Inside Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Palm Beach castle, and his 30-year fight to win over the locals

This is the view of Mar-a-Lago from the beach club built by Donald Trump. [Mary Jordan | Washington Post]
This is the view of Mar-a-Lago from the beach club built by Donald Trump. [Mary Jordan | Washington Post]
Published Nov. 16, 2015

PALM BEACH — The patriarchs of this quiet island of millionaires threw up roadblocks when Donald Trump swooped in and turned its historic oceanfront Mar-a-Lago mansion into a private club.

The town council, seeing Trump as an ostentatious outsider, handed him a list of restrictions as he sought to transform the property in the 1990s. Membership, traffic, party attendance, even photography — all would be strictly limited.

But Trump undercut his adversaries with a searing attack, claiming that local officials seemed to accept the established private clubs in town that had excluded Jews and blacks while imposing tough rules on his inclusive one.

Trump's lawyer sent every member of the town council copies of two classic movies about discrimination: A Gentleman's Agreement, about a journalist who pretends to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner about a white couple's reaction to their daughter bringing home a black fiance.

The move infuriated council members, who said it was a distraction from their concerns that Trump's club would spoil a quiet street. But, in time, Trump got most of the restrictions lifted.

"He won in the court of public opinion," said Jack McDonald, who was a council member at the time and who went on to be mayor and to join Mar-a-Lago.

Trump's relationship with Palm Beach, where he has spent three decades brawling with local officials and winning over many, was an early indicator of the personality traits and tactics that have helped propel him to the top of Republican presidential primary polls.

In buying and then winning the right to transform the landmark property, Trump demonstrated how he gains leverage by exposing and exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents, combining bombast with a willingness to compromise, and casting every outcome as a resounding Trump victory.

The story of Trump's ownership with Mar-a-Lago is also a reminder of the real estate mogul's tabloid past — a time, long before he began courting conservative voters, when he reveled in extravagant parties, beautiful women and celebrity friendships.

Many in Palm Beach today recoil at his look-at-me ego and are appalled at his frequent displays of unfiltered Trump, like emblazoning his name on a coat of arms on Mar-a-Lago's elegant facade.

"It's all about the Trumpster," said Laurel Baker, executive director of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce. "I would venture to think that old Palm Beach doesn't . . . consider him one of their own."

But, just as Trump has forced many in the national Republican establishment to accept him as an enduring presence in this year's presidential campaign, Trump and his club have become undeniable cornerstones of Palm Beach society.

"Whether they love me or not, everyone agrees the greatest and most important place in Palm Beach is Mar-a-Lago," Trump boasted in a recent interview. "I took this ultimate place and made it incredible and opened it, essentially, to the people of Palm Beach. The fact that I owned it made it a lot easier to get along with the Palm Beach establishment."

Trump, who points on the campaign trail to his lack of political experience as a plus, said voters should consider his record with Mar-a-Lago as evidence that he could be a strong commander-in-chief. His Palm Beach dealings, he said, offer a lesson on how the United States, "should be negotiating with Iran, with China, with India and with Japan and everybody else."

• • •

The property today, encompassing more than 17 acres on this narrow, 16-mile-long island, operates in two money-making ways. It is a private club, open to members who pay a $100,000 initiation fee plus annual dues of $14,000, and a venue that can be rented for weddings and events. Trump brags that Mar-a-Lago hosts superior events to another iconic Palm Beach property, the century-old Breakers Hotel, which he said "gets the leftovers."

Last year, Trump made $15.6 million from Mar-a-Lago, according to financial disclosures Trump filed as part of his presidential campaign.

Trump closes off part of the main house for his private quarters. The name of Trump's late mother, Mary Trump, who grew up in a modest house in Scotland, appears over the door to the room where she often stayed. Another room is dominated by an elaborate canopied bed where Trump's daughters Ivanka and Tiffany slept as children.

Many of Trump's rivals in the presidential race have been to Mar-a-Lago for functions, including Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Ben Carson. So have many Republican commentators, including Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton came, too, attending Trump's wedding to Melania Knauss 10 years ago.

