Back in the mid-90s, Trump was a nearly bankrupt grifter who fell in love—with a beachfront resort. In order to save Mar-a-Lago, he took on Palm Beach, went to war with the National Enquirer, and race-baited. It was the fight of his life, according to the author of Mar-a-Lago:
During the 1980s, Donald Trump had strutted across the American landscape, boastful, flamboyant, the Liberace of real estate. But by the early 90s, he was so over-leveraged that when one piece after another of his holdings did not perform at a high enough level to service his massive debt, the whole jerry-built empire began to totter. He bankrupted both Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and was close to losing the heavily mortgaged Mar-a-Lago.
“Trump loved Mar-a-Lago so much that he was willing to do almost anything to hold on to it,” says his former Palm Beach lawyer Paul Rampell. Trump petitioned the town to build eight homes on the 17-acre property, but was so disliked in the resort community that he was turned down. That led him to the idea of turning the massive grounds, once the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, into a private club.
Mar-a-Lago held its grand opening in December 1995. The theme was “Déjà Vu.” Trump re-created an evening in the late 20s, when the estate had been the scene of the most exclusive social events in the wealthy resort community. To foster Trump’s fantasy, 20 workers spent six months turning the ballroom into a black-and-silver cabaret from the Jazz Age. That evening a moon would be shining down on the formally dressed guests gathered around the swimming pool, but Trump wanted to light up the scene like day itself, and he brought in 72,000 watts of additional lighting. Parked along the Intracoastal Waterway were vintage Packard automobiles, another nod to the Roaring Twenties.
The club had actually been open to members since April, but Trump wanted a spectacular evening to shine attention on his accomplishment and lift him even higher in the mass consciousness. “People can’t believe how many members we have,” Trump told a Palm Beach Daily News reporter, looking out on the 350 members and guests. “The place sells itself.”
Trump believed that boasting about hundreds of Palm Beachers throwing their checks at him would cause a stampede for memberships. His enemy was always the literal truth, and what he was saying wasn’t quite what had happened.
Despite Trump’s assertion that he had initially charged $50,000, doubling the amount to $100,000 after the informal opening, most of the first 100 members paid $25,000. The money had been kept in escrow, and if the club never opened, they would have gotten their money back.
For some, it was cheaper than that. “I had half a dozen clients that didn’t pay to get in,” said C.P.A. Richard Rampell, whose brother, Paul, was Trump’s attorney. “Trump comped them because he thought that they would bring in other people.” Trump gave one man free membership in return for carpeting and cut almost as many different deals as there were members. For all his braying and boasting, Trump needed to attract new members who would shell out major money, and this showy gala was one way to do it.
Trump was still rising out of a financial debacle that included four business bankruptcies and a sale of many of his assets. “Half of his body was out of the quicksand, but the other half was still there,” says one early member. “Several New Yorkers warned me not to join. They said Trump was going down, taking Mar-a-Lago with him.”
The invitees entered the driveway past a gauntlet of cameramen filming for CNN, Fox, and other television outlets. No one else but Trump could have gotten national television networks to cover a party promoting a private club, but there they were. As the guests arrived through the main gates, they were serenaded by a row of violinists culled from classical musicians in South Florida, and as new arrivals entered the mansion, waiters offered cocktails, flutes of champagne, and hors d’oeuvres. The guests moved outside, where professional dancers dressed as flappers and their beaux danced the Charleston.
Once guests filled their plates with fresh jumbo shrimp, filet mignon, and lobster in a pastry shell, they sat down at tables around the pool. For dessert, there was a deliciously tart lemon torte, a rich chocolate-mousse cake, and other pastries so beautiful that it seemed a pity to eat them.
After dinner, the crowd flowed into the ballroom. The room was not large enough for everyone, so those who could not squeeze in watched on screens set up on the lawn as the cabaret singer Karen Akers climbed atop the grand piano. Akers’s songs evoked feelings of the long-gone era. Afterward, on the veranda, Tony Bennett sang a few more songs.
