Two weeks ago, I returned to visit The Mar-a-Lago Club for a second time. It was almost exactly 30 years later. A lot had changed. For example, I was now 82 and Donald Trump 75. Also, for example, Donald Trump had gone on to become the president of the United States. And I had not.
Among the things that had not changed was that Donald Trump was not at Mar-a-Lago either time I was. On the first occasion, his secretary Norma Foerderer called to tell me Trump’s private plane that had been scheduled to pick me up in East Hampton would unfortunately be unable to do so, so I’d have to get there on my own. It would be for the weekend, for my wife and me. He’d wanted me to see what he was doing.
This time, however, I doubt he even knew I’d be at Mar-a-Lago. I came as a guest of a member. It’s now a private club. And while my wife went off golfing, I went there for an afternoon snack and drinks.
I did find much had changed at Mar-a-Lago since I was there 30 years ago. And all of it was for the better.
At my first visit, I was not impressed. This estate, built in 1927 by the wealthy heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, was very rundown. And Trump had not told me his restoration of the project as a club was still in the planning stage. So, I took it for what it was, a magnificent 100,000-square-foot, 58-bedroom 33-bathroom estate built in the Spanish Renaissance style, now quite shabby but sporting exciting plans for the future. The Town of Palm Beach had considered Trump an interloper. And they were giving him a hard time. But he was getting through. The alternative, Mr. Trump’s staff told me, were plans by others to tear the place down. And the Town certainly did not want that. They’d be coming around.
The massive front gates, in the Moorish style, were now in this present visit as stunning as can be imagined: 12 feet high and finished in gold leaf where appropriate. Last time, they had been a dirty brown color. When Mrs. Post died in 1973, she left her magnificent palace to the federal government, who painted everything bureaucratic brown, covering the great handiwork of Italian artisans whom Post had brought in to build the ornamentation of this project back in the 1920s.
Well, here it was 2022 and the gates and everything else such as the porte cochere over the driveway and the main building with the 75-foot-tall tower were now as stunning as any royal palace built anywhere.
On a side table in the main living room beyond the royal entrance to Mar-a-Lago, amid the oriental carpets, marble floors and 16th century Flemish tapestries, a 3-foot-tall magnificent golden statue that takes your breath away sits on a side table under a framed photo of Donald Trump. The bottom half of the statue is a stunning reproduction of the Declaration of Independence partially unfolded, and the top half is a bald eagle in flight with its talons out just about to land atop it. It might have been sculpted during the time Trump was in the White House. Now here it was at Mar-a-Lago.
A few members of this club were about, and amid the whispered library silence that seems to pervade this place, they eyed us suspiciously. No, we didn’t expect to be here all afternoon. And signs said “No Photography, Please.”
Staff led us out to an outdoor porch to settle ourselves on a series of sofas that look out westward across the broad lawn that leads out to the Intracoastal Waterway and a view of the mainland beyond. A waitress took our order: champagne and popcorn. We were myself, Dr. Derek Enlander and his wife Adele, art dealer Dr. Ted Vassilev and Victoria Schneps, the new owner of Dan’s Papers who to my delight as founder of the paper recently added Dan’s Papers Palm Beach to its extensive chain of publications. Occasionally, huge commercial aircraft thundered low overhead. Mar-a-Lago sits just under the nearby West Palm Beach Airport flight path.
Mar-a-Lago in Italian means “from sea to lake” and is perhaps one of only a few mansions in Palm Beach that has 18 acres of grounds that extend from ocean to inland waterway. I commented that when I was at Mar-a-Lago 30 years ago, the front lawn of the estate, which looks out onto the ocean, featured a tunnel through which bathers could walk to pass under State Route A1A, which runs along the ocean between Mar-a-Lago and the sea. I wondered if it were still there. Told that it was, I was also told that Trump had enlarged a small oceanfront building on that beach in the same architectural style as the rest of the property.
He’d also built new matching Renaissance-style buildings on either side of the main mansion, visible as you walked across the rear lawn to the club’s swimming pools by the Waterway. Soon, we toured some of the buildings. They included a large Plaza Hotel-size Louis XIV banquet hall and ballroom on our left and a spa building on our right. There were also numerous tennis courts on the property.
Leaving as we had come in, I noticed in the entry hall as we waited for servants to bring our cars a framed photo of Donald Trump, together with framed letters from several Palm Beach historic preservation organizations profusely thanking Trump for all he had done to keep Mar-a-Lago from the wrecking ball and then restore it to its former grandeur.
Driving down the driveway, we came up toward the entry gates to find a black limousine blocking our way through. The driver of it, a security officer with an earpiece, backed his car over to one side so we could leave, after which he drove back to where he was blocking others who might try to drive through the gates to the main house uninvited.
An interesting tidbit: One of Mrs. Post’s three children was Academy Award-winning actress Dina Merrill – a longtime resident of East Hampton. My hometown.