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Palm Beach, Post-Trump

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Palm Beach, Post-Trump

An enclave of privilege must reacquaint itself with its most famous resident. January 29, 2021
Politics and law

The roadblocks are down! For the first time in four years, the stretch of South Ocean Boulevard that traverses the island town of Palm Beach from north to south will be fully open to traffic, even when the owner of the iconic Mar-a-Lago estate is in town. Donald Trump, South Florida squire, is no longer president. His reduced status does not accord him such importance that our seaside community must be bisected by unsightly concrete barriers and a heavily armed security detail that forced hapless residents seeking to reach the other end of town to suffer the indignity of crossing bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway and traverse downscale West Palm Beach.

For nearly half his life, Trump has had a love-hate relationship with Palm Beach. His signature property there has its own storied past. The eccentric, custom-built home of General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, Mar-a-Lago was gifted to the U.S. government after her death in 1973. Its expensive upkeep and questionable utility caused the government to return it to her heirs in the early 1980s, who then put it on the residential real estate market. Trump scooped it up for $7 million in 1985 and, encountering the same crushing expenses amid other business problems, eventually petitioned the town for permission to convert it into a private club. The town agreed after some cajoling, but Trump’s brash manner got him into trouble with his understated neighbors and with the town itself, which he frequently faced in litigation.

Over time, though, Palm Beach got used to its ambitious and mercurial tyro. Before long, Mar-a-Lago started hosting its leading social event, the International Red Cross Ball, and other fabulous parties. Its membership initiation fee crept up to $100,000, and then doubled after Trump won the presidency. The stigma of new wealth faded to the point where even the snootiest old guard Palm Beachers were pleased to be invited there. Trump’s restoration efforts were meticulous. They won him much good will, and a generous “conservation easement” tax break, from the grateful community, which takes its historical preservation seriously. Even the progressive-minded gave Trump credit for opening membership to just about anyone who could afford the fee rather than mimic the opaque and reputedly exclusionary admissions processes of other Palm Beach private clubs. In both of his presidential runs, he took the town’s vote by decisive margins, even while losing solidly blue Palm Beach County. In 2018, Forbes estimated Mar-a-Lago’s value at $160 million.

What is it all like now? Early reports are grim. Trump missed Mar-a-Lago’s New Years’ Eve party, tickets to which reportedly topped $1,000 per person, despite assurances that he would be there and rumors that security protocols may have limited space for guests. He also did not turn up for its election night party, though he had more important things to do on that strange evening. Both events attracted criticism for not enforcing the county’s mask mandate, which the guests widely disregarded. According to Laurence Leamer, a local author who literally wrote the book on Mar-a-Lago, the mood around the club since Trump lost the 2020 election has been somber. Members are said to be resigning despite having paid their sizeable initiation fees, which are non-refundable. The more opportunistic among them reportedly feel that there is no longer any point to belonging to the club if it does not offer access to a sitting president, who, in better days, was applauded when spotted around the property and, according to members I know, quite solicitous of his guests’ happiness and satisfaction.

Out of power and facing a second impeachment trial and who knows what else, can Trump maintain his allure? The former president declared Mar-a-Lago as his residence in September 2019 and suggested that he would reside there permanently after leaving office. This once again puts him up against the town of Palm Beach, which authorized the club on condition that it never be used as a private residence. Mar-a-Lago’s own rules also forbid members from staying for more than three one-week periods in a year. It’s unclear whether an accommodation can be reached, and Palm Beach can be very strict about its voluminous town ordinances. For now, its representatives are diplomatically suggesting that they will not act until Trump informs them of his long-term intentions. But, driving over one of the bridges toward the still-roadblocked edifice on the evening of Joe Biden’s inauguration, I noticed for the first time that all the lights were out.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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