Mar-A-Lago, Florida

The Mar-a-Lago Resort is best-known because of its association with a certain divisive and demagogic political figure. But the history of Mar-a-Lago extends for almost a century before that.

Mar-A-Lago in 1967 photo from US Library of Congress

In 1891, CW Post was a patient at a health spa in Battle Creek MI that was run by Dr John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg had some rather odd ideas about medicine, one of which was a diet that was high in bran, and he served his patients a breakfast cereal he called “corn flakes”.

Post didn’t think much of Kellogg’s medical ideas, but he did like the cereal, and after four years at the spa he left and formed his own company, the Postum Cereal Company, to compete with Kellogg’s corn flakes. Post called his wheat and barley blend “Grape Nuts”, and his own corn flake cereal was sold as “Post Toasties”. Within ten years, the Postum Company had grown to one of the largest food producers in the US.

When Post died in 1914 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, ownership of the company passed to his daughter, 27-year old Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was already working as a company manager. Along with her second husband, New York stockbroker Edward Hutton, Marjorie also proved to be a shrewd businessperson, and through a series of judicious mergers and acquisitions (including popular brands like Maxwell House, Jell-O, and Hellmann’s), the Postum Cereal Company grew to become General Foods, one of the largest and richest corporations in the country.

Even as a young heiress, Marjorie was already a high-society fixture who threw legendary soirees and balls at her various homes in New York and Washington DC. Now, as one of the wealthiest women in the world, she could afford to indulge her every whim.

And so when the Flagler railroads opened up sunny Florida for wealthy northeasterners, she jumped at the opportunity. Her first Florida winter home was, she was later said to have declared, “too small for parties”. So she went bigger. Selecting a 20-acre waterfront property in Palm Beach, on a barrier island off Florida’s Atlantic coast, she named it “Mar-a-Lago” (“sea to lake”), reflecting the fact that it stretched from the beach to the shore of nearby Lake Worth Lagoon, part of the Intercoastal Waterway. Construction began in 1923 and continued until 1927.

Even by the standards of the Roaring Twenties glitterati, it was an opulent winter home. The 114-room Hispano Moresque-style mansion’s 37,000 square feet contained 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms (with gold-plated fixtures). The living room alone was 1800 square feet, with a 42-foot ceiling. It was richly decorated with gold leaf, marble, Italian sandstone and Spanish terracotta tiles. The 2200-square foot dining room was floored with black and white marble from a Cuban castle. The property had its own citrus grove, two swimming pools, tennis courts, greenhouses, and a private tunnel leading to the beach. The total cost was over $7 million—around $110 million in 2020 dollars.

Post threw lavish parties throughout the winter, entertaining businessmen and politicians, diplomats and European royalty. But she also held regular charity events. Once, she hired the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus (based in Sarasota FL) to give a private benefit performance for poor children. Other charities which she supported included the International Red Cross and the Salvation Army. During the Second World War the estate served as a retreat for disabled veterans.

In 1972, the mansion, now one of the last remaining examples of the once-common millionaire winter homes that lined the Palm Beach coast, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and later became a National Historic Landmark. Post, now over 80 years of age, offered to donate the estate to the State of Florida for use as a center for scholarly research, but they turned her offer down on the grounds that it would cost too much to maintain the property.

Marjorie Post died in 1973. In her will, she decided to dedicate her Mar-a-Lago estate to what she considered as another form of charity and civic duty: she bequeathed the entire estate to the Federal Government, with the stipulation that it be used as a Presidential Winter Retreat.

The US, in turn, took ownership of the site. But Post’s dream of a “Winter White House” did not come to pass. The estate was expensive to maintain, and although Post’s bequest had provided funding for upkeep, the annual costs soon outran that. In addition, the resort had sat empty—not a single President ever made it a winter home, or even visited. So in 1981 the Federal Government turned Mar-a-Lago back over to the nonprofit Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation. But they too were unable to keep up with the $1 million per year costs of maintaining the property, and they put it up for sale, asking $20 million.

At first, nobody wanted it. Several potential sales fell through, and the asking price kept dropping. Plans were made to demolish the building and divide the estate into a number of smaller properties which could be sold off.

Finally, though, Mar-a-Lago was sold in December 1985 to a controversial New York real estate mogul named Donald Trump, who bought it at the bargain-rate price of just $5 million. Another reported $3-5 million got him the remaining furnishings and artwork inside.

Trump converted the home into a private members-only  business club and resort, a sort of vacation timeshare for wealthy people. Membership in the Mar-a-Lago Club costs an initial fee of $200,000 plus an annual fee of $14,000. Members have a croquet lawn, a spa and fitness center, a private beach, and a 20,000-square foot ballroom. In 1995, Trump himself moved from New York to Florida, establishing the resort as his own private residence.

In 2016, Trump became the US President after a closely-contested election (in which he lost the popular vote, but won by a narrow margin in the Electoral College). He quickly turned Mar-a-Lago into a presidential retreat, using the resort to meet with foreign leaders and diplomats. In this way, he  provoked criticism over using his own private for-profit club as a site for official government business and state visits. When Trump then characterized white nationalists at a violent rally in North Carolina as “very fine people”, several charities, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the American Cancer Society, canceled their Mar-a-Lago fundraising events.

In 2020, Trump lost his bid for re-election by over 7 million votes. Returning to Mar-a-Lago to pout, he denied that he had lost, rejected the election results, and encouraged a mob of followers, including an odd conspiracy-theory group which called itself “Q-Anon”, to attack the Capitol Building in January 2021 and halt the Congressional certification of the election. The coup attempt failed, and President Joe Biden assumed office. Trump’s silly conspiracy theories were supported by most of the leadership of the Republican Party, however, and for the next several years the ex-President continued to rule the Party, with GOP leaders regularly making the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss his ring and swear fealty.

Mar-a-Lago then made the news once again in August 2022. While leaving the White House after losing the election, Trump had taken a large number of documents along with him, some of them still classified. This was contrary to the requirements that all such documents be turned over to the National Archives. When the Archives requested that Trump return them, he at first denied that he had any, then refused to turn them over, declaring that they were his personal property. That led to an FBI raid on Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, which seized 33 crateloads of documents, including almost 200 papers which were still classified. Trump now declared that he had declassified them all, despite the fact that he was no longer President.

Ironically, though, Trump’s antics may have finally guaranteed Marjorie Post’s dream that her Mar-a-Lago estate would be remembered as a Presidential retreat. The resort’s association with the twice-impeached and unpopular Trump, and indirectly with the only violent attempt in US history to overturn an election, will now almost certainly lead it to be preserved as a national historical site.

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