Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Q&A with Mary C. Shanklin




Mary C. Shanklin is the author of the new book American Castle: One Hundred Years of Mar-a-Lago. She teaches journalism at the University of Central Florida, and she lives in Winter Garden, Florida.


Q: What inspired you to write this history of Mar-a-Lago? 


A: About five years ago, I happened upon a National Park Service forum with comments about a little-known back story of Mar-a-Lago, which had just become the so-called winter White House.


Contributors posted that Mar-a-Lago was once part of the park service but, sadly, was delisted due to political pressures. One commenter referenced an out-of-print book – Our National Park System by former NPS officials Dwight Rettie.


I ordered the book from eBay or Amazon and, when I read the detailed case Rettie laid out, I became fascinated.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I became a student of newspapers.com, combing through a century of stories written about Mar-a-Lago and its sister properties. Congressional records and several presidential libraries also helped me.


I was fortunate to land an interview with the former congressman who led efforts to divest Mar-a-Lago from the National Park Service and he had riveting details of a House-floor showdown starring one of the rudest congressmen of that era – the late Phil Burton, of California.


Recordings of Lady Bird Johnson and Marjorie Merriweather Post enlivened the storytelling. Diaries told me about menus, entertainment, and gowns. Several presidential libraries and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County played important roles in understanding what happened to Mar-a-Lago.


My best break may have been getting a tour of the estate several years ago through a media group.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Mar-a-Lago?


A: Former President Trump got a good deal when he purchased it for as little as $5 million, records show. But what few people know is that he also bought the beachfront portion of Mar-a-Lago separately for $2 million, interestingly, from the one-time owner of KFC.


Even though Trump is often cast as the savior of the estate, he submitted plans to dismantle the property by building “mansionettes” there when his financial empire collapsed in the early 1990s.


After he and Ivana divorced in 1990, Mar-a-Lago became a disco party scene with guests including Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and the late Jeffrey Epstein. The new mistress of the house became Marla Maples, who retreated to Mar-a-Lago during her pregnancy with Tiffany Trump.


People might be surprised to know that Melania Trump is the third wife to head the Mar-a-Lago household under current ownership. And before Trump purchased it in 1985, Marjorie Merriweather Post went through a similar number of spouses in a place not necessarily known for marital bliss.


Q: What do you think Marjorie Merriweather Post would make of what’s going on at Mar-a-Lago these days?


A: Interesting question. Marjorie Merriweather Post's guest list and travels indicate she might have appreciated seeing heads of state, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, dine at her residential jewel. 


Known for keeping the property in pristine condition, she likely would appreciate the care and restoration that has gone into it. As the social queen of Palm Beach, Post graciously opened her doors – even for garden-club Christmas house tours. It's unlikely she would have supported the idea of charging charities top dollar to use the space.


Politically, she entertained leading Democrats before and after her marriage to Soviet Union diplomat Joe Davies, an FDR appointee. But she also sat near Nixon during one of his inaugural events. So she could work both sides of the aisle. 


Some say she intended Mar-a-Lago to be a winter White House. Rather, she fought long and hard for it to become the Mar-a-Lago Center for Advanced Scholars – an opportunity bungled by the state of Florida. 


Finally, it's doubtful that Post, a model of social decorum, would have appreciated any illegal stowing of documents or FBI raids. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The semester is starting at the University of Central Florida so, at the moment, I'm working on my syllabus but I'm also going through about 1,000 pages of depositions regarding a Florida semi-truck crash that led to a $1 billion judgment.


It says a lot about a society increasingly imperiled by its mounting reliance on a supply chain ending at our front door. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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