The genteel people of Palm Beach, home to the old-money fortunes of captains-of-industry scions, once ridiculed even their wealthy Kennedy neighbors — with their Irish Catholicism, Hollywood paparazzi and family scandals — as contemptible nouveau riche.
Then came Donald Trump.
Immediately branded by the notoriously insular locals as a vulgar arriviste, he acquired the late cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s landmark Mar-a-Lago estate — and the desirable social standing it bestowed — in 1985, only to spend the following three decades suing the town over and over again when it got in his way. The squabbles between Trump and the Palm Beach establishment became the stuff of tabloid legend.
My, how times have changed. Or at least, Trump’s place in the world has.
With Trump’s imminent presidential inauguration, Palm Beach has become far more tolerant of its most famous, and now most powerful, part-time resident. One might even be tempted to say the town has — gasp! — wrapped Trump in its collective embrace.
“That’s going too far,” chuckled Carey O’Donnell, a public relations and advertising exec and longtime resident who now lives on one of the three bridges leading to barrier-island Palm Beach. (The uninitiated often mistakenly identify Mar-a-Lago as being on the decidedly less upscale mainland city of West Palm Beach.)
Trump’s relationship with Palm Beach “has evolved over time,” O’Donnell conceded. “But certainly now there’s a drastic change. You wouldn’t call it an evolution anymore; now it’s a drastic shift — out of necessity, of course.”
And so, good luck finding a Palm Beacher today who offers something other than praise for the president-elect.
“Before the election, you’d ask people, ‘Are you for Donald Trump?’ They’d say, ‘I’m not,’” said Laurence Leamer, a veteran nonfiction author who exposed the foibles of Palm Beach society in his 2009 book “Madness Under the Palms” — and was promptly shunned. “And now they’re like, ‘I am!’”
“It’s exciting, let’s face it,” he added. “Even JFK didn’t create the commotion that this is creating.”
The furor comes at a price — in annoyance, for residents of ficus-hedged homes accustomed to a certain degree of tranquility and discretion, and in hard dollars, for local government agencies saddled with new costs to protect Trump and his family. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office estimated Trump’s Thanksgiving jaunt to the island cost about $248,000 in overtime.
The county has already asked members of Congress to assist in getting reimbursement from $7 million in federal funds. The problem: Palm Beach is hardly the only municipality looking for payment, given Trump’s penchant for dropping in on all his properties.
Trump’s mid-November weekend at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, cost the township several thousand dollars. New York City, home to Trump’s primary residence, Trump Tower, estimated it would spend $35 million from Election Day to Inauguration Day, an “unprecedented” policing challenge costing about $500,000 a day.
Last week, the Palm Beach Town Council gave Trump permission to take off and land at Mar-a-Lago via helicopter during his “term(s) in office,” to alleviate motorcade traffic. His visits could be frequent: Asked in a recent interview about Camp David, the traditional presidential retreat, Trump dismissed it as “very rustic.”
“It’s nice, you’d like it,” he told the Times of London and the German newspaper Bild . “You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes.”
“You’re not going to go anywhere else — believe me — and find the detailing you find at his places,” explained Toni Holt Kramer, a Mar-a-Lago member who, along with three other Palm Beach “gals” devoted to Trump’s candidacy, founded a group called the Trumpettes.
“We had to add Trumpsters, because men wanted to join, too,” she said, noting that they’ve been asked for interviews from across the globe: “We did one yesterday in France, and we’re the centerfold in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair!” (They are.)
Trump’s attention to detail at his properties is mythical. O’Donnell, the publicist, recounted hearing that, when it came to the Mar-a-Lago magazine, Trump objected to the use of contractions.
“He did not want a single one,” she said. “He’d make the editor go back and delete them.”
Unlike the Kennedys, who frolicked around town, Trump rarely leaves Mar-a-Lago (“Sea-to-lake,” because the property’s nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lake Worth Lagoon).
When he and his wife, Melania, showed up at Christmas Eve services at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, they received a standing ovation caught on cellphone video. The lack of decorum from parishioners — during communion, no less — prompted aghast letters to the Palm Beach Daily News, the society newspaper better known as the Shiny Sheet that has a section on its website dedicated to “Donald Trump in Palm Beach.”
“I don’t really know whether he goes to Taboo for lunch,” quipped luxury real-estate broker Pamela Gottfried, referring to the mainstay restaurant on Worth Avenue. “He’s got the best chef there!” Meaning, in Mar-a-Lago.
She and others interviewed for this story defended Trump as a full-fledged Palm Beacher, welcomed without reservations.
“I hope your article’s positive, because we’re all quite thrilled about having Trump here,” Gottfried said. “Palm Beach’s in the national spotlight again, and we love it.”
Without fail, even residents less gushy about Trump underscored that Mar-a-Lago was the first private Palm Beach club to accept Jewish, African-American and openly gay members. Though local lore has it that Trump was rejected from one of the traditional clubs — which still dominate much of the high-society philanthropic scene — he has said he never applied for membership anywhere.
