It has 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, five tennis courts and a 75-foot tower, and it once was a National Historic Landmark, a designation unrelated to its current fame.
But in 1980, Mar-a-Lago was demoted by the National Parks System, setting it up for even greater fame as the “winter White House” of former President Donald Trump — and the site of an unprecedented FBI raid.
Journalist Mary C. Shanklin has done a deep dive into the history of the 17-acre, oceanfront estate, constructed shortly before the Great Depression. “American Castle” examines the history of Mar-a-Lago from its construction in the 1920s as a grand winter home for a cereal heiress to its new role in presidential history.
Here are five takeaways from the book.
What does ‘Mar-a-Lago’ mean and who was it built for?
Marjorie Merriweather Post, a “longtime Democratic patroness,” was the owner of General Foods Corp., which evolved from her father’s company, Postum Cereal Co.
Mar-a-Lago was her dream, one of many grand estates built “with the audacity of pre-Depression wealth,” according to Shanklin. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side of the estate, the Intracoastal Waterway on the other, hence its name, which means “sea to lake” in Spanish.
Among the estate’s finer details are 36,000 Spanish tiles, some of which date to the 15th century; river stones from Long Island that line a patio floor; and three boatloads of stone imported from Italy for walls and sculpted figures. Although it would have cost about $30 million to build today, some of the local newspapers sniffed at home while it was under construction, with the Palm Beach Post saying in 1926 that Mar-a-Lago “will be one of the most pretentious dwellings in Palm Beach.”
But Mar-a-Lago was well-financed and well-built; it survived two devastating hurricanes in its first 18 months, with Marjorie Merriweather Post complaining of “the most dreadful storm” (the hurricane of 1928), which killed nearly 2,000 people in Florida, but did little more to the estate than shatter a large window, topple 36 palm trees and deposit two mules from a nearby construction site on the grounds.
Who was the first owner of Mar-a-Lago, and who came next?
It was Marjorie Post Hutton who found the land, directed its design and decor, and bankrolled “her winter trophy estate” with her family’s money, even though in keeping with the times, “society columnists long referred to it as E.F. Hutton’s Mar-a-Lago,” Shanklin wrote.
E.F. Hutton was married to Marjorie from 1920 to 1935.
A Palm Beach Post columnist cooed over the couple in 1925, saying, “Palm Beach is indeed fortunate in having people with great fortunes, like the Huttons, who will uphold its traditions, and despite the southward trend of building, still retain their love for Palm Bech and their loyalty to the resort.”
But the couple seemed to tire of Palm Beach life within years after Mar-a-Lago’s completion, with locals complaining that they were never there in the winter, and the couple were divorced shortly after their 15th anniversary. Marjorie would bring a new husband to the grand house that same year, and, Shanklin wrote, “the Hutton divorce wedged open the manse’s round-arched main entrance to a long parade of unlikely individuals and high-profile battles that would eventually come to define its very character.”
Among those unlikely individuals in the future: Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, who honeymooned at the estate in 1994.
How did Mar-a-Lago become a national historic site and why did Jimmy Carter demote it?
Long before Donald Trump set foot on the property, Mar-a-Lago was deemed to have historic significance.
“Unlike other sites that had won national landmark status, this ode to Roaring Twenties excess stood primarily as a memorial to the bygone lifestyles of American opulence,” Shanklin wrote in a chapter detailing how former Interior Department director Stewart Udall campaigned for the United States to own “a national park property like no other.”
But the federal government took Mar-a-Lago on primarily because others didn’t want it — not the heirs of Post, nor the state of Florida, even though the state had briefly considered a plan to establish “the Mar-a-Lago Center for Advanced Scholars.” (One person wanted it — a Saudi king with 39 wives — but Marjorie declined to rent or sell it to him.)
Although Marjorie wouldn’t die until 1973, she was already planning her bequests in the 1950s and headlines in 1963 said: “Lavish May estate deeded to Florida.” (Marjorie was then on her fourth marriage, to Herbert May.) But the state grew worried about Mar-a-Lago’s reputation “as a bottomless pit of need” because of the its costs of upkeep. The state turned down the offer, so she willed it to the federal government upon her death — the deed said it was “a gift to the people of the United States.”
It was established as a National Historic Site in 1969 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1972.
Just seven years after Post’s death, however, it was decommissioned as a national park because of the expense involved in its upkeep, and the property was re-homed again — given back to the Post Foundation. At the time, The Miami Herald warned that the decision might lead to “the grand estate’s destruction.” People hoped for a private buyer, but the president of the Post Foundation said, “I haven’t a clue who would be interested, if anybody.”
When did Trump buy Mar-a-Lago and why was he hailed as a hero?
According to commentary published at the time of the sale, and included in “American Castle,” “the Trumps prevented the mansion from being turned into a tacky subdivision, as had been threatened,” and the president of Palm Beach’s town council said Trump’s purchase “will solve a lot of problems” and he “may find himself a very popular hero.”
Trump first saw the property as he and his then wife, Ivanka, looked at oceanfront mansions from the back of a limousine in 1982. They loved it and offered $15 million for it (although that figure has been disputed). It took more than two years to close the deal. Court records, Shanklin writes, show the final sales price was $20 million, most of which was financed. Shanklin reports that Trump, the author of “The Art of the Deal,” used less than $3,000 of his cash in the transaction.
Once again, the honeymoon between Mar-a-Lago owners and local residents ended quickly. This time, Palm Beach residents objected to development plans Trump had for the property. At one point, he threatened to sue the town or to sell the property to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church, Shanklin wrote.
Eventually, however, he settled on another plan: an exclusive club. And he told a reporter for The Miami Herald in 1991, “Mar-a-Lago is mine. It’ll always be mine.”
Is ‘American Castle’ favorable to Donald Trump?
From describing Mar-a-Lago in August of last year as “a crime scene the likes of which this country had never seen” to describing some of Trump’s changes to the property as an “adulteration,” Shanklin does not appear to be a huge fan of Donald Trump. She is a journalist who seems to have worked hard to present the story of Mar-a-Lago without bias, although toward the end she raises questions about Trump’s legacy as a steward of the estate.
“Popular opinion held that Marjorie Merriweather Post got her wish for a prized palace to host a president. Would she, though, smile at the thought of Donald Trump turning her home into a high-ticket, members-only affair that would become famous for benefiting his business associates and sidestepping Washington channels?” Hamblin asked, and then described Mar-a-Lago today as a “private hangout of the power hungry.”
She also wrote: “No one suggested that Mar-a-Lago’s second owner turned his back on this seaside dwelling resting atop a century of storied history. In fact, many agree that he also lifted it into better shape than when it was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post. Of course, it’s hard to credit Mar-a-Lago’s salvation to an owner who admittedly bought it on the cheap and then attempted to carve it into a salvation.”
If Trump fans don’t like Shanklin’s take, however, there are other books to choose from, including Les Standiford’s “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” and Laurence Leamer’s “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace,” both from 2019.