Eminentoes

Money, Money, and Trump

Showing the flag at Mar-a-Lago as no one else can (or would dare to).

By 2.2.12

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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The guy might have a bad comb-over and goofy TV show, but Donald Trump is no slouch when it comes to hitting the jackpot.

A case in point is Mar-a-Lago, the biggest and most famous mansion in Palm Beach and how Trump ended up getting it for basically peanuts.

Just a few miles away from where we're staying at The Breakers, the super-opulent Mar-a-Lago mansion and estate, with 119 rooms, including 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms, occupies 19 acres, sprawling from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Worth ("Mar-a-Lago" is Latin for "Sea to Lake").

Built in the pre-Depression 1920s by one of the world's richest women, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, married at the time to financier E. F. Hutton (a joining together that today's Occupiers might refer to as a merger of two one-percenters), the mansion was only a temporary abode, open just six weeks a year, from New Year's Day into mid-February.

It was picture-perfect for a few weeks of no-shoveling, no-slush wintering. On the ocean side, one of the mansion's 60 full-time employees could deliver fancy trays of chilled bathroom gin to the beach cabanas (Prohibition, 1920-1933, was in full force when Mar-a-Lago was completed in 1927). And on the lake side, the Sea Cloud, co-owned by Post and Hutton, was waiting at the dock, the largest privately owned sea-going yacht in the world at the time.

Its own stimulus program for Palm Beach, the construction of Mar-a-Lago kept 600 workmen employed for four years -- 150 of them transported from Europe to artistically carve the three shiploads of Dorian stone imported from Italy and to perfectly install and flawlessly caulk some 36,000 Spanish tiles, many dating back to the 15th century. The final cost was $2.5 million, back when a new Packard convertible was $1,355.

At her death at 86 in 1973, Ms. Post willed the estate to the U.S. government for use as a winter White House. Less than seven years later, citing security concerns and the mansion's $1 million-plus yearly maintenance costs, the government returned the property to the Post Foundation.

With Mar-a-Lago mothballed for over a decade and threatened by a wrecking ball, Donald Trump stepped up and paid $10 million for the mansion -- not a bad price for 19 waterfront acres in Palm Beach, even without the house. Just down the beach, an empty 1.74 acre lot on the ocean is currently on the market for $25 million.

"As part of the sale, Trump also bought all the furnishings, which in itself, was a fabulous deal," report George H. Ross and James McLean in their book Trump Strategies for Real Estate. "In fact, when he decided to turn the estate into a country club, he sold some of the antique furnishings that were of museum quality for more than he paid for the entire property."

Further cashing in, Trump licensed a 75-piece collection of Mar-a-Lago Furniture -- not originals or copies, just swanky beds and end tables "inspired" by the estate.

More aggressively, Trump sued the local airport over noise and pollution, seeking to move flight paths away from Mar-a-Lago. He also sued the Town of Palm Beach for $25 million for disallowing the flying of a 15-foot by 25-foot American flag on an 80-foot flagpole at the estate. He also sued the town for $50 million for denying his proposal to subdivide the estate and build eight McMansions on the property. He lost all three cases.

On the controversy of the oversized flag, not all the lucky loungers sitting around the pool at Mar-a-Lago were on Trump's side. Complained one sunbather who felt quite deprived because of the passing shade, "How are we supposed to get a tan with that stupid flag blocking the sun?"

Palm Beach officials explained that Trump's flag display violated local zoning codes that prohibited flagpoles taller than 42 feet. Trump had also erected the pole without a building permit and failed to secure a "certificate of appropriateness" from the town's Landmarks Commission. Additionally, the maximum flag size permitted in Palm Beach is 4-foot by 6-foot. 

"You don't need a permit to put up the American flag," responded Trump. "The day you need a permit to put up the American flag, that will be a sad day for this country."

Suggesting that Mr. Trump had dropped below the level of good taste that's expected in Palm Beach, Lee Hanley, Vice Chairman of the local Landmarks Commission, declared that the over-sized flag display looked like it belonged at "an Okeechobee car dealership," referring to a strip of car dealerships nearby in less fashionable West Palm Beach.

"Anyone who objects," Trump declared, "should not, in my opinion, hold a public office of any kind -- at least not in this country."

The dispute ended with Trump agreeing to reduce the height of the flagpole by 10 feet (still 28 feet above than the maximum permitted 42 feet) and agreeing to donate $100,000 to "charities agreed to between parties dealing with the Iraq War Veterans and the local Veterans Hospital."

Threatening another lawsuit, this one for $100 million, Trump eventually won the town's approval to turn Mara-a-Lago into a private club. There's a $100,000 initiation fee (half the $200,000 initiation fee in place before Bernie Madoff's scheme imploded with a ground zero hit in Palm Beach), plus $9,000 in yearly dues, plus $1,000 per night for a bedroom, not counting food and drinks (for lunch, a turkey burger at Trump Grill is $18, plus an additional $7, $6 and $7, respectively, in you want a small salad, some broccoli and a Bud Light, plus an automatic gratuity of 18 percent -- altogether, $44.84).

As a postscript regarding the mystery of the innovative comb-over, Vanity Fair ran close-up photos of Trump's hair with this comment: "This could be evidence of a rarely-sighted, possibly unprecedented 'double-comb-over.' It looks as if a length of hair growing from the part on the left side of Trump's pate has been combed left-to-right over the crown of his head, while a second length of hair, growing from the back of his head, has been combed back-to-front over the first length of hair. Salon-strength hair products likely play a role in the final construction of this lattice-like structure."

Lattice hair! There's probably big money in that too if Trump would license it. It beats a wig.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.