Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Mansion Troubles: Why He and Palm Beach are Still at Odds
The presidential candidate shook the town up when he purchased the 17-acre estate, which locals refer to as "the devil's workshop," in 1984.
Palm Beach, Fla., has long served as the stomping ground for the rich and famous. The names of current and former residents read like a guest list to a private Forbes event. The Kennedys and John Lennon once owned homes here, and current denizens include millionaires like Tony Robbins, Rod Stewart and General Motors CEO Mary Barra. One can buy a yacht in the center of town, parking lots are full of Bentleys and Porches, and even the local Publix offers valet parking. Palm Beach is the dream residence for one-percenters, where private, members-only country clubs are largely active for social affairs.
Opened in 1919 with 25 charter members and a 9-hole golf course, Everglades Club was the ultimate hideaway for Palm Beach's elite, so restrictive that it supposedly wouldn't accept Donald Trump, who applied to be a member. "Everglades Club had its ways, very rich and based on Palm Beach traditions," says Greg Melvin, Palm Beach resident and owner of Babalu, a boutique with three South Florida locations. "It's a private club and they can say no. They didn't like Trump and wouldn't let him in. So he set up another club as a big eff you."
In 1984, Trump bought Mar-a-Lago, a 17-acre estate originally built by Marjorie Merriweather Post, which he would later renovate to a 58-bedroom home and private social club, much to the disapproval of locals. "People in Palm Beach are so insular; they are snotty and they don't like change," says Melvin. "Trump cracked an egg. He was one of the early agitators to upset the local community, the original Palm Beach blue bloods, the Mayflower Adamses, all these people with founding families here. They didn't like him. He didn't belong."
Designer and author Steven Stolman, a resident for more than 20 years, says locals refer to Mar-a-Lago as "the devil's workshop."
"Trump is merely an annoyance with bad taste," says Stolman. "He systematically picks fights and thumbs his nose at Palm Beach. But in a town filled with entitled one-percenters, he's hardly extraordinary." In 2006, Trump notoriously erected an 80-foot flagpole on the front lawn of Mar-a-Lago without a permit (a height of 42 feet was the limit). It remained controversial as most residents were confident he did it only to invite a lawsuit and make a statement. Once he was fined, Trump publicly said: "The town council of Palm Beach should be ashamed of itself. They're fining me for putting up the American flag. This is probably a first in United States history." Trump eventually dropped the lawsuit.
Ever since, the local community has been divided between supporting and opposing Trump, especially since many have become members at Mar-a-Lago, which now primarily functions as a last-resort event space. "Mar-a-Lago, like any mythic, over-the-top estate — think San Simeon, Neverland, Greystone, Sunnylands — has always been a curiosity," says Stolman. "The Preservation Foundation used to have their annual galas there, but once Trump moved in and destroyed much of the patina, as new homeowners are wont to do, they eschewed it for the lawn of Whitehall, Henry Morrison Flagler's Beaux-Arts mansion, and never went back. But that hasn't stopped a bazillion other charities from hosting their galas there. You really have no other choice if the Breakers isn't available. You overlook the garish decor and the politics of its owner because you care more about the cause than the venue. Mar-a-Lago is the kind of place where you'd expect to find a casino. Except there isn't one."
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According to Lesley Abravanel, an entertainment columnist for The Miami Herald, the members are "Waspy, upper-crusty types — con artists, socialites scammers and wannabes." She says: "Locals saw Trump as vulgar and did not want him, so they allegedly tried to make it as hard as possible for him to turn his place into a club. He ironically ruffled the feathers of Old Palm Beach, the anti-Semitic, racist, blue blood Palm Beach. How? His peeps sent all the town councilfolk who wanted to block him copies of A Gentleman's Agreement and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Needless to say, Trump won."
But trump never won over the town of Palm Beach. He's not active in the community nor is he spotted at Mar-a-Lago often. Many still see this as a blessing. Says Stolman: "In a town with extraordinary citizens like Lesly Smith, Leonard Lauder and Pauline Pitt, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife Mila, Ambassador Edward Elson and his wife Susie, Bottega Veneta's Tomas Maier, James Patterson, Stockard Channing, Rod Stewart — Trump is an oddity but not a presence."
This story was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter on April 12, 2016.
Feature photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images