Donald Trump and The Contentious Creation of Mar-a-Lago

Like everything the Donald does, the conversion of the historic Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach into a private club in 1995 was thick with controversy, with Trump himself often playing the bad guy. In the first few years, there was scheming, sex, and decadence, the perfect storm for a great story about the 1 percent. The latest issue of Vanity Fair features an essay by Laurence Leamer, author of Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Trump’s Presidential Palace. Here are the juiciest tidbits from the story:

  • The original idea for Mar-A-Lago was to create an unrestricted club in a town where most of the major private clubs–like the storied Everglades Club–were restricted from admitting jews and blacks, thereby tapping into an underserved market. The club opened in 1995.
  • In the early years of Mar-A-Lago, everything was over-the-top as Trump tried to curry favor with Palm Beach residents. The grand opening party had a 1920s theme meant to evoke the estate’s historic roots. Both cabaret singer Karen Akers and the legendary Tony Bennett performed. “Those early years, it was Camelot on steroids,” says one charter member. “It was Richie Rich playing with all his toys. Donald was under the gun to make everything first class, and that’s what he did. We’d say, ‘Holy cow, look who Donald has coming!’ For $120 you had a fabulous buffet dinner and a show with a 50-piece orchestra and a world-class performer like James Brown or the Temptations. Many of the performers stayed around and you could talk to them just like anybody. I had lunch with Tony Bennett once and played tennis with Regis Philbin.”
Photo via Mar-a-Lago
  • Trump was always a cheater. “In championships, he’s a chronic cheater,” says one of his caddies. “He gave me a ball and said, ‘Keep it. If we don’t find my ball, drop this one. It’s marked the same way.’ ”
  • Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, hated the lack of privacy that came with being his wife, and hated having to be on display when they came to Mar-A-Lago for weekends. She wanted a real family life, while he wanted a wife with a guileless innocence who would also be the decked out woman on his arm. She would often seek privacy in the family quarters of Mar-A-Lago with their daughter, Tiffany. “Putting on gowns and going out hosting events and having Harry Winston put jewelry on my hands was always uncomfortable for me—that was me playing a role,” Maples told People in 2016. “I felt that’s what the job called for.”
  • In April 1996, Marla was caught by the police having sex with Trump’s body guard under a lifeguard stand in Delray.
Photo via Mar-a-Lago
  • Trump would have been more comfortable with himself being caught canoodling under a lifeguard stand than with his wife, even moreso because she was caught with an employee. When the editor of the National Enquirer came to him with the story, he pretended Marla just had to pee to save face, even though he himself was frolicking with models in his jet. “No, no, that’s not the way it was,” Trump said, like he was there. “Goddamn it, I’m going to sue you guys for fucking lying about this. I’ll have your ass ten times over.”
  • Trump tried to hush up the bodyguard, 35-year-old Spencer Wagner. First he put Wagner up in a house he owned by Mar-A-Lago for the first few days while the whole imbroglio was unfurling. Then Wagner disappeared, selling his story to the Globe a few months later. Trump sued Wagner for violating a confidentiality agreement. Wagner’s life spiraled out of control and in 2012 he overdosed in an apparent suicide.
Photo via Mar-a-Lago
  • Trump railed against rules placed on his club by the Town of Palm Beach because it was in a residential area. He felt it was  “discriminatory, unfair and unconstitutional” that his competition didn’t have to deal with such rules. He also sought to permanently stain his enemies, which were both the Town Council and the restricted clubs in Palm Beach, with charges that would stick.
  • Trump accused the Palm Beach Town Council of anti-semitism because his club membership wasn’t restricted. Trump got so vehement about it that the council couldn’t relent. Against his lawyers advice, Trump attempted to mailed town-council members, community leaders, and local journalists tapes of Gentleman’s Agreement, a classic movie about overcoming antisemitism. Eventually, the town relented on only three of the eleven restrictions placed on Mar-A-Lago.
Photo via Mar-a-Lago


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