Essays: A spa is born |
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A spa is born

by Vicki Woods

On a brassbound, blue Floridian day, Marla Maples Trump hangs her perfectly beautiful head and folds her arms over a virtually fat-free body clothed in small pieces of white stretch Lycra. She is wondering whether or not to have the needles stuck in her face, at Annie Leibovitz’s urging, for the acupuncture picture. Her personal acupuncturist is standing by, with the requisite needles. In fact, hundreds of people are standing by. Donald has apparently said No to the acupuncture picture. Donald isn’t here at Mar-a-Lago. On a weekday? Are you kidding? Donald Trump? No – Donald is back in the city that never sleeps, running around in a suit and tie, working, making deals. (Says Marla: ‘This man will not take downtime. His idea of downtime is watching the financial news on the TV, eating popcorn.’) So Donald is not here. But his presence is here. And his people are here. Donald’s people think No to the acupuncture picture, if anybody’s asking them, which they aren’t. Marla thinks Maybe Yes to the acupuncture picture, but her people think Maybe No because they seem to be taking a line from Donald’s people.

Marla thinks Maybe Yes because she is keen to proselytise the virtues of acupuncture (‘I think our bodies are so perfectly designed that it makes sense’), along with various other New Age mind-body disciplines. Marla has a mission to promote lasting physical and spiritual well-being through ‘natural, holistic forms of healing’, here, at Mar-a-Lago.

Marla’s people (and Donald’s people, and me, and Annie Leibovitz and her people, and Mar-a-Lago security people and a load of other people we’ll get to in a minute) are standing under the tall marble colonnades of the Hispano-Mooresque masterpiece that Marjorie Merriweather Post and her husband, E. F. Hutton, built in 1927 for a million and a half dollars more than the million they first intended, and Donald J. Trump bought in 1985 at the bargain price of $10 million. Underfoot is a patterned tessellated courtyard for which Mrs Post had so many pebbles collected from a Long Island beach that it ran out of pebbles and they had to find her another one. Behind are steps to a blue tiled pool with a fountain guarded by the white swans that Madonna posed on for her Versace pictures. Above our heads is a curved balcony buttressed by massive gold eagles. (Mrs Post commissioned so much gilding, legend has it, that the state of Florida briefly ran out of gold.) To one side is the ocean, visible through the biggest piece of plateglass ever made (at that time) in America, and to the other is Lake Worth, which locals unromantically call ‘the Intercoastal’. Mrs Post’s – now Mrs Trump’s – property stretches from the edge of the ocean to the edge of the Intercoastal: from the mar to the lago – hence, Mar-a-Lago.

Mrs Post used the house as a winter residence. She held her world-famous parties here at which le tout Palm Beach used to square-dance vigorously despite being helped along by very little in the way of alcohol (Mrs Post, a Christian Scientist, disapproved of alcohol). Mr Trump used the house as a weekend cottage, but it leached money, what with Palm Beach taxes, upkeep of grounds, golf course, gold eagles and all. So, after a brief spat with the town commissioners (he wanted to subdivide the house – the state of Florida’s only designated landmark – and they refused), he transformed it into a world-famous club in which he has built a world-famous spa, a sister spa to the renowned Greenhouse of Arlington, Texas. Membership of this enviable club (and spa) can be bought (currently) for $75,000, plus an annual fee of $5,000, not including food or personal services, but you should grab it while it’s still a bargain. Membership started at $25,000 in October l995 and there are 300 members already – not including the Princess of Wales, whatever you may have heard – and the list will close at 500. 

Overhead – only about 1,000 feet overhead, in fact – a McDonnell Douglas wide-bodied jet drags its vast body across the skies on its way to West Palm Beach airport, which is ten minutes away by car. The airplane engines drown out the animated discussion between Annie Leibovitz and Marla and her people, not to mention spraying the tessellated courtyard, the marble porticoes, the carved-stone cladding, the gold eagles, the white swans and the pretty little bell tower with the residue of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. There is an amazing silence after it’s gone, broken only by the faint hum of another one on the horizon. You can’t hear the airplane from Marla’s dressing room, where she explains why she loves Mar-a-Lago: ‘You have such a combination here. You have the old world and the new. This piece of land is so tranquil…’ she says. ‘So serene.’  

Mar-a-Lago is a big property. It needs to be. As well as Marla’s people and Donald’s people, there are Mar-a-Lago house people: crisply dressed maids, butlers, waiters in white gloves who bring cool drinks, security men in blue uniforms, cadres of outdoor people in khaki shorts and dark glasses who valet park and drive golf-carts. If you’re married to a millionaire you get used to these people. Maids, butlers, security men – they don’t intrude; they’re part of the furniture. A little distance from the main house, in Mrs Post’s former servants’ quarters, are architects, engineers, electricians and gangs of construction people in jeans and hard hats who are putting the finishing touches, in Italian marble, to the Greenhouse spa complex. You don’t really notice these people either.  