Since 2013, the Palm Beach County Republican Committee has held its annual Lincoln Day fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. Michael Barnett, committee chairman, remembers seeing Cruz last year deep in conversation with Trump and wonders if one of the reasons they are so friendly on the campaign trail is because of a bond forged at Mar-a-Lago.

Until he hit the presidential campaign trail, Trump spent many weekends at Mar-a-Lago, hopping table to table asking diners if they tried his mother's meatloaf on the menu or enjoyed his ocean view. Trump, whose brother died of alcoholism, does not drink. Friends say his relaxation comes from golf and presiding over Mar-a-Lago, chatting with guests.

He lets Palm Beachers come to him, rarely venturing out to shops and restaurants in town.

"I do get along with people," Trump said. "You have everybody there. You have people from the Middle East. You have Jewish people. I mean, you have Jewish people having dinner with people from the Middle East. You have Christians. You have old-line WASPs."

• • •

Mar-a-Lago was opened in 1927 as a private estate by one of the richest women in the world, Marjorie Merriweather Post.

She donated her 128-room home to the U.S. government in 1973 for use as the winter White House. But under President Jimmy Carter, the government turned the property over to the private Post Foundation, saying it was too expensive to maintain.

Trump wanted it to be his.

So, according to Trump, when his first offer of $28 million was turned down, 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 its ocean view, he recalled in the interview.

"That was my first wall," he said. "That drove everybody nuts. They couldn't sell the big house because I owned the beach, so the price kept going down and down."

In the end, Trump bought the landmark in 1985 for a bargain, paying $5 million for the house and $3 million for Post's antiques and lavish furnishings.

From the start, Trump's approach stood out in Palm Beach, a small town whose cloistered estates and private beaches appealed to the super rich seeking to live quietly.

Along with old-money families with homes here since the Gilded Age, there are billionaires with more money than Trump who drive their Bentleys into estates hidden behind high hedges.

Trump had Mar-a-Lago's hedge on South Ocean Drive chopped down to ensure passersby could see his castle.

He has invited high-profile guests such as Michael Jackson to stay overnight, drawing paparazzi. He was chided in local papers for floating the rumor that Princess Diana, Madonna and other big names were joining his club, a promoter's tactic to build buzz.

Over time, he added a Louis XIV-style ballroom with 40-foot ceilings and $7 million worth of gold leaf on its walls. He spent $100,000 on four gold-plated bathroom sinks near the ballroom.

"It's become part of the fabric of the social life of Palm Beach," said Jane Day, who as the town's historic preservation consultant at times clashed with Trump. But like many, she credited Trump with saving the historic home and managing it in a way that has allowed many people to enjoy it.

The property employs scores of waiters, landscapers, cooks and other staff, including foreign workers brought in using special visas. Trump's reliance on immigrant labor has received attention in recent months as he has made illegal immigration a signature issue on the campaign trail.

• • •

Trump made Mar-a-Lago appealing even to his biggest skeptics. He brought in headliners including Elton John, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Luciano Pavaratti and Jay Leno, who performed at charity balls and events open to anyone who could afford a ticket.

By opening access, Trump sought to dull opposition to him.

Trump urged officials to become members, including those he was feuding with.

For a time, McDonald, the former mayor, was even doubles partners at the club with Marla Maples, Trump's second wife.

Trump invited the historic preservation society arguing with him over alterations to the landmark to hold its annual luncheon there. And the town police, summoned if a party grew too noisy, now hold their annual benefit there. Police records show officers often have stopped at the mansion for coffee and meal breaks.

Allen Wyett, a frequent Trump critic, recalled that the morning after Wyett's election to the town council in 1995, he received a phone call from Trump, who wanted to personally invite him to a show at Mar-a-Lago. Wyett declined and never joined Mar-a-Lago. But he said the invitations continued to concerts, to comedy shows.

Wyett, who is Jewish, said he would hear Trump talk with pride about Mar-a-Lago's nondiscriminatory policy, but wondered if it was a business strategy: "Was he smart enough to realize that Palm Beach is about 40 percent Jewish and he was not going to attract the old guard anyway?"

