Next Door to Mar-a-Lago
For the third year in a row, I am spending a good chunk of the winter in Palm Beach, Florida, as a guest of a friend who rents an extravagant two-storey, marble-floored gaff four doors down from Mar-a-Lago. When our preposterous president is in residence, the Secret Service and local sheriffs are stationed in our drive.
From one of my bedroom windows, through which I can also see gorgeous waving palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean, it is about ten yards to the Jersey barriers: giant concrete slabs arranged in a V-formation, with the opening blocked by a sheriff’s car, whose engine is always left running, and which reverses into our drive on the rare occasions a car is authorised to pass through.
From the other window I can see the security tent, with its sniffer dogs, giant dentist’s mirrors for surveying the undercarriages of car, and ever-changing personnel, most of whom seem to be sweet-natured, downy-cheeked youths from the Midwest. When we leave the house, one of the nice young men always promises to remember our faces, our car, and the fact that we live here. But the duty rota changes at whirlwind speed, and when we return, the good-looking boy from Iowa has invariably been replaced by a lookalike from Illinois.
We used to hang out at the ‘winter White House’ quite a lot, as it was a popular venue for chamber music concerts and recitals. But since last year, these are no more: the chamber music society and other similar groups have abandoned Mar-a-Lago, I was told by a local, because the artists are boycotting its gilded halls and ceilings for political reasons. I used to enjoy the concerts: we could walk there; the calibre of the performances was high; and it was always a thrill to see the mansion and park, built in the 1920s for the cereal heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973). Her only lapse of taste, I’d say, was an obsession with gold leaf.
Post left the estate to the US government, in the hope it would be used for cultural activities, but in 1981 the government returned it to the Post Foundation, which put it on the market for $20 million. After seeing it in 1985, Trump offered (he claims) $15 million, which the family rejected. He then put in a $2 million offer for the land between the estate and the ocean, and threatened to build a house on it that would block Mar-a-Lago’s ocean view. They sold him the estate for the knock-down price of $7 million. Trump restored the house and grounds, doing little damage – since it’s a listed building, he was limited to restoring the original décor – and adding the ballroom. In the 1990s, beset by the financial woes that have been the hallmark of his business career, he negotiated with the banks to subdivide Mar-a-Lago, to the alarm of the citizens of Palm Beach; the city council vetoed it.
Instead, Trump turned the place into a private members’ club: joining fee $200,000, annual subscription $14,000, overnight hotel charges up to $2000. If it seems weird that the official winter residence of an American president should be a private club, the neighbours appear to agree. The old-money crowd made the exodus to Jupiter and Hobe Sound, while new builds are going up in Palm Beach that can cost as much as $30 million.
On Thursday, 31 January, news reached us that the panto president would be at Mar-a-Lago from 1 to 3 February, for the first time since Thanksgiving. The installation of the Jersey barriers, which normally begins at 4 a.m., may have been responsible for my unusually disturbed night. By 8 a.m. the barricade was visible despite the vigorous rainstorm, and I could see the security tent in place, too.
Leaving at 11.30 a.m. for the gym in Lake Worth, we negotiated the wooden sawhorse slalom course. Coming home about 3 p.m. we showed our neighbour’s pass to the young sheriff’s deputy when we made the turn from County Road into Ocean Boulevard. He recognised us from last year and said: ‘Welcome home.’ But we still had to pass the sniffer test. The Alsatian-cross scrunched up its nose at the pong of our engine, but allowed the handler and two other young men to wave us through with a smile. The sheriff’s car occupying our drive reversed out so that we could get through our garage door.
Trump’s possession of Mar-a-Lago has brought one golden benefit to his neighbours. In 1995 he filed a lawsuit against Palm Beach County, complaining about aircraft flying overhead. Palm Beach International Airport is a ten-minute drive away. I remember one Friday lunchtime when it felt and sounded as though a plane was taking off or landing every two minutes. The airport, astonishingly, agreed to change flight patterns to spread the noise over a wider area.
In January 2015, Trump sued again, asking for damages of $100 million, accusing the county of ‘creating an unreasonable amount of noise, emissions and pollutants at Mar-a-Lago’, and alleging that the air traffic to PBI was being made to fly over the estate in a ‘deliberate and malicious’ act. That November a Florida court disallowed four of Trump’s six claims. Having won the election, however, he dropped the action, since a no-fly zone is imposed anyway when the president is in residence.
Will he run again in 2020? Will he even manage to serve out his first term? Or will the saga end with the kleptocrat-in-chief following his former attorney Michael Cohen to prison?