Trump Palm Beach: Mar-a-Lago, Breakers ready for season like no other

Updated Oct 27, 2017
Bascom Palmer Eye Institute Gala at Mar-a-Lago Club in March 2017. (Meghan McCarthy / Daily News)

The wedding celebration lasted four days, featured 700 guests and required the use of outdoor tents.

When it was over, the staff at Mar-a-Lago readied itself for the next big event: The opening of the Palm Beach private club to members, which coincides with the annual Halloween party on Oct. 31.

Night at Mar-a-Lago: Inside charity event with Trump, Sessions nearby

By all accounts, the private club and winter home of now-President Donald J. Trump will not be a ghost town this coming season, despite the recent departure of 21 charities that formerly held fundraising events at Mar-a-Lago.

In fact, Mar-a-Lago’s roster this season is packed with events, ranging from charities holding their first-ever fundraisers there, to private parties hosted by club members, including the 700-guest wedding extravaganza that took place Oct. 19-22.

EXCLUSIVE: Mar-a-Lago to host Trump booster bash Jan. 18

“All I can tell you is we are really doing fine. It will be a good season,” said Bernd Lembcke, Mar-a-Lago’s general manager.

Mar-a-Lago may be fine, but the clubby charitable world of Palm Beach is still smoldering from this summer’s clash between philanthropy and politics.

Trump mingles with guests outside charity ball on another trip to Mar-a-Lago

Philanthropists and Palm Beach residents say this coming season will be like none other. Some donors vow to boycott charities that in August canceled upcoming winter events at Mar-a-Lago, after Trump’s controversial remarks following the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. Philanthropists say feelings were hurt and allegiances split when charities bolted from Mar-a-Lago. Others say they will go in a show of support for the president they still fervently back.

An example of a charity still dealing with the fallout is the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation, which decided to move its Lady in Red Gala to The Breakers Resort from Mar-a-Lago. . And LIFE advisor and ardent Trump supporter Toni Holt Kramer, who founded a booster club known as The Trumpettes, said she will not support the LIFE event. “It would be a conflict of my heart,” Holt Kramer said.

The party goes on

Nonetheless, while charities nurse bruised feelings and frayed relationships, Trump will find his private club and event venue as busy as ever when he heads to Palm Beach on weekends, as he customarily did when a private citizen — and which he did on numerous weekends after taking office in January.

Lembcke said the recent wedding party earlier this month was for the daughter of a club member. The celebration was such a spectacle that some Palm Beachers wondered if the president was in town. He was not, and with a scheduled trip to Asia next week, he may not return until around Thanksgiving.

But the parties still will go on at his Southern White House. Other planned events at Mar-a-Lago include more weddings (including a 400-guest wedding set for December) and various birthday parties, including the 90th birthday party of Sarah Pietrafesa of Palm Beach Gardens, to be held Dec. 10.

“We all voted for him, and she wants a nice party,” said her son, Joseph.

Even Tuesday’s upcoming Halloween party will be busy, with up to 300 members and their friends planning to attend the festivities, which begin at 6 p.m. that night, Lembcke said.

In addition, the private club has gained several charities that will be holding events for the first time at Mar-a-Lago. They grabbed the dates made available after 21 charities fled Mar-a-Lago this summer, due to the controversy over Trump’s remarks following the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va.

Charities new to Mar-a-Lago include Orphan’s Promise, a Virginia-based organization affiliated with the Christian Broadcasting Network holding a gala on Feb. 17; and The Truth About Israel, which switched its gala to Mar-a-Lago from the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Some 700 attendees are expected for the Feb. 25 pro-Israel event.

Kramer said she’s adding another event: A celebration of Trump’s first year in office, to be held on Jan. 18.

Plans are afoot for the Red, White and Blue Celebration, which will feature cocktails, dinner, dancing and an appearance by Fox News’ Judge Jeanine Pirro. At $300 a ticket, less costly than other events held at the private club, Kramer expects the event will attract several hundred people.

Event planners say that for every space made available when a charity left Mar-a-Lago two months ago, another event was ready to fill the void

Meanwhile, charities that switched to other venues have found event organizers straining to ensure a good time and successful fundraising.