• • •

Mar-a-Lago became a party destination in the late 1990s, particularly after Trump split from Maples and before he married Knauss. Rich men mingled with the models and beauty pageant contestants who always seemed to be floating around his tiled patio.

"It was 3-to-2, beautiful women-to-men," recalled Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump.

"That's true," Trump, laughed, stressing he was single at the time. "The point was to have fun. It was wild."

In 1998, Trump invited Sean Combs, the rapper then known as Puff Daddy. But Combs scandalized Palm Beach when he was caught on a beach in the "middle of his midnight romp with a long-legged stunner," according to the Page Six account in the New York Post.

Even as Mar-a-Lago became more established, Trump's battles with local officials never really ended.

Wyett and other council members said the town's fights with Trump typically boiled down to Palm Beach trying to apply rules designed to protect a residential neighborhood. In their view, Trump doesn't believe rules apply to him. But they said his unconventional tactics have often worked.

"He can be outrageous." said Wyett. "He can be as gentle as a kid. He can be gracious. He can be as vindictive as anyone you've ever met. He's everything wrapped into one package with a ribbon on it."

• • •

Palm Beach has a lot of rules: No whistling allowed on public streets after midnight. No "Missing Dog" — or any sign — posted on a tree. And no flag poles taller than 42 feet.

In late 2006 Trump put up a giant American flag on an 80-foot pole. That led to a $1,250-a-day fine against him, drawing national headlines that Trump basked in.

"Tonight, Donald Trump does legal battle again, this time with a bunch of millionaires down in Palm Beach, Florida, who told Trump he's flying his flag too high," is how Nancy Grace started her CNN interview in January 2007 with Trump. "Can you fly the American flag too high?" she asked.

Trump got fan mail as he said in a blizzard of interviews: "No American should have to get a permit to fly the flag."

"I said, 'This is a dream to have someone sue me to take down the American flag,' " Trump said in the interview.

Trump sued Palm Beach for $25 million in damages, arguing the flag was constitutionally protected free speech.

Ultimately, Trump reached a settlement with the town. He would put a slightly smaller flag farther from the road and mount it on a 70-foot pole.

Instead of paying any fines, Trump made a $100,000 donation to a veterans charity.

When he was mayor, McDonald, a military veteran, said he "got heartburn" as Trump used a little town regulation to shower himself with "$100 million in free publicity."

While gracious to many neighbors, Trump has mocked others.

He famously called actress Dina Merrill, the daughter of Mar-a-Lago founder Marjorie Merriweather Post, "arrogant and aloof." In his book The Art of the Comeback, he said she was working against his plans for the estate and that she had been "born with her mother's beauty but not her brains." He called a civic leader who opposed his efforts a "loser."

He has filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits as casually as others file their nails. It's a Trump strategy, critics say, to wear people out and get what he wants.

Trump has filed three lawsuits over perhaps his biggest irritation: the planes that fly over Mar-a-Lago, which sits just a couple miles from the West Palm Beach airport's main runway.

A judge is now weighing a $100 million lawsuit Trump filed in January, arguing that airport director Bruce Pelly — who Trump has called "a moron" — has engaged in a "deliberate and malicious" effort to direct the planes over his home.

Pelly and a county attorney declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. In court, the county has argued that the Federal Aviation Administration traffic controllers determine airplane flight paths, not Pelly.

The suit, they argued in court, appeared designed to "create press buzz for Trump's announced presidential campaign, cocktail party braggadocio and negotiating leverage."

In his first lawsuit involving the airport, Trump won no money and the planes continued to fly over Mar-a-Lago. But Palm Beach County agreed to try to limit noise and said it would lease a 215-acre parcel of airport-owned land to Trump. That land is now the Trump International Golf Course West Palm, where, according to federal filings, Trump made $12.7 million last year.

"There was a lot of strategy in it. You have to admire him for it," McDonald said.

People in town now speculate Trump might have finally found a way to clear the sky above.

If elected president and the house becomes the winter White House as the original owner intended, the Secret Service could order a no-fly zone.