The Florida town and a pres­i­den­tial case of nim­by­ism


The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

DON­ALD Trump seems to be ex­act­ing some kind of sweet re­venge on the gen­teel folk of Palm Beach, Florida – and they’re not happy. If you’ve never heard of this place, that’s ex­actly how the peo­ple who live here like it. Three draw­bridges, which rise for pass­ing yachts, iso­late the town from the rest of the world and keep the riff-raff at bay – as one ob­server once put it, in case of in­sur­rec­tion on the main­land.

Wel­come to Amer­ica’s most exclusive com­mu­nity – “the is­land”, as lo­cals call it. This balmy, sun-drenched 13-mile spit of sand, 90 min­utes’ drive north from Mi­ami, is a vil­lage of the pri­vacy-ob­sessed and gaga rich. Around 30 of the 400 wealth­i­est peo­ple in the world own prop­erty in here, as do celebri­ties in­clud­ing Rod Ste­wart, Jimmy Buf­fet, Ce­line Dion, and ten­nis stars Venus and Ser­ena Williams.

Palm Beach is also the town where Pres­i­dent Trump hap­pens to have a place called Mar-a-Lago – the golf re­sort and coun­try club that has be­come his win­ter White House, or as some ob­servers now call it, “White House South”.

Since be­ing sworn in on Jan­uary 20, Mar-a-Lago week­ends have be­come a sta­ple of the Trump pres­i­dency and last week it hosted a sum­mit be­tween Chi­nese pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Trump. It doesn’t get much higher pro­file than that. For many of the denizens of this or­di­nar­ily tran­quil town, this new­found fame hasn’t been pleas­ant.

Each week­end the pres­i­dent spends here – five out of 10 so far – se­cu­rity pro­to­cols have closed bridges, clogged thor­ough­fares and blocked roads, essen­tially cutting the south of the town off from the north.

On top of that, small armies of protesters of­ten show up when the pres­i­dent is in res­i­dence, as well as sup­porter groups and me­dia crews. Not only has this added to the traf­fic con­ges­tion, but it has also been blamed for lost sales to busi­nesses, dozens of restau­rant can­cel­la­tions and widespread frus­tra­tion.

How­ever, the most desta­bil­is­ing ef­fect is the sud­den abun­dance of un­wel­come at­ten­tion from the out­side world.

These dis­rup­tions cap a pri­vate, 30-year war that Trump and the blue-bloods here, who dom­i­nate Palm Beach, have waged on one an­other. Now that he is the pres­i­dent, some here say Trump is rel­ish­ing their cur­rent dis­plea­sure.

Most peo­ple here will tell you – even Trump sup­port­ers – that the loud-mouthed, self-ag­gran­dis­ing New York prop­erty ty­coon has never fit­ted in. He may be a bil­lion­aire, own Mar-a-Lago and even be the leader of the free world, but Trump has a bell­boy’s hope in hell of ever gar­ner­ing the kind of pedi­gree re­quired here.

His re­sponse in 1990, when asked by a Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle if he was both­ered at not be­ing in­vited to join the exclusive Bath and Ten­nis Club (known as the B&T): “They kiss my ass in Palm Beach. Those phonies.”

The deeper you dig, the more ironic it seems that most Palm Beach­ers voted for him. To bet­ter un­der­stand the of­ten

un­fath­omable mind­set of Trump, his strange re­la­tion­ship with Palm Beach of­fers fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights.

ON Satur­day, March 18, the pres­i­dent was in town and I made my way to the is­land. Ac­cord­ing to Google Maps, the place was on lock­down with all three bridges blocked.

That turned out to be what Trump might call “fake news”. Two of the bridges were open. Only the south­ern­most bridge, the one clos­est to Mar-a-Lago, was closed.

The pre­vi­ous evening, an hour be­fore the pres­i­dent’s ar­rival, an un­der­age driver in a Dodge Charger sped past the road­block on South Ocean Boule­vard to­ward Mar-a-Lago and crashed into a fence. Ac­cord­ing to po­lice, the teenager was sui­ci­dal and “armed and dan­ger­ous”. A base­ball bat and a metal pipe were found in his car. A po­lice spokesman added the youth had pre­vi­ously called in ter­ror­ist threats to CNN.

Given that in­ci­dent, pres­i­den­tial se­cu­rity on Satur­day morn­ing was sur­pris­ingly light as I at­tempted to cross the south­ern bridge. A po­lice­man stood chat­ting with a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer near two parked black SUVs, behind an elec­tronic di­ver­sion sign that steered cars back the way they came.