There are also executive Greenhouse people, who have jetted into West Palm Beach from all corners of America, including Lee Katzoff, the Greenhouse’s owner, from Pennsylvania. In Arlington, 160 staff, including a resident physician, two registered nurses, nutritionists, fitness trainers, manicurists, masseuses, hairdressers and maids, look after 36 women each week. ‘It’s a seven-day operation, 24 hours a day,’ says Katzoff, a serene blonde. ‘You need a lot of people. Here, Mar-a-Lago has their own staff, but there’ll be special maids and attendants for the spa. When people come to a facility that’s renowned, they really want to be taken care of. It’s rejuvenating. It enriches their souls. I think people need that.’ She smiles at me. ‘You have to have a resident florist,’ she says. The Arlington Greenhouse is women-only; the Mar-a-Lago Greenhouse is co-ed. ‘Marla,’ says Katzoff, ‘is a vegetarian.’ (Marla: ‘I’m not a vegetarian: I still eat organic chicken, fish. I love tofu, beans and rice, healthy grains. But no red meat.’) ‘She has massages; she does yoga: her life is pure. She lives the way we’re trying to teach people to live.’ And Donald? Katzoff looks at me levelly. ‘How many high-powered, driven, entrepreneurial men have time to work out in the gym?’ she says. She introduces me to Rodney Yee, a world-renowned yoga master, who has jetted in from California to realign Marla’s spine after she poses on the swans, and to Bradley Lenz, a world-renowned Egyptologist who has jetted in from Berkeley to discuss the ancient arts of aromatherapy. 

Rodney Yee gives me a yoga lesson on the beach before he realigns Marla’s spine. He is brilliant. We do standing poses. ‘Feel the ground, feel the earth,’ he says, ‘feel the sand under your feet. Listen to all the sounds of the earth – listen to the ocean.’ I listen. Overhead, a sporty little executive jet throbs across the sky to West Palm Beach airport, followed closely by a commercial airplane. Rodney Yee is an Iyungar master and he isn’t fazed. He raises his voice slightly: ‘Listen to the waves,’ he says, ‘AND THE AIRPLANES – LISTEN TO ALL THE NOISES OF THE EARTH –’ I listen dutifully – ‘and feel the ground under your feet.’ Bradley Lenz has an ancient box of Egyptian oils to show me and would no doubt give me a bath in asses’ milk if a) I’d had time and b) the faucets were fixed, but I have to forgo on both counts.

The people you do notice at Mar-a-Lago, the people who aren’t avoidable by any means, are the 300 or so club members, who have Access All Areas to the Hispano-Mooresque delights of Marla’s home. The members do not have a job to do. Their mode de vie, at Mar-a-Lago is to sit around all day enriching their souls and making full use of the facilities for their $75,000 joining fee (plus $5000 not including meals and personal services, as mentioned). There are a fair number of them around. Some are having lunch, including one in a tight green jumpsuit covered in hot pink flowers, worn with hot pink high heels and seven gold-chain belts slung dashingly together, who makes me feel slightly underdressed for Palm Beach. Some are having their photograph taken – as soon as Marla and Annie Leibowitz have cleared off the white swans, two little girls leap onto them, watched by their mama, and a Palm Beach photographer begins doing his stuff with lights and cameras. Some sit around the pool in swimsuits and full make-up sipping a special potassium broth, building their strength for their aquaerobics lesson. ‘I hear it’s planning to snow in New York,’ said one. ‘Snow?” said another, a Mrs McAusland, munching slivers of toasted bagel as fine as a potato chip. They ease into the water with the Greenhouse’s world-renowned aquaerobics instructor. ‘Push the water away from you, Mrs McAusland,’ she calls brightly. Mrs McAusland seems distracted by the weather in New York and pushes only languidly.

Before Mrs McAusland got into the pool, one of Mar-a-Lago’s most important people climbed out. Tiffany Trump is a fetching two-year-old with a bubble-burst of golden silk-floss curly hair, and she is the centre of Marla’s life. Before she was even born, Tiffany set Marla on the Road to Wellville: ‘Having a child growing within me made me think about what I was putting into my body,’ Marla says, wide blue eyes shining with serenity. ‘It made me think I wanted to be pure.’ And every day, her baby-guru keeps up the good work by making sure her mother gets a workout from ‘simply being a mom.’ ‘It’s like I’ve got my own little progressive free weight here!’ (She also helped Marla burn off the 3000 calories a day that women use to breastfeed, and Marla says, ‘She still takes a little hit now and again.’) 

