Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace
Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1965-67)
Flatiron Books Publisher
January 29, 2019
$27.99 (hardcover), $14.99 (Kindle). $32.45 (Audiobook)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
Mar-a-Lago provides history and insights into President Donald J. Trump that many readers say one must read if one wants to understand the great leader. Leamer’s research includes thirty-six pages of notes, a bibliography and an index, so you know he’s done his homework. Perhaps even more important, Leamer and his wife have lived in Palm Beach since 1994, and have had front row seats for the Donald Trump show since he turned his Mar-a-Lago estate into a club. Leamer never became a member of the club, but he has friends who are members, so he has had access to the tennis courts and dining room, and was able to glean inside information from those friends, and he sometimes witnessed the scenes he describes. A huge procession of personalities parade through this book and each one is spotlighted, if only for a moment, which makes me marvel at the author’s stamina. Trump’s personal relationships with his parents, his first wife, Ivana, Marla Maples and Melania would require chapters in themselves beyond this review.
The book is well edited, a rare virtue these days, except for a reference to “Iraqi veterans” instead of “Iraq veterans.” I mention it only because I tend to be pedantic about such things.
Leamer’s account confirms many things we already know about our president’s narcissism, crassness, racism, bullying, boorishness and whatever other adjectives come to mind. What’s scary is that Trump has captured the hearts and minds of million of Americans who idolize him precisely for his psychopathic predilections which they see as powerfully successful and which citizens like me see as a terrorist threat.
A dear friend of mine, who joined Peace Corps when I did in 1993 in Senegal and remains a life-long friend surprised me by telling me that she had gone to elementary school with the Trump kids. In a letter to The New York Times during the electoral campaign she recounts that experience.
. . . I grew up with Donnie Trump. We weren’t great pals, but we lived in the same neighborhood, our parents and siblings knew each other, we went to the same independent day school in Forest Hills, we rode the school bus together . . ..
His behavior now is the same as it was in the ’50s when I knew him, before he was sent away to military school. I was just a kid in elementary school, but here is what I remember.
Donnie and me in the principal’s office: he was shut in the actual room where the principal worked, I sat in the anteroom where I talked with the secretaries. . .. Donnie was there because he had been bad, bad enough to have to leave class and sit with the principal. The kind of bad we hear and see now: bullying, lying, shouting insults, disrespecting whoever was within earshot, provoking fights. He was unpredictable, he was out of control. I was pretty young and no angel myself, but I knew how he behaved was not right. I don’t remember him being particularly mean, but we were several grades apart and maybe I missed it. In hindsight, especially as an educator, I see a kid in desperate trouble. Today I see an adult who, for whatever reasons, never learned how to change his behavior or control himself.
I also remember making Donnie cry. We were giving each other “Indian” wrist burns in the back of the bus riding home one afternoon after school. I grabbed his arm and twisted my hands around it until he howled. But when it was his turn, he couldn’t make me cry. YES!! This was a great triumph in my mind. I had scored big points even though I was four years younger, AND a girl. Of course he’s still howling today, about almost anything to draw attention to himself, so it finally dawned on me the other day that he was probably just faking it on the school bus to draw attention away from me and my great achievement. Hopefully my behavior at 8 years old didn’t contribute to his undeniable misogyny now.
Regarding his stint in military school, the author notes: “. . . he felt that made him as much a military expert as if he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge.”
On the back of the book jacket, Leamer quotes Trump: “They all come over, they all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say: ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ BUT I’M THE KING.” He’s not only talking about dinner guests, but this is the view he extends to the world, that drives our so-called foreign policy, and that informs his relationship with Americans.