Trump wore black-tie and walked through the party alongside Marla Maples Trump, who wore a beaded flapper-like gown, elbow-length white gloves, and an ivory headpiece from the 20s. Trump greeted one guest after another, never stopping for long, moving on with nervous intensity and then moving on again, rarely letting anyone touch him.
“It was a scene out of The Great Gatsby,” the Palm Beach Daily News began its front-page story on the gala. It was natural to compare Trump to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest creation, and Trump may have planned the evening with that in mind. He did not have Gatsby’s mysterious aura, but he did share Fitzgerald’s description of the character in that there was “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Trump also possessed Gatsby’s restless quality as described by Fitzgerald: “He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand.”
Trump had begun to claim that the club was his idea, even though it was very much the vision of Paul Rampell, who told Trump there was room on the island for a new club open to everyone. “The town of Palm Beach is probably about half Christian and half Jewish,” Rampell said. “There are five clubs. Four of those clubs are restricted. No Jews. No African-Americans.” A majority of the members were Jewish, but there were many Christian members. At the party, the two groups melded seamlessly, and for that alone, the evening was a seminal event in Palm Beach history.
On his Palm Beach weekends, Trump almost always played tennis. Rare was the opponent who challenged Trump’s inspired line calls. He used the same approach on the links when the game mattered. “In championships, he’s a chronic cheater,” says one of his caddies. “He gave me a ball and said, ‘Keep it. If we don’t find my ball, drop this one. It’s marked the same way.’ ”
As in his golf game, Trump was willing to do almost anything to make Mar-a-Lago the premier club in Palm Beach. “Those early years, it was Camelot on steroids,” says one charter member. “It was Richie Rich playing with all his toys. Donald was under the gun to make everything first class, and that’s what he did. We’d say, ‘Holy cow, look who Donald has coming!’ For $120 you had a fabulous buffet dinner and a show with a 50-piece orchestra and a world-class performer like James Brown or the Temptations. Many of the performers stayed around and you could talk to them just like anybody. I had lunch with Tony Bennett once and played tennis with Regis Philbin.”
Trump and Maples and baby Tiffany flew down almost every weekend to Mar-a-Lago. Instead of staying in a guest room, as Paul Rampell had promised to the town council, they took over the suite of rooms that had once been Post’s quarters.
Trump regularly used Mar-a-Lago to advance his other business interests. He believed that even the fiercest deal-maker could be won over by a visit to the resort. When Trump attempted to build a casino in Florida in association with the Seminole Indians, he brought members of the tribe to Mar-a-Lago and set out on the stage an enormous alligator, a species as familiar to the Native Americans as pigeons were to New Yorkers. The alligator’s jaws had been clamped shut with tape, and some of the guests went up and petted the denizen of the Everglades swamps. But Trump was unable to make a deal with Seminoles. It may not have helped that he had reportedly referred to the Pequots of Connecticut as the “Michael Jordan Indians” and opined that “organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservation.”
As Trump’s fortunes began to revive, he faced the painful problem of his parents’ slow demise. Fred and Mary Trump were well into their 80s, and neither was doing well. His father had Alzheimer’s, and his mother was suffering, too. He could have afforded to shuttle his parents off to caregivers, rarely allowing them to interrupt his busy life. But he didn’t do that.
“Every time we flew to Palm Beach, we’d carry Trump’s mother up the stairs and set her on a chair in the back of the plane,” recalled Mike Donovan, his personal pilot. “Then we’d bring his father on board, too. And we’d sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half while Trump talked to his parents. His father couldn’t fly. We’d bring him down the ramp and put him in his car, and then we’d take off for Florida carrying his mother with us.” Trump would have done almost anything to have his father fly with him, but Fred Trump’s health did not allow it, and it gave him some measure of pleasure just to sit and talk to his son before the plane flew south.