Tiffany is someone with whom it’s essential that Marla – in her professional life – has Snuggle Time, no matter what else is going on or how many acupuncturists are standing by. (‘So long as I get to have some snuggle time with my honey,’ Marla declared when she was timetabling the photo-shoot, ‘everything is fine.’) Tiffany, as befits a little princess, has her own people. Her people include Beth, her Filipino nanny, and Ann Maples, her doting grandmother. ‘If Marla cain’t be with her,’ Ann says in her soft Georgia voice, ‘I like to be. We have a “nanny”’, she says, putting quotation marks around Beth, who is passing Tiffany’s towel, ‘for help. But I like to stay around her.’ Marla’s own soft Georgia tones have almost gone (‘I hate that Southern thang,’ she says), only reappearing when she talks to her mother or her daughter (‘Mah little rock’; ‘We are so close – she reads mah mind’.)

These Georgia women certainly know how to raise lone, precious daughters. In Mrs Post’s dressing-room at Mar-a-Lago, which now houses Tiffany’s closet, is a baby picture of Marla: a charming, hand-tinted picture of a two-year-old princess in a white frock, with a bubble-burst of golden hair teased up into a top-knot. You can see how she grew up to be Miss Georgia Teen. Marla’s two-year-old face and Tiffany’s two-year-old face are identical, except that Tiffany has her father’s sleepy eyes, which gaze out of the oil portrait of Tiffany that has pride of place in Marla’s lobby. It was painted for the Trumps by John Wayne’s wife Pilar. 

The pictures at Mar-a-Lago are pretty arresting. In the Trumps’ yellow bedroom are romantic portraits of Marla in clouds of blond hair: one shows her in a late stage of pregnancy, painted in a transparent slip. In the ‘library’ (I use the quotes because when Mrs Post built it it was a library, but Donald took the books away and installed a bar and twin TV screens permanently tuned to CNN) is a pair of portraits; one a charming study of Marjorie Merriweather Post in a fur wrap and a rope of fat pearls. She faces down Donald in a tennis sweater and white slacks. A brass plate underneath says DONALD J. TRUMP “THE VISIONARY” BY RALPH WOLFE COWAN. This artist clearly understands the exigencies of portrait painting; he has given Donald’s upper body a dramatically triangular shape, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist, not to mention a lean and hungry look about the face. Also in the ‘library’ is a little water-colour by Antonio Benedotto, friend to the Trumps, also known as Tony Bennett.

Marla doesn’t want another baby. Tiffany sees plenty of her half-brothers and sister. ‘Donald’s children are great,’ Marla says, ‘and I don’t have to go through the birthing process.’ They seem to like her too: Ivanka and Erik, the two youngest, even recommending their own orthodontist to their stepmother. Marla has perfect teeth: she has never even had one cavity, having spent the better part of her childhood a) brushing and b) flossing her little pearls, all the better to win Miss Georgia Teen, my dears, But Erik and Ivanka pointed out to her that one of the middle teeth in her bottom jaw was just beginning to lean back the slightest bit, and gave her the name of their orthodontist. She now has a little tiny plastic retainer to sleep with at night.

I’ve never met Mr Trump, so I know him only through his tabloid coverage, which isn’t very flattering. But you have to give him credit for upholding all-American family values to an admirable degree. When he was married to Ivana, he was constantly in the company of the elderly Czech parents-in-law; now he is married to Marla he seems perfectly happy to hang out with her mom, too. Does she stay here? I ask Marla, and she points down at her feet. ‘Sure,’ she says. ‘There are rooms in the basement.’ I know men who’d hang themselves rather than have their mother-in-law around for more than 12 hours, but Donald Trump is clearly a man who likes to live in the center of a hurricane: children, parents-in-law, butlers, assistants, 300 club members: let ‘em all come. 

Doesn’t it drive Marla crazy? ‘You want truth? Well. I wasn’t too happy about creating all this in my home. I questioned Donald’s choice on this. Do I long for a private home? Yes! I want to create my own space, my own privacy – it doesn’t have to be like –’ (she gestures around the vast baronial halls) ‘this! Maybe a cabin in the woods. My own home. And one day I’m going to have one and I’ll blindfold my husband and lead him to it and say, Now this is my home and you’re NOT turning it in to a club!’ 

Nevertheless.  ‘This is something I feel I’ve been working toward all my life,’ Marla says. ‘A place where powerful people can come to relax. It’s a healing environment.’ As I drive away from the healing environment I turn back for my last view of Mar-a-Lago, with its little pink bell tower commanding views of lake and ocean.

‘That bell tower!’ says my driver, falling about laughing. ‘You know that little pink tower in the middle of the property? That’s what the pilots use to get a sight line on their final approach to West Palm Beach. It guides ‘em right into the airport.’ 

(American Vogue, June 1996)