American Xanadu: an appreciative history of Mar-a-Lago
Les Standiford’s book situates Mar-a-Lago’s surreal qualities in the larger history of Palm Beach
I live on the same street as the President of the United States. I do not mean Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, though my place in the US capital is but a short walk from the White House. Nor do I mean Fifth Avenue in New York, where I hang my hat less than a block from Manhattan’s best-known artery. The street Donald Trump and I share is, in fact, South Ocean Boulevard, which is what the meandering two-lane Florida “state highway” generally known as “A1A” is called when it skirts the coast of Palm Beach. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump officially became a fellow resident of our storied island town in the Sunshine State, which is now almost as well known for its lack of a state income tax as it is for its gorgeous weather, marvelous beaches, and that bizarre theme park somewhere north of us.
The presidential abode that preens only a few minutes away from where I write these words is the celebrated Mar-a-Lago. The sprawling estate, which as its Spanish name suggests stretches from the sea to the “lake” that forms our local part of the Intracoastal Waterway, surrounds a 126-room mash of architectural styles built in the 1920s by the immensely rich heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her almost as rich second husband E. F. Hutton. Trump, only its second personal owner, acquired it, along with its contents, beach, and butler, at a steal, if not exactly for a song, in 1985. Facing financial difficulties in the early 1990s recession, he famously turned it into the Island’s newest private club.
Trump’s attempt to turn Mar-a-Lago into a private club ruffled old guard Palm Beach feathers
As Les Standiford chronicles in the final chapters of his recently published Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu, Trump’s tenure has not been without its share of controversies. His acquisition of Mar-a-Lago alone arose from a complicated web of intrigue. By the time Marjorie Post died in 1973, rising taxes, upkeep, and labour costs made such vast residences too impractical even for America’s very rich to inhabit. Rather than turn it into a museum, which saved town founder Henry M. Flagler’s elegant beaux arts Whitehall residence in 1960, or countenance its demolition, the fate of Edward T. Stotesbury’s cavernous El Mirasol a year earlier, she bequeathed it to the US government for use as a holiday residence for the president and visiting foreign leaders.
The operating expense gave some pause even to the government, however, which only agreed to accept the gift if it came with an endowment fund to provide an annual income for its care. The Post estate duly added a $3 million gift to generate those funds, but it proved insufficient to meet costs. After only seven years, during which the house was never opened or used for any official purpose, an act of Congress returned it to the Post Foundation, which promptly advertised it for sale. After several larger offers fell through, Trump eventually took it off the foundation’s hands for a reported $7 million, though the precise amount and the nature of the financing is still the subject of conjecture. In 2018 Forbes estimated its value at $160 million.
Much of the gossip since is familiar. Trump’s financial woes and attempt to turn Mar-a-Lago into a private club ruffled old guard Palm Beach feathers and led to legal disputes with the local government over its tax assessment, subdivision rights, how the property could be used, the height of its flagpole, the air routes over it, a public sex scandal, and other dilemmas that might have induced a lesser man to give in or give up. But the future president saw magic in the place from the beginning and generally got his way with only minor compromises (the flagpole, for example, was lowered by ten feet as part of a settlement in a lawsuit in which Trump alleged his right of free expression had been violated). In the meantime, he managed to hold onto it through two divorces and give it new prominence as the “Southern” or “Winter” White House.
The estate is a natural focal point for demonstrations for local ‘Trumptillas’
Standiford does not consider the obvious political drama, but the town residents have come around. Once derided for the newness of his fortune and the glitzy celebrity culture he introduced to the Island’s old money atmosphere, Trump commanded its presidential vote by a towering 40 points in 2016, even as surrounding Palm Beach County stayed solidly blue, voting two-to-one for Hillary Clinton. A restricted flight zone in a wide radius around the property and an unsightly roadblock in front of it when the president is in residence do not seem to have cost him many local votes. Even the fiercest defenders of the way things were thirty, fifty, or ninety years ago are no longer above accepting invitations to member events or to the glittering galas, though some of the latter, including the historic International Red Cross Ball, have recently gone elsewhere out of concerns over political divisiveness. Trump’s detractors cannot deny that he meticulously restored and beautifully maintained the house’s historic character and accoutrements, even if, as revealed in 2017, it won him a large tax deduction in the form of a “conservation easement.”
The estate is also a natural focal point for demonstrations. Local “Trumptillas,” occasional boat parades of presidential enthusiasts, sail down the Intracoastal and assemble before Mar-a-Lago to the cheers of crowds watching from the shore and the Southern Avenue bridge. In early June a would-be Black Lives Matter protest march on the estate originating in downscale West Palm Beach (originally founded to house the working class who serviced the Island’s residents) was halted before it could cross over by dozens of police officers and county sheriff’s deputies. On two occasions in 2019, Chinese nationals were arrested for trespassing on the estate’s grounds amid espionage fears. Driving by, as I do almost daily, one can find oneself behind a Bentley that slows down to behold it in admiration or a Toyota whose driver salutes it with a middle finger. In every sense, it is, as its club website declares, “the Pinnacle of Palm Beach.”
Trump’s rocky road to local acceptance cannot mask the house’s longer chequered history
Trump’s rocky road to local acceptance cannot mask the house’s longer chequered history, which Standiford relates in great detail. Entrusted to the modernist artist and theatre designer Joseph Urban, Post and Hutton’s original construction finished more than eight times over budget and was hardly well received in a town where architectural styles were eclectic but at least on an individual basis consistent. Harry Thaw, the American millionaire who murdered the celebrity architect Stanford White and walked after successfully pleading temporary insanity, reportedly declared upon beholding Mar-a-Lago, “My God, I shot the wrong architect.” Sealed records hide the full story of the Hutton-Post marriage’s unraveling in 1935, but rumor holds that Hutton’s infidelities got inside the walls. Post’s lavish dinners around an enormous table from Rome’s Palazzo Chigi (the original went to another Post home, now the Hillwood Museum in Washington) offered a liveried footman for each of her thirty-five guests – an effort that only occupied half of her full roster of servants at the house’s height – before invariably ending in a square dance. Two more husbands came and went, the first due to what Post called “a funny lack of basic straight thinking,” and the next amid rumors that he was not very sure of his sexuality.
Standiford’s book situates Mar-a-Lago’s surreal qualities in the larger history of Palm Beach, a “retreat for the ultrafortunate” that still jealously guards its heritage as a deliberately planned resort community delightfully hovers far outside anything resembling normal reality. We can only wonder how that legacy will evolve once Trump leaves office, whenever that may be, but we can be sure that the story will include his signature property here.
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