“He opened the island,” said Leamer, the author. “He deserves credit for that.”
Kramer, the Trumpette, said Mar-a-Lago plans to throw an inauguration party Friday for members like her who can’t make it to Washington (“I’ll be warmer!” she said). Already, the venue is booked to host the Palm Beach Republican Club on Jan. 27 with guest speaker Ann Coulter, one of several conservative-media firebrands who live in the area. The Palm Beach County Republican Party’s got dibs for its Lincoln Day dinner on March 24.
The GOP has been holding its fundraising dinner at Mar-a-Lago for several years, ever since Trump offered a generous discount, said Sid Dinerstein, the former chairman.
“We sold 650 tickets in 24 hours and never printed invitations,” he said of last year’s hot-ticket affair. “He’s Elvis. He’s larger than life.”
Members and guests of Mar-a-Lago and Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach have come to expect Trump sightings — even post-election, to their surprise.
“They let you get close to him,” said Richard Steinberg, who sells real estate in Manhattan and Palm Beach and recently sat “two tables from Trump” in Mar-a-Lago for dinner. “Honestly, he’s the people’s president. It’s really unbelievable: You would expect the security, in my opinion, to be much tighter, but I guess he feels that the people who come to his clubs like him and are his advocates.”
“My Facebook feed is full of pictures of people hanging out with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” said Steven Abrams, one of only two Republicans on the Palm Beach County Commission. (He pushed the board in November to send Trump a congratulatory letter.) “While he’s been deciding on Cabinet appointments, he goes downstairs and has dinner and takes some photos. He’s down there socializing.”
Over the holidays, national TV reporters staked positions along the Southern Boulevard Bridge to get lakeside Mar-a-Lago shots. Town Hall has been flooded by so many media requests from around the world that Thomas G. Bradford, the town manager, said in an email he won’t give interviews pertaining to Trump. “I can’t get anything done if all I do is talk about the President,” he wrote.
The mayor, Gail Coniglio, a Republican, was also circumspect, telling a reporter she was “stepping on thin ice” for asking if she’d voted for Trump. Trump lost blue Palm Beach County but won red Palm Beach, though his victory margin in Mar-a-Lago’s precinct was narrower than Mitt Romney’s.
“I voted. I’m proud of my vote,” Coniglio said, without disclosing it. “He’s the president of the United States. I respect that office, and certainly he will be the leader of the country.”
Some of Trump’s Cabinet members will be around, too. His pick for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, lives about a mile north of Mar-a-Lago. Ben Carson, the designated housing and urban development secretary, resides in a neighboring city, Palm Beach Gardens.
Trump owns two houses abutting abut Mar-a-Lago that he sometimes leases. (His sisters also keep neighboring homes.) On a recent morning, the only signs of life along Woodbridge Road were landscapers, deliverymen and housekeepers.
Steinberg, the realtor, said he expects property values — and demand for Trump club memberships — to climb in Palm Beach in the short term. (This is a town where bare-chested male joggers were outlawed until 1987, insiders published an annual who’s-who tome titled “The Social Index-Directory,” and, to this day, Publix offers complimentary valet parking.)
“I’ve done two deals for my Park Avenue clients who want to be in Palm Beach, because they want to be near the winter White House,” he said. “They have decided, since he’s been elected, that the buzz and the activity around Palm Beach is worth it, just like it was with the Kennedys.”
The buzz might be undeniable, but not everyone likes that Trump’s presidency is what’s creating it.
“I’m not a big fan,” declared Troy Gustavson, 70, who was strolling Worth Avenue on a recent afternoon.
“There are two Palm Beaches,” said Gustavson, a part-timer who publishes community newspapers in Long Island. “We’re just not into the black-tie circuit.”
Gustavson said he attended the University of Pennsylvania with Trump and remembers him from campus parties. He and his wife, Joan, also 70, share Trump’s birthday week. (“We’re both Geminis,” Joan Gustavson said, taking no delight in the coincidence.)
Troy Gustavson, a self-described moderate Democrat, said he wishes Trump well but doesn’t think he’s qualified. He thought of organizing a “counter-inauguration” for Friday — sitting quietly in a West Palm Beach park, dressed in black — but the response from his friends was “spotty” so “I decided not to embarrass myself further.”
He vents to no one in particular when he’s near Mar-a-Lago: “Occasionally, when I drive by on my scooter, I have salient things to say that I can’t repeat for publication.”
For now, town residents will watch and wait for Trump’s maiden visit as president. The first indication of his trips as president-elect came with a touch of irony: The Federal Aviation Administration announced restrictions over Palm Beach County airspace that included Mar-a-Lago.
Trump once sued Palm Beach International Airport, seeking $75 million in damages from airplane noise and soot. More recently, he sought $100 million after claiming the airport was “seeking revenge” on his estate by purposefully directing flights overhead.
Trump dropped the lawsuit on Nov. 17, nine days after the election.
When he’s next in town, the skies will be quieter.