Before he was a disruptive force in American politics, Donald Trump was recasting and remaking relationships in Palm Beach’s winter social season. Take the case of Trump and the season’s most prestigious gala — the International Red Cross.
In 2005, shortly after a new ballroom opened, the International Red Cross Ball decided to leave The Breakers, its home for 40 years, for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. The switch followed a nasty rift among the chapter’s leadership that ended with the ouster of the ball chairwoman, Diana Ecclestone, as reported by the Palm Beach Daily News at the time.
Initially, Trump backed the chairwoman and said he would no longer donate his private jet to fly ambassadors from Washington to the event. But when the new chairman, Simon Fireman, decided to move the ball to Mar-a-Lago, Trump changed his mind and offered his jet again for diplomatic transportation.
But Fireman, a felon businessman who made his fortune in pool toys, did not impress the island’s old guard despite a $750,000 donation he made to the local chapter. So, the ousted chairwoman and a slew of big-time Red Cross donors and society doyennes jumped ship and opted to attend a gala at The Breakers the same night as the Red Cross Ball.
Hosting the ball at Mar-a-Lago in 2005 not only allowed Trump to show off his new ballroom but gave him the opportunity to make a grand entrance with his new bride, Melania, amid the pomp and ceremony that includes diplomats in white ties and ladies in jeweled tiaras and the U.S. Marine Corps color guard escorting guests to their tables.
But after Fireman’s death in 2011, the ball returned to The Breakers in 2013 and organizers promptly poked Trump by honoring his nemesis: prominent Palm Beach socialite Dina Merrill. Although Merrill’s mother, Marjorie Merriweather Post, built Mar-a-Lago, Trump detested Merrill. In his 1997 book, “The Art of the Comeback,” Trump blamed Merrill for foiling his efforts to climb the social ladder in Palm Beach.
According to Trump, Merrill talked behind his back — “all of which would get back to me” — and tried to make him “look as “nouveau” as possible.”
After two years at the Breakers, the Red Cross returned to Mar-a-Lago in 2015 and the Trump Foundation made a $21,000 donation to the organization’s local chapter. Trump and Melania were also given honorary titles: international chair and chairwoman.
In June 2015, Trump announced his candidacy for president.
The month after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the president and first lady visited Mar-a-Lago to attend what turned out be the last International Red Cross Ball — at least for now.
In late summer of that year, the local Red Cross joined nearly two dozen other groups that canceled or relocated their events at Mar-a-Lago after the president’s remarks about a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Unlike the other groups that rescheduled their events at other venues, the Red Cross canceled the ball altogether — ending 60 years of fundraising that, ironically, began when Dina Merrill’s mother hosted the first ball at Mar-a-Lago in 1957.