I ar­rived via the mid­dle bridge, crawl­ing through the con­ges­tion on Royal Palm Way and cruised around Palm Beach’s streets to get a feel for this bas­tion of uber wealth.

Henry Fla­gler, one of the founders of early oil gi­ant Stan­dard Oil, dreamed up Palm Beach in the 1880s. En­chanted by its trop­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and off­shore dis­tinc­tion, he cre­ated a win­ter re­treat for the cream of New York’s in­dus­trial wealth – the Carne­gies, As­tors, Van­der­bilts, Mel­lons and Rock­er­fellers among them. Many of their de­scen­dants re­main.

Most of what you see to­day was built in the Roar­ing Twen­ties, al­though Palm Beach was al­ready a re­sort town with lav­ish ho­tels such as the Break­ers (built in 1896) and grand res­i­dences mod­elled af­ter stately palaces in Europe. The ar­chi­tec­ture here owes noth­ing to the gaudy trop­i­cal vil­las of Mi­ami. Palm Beach is more Tus­can palazzo than Scar­face.

I drove past the B&T, the Sail­fish and the Ever­glades club at the foot of Worth Av­enue, the high-end shop­ping boule­vard – all no­to­ri­ously dis­crim­i­na­tory coun­try clubs, al­though Palm Beach in­sid­ers say those poli­cies no longer ap­ply. A mem­ber was once sus­pended from the Ever­glades for bring­ing Es­tee Lauder be­cause she was Jewish, and Sammy Davis Jr was ejected be­cause he was black and Jewish.

The prici­est man­sions be­gin on South Ocean Boule­vard, on the At­lantic shore. The most ex­pen­sive home on the mar­ket to­day is a seven-bed­roomed man­sion at 100 El Bravo Way with a price-tag of $25.5 mil­lion (£20.4m) – al­though a num­ber of homes are worth much more than that.

But it’s dif­fi­cult to see much of the pri­vate res­i­dences. Only oc­ca­sion­ally, spy­ing through a drive­way en­trance, will you see these gi­ant vil­las rise up be­fore your eyes. Most sit behind man­i­cured 15-foot

hedges, hid­den from vis­it­ing voyeurs and re­flect­ing the town’s ob­ses­sion with pri­vacy.

Along with scions of in­dus­trial wealth, John Len­non and Yoko Ono owned a home in Palm Beach, as did the Kennedys. This was where a postal worker tried to as­sas­si­nate JFK af­ter he beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Con­rad Black, the dis­graced Tory peer and former Daily Tele­graph owner, also had prop­erty here be­fore his 2007 con­vic­tion for de­fraud­ing in­vestors. Lord Black was a keen ob­server of life in Palm Beach, and once said he had wit­nessed a Rolls-Royce Sil­ver Cloud smash into the back of a Rolls-Royce Sil­ver Shadow, which smashed into the rear of a Rolls-Royce Phan­tom V at the cor­ner of Worth Av­enue and North County Road.

De­spite that, ev­ery­thing in Palm Beach, in­clud­ing its money, is un­der­stated – the an­tithe­sis of Trump. Yet you could roll a ball down Worth Av­enue and eas­ily strike 10 mil­lion­aires, and maybe a bil­lion­aire or two if you’re lucky.

THE grand­est man­sion of them all in Palm Beach is Mar-a-Lago, which Trump bought in 1985. Build by the break­fast-ce­real heiress and so­cialite Mar­jorie Mer­ri­weather Post in the 1920s, it was the ex­pres­sion of “an Amer­i­can in love with the artis­tic splen­dor of Europe … His­panoMoor­ish tiles of Spain; the fres­coes of Florence; Vene­tian arches to in­tro­duce and frame wa­ter pas­sages … and a 70-foot cas­tle tower for unim­peded panora­mas of sea and sky”, ac­cord­ing to Town & Coun­try mag­a­zine.

It was orig­i­nally Post’s idea for the es­tate to be used as a win­ter White House and willed the prop­erty to the US gov­ern­ment in 1973 to be used as a pres­i­den­tial get­away. But the gov­ern­ment didn’t want the up­keep cost, so it re­turned the prop­erty.

Trump orig­i­nally of­fered $28m for the prop­erty, but it was re­jected. So he bought the beach­front di­rectly in front for $2m and threat­ened to build a wall to wreck Mar-aLago’s views. “That was my first wall,” he told the Wash­ing­ton Post. “That drove ev­ery­body nuts. They couldn’t sell the big house, be­cause I owned the beach. So the price kept go­ing down and down.” In the end Trump snapped the place up for $7m.