Trump enjoyed his weekends in Palm Beach, but Marla couldn’t stand parts of her life there. The very things her husband loved about the estate appalled Maples. She sought privacy, but unless she huddled alone with Tiffany in the family quarters, wherever she went she ran into people. She also wanted a true husband and father, someone she could talk to and someone who would walk down Fifth Avenue pushing a baby carriage.
There was an immense sadness and loneliness about Maples. Like Ivana, Trump’s first wife, Marla tried to please her husband by becoming what he wanted. With her apparent guileless innocence, she seemed even younger than she was (always a plus in Trump’s book). There weren’t many women like this in Trump’s world-weary New York scene, and initially he was enchanted. But as his girlfriend and wife, he wanted a decked-out woman for display on his arm.
“Putting on gowns and going out hosting events and having Harry Winston put jewelry on my hands was always uncomfortable for me—that was me playing a role,” Maples told People in 2016. “I felt that’s what the job called for.” And so it did. In the end the woman Trump loved disappeared, and Marla turned into just another Trump girl.
The Trumps’ marriage was soon so troubled that sources close to them say Maples often stayed in Florida when Trump flew up to New York to spend the week. The staff reported seeing Trump on his plane with models. It was clear theirs was not a marriage for the ages.
In mid-April 1996, while Marla was still at Mar-a-Lago, the National Enquirer’s Wayne Grover called Trump in his New York office. “Look,” Grover said, “we’ve got this story.” He knew what Trump’s reaction would be, but he had to forge ahead. “Marla was caught by the cops under this lifeguard stand on the beach near Delray in the middle of the night having sex with your bodyguard.”
Trump was disbelieving. The cops might have caught him on the beach a few miles south of Mar-a-Lago having sex, but not his wife. And not with his employee. “No, no, that’s not the way it was,” Trump said, as if he had been on the beach that early morning. “Goddamn it, I’m going to sue you guys for fucking lying about this. I’ll have your ass ten times over.”
Trump and Grover were like an old married couple to whom squabbling had become the preferred means of communication. Grover had felt Trump’s wrath many times. The tabloid reporter knew whenever it happened, the best thing was to look Trump in the eye and talk him down from his rage. Grover flew to New York with his editor Larry Haley to see if he could make Trump see reason. He wasn’t going to be able to hide this forever, and Grover would spin it about as well as it could be spun.
Trump wouldn’t even see Grover and Haley. He agreed to talk only on the phone. By then Trump had his tale straight. “He made up a bullshit story that Marla was with her girlfriend,” Grover says. “And they stopped every 15 minutes to call him, and she had to pee real bad. So she went to pee under the lifeguard stand, and the bodyguard was just watching over to make sure nobody came back and caught her.”
Grover was sure about what had happened because the police officer had come to Grover’s house and told him the whole story about catching Marla with 35-year-old Spencer Wagner. The tabloid’s lawyers ultimately let the publication run a cover story with the headline: SHOCK FOR TRUMP! MARLA CAUGHT WITH HUNK / COPS INTERRUPT LATE NIGHT BEACH FROLIC. The piece was carefully written with enough innuendo that readers would conclude that the couple was having sex. It appeared that Marla had done to Trump what Trump had done many times to Ivana—devastating beyond imagination to a man of Trump’s macho self-image, and the worst thing about it was that he couldn’t do anything. His only choice to avoid endless public humiliation seemed to be to stay married to Marla until the ugly matter blew over.
Trump flew down to Palm Beach, where Marla released a statement that she had needed to relieve herself that evening and Wagner had stood a respectable distance away. Trump’s spokesman also issued a statement: “Along the lines of Elvis sightings and Martian invasions, the National Enquirer has once again fabricated a wholly unreliable cover story for this week’s issue.”
Despite having excoriated the National Enquirer, for the next week’s issue Trump gave the tabloid an interview where he played the loving husband, loyal and trusting beyond measure: “Any man would be shocked to hear his wife was stopped by the police at 4:00 A.M. with another man on the beach—but I am not just any man, and Marla is not just any woman. I love Marla, and I trust her.”
