Mar-a-Lago and I have been involved intimately my whole life, one incarnation after another. Through a happy twist of fate, my maternal grandfather was the honorable Joseph E. Davies, and my step-grandmother was the legendary Marjorie Merriweather Post. Going to my grandparents’ was always exciting because granddaddy was more of a father than my actual father, an army general who was always traveling, at war, womanizing and not in the least fond of small children. He was good looking to the extreme, 6 feet, 7 inches and a world-class polo player, which undoubtedly added to his savoir-faire with the ladies.
The first time I had a chance to explore Mar-a-Lago in depth was when we came down from Washington, D.C., early one year well before the season, which ran from Christmas until Easter. This particular year my mother, governess and I arrived in September when there was only a skeletal staff, although it would be considered gigantic by any other standard. So I had plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny of Mar-a-Lago to my heart’s content, as long as I did my homework and didn’t get in anyone’s way.
At the time, I didn’t know the reason we were there early was so mother could establish residency to apply for a divorce as she’d accidentally discovered the latest women in my father’s life (there were always more than one!). Meanwhile, I was allowed to zip over to the Bath and Tennis Club to get my swimming lessons. At age 6, this made me feel extremely sophisticated and rather soigné. Of course, the reason this was possible was because Aunt Marjorie, as she disliked being called “grandmother,” had constructed a huge tunnel under AIA to protect the kiddies when they went to the beach or the B&T.
Aunt Marjorie realized she needed something more grandiose than Hogarcito if she were to become the doyenne of the social scene. She would have to surpass El Mirasol, Lucretia Stotesbury’s famous estate. She obtained a geological survey to find the most solid coral ridge in Palm Beach to anchor the house. It would have to be on solid ground to support the home she had in mind and resist Florida’s hurricanes. For weeks, she crawled through animal paths along with the intrepid James Griffin—carpenter, caretaker and head groundskeeper—in search of the perfect location.
They finally settled on a 17-acre tract that went from sea to lake, hence “Mar-a-Lago.” Once again, she chose Marion Wyeth, the soft-spoken Paris educated architect who had designed Hogarcito. She wanted a different style of house this time; one that could be constructed so the main rooms and the bedrooms could be accessed from a patio or courtyard, but she wasn’t excited by any of Wyeth’s drawings.
Then came a stroke of luck. While on a fishing trip to Florida in 1925, Flo Ziegfeld advised her to use Joe Urban, a Viennese architect who had some new, exciting ideas and had designed the lavish Ziegfeld Theater, as well as stage sets for the Metropolitan Opera. He had also served as architect to Emperor Franz Joseph and Hungary’s Count Carl Esterházy. As far as Aunt Marjorie was concerned, that did it. She cabled Urban immediately, and he arrived in Palm Beach 10 days later. She didn’t want the typical Spanish architecture so popular in Palm Beach at the time. Instead, she preferred something romantic and imaginative, and with Urban she got it.
Because she did not want to make the house seem too big from the road, they decided to face the house away from AIA and form it around a large patio overlooking Lake Worth that would serve as a centerpiece for the 115-room estate. According to Urban, it would be a large crescent shape Hispano- Moresque structure topped by a solitary tower. He alternately thrilled and horrified Aunt Marjorie by threatening to ruin her million-dollar budget, which, by the way, he did.
Whenever she balked at the expenses he would say in his thick Viennese accent, “Oh, but Mrs. M., it is so beautiful!” Inspired from the views on all sides, Aunt Marjorie planned from the beginning to call the house Mar-a-Lago. The crescent-shaped patio was girded by a curved cloister facing that shore. From there, guests could descend to the lawn or enter the cloister, which had staircases leading up to the second-story bedrooms.
While on a trip to New York, Aunt Marjorie was walking on a Long Island Sound beach and discovered similarly shaped oval stones that were about the size of bread rolls in soft, multicolor hues and thought they would be perfect for the patio. She picked up all she could carry, and the next day, she sent a group of men (which grew in the next few days to a force of more than 600) to scour the beach for more stones. They picked up all they could find, sending them by rail to Florida. Despite not finding nearly enough, the enterprising Jimmy Griffin began searching other Long Island beaches and with his crew found similar stones, picking them up and shipping them south until the contractor finally said they had plenty. Today, that might be a problem with the ecologists, but in those days there was no thought.
The house was already way over budget; the final cost was more than $5 million, as opposed to the $1 million she had originally appropriated. But it would probably cost more than $500 million today.
Because of the two architects—one classical and the other art nouveau—the house could not be said to be of one design or style, but whatever it was, it was spectacular. Among the other disparate building supplies that went into it, there were three boatloads of doric stone from Genoa. In the center of the living room on a slightly raised section (to make the most of the view) was an enormous window edged with stone pelicans, said to be the largest picture window ever built in the world at that time. This was my Captain Nemo window. Through it I sailed the seven seas, collecting great treasures from all over the ancient world.
Wyeth added a rare collection of Moorish and Spanish tiles from the estate of New York socialite Mrs. Horace Havemeyer. Aunt Marjorie thought she was buying about 20,000 tiles, but there were more than double when the shipment arrived. One local architect at the time claimed Mar-a-Lago had more Hispano-Moorish tiles than anywhere outside the Alhambra in Spain. The tiles were a real stroke of luck for Donald Trump when he bought the property, as he found a huge cache of them in the garages and was able to use them when he converted some of the garages and servants’ quarters into the spa and guest quarters, having them tie together with the main house.
Inside the mansion is a 34-foot high ceiling in the living room designed around a series of tall needlework tapestries, which once hung in a Venetian palazzo. To sustain the Italian theme, the ceiling was hand gilded in a sunburst design modified from the thousand-winged ceiling motif of the Accademia in Florence. Similarly, the seven arches around the living room were decorated in a millefleur background with the armorial insignia of the Venetian Doges. Beneath that were rare gilded Spanish lanterns, a 16th-century Spanish rug and a hooded Italian gothic fireplace, which is nothing less than breathtaking. Toward the back of the living room are four marble steps with Italian columns mounted on stone lions leading up to my Captain Nemo window where I voyaged endlessly as a child. Just beyond the fireplace is an arch leading to another small room called the monkey loggia, having stone carvings of the creatures, which somehow never appealed to me.
A few years ago, I interviewed Donald Trump in New York for another article. He had no idea who I was or that I had any connection to the family or the property. Only knowing I lived in Fort Lauderdale, he said I’d have to visit Mar-a-Lago and see the additions he’d made to the property. When we finished, he asked if there was anything else I needed, so I said I’d just like to have one more party there. He was caught completely by surprise. I explained my family connection and that I’d spent part of every winter there as a child and continued to be a regular guest until Aunt Marjorie passed away. He graciously agreed, and we had an event for our cruising yacht club.
When word got out about the party, we had any number of requests for new memberships. Since then, my step-cousin, Marjorie Post Dye, or Marwee (as she was known in the family), and I would meet there every year. She lived in Santa Monica in what we jokingly referred to as Mar-a-Lago West. Until Marwee’s recent death, at times during our stay we would dine with Trump or his sister.