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Trump’s Fight for Mar-a-Lago
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How an attack on the Waspy exclusionary culture of Palm Beach allowed to convert Mar-a-Lago, the town’s famous landmark, into a private club, in theory, open to everyone

When Donald Trump visited Palm Beach with his family in the 1980s, he was so impressed with the town, its beach, and its golf courses that he decided to buy an apartment at the Breakers, the storied condominium complex overlooking the Atlantic. When Trump later learned that Mar-a-Lago, the biggest house in Palm Beach, and the 20th largest mansion in the U.S., was for sale, he was interested.

Mar-a-Lago is a property stretching from the ocean to Lake Worth. Town & Country described it as the fantasy of an American in love with the artistic splendor of Europe, the frescoes of Florence and Venetian arches to introduce and frame water passages. The mansion had a ninety-foot castle tower for unimpeded panoramas of sea and sky. There were 58 bedrooms, a ballroom, a theater, and a golf course.

Mar-a-Lago was built by breakfast-cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the Roaring Twenties. Shortly before her death, in 1972, she left it to the U.S. government to be used as a winter White House for U.S. presidents. But Nixon preferred his friend Bebe Rebozo’s place in Key Biscayne, and Carter’s administration, trying to avoid the estate’s annual taxes and maintenance costs, returned it to the Post Foundation in 1981.

Post’s three daughters—actress Dina Merrill (from Post’s second marriage, to stock-brokerage founder E. F. Hutton) and her half-sisters, Adelaide Breevort Close and Eleanor Post Close (from their mother’s first marriage, to stockbroker Edward Bennett Close), decided to sell it.

Trump offered $25 million for the 17 acres, the house, and the furnishings, but the sisters wanted more. He then offered $2 million for a beachfront lot in front of Mar-a-Lago, which Post’s foundation had sold earlier. He threatened to put up a hideous home to block Mar-a-Lago’s ocean view. So the price kept going down and down until Trump’s last offer of less than $8 million was accepted.

But now Trump had another problem: he was going broke. He wrote: “I was many billions in the red, $975 million of that debt I’d personally guaranteed... The banks were crawling all over me. The Gulf War had a disastrous effect on tourism.”

When he publicly announced his plan to subdivide the 17 acres of the estate and build mini-mansions, a furor ensued. After a year of hearings the Town Council rejected the plan by a unanimous vote. Trump’s response was: “I’m going to bring a $100 million lawsuit against the town of Palm Beach. I gave [the town] an opportunity, and they blew it. Now, I’m going to get everything I’m entitled to.”

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