The Breakers Hotel & Resort, for instance, worked hard to make meeting rooms available for charities, said Paul Leone, The Breakers’ chief executive.

“We moved some space around, so if a corporation had the Venetian ballroom and we needed that date, would they mind moving to the Mediterranean room? Some of our clients cooperated and did it for the sake of the charities. We made it work,” Leone said.

In addition, the Breakers also permitted vendors not on its recommended list to handle events that switched to the hotel from Mar-a-Lago.

Party planner Bruce Sutka, for instance, was not on The Breakers vendor list. But when events he was planning at Mar-a-Lago switched to the hotel, officials allowed him to stay with the event. “They’ve done some maneuvering, and they’ve done an excellent job,” Sutka said. “It’s a good community response.”

The move to the Breakers was costly for charities, which forfeited deposits ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 at Mar-a-Lago, organizers say. And The Breakers’ renowned polished service won’t erase the fact that charities who canceled events at Mar-a-Lago are holding their events in unfamiliar surroundings and out of step with a social calendar where donors contributed to the same charities every year.

Charitable giving is a give-and-take, with friends promising to support others’ causes in exchange for the same consideration, knowledgeable philanthropists said. Now, with a political schism that has breached longtime relationships, Palm Beach society has a pall about it.

The sensitivities remain such that some donors will speak on condition their names not be used.

“There’s tremendous fallout,” one philanthropist said. “It’s almost like an Irish wake. A lot of people who were stalwart charity-goers are dropping out or dropping off. It’s going to be different from any other year.”

Indeed, one donor to two charities that switched to The Breakers from Mar-a-Lago said he plans to boycott the galas, out of protest for their departure from Trump’s property.

Although some donors say they’ll stay away from other venues out of loyalty to Trump, others say they just favor Mar-a-Lago and its castle-like ambiance: “It’s more elegant. And so aside from all the issues, I prefer it as a venue,” one donor said.

But other donors, including even the most ardent Trump supporters, say they plan to look past the political kerfuffle and back their longtime causes this charity season.

‘It’s going to go on as normal, or as we call it, the new normal,” said Suzi Goldsmith, an animal adoption advocate, philanthropist and Trumpette.

Goldsmith said she has no problem with others who decided to switch their charity galas to The Breakers, Club Colette or other venues. But she said she’s trying to concentrate on the charities, not the controversies.

“I respect everybody for doing whatever they want to do, but I always feel there’s no place in charity for politics,” Goldsmith said.

Therefore the show will go on at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, which is hosting two Tri-County Animal Rescue events this season. On Nov. 19, the Boca Raton no-kill shelter will hold the Peppermint Bark & Brunch, a $300 per person fundraiser at Trump International. Another event at Trump International will follow on March 5, when Tri-County hosts Canines, Cats & Canasta, a card party luncheon.

Goldsmith is expecting the usual donors, including “staunch Democrats,” because the donors are friends “and they believe in my charity.”

Alex Dreyfoos, a longtime philanthropist and Trump supporter, said he also will continue to support his causes, including the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which he helped create. After Charlottesville, the Kravis Center announced it was moving its annual wine auction to the Kravis Center from Mar-a-Lago.

“I can’t imagine that people are going to change their willingness to give to a charity, based on where the event happens to be,” Dreyfoos said.

What a difference nine months makes

It all seemed so different in January, when the prospect of the U.S. president popping into a charity gala upped the excitement for ticketed guests at charities, as well as club members and their guests.

Mar-a-Lago, with its Spanish tiles, lavish furnishings and gold leaf walls, is a popular venue. Aside from The Breakers, it also is the only other Palm Beach location that can comfortably seat 500 guests or more for dinner.

The sheen wore off Mar-a-Lago’s gilded fixtures, however, when this spring, groups began protesting Trump policies. Then they began protesting charities holding events at Trump properties.

A few organizations, such as the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston, said it would avoid “controversial venues” after its Feb. 18 gala at Mar-a-Lago was preceded by protests. Staff doctors and students at Harvard Medical School protested Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from selected Muslim countries.

In May, Dana Farber said it would hold its 2018 gala on Feb. 10 at The Breakers.

But other charities held their breath and signed on again at Mar-a-Lago, knowing they risked another Trump eruption — but hoping things would remain calm until after they held their fundraisers.