As a tes­ta­ment to Trump’s busi­ness acu­men, he re­stored all 126 rooms, added a 20,000sq ft ball­room and turned the li­brary into a li­brary bar, where he hangs the gi­ant por­trait of him­self in ten­nis whites. It now brings in rev­enue of about $25m a year from mem­ber­ship and rental in­come for public events such as wed­dings and fundrais­ers.

Above the door to one of those re­stored rooms is the name Mary Trump, the pres­i­dent’s late mother, who in the late 1930s trav­elled from Lewis to New York, where she met Trump’s fa­ther, Fred. This is the room where she most of­ten stayed when she vis­ited Mar-a-Lago.

Un­like the B&T or Ever­glades, you don’t need the right re­li­gion, colour or pedi­gree to be ad­mit­ted. The non-dis­crim­i­na­tion pol­icy brought with it a dif­fer­ent class of mem­ber – Jews, blacks, en­ergy drink mag­nates, sports team own­ers and hedge fun­ders. If you have the £160,000 join­ing fee, and £11,000 in an­nual dues, you’re in.

A few of the old guard be­gan com­ing along also. One Palm Beach in­sider, Anne Obolen­sky, a mem­ber of the Rus­sian royal fam­ily who grew up in Palm Beach and is a Trump sup­porter, says: “He essen­tially saved Mar-a-Lago. I knew Marge Post and her fam­ily. Maybe be­cause I was younger, I al­ways found the place scary and dark, and there were all these ta­pes­tries around the walls. He did an in­cred­i­ble job ren­o­vat­ing. It’s much bet­ter than it was be­fore. It’s a jewel now.

“Sure, the old money didn’t like him. The old guard, the ones with the enor­mous money, wants ev­ery­thing to be quiet and dis­creet. Then all of a sud­den you have a man like Don­ald Trump, who likes to be vis­i­ble and talk about him­self.

They didn’t want him in the clubs and that’s when I think he just said, ‘Watch this.’ And he made his own club

Not many peo­ple know about Palm Beach. Now it’s a bulls­eye – not just for vis­i­tors but pos­si­bly even for ter­ror­ists

“It was a big cul­tural dif­fer­ence. So they didn’t want him in the clubs and that’s when I think he just said, ‘Watch this.’ And he made his own club.”

Asked what she thought about the way Trump ac­quired Mar-a-Lago, she says: “It was busi­ness. That’s all.”

Obolen­sky adds: “As he got more successful, a lot of peo­ple just said, ‘What the heck. It’s a pretty place and they have re­ally good food, so let’s just go and have fun.’”

These days, de­spite heavy se­cu­rity, mem­bers and their in­vited guests get exclusive ac­cess to the pres­i­dent of the United States and some­times a grand­stand view of world events. Just a few weeks ago, in Mar-a-Lago’s public din­ing room, Trump and Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe scram­bled to re­spond to a North Korean bal­lis­tic mis­sile test. Mean­while, Trump got global at­ten­tion on his club.

WALK­ING into Star­bucks on Worth Av­enue feels like a scene from the Great Gatsby – but 60 years on. This is where the Jay Gats­bys of the world come when they’re older, and they still play a set be­fore lunch at B&T, drink their gin and ton­ics at the Break­ers and take an evening sup­per at the Ever­glades.

Al­most no­body in Palm Beach will talk on the record. El­iz­a­beth Clarke, the edi­tor of the Palm Beach Daily News, which has cov­ered Trump’s lo­cal feuds and law­suits, as well as the so­cial scene at Mar-a-Lago, for more than 30 years, says: “Peo­ple come here for pri­vacy and se­cu­rity. If you sud­denly have the whole world’s eyes on you all the time, it gets tire­some.”

One Palm Breach res­i­dent, who asks that his name be with­held, says: “Not many peo­ple knew any­thing about Palm Beach, which is what we like about it. Now it’s like a bulls­eye – not just for vis­i­tors, but pos­si­bly even for ter­ror­ists.”

“Yes, there are lots more tourists,” he adds. “But a man with three kids and a van is not ex­actly the tar­get au­di­ence. Lots of rub­ber­neck­ers, which re­ally isn’t any good for busi­ness on Worth Av­enue.”

Mark Ford, who runs a pub­lish­ing con­sul­tancy in nearby Del­ray Beach and vis­its Palm Beach so­cially, says: “The prac­ti­cal as­pect of the whole thing is a night­mare – the traf­fic, the road blocks, the se­cu­rity – but I can tell you why most Palm Beach­ers voted for Trump. Even if they don’t like him, they voted for him be­cause they want a tax cut.

