Donald Trump and his opulent Mar-A-Lago estate

A dead-fish handshake and other memories of encountering Trump at Mar-A-Lago.


I’m already so tired of the presidential campaigns that I’ve retreated to the sanity-preserving mode of pondering ephemera, such as how did germaphobe Donald Trump get over his handshaking phobia?

Or will there be a bag man with a vat of hand sanitizer offstage when Trump hosts Saturday Night Live tonight?

Trump must have gotten the viral monkey off his back, or running for president would be daily torture. On the campaign trail, the only thing more crucial for politicians than kissing germy babies is the incessant pressing of microbe-bearing flesh.

Shaking hands once repelled our part-time Palm Beach County neighbor to the point he called the practice “barbaric.”

I wish I’d known that the first time I interviewed him.

It was April of 1996 and I was waiting for him in the gilded opulence of Mar-a-Lago’s living room. Palm Beach society had grudgingly accepted the opening season of his controversial Mar-a-Lago Club. I had a freelance assignment to write about the Trumpian reincarnation of the 118-room (now 126) winter palace of the late queen of Palm Beach Society, Marjorie Merriweather Post, once the richest woman in the country.

He swept into the room like an early summer storm, moving fast, calling out instructions to several trailing employees while sizing me up in a focused instant.

Introducing myself, I extended my hand and got … a tentatively-offered dead fish.

Too bad I hadn’t read his book, “The Art of the Deal,” in which he critiqued the handshake as “one of the curses of American society.”

Nor did I know that he’d written. “… the more successful and famous one becomes the worse this terrible custom seems to get. I happen to be a clean hands freak. I feel much better after I thoroughly wash my hands, which I do as much as possible.”

After touching my hand, he put his in his pocket.

Then he turned the spigot on the charm machine. I was writing for the Palm Beach Daily News and he wanted its wealthy readers, many still hostile to the barbarian so near their electric gates, to understand that without him Palm Beach’s precious but decaying Mar-a-Lago would have had a date with the bulldozer.

Stretching across 17 ocean-to-Intracoastal acres, Mar-a-Lago is the last of the mammoth Palm Beach estates built in the 1920s. It had been a shuttered white elephant since Post’s death in 1973, when she willed it to the federal government for a winter White House.

But the feds, citing its expensive upkeep and security issues due to its location under the Palm Beach International Airport’s flight path, said “thanks, but no thanks.”

In 1985, Trump picked up this symbol of American plutocratic wealth for a song — $7 million plus another $3 million for the furniture.

Stymied by the town in his efforts to subdivide the property, Trump came up with the idea of turning a profit by turning Mar-a-Lago into a private club.

As the people who put him at the top of Republican presidential polls have noticed, Trump can be charismatic. He has a flattering way of making unskeptical people believe he finds them fascinating, unless or until they make him angry.

I’d been in Mar-a-Lago twice before. The first time was in the late 1980s, when my husband was photographing the house for this newspaper after Trump and his first wife, Ivana, restored the mansion to its original state of over-the-top ostentation.

A living room whose 1920s construction exhausted the country’s supply of gold leaf was perfect for a guy who liked to put his name on everything in big gold letters.

My second visit was during the club’s spectacular “Mar-a-Lago Deja Vu” opening bash in December 1995. Trump had hired my husband to photograph his new club and we received an invitation. By then, Trump had divorced Ivana and married Marla Maples.

After auctioning off many of Post’s fragile antiques, he bought mass-produced reproductions that could withstand the wear-and-tear of club use, he said, which provoked grumbling from some Palm Beachers.

But to his credit, he left Mar-a-Lago’s most famous rooms — the gold-leafed living room, the 15th century tiles paving the entrance, the dining room’s painted frescoes — alone.

His fans and detractors call him many names — blustering buffoon, refreshing straight-talking outsider, bullying immigrant basher, celebrity businessman — but that day he called himself interior designer.

He’d hired a professional to refurbish some of the guest rooms, but took over himself “because I didn’t like some of it and thought I could do better. Much more of it is my taste than anyone else’s.”

That cleared up the mystery of why even the most famous bedrooms — the Spanish room with its tiled beehive fireplace or Delftware-tiled Dutch room — included large black ultra-modern TVs plunked down among the pedigreed antiques.

There were indications that Mar-a-Lago’s grandiosity was too much even for Trump.

An employee giving me the tour of Post’s ultra-feminine bedroom suite, with its silver four-poster bed and rare pink-and-gold marble bathroom, put a finger to his lips and opened a door to a side room.

Inside was what looked like a standard-issue Marriott hotel room, with oatmeal-colored carpet and nondescript furniture.

“This is where Mr. Trump stays,” he said.

I met Trump again in 2011, while doing a story on Palm Beach’s centennial. I asked well-known residents, including Trump, about their favorite places in Palm Beach.

Trump nominated the elaborate entrance to Mar-a-Lago’s master bedroom suite, Post’s former suite, that he now shares with his third wife, Melania.

I didn’t go inside, but met him in the covered alcove leading to their private rooms. He introduced me to Melania as “a very influential journalist,” which made me laugh. I’m not and he knew it, but hyperbolic compliments are how Trump flatters those he thinks can further his brand.

He pointed to the baronial entrance and exclaimed, “Look at these ancient tiles! The stonework! That door!”

“The whole house is romantic,” said Trump, “but this spot is only romantic if Melania is here with me.”

I asked him about running for president in 2012, but he said he hadn’t made up his mind.

But he was obviously getting ready for a future run. This time, his handshake was firm.


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