Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu

“Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” by Les Standiford

c.2019, Atlantic Monthly Press $27.00 / higher in Canada 288 pages

Half of you wishes your house were a different size.

One less bedroom, maybe, or a larger living room. More storage. Nicer bathroom. Then the other half of you thinks: bigger house, bigger mortgage, bigger repairs, more to clean. Now read “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” by Les Standiford and you’ll think leaving your house as is ain’t a half-bad idea.

A hundred forty-some years ago, there was no Palm Beach, Florida.

Indeed, the area we know as Palm Beach was, in the latter-1800s, little more than tomato farms, overgrown brush, and mosquitoes, and getting there was difficult and time-consuming. Few had the guts to tackle the journey: just a handful of white settlers, drawn to the marshy sand by the Homestead Act of 1862, lived on the mainland with the alligators.

By 1887, the island was dotted with palms from a once-floundering cargo ship, and the population had grown enough to warrant a post office in the newly-named Palm Beach. Still, it was a tranquil place, and it caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller’s former business partner, Henry Flagler, who was wealthy enough to afford to build and smart enough to see the possibilities in an overgrown swamp. In April 1893, he trumpeted the creation of a luxurious new hotel that was coming to Palm Beach. Old Money suddenly had a new vacation spot.

As Palm Beach became a private enclave for the Gilded Age’s most wealthy, bits of the island were purchased for the building of grand mansions; one purchaser was Marjorie Merriweather Post, wife of E.F. Hutton and heiress to the Post cereal empire. Within three years, her Mar-a-Lago, which cost around $8 million dollars in pre-Depression money to construct, held 115 opulent rooms inside 62,500 square feet of lavish space. Even so, its owner was not pretentious; Post was said to have been gracious and conscientious to the end, which came September 12, 1973.

Before she died, though, she tried hard to find a new owner for Mar-a-Lago, perhaps someone who’d love it like she did.

It would, she thought, in fact, make a lovely seasonal White House…

If you are someone who loves a biography, “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” is going to delight you. It’s a biography within a biography, times five.

Indeed, this book is mostly about a city in Florida, and how it came to be a home for some of America’s most wealthy citizens; in that, readers get a biography of its founders and of the Gilded Age in general. That tale would be as dry as cereal sans milk without a biography of Marjorie Post, who is inextricably linked to Palm Beach through the biography of a mansion. In taking that last part to its modern conclusion, author Les Standiford finishes his book with an invitation.

You don’t have to be wealthy to visit the island, but this book is rich. “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” lets you see how the other half lives.

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