The Mar-a-Lago estate was built in 1923 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress. She lived there during the winter season for six decades. John F. Kennedy made it his winter retreat, and Mrs. Post dreamed that many future presidents would make the estate their winter White House. Maybe someone should have warned her to be careful what she wished for. When she died in 1973 she left it to the National Park Service, which resulted in massive tax write-offs for her daughters. It was returned to the Post Foundation in 1981. When Trump visited the vast estate, he probably perceived it as a suitable palace for a king. The asking price was $20 million, but he offered $9 million, stipulating that he would build fourteen homes on the property. He ended up paying $5 million plus a few million for furnishings and the beachfront land, that he paid for with $8.5 million that he borrowed from the Chase Manhattan Bank. Mar-a-Lago is today worth half a billion dollars, demonstrating Trump’s “art of making the deal.”
Leamer describes the “clash of cultures” between Donald and Ivana, the flashy couple who were seen everywhere, versus the patrician elite class of Palm Beach. Among the myriad anecdotes about Palm Beach society was the year that Trump felt coerced into hosting the traditional Preservation Foundation Ball at Mar-a-Lago, so arranged to hold it in an enormous tent outside instead.
Some of the guests thought Trump was such a lowlife that he hadn’t even grasped what he had done. But a few understood the other alternative that he didn’t care what they thought.
He did care, however, about what the National Enquirer thought. When Trump reluctantly married Marla Maples after she gave birth to their daughter in 1993, “. . . the largest audience for this story was the readership of the National Enquirer. Trump’s life had become a tabloid story, and he relished it.” He put a cardboard cut-out of Maples in a bikini behind his desk, his way of bragging about how he had married such a “hotty.”
Extravagant charity balls are profitable events for the President, who usually does not make donations to such causes himself. Always at loggerheads with the elite of Palm Beach, he decided that, on the same evening that the annual International Red Cross Ball was hosted at the famous Breakers resort, he would throw a Bachelors’ Ball, replete with hundreds of scantily clad models and his male friends from New York and beyond. Reporters were not admitted, but skulked around the mansion like paparazzi to catch glimpses of the lascivious frolicking at Mar-a-Lago.
The author not only knew about every party in Palm Beach, but often what guests wore. Wilbur Ross and his wife “. . . partied almost every night in Palm Beach, often wearing color-coordinated outfits.” I assume that he made note of such details himself, as it’s not the sort of thing men talk about on the golf course.
Trump’s contentious relationship with the Palm Beach aristocrats was exemplified when, after a dinner party, he asked everyone to stand and introduce themselves, “. . . where they are from and what they do.” One lofty grande dame looked scornfully across the table and said, “I live in Palm Beach … and I do nothing.”
Leamer met him at an event at Mar-a-Lago in 2009 and told him that his editor had discouraged him from writing about Trump in his book Madness Under the Royal Palms, because he was already “overexposed.” “Overexposed?” Trump replied. “You’ve got to be *** kidding. I’m Donald Trump.”
His other venture was to build Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, an area on the mainland side of the bridge that houses many of Palm Beach families’ “help.” Founded in 1894 by Henry Flagler, West Palm Beach was created to house servants working at hotels on Palm Beach. An area known as the Styx housed the people who built up the island, mostly African-Americans and other immigrants. Workers rented small houses from the landowners. When construction of Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel and other projects was finished, the railroad tycoon had no more use for his black builders. In the early 1900s the landowners agreed to evict all of the residents of the Styx. They were dismissed, evicted from the island, and the Styx was torn down. Another story recounts that the settlement was burned down while its inhabitants were distracted at a circus staged just for them. For decades, blacks were not allowed on Palm Beach after sunset. They were employed as menials, maids, gardeners and — a particularly demeaning job — as bicycle-rickshaw men who wheeled wealthy whites from the railroad station to the hotel and back. Booted off the island they helped build, the evicted blacks had to go somewhere. Where they went became known as Pleasant City.
There is a Haitian neighborhood and enclaves of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere who live in shacks as they provide manual labor to the rich and famous. For years workers who lived in West Palm Beach, but worked in the Palm Beach mansions were forced to carry an identity card to allow them onto the island, a practice that was finally recognized as a form of apartheid and, I heard, discontinued.
