Marjorie Merriweather Post was once the wealthiest woman in the United States. The daughter of breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post, she inherited the Postum Cereals Company after his death in 1914, when she was just 27; she subsequently attained a net worth of $250 million, about $5 billion in today’s dollars.
In 1924 she built a lavish estate called Mar-a-Lago on Palm Beach Island, Florida. The massive structure held 128 rooms spread over 110,000 square feet. It had 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms and the dining room was serviced by some 35 footmen.
In her will, Post donated the estate to the American government, hoping it would serve as a winter retreat for U.S. Presidents; but following her death in 1973, no President ever used it, preferring other properties. Thus the government, finding it too expensive to maintain, donated it back to the Post Foundation in 1981.
Post’s three daughters allowed Mar-a-Lago to fall into disrepair and put it on the market. In 1985, Donald Trump made an offer to buy it for $28 million. The Post daughters said no, holding out for more money. Trump then told them that he had purchased the plot of land in front of it–which wasn’t true at the time–and promised to build an enormously ugly house that would block Mar-a-Lago’s view and ruin its value.
The Post daughters gave in, and Trump bought the property for just $5 million. He paid another $3 million for the antiques and furnishings within.
Fascinatingly, Trump subsequently transformed Mar-a-Lago into a members-only social club that broke a dirty, unspoken rule of white-dominated Palm Beach society: Mar-a-Lago readily accepted Jews and blacks. Trump heavily courted celebrities, and anyone who could pony up the $50,000 initiation fee (or was comped) could join. Trump supporters will say he did this out of a desire for equality; Trump opposers will say he did this because it was fabulously profitable. Whichever side you’re on, I highly recommend you read the full story on it in both Vanity Fair and The Washington Post. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Today Mar-a-Lago is still a social club, with a portion of the house carved out as a private Trump family residence. He’s renovated the estate and added a 20,000-square-foot ballroom. The membership initiation fee had increased to $100,000 in 2012 and remained steady until Trump won the election; now it’s $200,000, plus $14,000 in annual dues.
Ms. Post had hoped Mar-a-Lago would become a Presidential retreat. Now it is, and it’s even got a new nickname: “The Winter White House.”