Mar-a-Lago was legendary, and sometimes controversial, long before Donald Trump bought it in 1985.
Les Standiford tells the fascinating story of how the mansion-turned-club, and the unusual community that surrounds it, came to be in his latest book, Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu. It has been little more than a century since the 18-mile-long barrier island of Palm Beach went from sparsely inhabited palmetto scrub to one of the most famous wealthy enclaves in the country, and a lot of bad behavior happened along the way.
Standiford has written a number of nonfiction books about Florida, including Last Train to Paradise, about Henry Flagler’s ill-fated railroad through the Keys. The Man Who Invented Christmas, his book about Charles Dickens, became a 2017 movie. Also a novelist, Standiford is the founding director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami and director of the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
In this book, before he gets to Mar-a-Lago, he recounts the origin of Palm Beach, which was, like a number of other Florida cities, brought into being by railroad magnate and developer Henry Flagler, a co-founder of Standard Oil who turned his attention later in life to building hotels and resorts in Florida, plus railroads to bring in the customers.
Flagler was particularly fond of Palm Beach and in 1902 built one of its first grand residences, a 75-room Beaux Arts-style mansion called Whitehall, as a wedding gift for his second wife. Standiford weaves together dishy tales of Flagler’s personal life with the history of the house. He uses a similar technique with several other significant figures in Palm Beach society, including Addison Mizner, the colorful character who concocted Palm Beach’s signature Mediterranean Revival style and became perhaps the most influential architect in Florida history.
The most significant figure, of course, was Marjorie Merriweather Post. Fabulously wealthy thanks to inheriting the Postum Cereal Company (now known as General Foods) from her adoring father, Post came to Palm Beach with her comparably wealthy second husband, the dashing E.F. “Ned” Hutton, a founder of the brokerage firm that bears his name. What appealed at the time was how remote Palm Beach was from their usual haunts, like her Upper East Side triplex penthouse in Manhattan, with 54 rooms, wrap-around terraces and a dining room that seated 125.
Post wanted a getaway, but she still loved to entertain. She commissioned architect Marion Sims Wyeth to build Mar-a-Lago, but found his design too tame and brought in a Viennese theatrical designer, Joseph Urban, to punch it up. It became the city’s landmark building, and Post lived there (in season, of course) through several more occasionally scandalous marriages and divorces, until her death in 1973 at age 85.
As Post wished, her three daughters sought to make Mar-a-Lago a public property. At one point, it was offered to the state of Florida, then eventually turned over to the National Park Service. But there were so many restrictions on how it could be used, and so many objections from Palm Beach residents about bringing in tourists, that it ended up back in the estate.
After the mansion languished largely unused for 12 years, Trump bought it in 1985 in a deal that is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Within a couple of years he was battling with tax appraisers, claiming the property was worth only $7 million, at the same time he was acquiring a $12 million second mortgage on it from a Boston bank. Now it’s a private club, with an entry fee of $200,000. Each time Trump visits it, Standiford notes, security costs to taxpayers run about $3 million.
Who knows whether Mar-a-Lago will meet the same fate as the Xanadu the author compares it to in his title. But it’s above water for now, and Standiford does a fine job of telling its story so far.
Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu
By Les Standiford
Atlantic Monthly Press
319 pages, $27
Times Festival of Reading
Les Standiford will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 10 a.m. in the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute Auditorium. Free. festivalofreading.com.