“Most peo­ple in Palm Beach are re­tired and live on a fixed in­come – al­beit a high one. So any whiff of a tax break or a rise in in­ter­est rates gets their sup­port.”

An­other res­i­dent, a former banker from Man­hat­tan, is wait­ing for his wife out­side the Chanel store. He says he has played golf at Mar-a-Lago and has also eaten there.

“It was very nice,” he says. “Trump likes to work the crowd at din­ner­time and greet peo­ple. My wife thought he was like a glo­ri­fied maitre d’ who imag­ined him­self big­ger than he re­ally is – but I found him po­lite and very gra­cious.”

Clarke says she’s heard that one too from a few peo­ple here, the liken­ing of Trump to a

jumped-up maitre d’. And there it is, the per­fect en­cap­su­la­tion of a class bar­rier never to be breached by Trump, and by ex­ten­sion the nearly 500 mem­bers of Mar-a-Lago, who may not be wel­come at the Ever­glades or the B&T.

In many ways, Palm Beach is Trump’s ideal play­ground. He doesn’t sim­ply seek at­ten­tion, he craves con­fronta­tion and this sub­trop­i­cal bar­rier is­land off the Florida coast uniquely fits the bill.

Since his ar­rival here, he has breached ev­ery Palm Beach sen­si­bil­ity imag­in­able – from large-crowd events in the gar­dens of Mar-a-Lago to big groups of noisy chil­dren.

In 2006, in a prophetic sign of a po­lit­i­cal strat­egy to come, Trump hoisted a gi­ant Amer­i­can flag up an 80ft pole on the grounds of Mar-a-Lago de­fy­ing Palm Beach by­laws on flag size and height. Lo­cal rules dic­tate no flag­pole can be taller than 42 feet.

The town fined him $250 a day while the flag re­mained up. Mean­while, he went on CNN to say: “I just get let­ter af­ter let­ter say­ing, ‘Please fight, please don’t let them take down the Amer­i­can flag, it’s a dis­grace.’ We gotta pre­serve the sanc­tity of the flag.”

Ear­lier that day, CNN sent a team to the B&T, which was re­buffed by a valet. Re­porters later spoke to a shoeshine man, who told them mem­bers thought Trump’s big flag “made the whole area look like a used-car deal­er­ship”.

Trump sued the town for $25m over the flag dis­pute – but even­tu­ally dropped the case when his fines reached $120,000. The flag was low­ered, but Trump pulled an­other pub­lic­ity coup from his hat, promis­ing to do­nate $100,000 to vet­er­ans’ char­i­ties.

Then there was Trump’s le­gal ac­tion claim­ing the town had dis­crim­i­nated against him be­cause he al­lowed black peo­ple and Jews to be­come mem­bers of Mar-a-Lago. An­other was his $100m law­suit against Palm Beach In­ter­na­tional Air­port over the noise caused by planes fly­ing over Mar-a-Lago, which was only dropped in Novem­ber last year, just af­ter Trump won the elec­tion.

Obolen­sky says: “His way of do­ing things is very Rus­sian – which could ex­plain his affin­ity with Vladimir Putin. He likes to set off a small bomb in one place and then ne­go­ti­ate the fall­out some­where else. I ad­mire that.

“I do think he likes Palm Beach for more than the con­fronta­tion. Where else would he find a place like this? He’s al­ready risen to the top of his own build­ing. In this coun­try, where else is there to go? He al­ready owns big parts of New York, ar­guably the great­est city in the world. He has busi­nesses ev­ery­where. When you’ve done all that, Palm Beach is re­ally the only place left in Amer­ica.”

She adds: “Sure, there are clashes – and he usu­ally wins. I think he en­joys Palm Beach very much.”

Mean­while, as palm trees sway in the sea-breezy heat, Trump’s re­venge seems com­plete, es­pe­cially now that he’s the pres­i­dent.

But those old Palm Beach­ers are a re­silient bunch – and, no doubt, in some Bri­tish colo­nial man­sion or Tus­can villa, they’re bid­ing their time over gin and ton­ics, as the ocean be­fore them churns dol­lar green.


The US Coast Guard pa­trols the At­lantic out­side Mar-a-Lago, Don­ald Trump’s golf club and re­sort in Palm Springs to which the US pres­i­dent wel­comed his Chi­nese coun­ter­part Xi Jin­ping (op­po­site page) last week


Mar-a-Lago, which Trump bought for $7m, hosted the wed­ding of his son Don­ald Jr and Vanessa Hay­don in 2005

Above: Worth Av­enue is home to the main shop­ping district in Palm Springs. Above left: Trump with his wife Me­la­nia and their son Bar­ron

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