Donald Trump has become an iconic figure, rattling his saber at China and firing people on his show “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
But Paul Rampell knows a different Donald Trump. Rampell has been his Florida lawyer for almost two decades. It was Rampell who came up with the idea of turning Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach into a club.
When Trump bought Mar-a-Lago for a mere $5 million in 1985, no one wanted it. Marjorie Merriweather Post, who built the magnificent 140-room estate, saw it as a summer White House and willed it to the government. But Jimmy Carter, who famously lowered the White House thermostat to 68 degrees, thought the acquisition frivolous.
|Donald Trump speaking in Palm Beach, Fla. (Getty Images)
The deteriorating property reverted to Post’s foundation, which had trouble finding a buyer. No one wanted to assume the cost of maintaining the mansion — at least $3 million a year, including taxes.
Ten years after purchasing it, Trump turned Mar-a-Lago into a club that has been typically charging a non-refundable $150,000 to join, plus $12,000 a year in fees.
The roughly 450 members pay for dining and shows featuring such celebrities as Jay Leno, Celine Dion, and 11-year-old singing sensation Jackie Evancho. Members may stay over in one of the suites — for $750 to $3,000 per night.
Rampell, who is Jewish, realized that many Palm Beach clubs discriminated against Jews and blacks, as outlined in my book “The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society.”
Rampell pointed out that one selling point for a Mar-a-Lago club would be a policy of nondiscrimination. Trump loved the idea. Trump enjoys making fun of the town’s old guard who dominate the town and belong to those clubs.
I remember how Trump — a Presbyterian of German descent — imitated the constricted, nasal tones of blue bloods condemning his club when my wife Pam and I were flying on his plane to spend a weekend with him at Mar-a-Lago for research on the book.
The town was horrified at Trump’s intrusion. Palm Beach residents are the richest in the world. Behind the hedges, their affairs, scams, murders, snubs, intrigues, jealousies, and pretenses make scandalous novels look like nursery tales. Still, Trump represented everything Palm Beach society claims to hate. Trump was not only nouveau riche, he was aggressive and flamboyant.
Instead of the conventional $450,000 Rolls-Royce or Bentley, he drove a red Lamborghini, which can zoom up to 180 miles per hour. Instead of wearing the approved blue blazer with no tie, Trump wore nicely tailored suits with white shirts and ties. In contrast to the old guard, Trump enjoyed having money. Most of all, he enjoyed being Donald Trump.
Having proposed the idea for a club and having helped steer the required approvals through the Palm Beach Town Council, Rampell was giving a birthday party one day for his son Palmer, who was in first grade. Before the party, he opened the door of his Palm Beach home to find on his doorstep a present for Palmer from Trump — an expensive computer.
Rampell later learned that Trump had gone shopping himself for the item at Toys "R" Us. While Trump was roaming the aisles of the toy store, Kenneth Horowitz, founder of telecommunications giant Cellular One and a friend of Rampell, was also shopping there with his son, who was to attend the same birthday party.
Trump knew the tycoon and asked his son for advice on what Palmer might enjoy having on his birthday. Trump then personally delivered the gift to Rampell’s home in time for the party.
Today, Mar-a-Lago is a thriving success. Trump has built a second pool with cabanas and a grille along the beach on the ocean. He also designed a ballroom to replace the tent used for shows and social events like the International Red Cross Ball.
Based on sales of other Palm Beach property fronting on both sides of the 3.75-square-mile island, Mar-a-Lago is now estimated to be worth $300 million.
That success was on display at Mar-a-Lago’s New Year’s Eve party. Some 750 guests put on formal wear and sipped Louis Roederer champagne. Hors d’oeuvres included fois gras seared to order, caviar dished lovingly onto blinis, risotto with white truffles, colossal-size cocktail shrimp, and oysters on the half shell.
The band Party on the Moon kept the Mar-a-Lago pavilion rocking as guests donned party hats they found at their table. Even Trump’s usually reserved wife Melania, a stunning former model, sported a black paper top hat.
Among the guests were Regis Philbin and his wife Joy, and Gianna Lahainer and her husband Guido Lombardi.
As noted in “The Season,” Lahainer’s previous husband Frank indulged her every whim: He bought her a 25-carat engagement ring from Harry Winston, a white Rolls-Royce Corniche, a 32-carat sapphire, and a 26-carat emerald. In time, Frank contracted leukemia, and he died in Palm Beach at the age of 90. His fortune was estimated at $300 million. Frank left everything to Gianna, who was then 57.
It was poor timing. Frank died inconveniently during high season, which runs from January through March. Gianna decided to postpone the funeral so she wouldn’t miss any of the glittering parties, balls, and receptions that give Palm Beach residents their reason to exist. Instead of having him buried, she had her husband embalmed and stored at the Quattlebaum-Holleman Burse Funeral Home for 40 days, until the season was over.
“I wanted to go to the parties,” Lahainer told me. “He was 90. I am 60. So why should I wait? I did everything for my husband. I did his injections. I was faithful.”
Three days after Frank’s death, Gianna threw a party complete with beluga caviar and Dom Pérignon champagne.
“I went to a party at the Breakers, I went to a party on a yacht with Ivana Trump, I went to a party at Mar-a-Lago,” she said. “My new life was going on,” she said. “Why should I wait? I would miss the season.”
Ironically, Rampell eschews such parties and rarely attends Donald’s New Year’s Eve celebration. But he says Trump’s investment in Mar-a-Lago symbolizes the way he operates.
“He is very open-minded and has a humanitarian side to him that people don’t see,” Rampell says. “He will pay off people’s mortgages and hospital bills. At the same time, he is willing to take risks. Four lawyers told him the town would never approve Mar-a-Lago. He went ahead against long odds. He makes money by making people happy.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," has just been published. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via email. Go Here Now.
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