For the first few days, Trump put Wagner up in a house he owned near Mar-a-Lago, where the assistant club manager Nicholas “Nick” Leone Jr. brought him food. Then one day when Leone took Wagner a meal, he discovered that the bodyguard was gone. A few months later, Wagner sold his story to one of the National Enquirer’s competitors, the Globe. After the Globe said he passed a lie-detector test, the tabloid published a front-page story headlined, MY SECRET AFFAIR WITH MARLA. Trump sued Wagner in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, not for libel but for violating a confidentiality agreement.
By all appearances the bodyguard’s life was ruined. Nobody wanted to hire him any longer, and he fell lower and lower. In 2012, he died of a drug overdose in a likely suicide.
While Trump continued to portray Marla as a loyal and loving wife, everything irritated him. His club was shackled by onerous rules he had agreed to in order to get the town council to approve it—rules that the Bath and Tennis and the Everglades did not have to follow. The Mar-a-Lago Club was limited to 500 members (the B&T had nearly twice as many), and events were limited to 390 guests. Trump wanted to go back to the town council to get the rules changed. Paul Rampell cautioned Trump that they should wait five years, until he had built the membership into a political constituency to support him. Rampell also said that making anti-Semitism a part of their argument with the town council would backfire.
Trump didn’t listen. He saw the anti-Semitism at the other clubs as a handy bludgeon at his disposal for attacking his enemies. He intended to claim that the only reason his club had such onerous rules was because he allowed Jewish members. By making that argument, he would ensure that even if he didn’t get the rules changed, he would have harmed his enemies. Thriving on controversy, he relished going back into the fray, berating the town as a bastion of anti-Semitism, casting a full measure of shame and embarrassment across the community.
Trump saw himself as the wronged party—having been singled out with restrictions that didn’t apply to the other clubs—and his revenge came from being at the center of what to him was an exhilarating controversy. He enjoyed unsettling the island and dividing it into those who esteemed him and those who loathed him.
Rampell was in an untenable position. He thought Trump’s approach was wrong in any number of ways, but what could he do? To preserve the relationship, he had to do what his client wanted, but the whole thing was making him increasingly uncomfortable.
In the spring of 1996, Trump called the restrictions on his membership numbers “discriminatory, unfair and unconstitutional.” “We’ve always felt that it was discriminatory and very unfair,” he said. “I always felt I would bring it up at the appropriate time, when the club was a proven success.”
Many of the rules had been instated for clearly legitimate reasons. Mar-a-Lago was in a part of town that was zoned as residential. People living there feared what increased traffic and noise might mean for their neighborhood. It turned out that the club created almost no problems, and Trump could have gone to the town in a straightforward way and made a strong case that such rules were not needed. But he sought to stain his enemies with charges that would stick.
Trump went to war to overturn these restrictions. TRUMP RIPS PALM BEACH JEW-HATERS, ran the headline in the New York Post. The story told how Trump not only raged against the so-called anti-Semites but also had Paul Rampell mail town-council members, community leaders, and local journalists videotapes of Gentleman’s Agreement, the classic 1947 film about a reporter who pretends he’s Jewish to understand anti-Semitism in post-World War II America.
“Sending out Gentleman’s Agreement was a horrible idea, horrible,” said Robert Moore, the longtime Palm Beach building inspector who had been supportive of most of Trump’s efforts. “It had the reverse effect of what he wanted.” Trump ended up insulting any number of Palm Beachers, many of them Jewish. William Guttman, an executive-committee member of the Palm Beach Civic Association, said that he was “deeply offended” by the “crude effort to interject anti-Semitism into a hearing on a zoning matter.”
