protect the president’s wife and son in Trump Tower.
However, Trump’s ascension to the presidency and the visits he makes to Mar-a-Lago are fulfilling Marjorie Merriweather Post’s dream of a “Winter White House,” may she rest in peace.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.