Welcome to Palm Beach, the Fake Island Trump Calls Home
A plutocrat and a bon vivant brought people, palm trees, and Spanish revival architecture to a Florida getaway for the rich.
PALM BEACH — In December, 1960, John F. Kennedy, the president-elect, was in his family’s compound on North Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, working on his cabinet appointments and what would be his landmark “New Frontier” inauguration speech. Around 10am on December 11 Kennedy and his wife Jackie left the compound to go to Mass at a nearby church.
As the Kennedy limousine turned into North Ocean Boulevard it passed a parked 1950 Buick. At that moment Kennedy came within a hair’s breadth of assassination. The Buick was a car bomb. In the driver’s seat was 73-year-old Richard Paul Pavlick, a retired postal worker. Pavlick had seven sticks of dynamite in the car wired up to a detonator in his lap. His idea was to ram the Kennedy limousine and blow himself and the president-elect into oblivion.
What stopped him was that he saw that Jackie was in the car with her daughter Caroline and John Jr., barely one month old. Pavlick balked at killing them all and, instead, decided to wait for a moment when Kennedy was on his own.
In the small New Hampshire town of Belmont where Pavlick lived the postmaster had been receiving postcards from Pavlick, from various places around the country. When one turned up from Hyannis Port, Mass, the postmaster suddenly saw the connection: Pavlick was shadowing Kennedy. Knowing that Pavlick had been obsessed with the election of a catholic as president – he was a rabid anti-catholic – the postmaster called the Secret Service.
A warning about Pavlick and a description of his car was passed on by the Secret Service to the Palm Beach police. Four days after his aborted attempt on Kennedy’s life Pavlick was stopped by police as he crossed a bridge from West Palm Beach to Palm Beach. The dynamite and detonator were still in the car, and Pavlick was arrested (later he was ruled to be unstable and sent to a mental home.)
Little was made of the case at the time and it was lost in the ghastly aftermath of the 1963 assassination. Few people today know of the incident, even though it very nearly terminated the Kennedy presidency before it began.
You can be sure, however, that this piece of history must be on the mind of the Secret Service this weekend, when Palm Beach has the strange feeling of being possibly the world’s most exotic fortress. For the first time as president, Trump flew here to his winter White House, no longer in his own jet but in Air Force One.
Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is at the southern tip of this island where the very very rich have for generations been tastefully discreet about keeping themselves secure and out of the public gaze. The fact that Trump is so ostentatious a presence not only violates that social code – it heightens the logistical challenge of keeping him safe, at a time when thousands of protesters are heading over the nearest bridge from West Palm Beach, and Trump is hosting one of the season’s biggest social events, the Red Cross charity ball.
In the air there is a 30-mile radius no-fly zone centered on Mar-a-Lago for private aviation and on the ground police check points screen all traffic taking the narrow two-lane road that passes the estate on the ocean side, normally the most scenic route into Palm Beach.
Nonetheless, given the geography of the island, a large part of the population can pretend that nothing unusual is happening and continue enjoying their gilded Nirvana. Access to the island is not much hindered: further north there are two other bridges to the mainland. Even then, this is a naturally hermetic community. Over the last one hundred years one of the world’s greatest concentrations of wealth has created a lifestyle on its own terms and it is not one that can easily be inconvenienced by someone many regard as a parvenu.
The whole place is really a confection of the imagination – to be specific, the imagination of one plutocrat in particular. When Henry Flagler, whose fortune was made in oil and railroads, pushed his east coast railroad down the Atlantic littoral of Florida as far as Miami in the 1880s he had to slice through a largely wild web of mangroves and swamps, ideal habitat for a colorful range of birds and some low-slung predators like alligators, but not likely to draw business for a railroad.
In south Florida he realized that this barrier island, then a part of the city of Lake Worth, with its magnificent beaches, was the perfect testing ground for establishing a new kind of resort – a place he called “a veritable paradise” and saw as a suitable winter retreat for both the old and new money from the northeast. To cater for them he built two luxury hotels and established the separate city of Palm Beach. In essence, one man had demonstrated how to manipulate a landscape to assume the characteristics of his own fantasy.
