On a Tuesday morning in April, my wife and I barely spoke. Over the weekend we had stayed at what was surely the largest private residence on the East Coast of the United States, now known as the Mar-a-Lago Club. We had become relaxed, we had been very pampered and we were very used to it on Monday. We wanted to move in. But now we were back in our seedy little house in East Hampton. Never mind.
In fact, our house is not so shabby. But any house is shabby after Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Mar-a-Lago, beachfront at one end and Lake Worth half a mile at the other, was built during the Roaring Twenties by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heiress to the Postum (now Post) fortune Cereal Company, to be about the size of 30 smaller houses. Hundreds of craftsmen came from Europe to carve the decorations, statuary and ceilings. Entire walls were knocked down in European castles, transported by freighter and rebuilt on site. And towards the end, during the fourth year of construction, the cost of the project became so enormous that Mrs. Post’s husband, EF Hutton, privately called the architect to see if there was not a way to rein in Mrs. Post. She was about to bankrupt not only Post Cereal, which she controlled, but also Hutton’s successful brokerage firm. The architect said he would see what he could do.
Mar-a-Lago ultimately cost $7 million to complete in 1927, which in today’s money would be $103 million. It is built in the Spanish Revival style which was popular at the time. Among other things, Mrs. Post commissioned many gilded doors, ceilings and cornices. But there were not enough gold leaf in America to complete the job. Others had to be brought from Europe to complete it. When this was finally done, Mar-a-Lago consisted of 85 bedrooms (about half of which were for servants), 33 bathrooms, a nine-car garage, a theater and a few other amenities. You had the idea.
The way our weekend at Mar-a-Lago went was because the current owner, Donald Trump, invited us. We were standing in tuxedos at a fundraiser at the Plaza Hotel, if I remember correctly, and he turned to us and said, ‘You really should come see Mar-a-Lago some weekend. end. Call me and I’ll make it right.
Organizing it, we thought, meant finding a weekend that suited him, and then coming. I had read a lot about how he converted it into a private club. I called her secretary in Manhattan and she told me there was an opening on the weekend of April 5-6 and that would be fine. We made and paid for plane reservations, then the secretary called us back. She had to apologize, she said.
“Normally Donald’s jet flies forward and backward,” she said. “But this weekend, it has to be in Arizona. Sorry. Mr. Trump asks you to forgive him.
We said we would.
Mar-a-Lago is not a hotel. You can’t just call and ask if you can stay in one of the guesthouses. It is actually a club owned by Donald Trump. You pay an initiation fee to join the club – currently $200,000 – and are then free to use and pay for the club’s facilities. These include one of the bedrooms for the night, a stunningly beautiful spa occupying several small buildings and an interconnecting courtyard, the beach, a private swimming pool, lawn tennis courts, the dining room, the patio or the salon, which is available for catering business. There was a wedding the Sunday we were there.
All of this, of course, must have the stamp of approval from the Palm Beach authorities, and of course it does. Behind a closet door in the second-floor Spanish Room where we were accommodated – two curved balconies, a fireplace, tiled floors, inlaid and beamed ceilings, all restored as Mrs. Post had designed them – there are the official certificate from Palm Beach that the room has been inspected and is up to code and the amount charged for one night there is $1,000.
And so, for the weekend, we ate, we bathed in a hot tub, we walked, we swam, and we ate again. The cuisine is gourmet. The chandelier-heavy dining room has floor-to-ceiling murals on the walls that Ms. Post commissioned painted in Italy and brought by ship to be installed here. The scene depicts a fishing port in a peasant village along the Italian coast.
According to Anthony Senecal, the man who oversees Mr. Trump’s interests in Mar-a-Lago, Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 at a time when it was starting to go downhill seriously. Ms. Post had died in 1973 aged 86 and bequeathed the property to the federal government as a residence where they could house visiting dignitaries. The government used it for this purpose for about five years, but the bureaucrats who maintained it were totally irrelevant.
“They painted these beautiful statues at the front door, which had been carved by craftsmen and gilded by Ms. Post – a bureaucratic brown,” he said.
Maintaining Mar-a-Lago would cost the government over a million dollars a year to do it right. They did not do it. And so Mar-a-Lago began to fall back into disrepair. And so the government gave it back to the Post family – who didn’t want it either.
It seems what Trump might have had in mind when he came to save the place in 1985 — he bought it furnished that year for $10 million, which many believe was an incredibly low price — was to subdivide all the surrounding land and use the main house as a sort of pavilion for buyers. It was the classic thing you do with properties like this. That’s what they did with the Woolworth property down the street.
But when Trump took a good look at it and went over the plans, he turned to Senecal, told me Senecal, and said if he did that, everyone would have their own domain for about a million but everyone would know at a glance that there was a bigger and better estate just down the street.
Trump’s real problem was that he had fallen in love with what Ms. Post was doing.
Maybe next year, 1992, we should start an edition of Dan’s papers in Palm Beach.