Trump probably fancied himself a version of the film’s star, Gregory Peck, fighting the good American fight against discrimination. “We proudly have Jewish members, and if I didn’t have Jewish members, the Mar-a-Lago Club wouldn’t be going through what it’s going through with regard to discrimination,” he said. Jewish members of the town council had almost always voted as a bloc on any issue that even peripherally involved their religion. That was no longer the case. Allen S. Wyett, one of the two Jewish councilmen, was Trump’s most intransigent foe. Wyett was not hostile to his religious brethren but felt that much of what Trump was demanding was wrong. Realizing the danger Wyett represented, Trump tried to ingratiate himself with the councilman by offering him a free Mar-a-Lago membership and rides on his jet to and from New York. Wyett always turned them down.
On September 16, 1996, the town council debated whether the restrictions on Mar-a-Lago should be removed. The old-fashioned white-paneled council chambers had a waist-high banister that separated the council members from the 143 seats for the public. It could have been the setting for a New England town meeting. Even though the debate took place at a time of year when there were few people in town, every seat was taken and at least 70 people stood around the back of the room. As the meeting started, Trump walked to the front of the chambers to address the council. “I’m very proud of what’s happened at Mar-a-Lago,” he said. “A few of you know that prior to my purchase, we were close to seeing the wrecker’s ball into the property.” That was not true, but to Trump, history was an inventive reconstruction to help him get what he wanted in the present. He also claimed he had saved the estate in a “non-discriminatory fashion,” a dig at the restricted clubs.
When Trump finished, Paul Rampell got up to speak. Like so many people who got close to Trump, Rampell was losing his sense of self and had become his client’s one-man claque. Rampell was a restrained man, not given to excess in word or deed. But he had been around Trump enough to know his employees were expected to praise him with accolades so extreme they might have embarrassed Stalin. Rampell began by saying many on the island had become so obsessed with Trump, they couldn’t see the issues at stake. He said that Trump was a wildly successful businessman, best-selling author, movie star, political activist, television entertainer, and financial genius. “You forgot scratch golfer,” said Council President Lesly Smith.
“I love Donald Trump,” Rampell said, as if anyone doubted this. Rampell said Trump’s troubles in Palm Beach resulted from not going along with the “gentleman’s agreement.” Rampell pointed to Mayor Paul Ilyinsky, Council President Lesly Smith, and Town Attorney John Randolph and said they should step down from any further role in the hearings because they belonged to restricted clubs.
“To listen to this trash coming from you and Mr. Paul Rampell, frankly, is going to make me throw up,” Mayor Ilyinsky told James Green, one of Trump’s other lawyers.
“Do so, sir,” Green replied.
“I may do so on you,” said the mayor.
America’s leading authority on anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (A.D.L.), was inevitably drawn into this high-profile squabble. The group asked Trump’s lawyer to back up his allegations and gave him two weeks to submit the promised evidence. He did not, and Arthur Teitelbaum, the A.D.L.’s southern regional director, issued a statement: “In our view, raising the specter of anti-Semitism without credible evidence is reckless and harmful to the entire community.”
Trump didn’t seem to understand the danger involved in throwing out claims of anti-Semitism just to get his way. He took his case to Abraham Foxman, the A.D.L.’s national director. “Who the fuck is this guy, Teitelbaum?” Trump asked. “Abe, it’s anti-Semitism. All my members will be Jewish.”
“Donald, that’s anti-Semitism,” Foxman said. “You don’t know who your members will be.” Foxman was trying to explain to Trump that by saying that gentiles would not want to be in a club with Jews, he was the one acting in a blatantly biased manner. By invoking anti-Semitism, Trump and his attorneys had put the town council in a position where it would be admitting to prejudice if it did away with the 11 stipulations. When the matter came to a vote in November, the council removed only three minor restrictions, leaving eight intact.
After all he went through with the town council, Rampell just couldn’t do it anymore. He went to Trump and said he would no longer be his lead lawyer. He no longer could live overwhelmed by Trumpian reality.
From Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace, by Laurence Leamer. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.