Bookworm: Mar-a-Lago, historically speaking and going underground

Terri Schlichenmeyer
An aerial view of Mar-a-Lago from 1937.

“Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu”

  • By Les Standiford
  • c. 2019, Atlantic Monthly Press
  • $27; higher in Canada 288 pages

Half of you wishes your house were a different size. One less bedroom, maybe, or a larger living room. More storage. Nicer bathroom. Then the other half of you thinks: bigger house, bigger mortgage, bigger repairs, more to clean. Now read “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” by Les Standiford and you’ll think leaving your house as is isn’t a half-bad idea.

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A hundred forty-some years ago, there was no Palm Beach, Florida. Indeed, the area we know as Palm Beach was, in the latter-1800s, little more than tomato farms, overgrown brush, and mosquitoes, and getting there was difficult and time-consuming. Few had the guts to tackle the journey: just a handful of white settlers, drawn to the marshy sand by the Homestead Act of 1862, lived on the mainland with the alligators.

“Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” by Les Standiford.

By 1887, the island was dotted with palms from a once-floundering cargo ship, and the population had grown enough to warrant a post office in the newly-named Palm Beach. Still, it was a tranquil place, and it caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller’s former business partner, Henry Flagler, who was wealthy enough to afford to build and smart enough to see the possibilities in an overgrown swamp. In April 1893, he trumpeted the creation of a luxurious new hotel that was coming to Palm Beach. Old Money suddenly had a new vacation spot.

As Palm Beach became a private enclave for the Gilded Age’s most wealthy, bits of the island were purchased for the building of grand mansions; one purchaser was Marjorie Merriweather Post, wife of E.F. Hutton and heiress to the Post cereal empire. Within three years, her Mar-a-Lago, which cost around $8 million dollars in pre-Depression money to construct, held 115 opulent rooms inside 62,500 square feet of lavish space. Even so, its owner was not pretentious; Post was said to have been gracious and conscientious to the end, which came September 12, 1973.

“Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” author Les Standiford.

Before she died, though, she tried hard to find a new owner for Mar-a-Lago, perhaps someone who’d love it like she did.

It would, she thought, in fact, make a lovely seasonal White House …

If you are someone who loves a biography, “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” is going to delight you. It’s a biography within a biography, times five.

Indeed, this book is mostly about a city in Florida, and how it came to be a home for some of America’s most wealthy citizens; in that, readers get a biography of its founders and of the Gilded Age in general. That tale would be as dry as cereal sans milk without a biography of Marjorie Post, who is inextricably linked to Palm Beach through the biography of a mansion. In taking that last part to its modern conclusion, author Les Standiford finishes his book with an invitation.

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You don’t have to be wealthy to visit the island, but this book is rich. “Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu” lets you see how the other half lives.

“A Single Light” author Tosca Lee.

“A Single Light”

  • By Tosca Lee
  • c. 2019, Howard Books, Atria
  • $27; $36.00 Canada 369 pages

Just a little sniffle. That’s how it all begins: a sniffle, a sore throat, achy body, cough, you know the list. Being sick stinks, and it’s a perfectly good time to take to the sofa with a blankie, a box of tissues, and the remote. Or, as in the new book “A Single Light” by Tosca Lee, you could go underground for six months.

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At first, it was tolerable. Subterranean life in a refurbished nuclear silo in the middle of Nebraska was fine, if it kept everyone safe. For the 63 people there, it was far better than taking chances, especially since a prescient survivalist they knew only as Noah had ensured that they had what they needed. He’d stocked food and water, books, movies, and medicines – enough for six months, sealed below-ground, awaiting an end of the world.

“A Single Light” by Tosca Lee.

The residents of the silo trusted Noah to keep them safe, from the pompous know-it-all to the former Marine to Wynter Roth, who needed to be careful: she was a wanted fugitive and she had to assume the others would’ve heard of her crimes. She knew nobody’d believe her innocence, nor would they want to spend time underground with a murderer. Having brought a small handful of friends and family with her, Wynter was in the silo under an assumed name, and Noah had approved.

He’d kept her secret, just as he kept the residents abreast of the situation above. The flu-like virus had caused nationwide chaos, but everyone figured that vaccines would be created by spring, at most. Until then, sixty-three people looked forward to nightly video updates from the barbed-wire-enclosed compound over their heads.

Until two weeks after the hatch sealed them inside and Noah disappeared.

With video capabilities lost, there was no way for anyone to know what was happening above them. Supplies dwindled as the group inched closer each day to disaster, as well as to escape; maintaining civilized behavior below was difficult, and rumors and rivalries were rekindled.

Sixty-three became sixty, and everybody knew that people were surviving outside while those below, weren’t.

And then the hatch opened early. Hoo, there’s one thing for sure: if you value your sleep, don’t read “A Single Light” before bedtime. Do, and you might as well put your pajamas back in the drawer.

Even just doing the old “one more chapter” bit is fraught with danger when you’ve got this book because one more leads to six leads to forcing yourself to stop. Add an angry bit of love story, a few shivery-gruesome scenes, political intrigue, and cliffhangers that author Tosca Lee places just before nearly every break, and you’re not only left breathless from what’s just happened, but jittery for what’s to come in this zoom-paced horror-story-thriller.

One thing: this book is a sequel to a previous novel but there’s enough hint and storyline that you’ll be fine reading “A Single Light” by itself. Grab it, and you’ll know that if you’re a fan of hair-raisers, it isn’t nothing to sneeze at.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.