Then came Charlottesville.

Confrontations between neo-Nazis, white supremacists and counter protesters left one counter-protester dead. Two police officers were killed when their helicopter crashed.

Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people” on both sides was especially stinging to philanthropists, community leaders and charitable organizations when juxtaposed against the anti-Semitic chants of “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” by marching, torch-carrying neo-Nazis and others on Aug. 11.

At that point, “it became a general feeling in Palm Beach that Mar-a-Lago and the Trump connection are toxic,” one Palm Beach resident and philanthropist said. “If you’re a charity looking at the big picture, you realize it’s going to be way too controversial and will end up doing more harm than good.”

Charities and their leaders faced immediate pressure to rethink having their galas at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.

For Lois Pope, a major philanthropist in animal welfare and veterans causes, there was nothing to think about.

Although a Mar-a-Lago member and former Trump supporter, Pope immediately announced she was recommending the LIFE board pull her Lady in Red gala from Mar-a-Lago.

“Anyone who would demonstrate even a modicum of support for (neo-Nazis and white supremacists) by insisting that there are ‘good people’ among them is not deserving of my personal patronage or that of my foundations,” she said in an Aug. 18 statement.

In a Sept. 8 article for Time Magazine, Pope wrote that she made the decision knowing it “would not be met by unanimous approval, even among some of my closest friends.”

She was right. Some donors were angry and, like Holt Kramer, will boycott her gala. Two donors reportedly quit her board, although Pope declined to discuss the status of her board.

Last week, Pope responded to a reporter’s questions about how the movement of galas from Mar-a-Lago will impact charitable giving. Her answer: There should be none.

“Raising funds for charity must transcend political parties and personal political beliefs,” Pope said in an email. “Helping the vulnerable in our society…is the moral obligation of those who are more fortunate and have the financial means to help.”

Goldsmith, for one, is ready to put aside political differences and support the Lady in Red gala, hosted by her longtime friend, Pope. “I’m buying a table,” Goldsmith said. “I always support my friends.”

Other charity leaders say they made the decision to leave Mar-a-Lago after hearing from donors outraged by Trump’s comments.

“We are a national charity,” said Susan G. Komen founder, Ambassador Nancy Brinker. “We cannot afford to lose our donors. That’s what keeps us going.” The Jan. 20 gala now will be held on on the Grand Celebration MV Cruise Liner at the Port of Palm Beach.

One Palm Beach resident said even though charities faced national pressure, some local donors still were in favor of keeping events at Mar-a-Lago.

“There’s still a lot of support for Donald Trump on the island,” said the resident, who asked not to be named. “They accept that everything is blown out of proportion: Either the media is not reporting things accurately, or if he said something, it’s not what he meant.”

This resident predicted that more charities, and also business groups, quietly will start holding events at Mar-a-Lago, much as the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. has become a gathering place for political and business groups.

Big spenders get noticed by Trump and his family, the resident said: “They know who their best customers are. It’s still his business.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has vowed to manage the chaos of people who want the president’s ear when he visits Mar-a-Lago this season. Vanity Fair reported that Kelly will try to keep Trump out of the Mar-a-Lago dining room, where the majority of the guests will be.

Those who know Trump say that strategy will never work.

“He’ll go crazy,” said Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire and Mar-a-Lago club member. Greene recalls being at the club for dinner last season, when Trump walked up to his table and shook everyone’s hands and took pictures.

“Trump loves being king of his castle. He walks around and talks to the people. It’s not a policy discussion. He never engages in long conversations with anybody,” Greene said. “He’ll say, ‘How’s that hotel doing?’ Or, ‘What a beautiful wife!’ And that’s the extent of it.”

Al Adelson, a Mar-a-Lago club member and Trump supporter, said he’ll continue to support the Cleveland Clinic, of which he is a board member. The Cleveland Clinic also moved its gala to the The Breakers from Mar-a-Lago this coming winter season.

And he’ll continue to frequent Mar-a-Lago this winter, too.

“I’m disappointed these charities all ran away,” Adelson said. “But it’s their choice. I respect their right to leave.”

In the meantime, Adelson and his wife will be hanging out at the club, enjoying the private beach and playing with their grandchildren.