First Lady Mrs. Lyndon Johnson called it a “beautiful never-never land.” Rose Kennedy, mother of President John F. Kennedy, attended square dances there.
A Palm Beach Post columnist wrote, “You go to Mrs. Post’s to dance or stay home.”
These were impressions of Mar-a-Lago, a sprawling estate in Palm Beach. Its name in Spanish means land between the sea and lake but it really lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Intracoastal Waterway. In 1967, it was called one of America’s most
elaborate 20th century mansions and was certainly the center of Palm Beach’s social scene.
Owner Marjorie Merriweather Post was a legend herself. Born in 1887, she came to own the growing Postum Cereal Company in the late ‘20s after her father, Charles William (C.W.) Post, died. Within 15 years, she had transformed that business into the General Foods Corporation and she became one of the wealthiest women in the United States. In addition to Mar-a-Lago, which was completed in 1927, she owned two other estates, married four times, and owned couture jewelry collections that included designs by Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Harry Winston. She was also a philanthropist and amassed an extraordinary collection of Russian Imperial Art.
When it was built, Mar-a-Lago brought together Old World features that include Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Moorish, French and English influences. Mara-Lago was mainly used by Post for entertaining during the high season — from early January to the end of February.
The dining room had simulated marble columns, frescoes, Spanish chandeliers and Venetian chairs. It took four men to put in one section of the dining room table because the sections weighed 300 pounds each for a total of 6.5 tons.
After rain repeatedly cancelled dancing on the patio, she added a 200-person pavilion in 1962 that also held 40 tables for playing bridge. There was a fallout shelter in the basement, and she eventually built an enclosure of glass for dining outside.
She employed about 75 staff members — maids, valets, kitchen staff, chauffeurs, secretaries, laundresses and watchmen. Guests — senators, ambassadors, generals, authors, artists, movie stars and family members — were flown in by Post’s private plane. One grandchild recalled her favorite memory, “Grandmother always had these wonderful comforters that were satin on one side and velvet on the other, so you’d wrap yourself in them and parade around pretending you were a princess.”
Guests were particularly impressed that the valets repacked their bags for them with everything cleaned and in tissue paper so nothing was wrinkled. One wrote, “On a visit to Mrs. Post, you came back looking better than you arrived.”
Post was superstitious. She would not ever seat a table of thirteen, cocktails began at 7:00, and dinner was scheduled for 7:30. She did not wear opals. She never put her hat on the bed or tolerated open umbrellas in the house.
The usual number of guests for dinner and dancing was 75. She loved to tango and square dance and had many pairs of shoes colored to match her square dancing outfits.
When Post grew ill, she bequeathed the mansion in her will to the U.S. government to be used as the winter White House. She died in 1973 and is buried at her Washington D.C. home of Hillwood, now a museum complete with extensive formal gardens, a greenhouse, and a pet cemetery. “Marjorie Post brought an incredible acumen for organization and impeccable taste to each of the grand estates she called home,” explains Hillwood’s Executive Director Kate Market.
In 1980, the government declared Mar-a-Lago a National Historic Landmark. The following year, it returned the estate to the Post Foundation citing the high maintenance costs.
Donald Trump first offered $28 million for the estate but to no avail. He persisted and following the real estate market slump, he obtained Mar-a-Lago for $5 million in 1985 and paid an additional $3 million for the antiques and furniture. Trump turned it into a private club in 1995 and built a 20,000-square-foot ballroom with $7 million in gold leaf gilding. Recently, he had a helicopter landing pad erected on the western lawn, big enough to accommodate Marine One. Since being sworn into office, Trump refers to the estate as his Southern White House and uses it as a Camp David style retreat.
Now Post got her wish—Mar-a-Lago is truly America’s second White House.