In fact, very little here is natural. The coconut palm trees that are the town’s brand mark are not native to Florida. In 1878 a Spanish cargo ship taking a consignment of coconuts from Havana to Cadiz, Spain, foundered in a storm. Many coconuts washed up on the beach near Mar-a-Lago and were planted as an experiment, and flourished.
But the palms are not much use for anything except décor. They provide little shade. They frequently shed bark. They are shallow-rooted and easily turn into missiles in a hurricane. They are high-maintenance – but then high maintenance has become a way of life in Palm Beach and a major business, keeping architects, landscapers, builders, physicians and exercise gurus in profitable employment.
Since there was no indigenous architectural style it was open to someone with a vision to create one. That man was a six-foot two inch, 250-pound bon vivant named Addison Mizner. Flagler’s two hotels, the Royal Poinciana and The Breakers, resembled Mediterranean grand hotels, but Mizner saw the opportunity to build for people too grand for even grand hotels, the plutocrats of the 1920s looking for dynastic mansions.
One of the first he built, in 1923, was for a Philadelphia department store magnate. From a design vocabulary that seemed partly drawn from theatrical versions of southern Spain – from, say, a set representing the Seville of Bizet’s Carmen – Mizner composed what he called Mediterranean Revival. The basic materials were stone, tile and stucco (better in the tropics than wood because of termites), the roofs were terra cotta barrel tiles and the defining flourishes included loggias and collonades.
In 1933 this house was sold to the patriarch of a powerful new Boston family, Joseph Kennedy. The original Mizner mansion was enlarged, to more than 16,000 square feet, with 11 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a tennis court, a pool house and a large lawn that would become the pitch for the Kennedy clan’s favorite sport – touch football. The estate stayed in the Kennedy family until 1995 and it was recently sold, again, for $31 million.
In contrast, Mar-a-Lago was designed by one of Mizner’s rivals, Marion Sims Wyeth, for the breakfast cereal heiress, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and took four years to build in the mid 1920s. Wyeth lacked the consistency of style and detail that Mizner displayed and produced something that looked more like a transplanted casino from the French Riviera, and with 126 rooms it could almost have been a grand hotel rather than a home. It was blatantly opulent in a way that no Mizner mansion ever was.
In her later years Post wanted it to become what it has now finally become – a presidential retreat. But in the 1970s the government rejected the offer, regarding it as too lavish to maintain on public funds. In the 1980s the Post family finally put it on the market, only to be gamed by Trump, never one to resist opulence, who had set his eyes on owning it. He said that the $15 million asking price was too high and threatened to block the ocean view with a new development. The Post family caved and Trump got the prize for $8 million.
Mizner grew rich building the big houses and estates, but he recognized that the style was adaptable to smaller parcels of land developed as communities for the middle class who also wanted their own piece of the American tropics for winter retreats. He created a corporation to build developments in new cities like Boca Raton and other enclaves along the south Florida coast, but the timing was unfortunate and they became part of a real estate bubble that burst with the coming of the Great Depression, and Mizner, along with some of his partners, went bankrupt.
At the time, modernists mocked Mizner’s work as ersatz and reactionary. But, unlike a lot of early modernism, his style has weathered well. For example, his influence is plain to see on Palm Beach’s ritziest street, Worth Avenue, where ladies who lunch do their shopping. The luxury storefronts could be in any of the world’s most affluent neighborhoods but behind them the small courtyards typical of Mizner’s detailing, with pools, fountains, flowering bushes and wrought iron balconies, have the genuine feel of Seville’s old quarter, and therein lies an irony about how the ersatz finally matures into the authentic: given the patina of nearly a century in the sun, the Mizner style seems to have become natural and indigenous to Palm Beach – or as natural as anything on this fantasy island can be.