I worked in Haiti for five years at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer, founded by Larimer and Gwen Grant Mellon in 1956. When Mrs. Mellon published her memoir, My Road to Deschapelles, in 1997 the Mellons of Palm Beach invited her to visit them for book signings. Having spent most of her adult life in rural Haiti, she was appalled by their ostentatious wealth. When her in-laws took her to a beauty salon to have her hair cut (she had been cutting her simple bob herself for years) she told me about the male stylists who “talked about nothing but the ballet,” and then about the haircut. “Four strands of hair on the floor and a hundred dollars later . . ..” However, Haitian servants from all around the Palm Beach area heard about her visit and lined up at the kitchen door to greet her day and night. That’s where she felt right at home, embracing and encouraging the people who meant most to her. She always said that Americans should appreciate Haitian immigrants a lot more than they did, for the Haitian people would become our best citizens. [In the Valley of Atibon, Leita Kaldi]
Leamer discloses the fact that the help at Mar-a-Lago are almost entirely foreign workers. Trump was required to seek American employees and he did so by placing a tiny ad for one day in the Palm Beach Post. It stipulated that waiter and waitresses had to work “35hrs/wk, Mon-Sun 7a-11p. Serve food & bev. Take orders. Complete side work, clear & carry dishes, keep stations clean. May do other job related duties . . . work split shifts nights, w/ends & holidays; carry min 25 lbs; walk/stand for a long time.” For this they would be paid $11.88/hr min, no tips. A twenty percent service charge was added to Trump’s coffers.
Leamer casts Donald Trump in a somewhat similar mold as Henry Flager when it comes to his attitude towards “underlings.” We’ve all heard stories of how he stiffed workers in New York and Atlantic City. In Palm Beach he hired Scott Lewis, a small, local landscaping company to work for him at Trump Plaza, but when Lewis received a check for 85% of his bill, he faced the conundrum of accepting it or not working for Trump. Undaunted, he filed a small claims suit and won, because Trump’s lawyer did not show up for the hearing. Trump had to pay him, but he never hired Lewis again.
By 1991 Trump was having serious financial problems and decided to subdivide the estate. The Landmarks Preservation Commission refused permission, though he attempted many sleight-of-hand deals, even threatening to sue the town for $50 million. Finally, a lawyer named Paul Rampell talked him into turning Mar-a-Lago into a private club, including Jews as members, something not done in other exclusive clubs, and Trump ended up renovating and redecorating the mansion as a resort for well-heeled celebrities and other million/billionaires. He revels in the fact that they are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to dine, swim in the pool, play tennis and, for a second membership, play golf at the Trump International Golf Club. The Koch brothers dine there regularly and a member told the author he saw them at Trump’s table. “This is really weird. They’re billionaires. Maybe they don’t even like Trump, but they’re paying tribute to him like the Godfather. Very strange.” Many members had reasons to relinquish their membership, but none of them got any refund of their $25,000 fee.
Trump has owned Mar-a-Lago for over thirty years and he loves it. When he became President, Palm Beach denizens were dismayed. Their island became a fortress of massive Secret Service armed guards, with Route A1A and the bridge to Lake Worth, as well as the Palm Beach airport closed for Air Force One whenever he is in residence. They are aware of the millions of dollars it costs tax payers to fly him and his entourage there on week-ends. Mar-a-Lago is not a private presidential retreat, as was common in the past, but a club where hundreds of people come and go. Trump loves to show off Mar-a-Lago to prime ministers and heads of state from around the world, which hugely increases the costs of not only American security personnel, but that of visiting dignitaries.
I have to wonder what the experience was like researching and writing about President Trump. I would imagine it was like slogging through mud, but the author smiles radiantly from the book jacket photo and you get the feeling that he enjoyed raking up stories about the rich and famous and especially about the richest and most famous. One of his best portrayals is “. . . as a brooding King Lear, roaming the ramparts, spewing out invective while beneath him played out a hapless scene of endless infighting and finger-pointing.”
Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96) worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs.(amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Leita received the Lillian Carter Award in 2017.