Madison’s Mar-a-Lago Connection

Before it became Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago was a home for Marjorie Merriweather Post and her Wisconsin-born husband.
Palm Beach Madison Connection
A Miami newspaper story in 1944 with Joseph Davies pictured in the library at Mar-a-Lago, after he had allowed the estate to be used for rehabilitating World War II veterans.

News reports of President Donald Trump’s plan to spend the holidays at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, reminded me of something Hanns Kuttner mentioned when I profiled him several years ago in Madison Magazine.

Kuttner, who is the husband of University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, said there’s a Madison connection to Mar-a-Lago. He was right.

The connection is Watertown native and UW–Madison graduate Joseph E. Davies, who practiced law in Madison and lived in a house on Livingston Street before becoming an internationally known envoy, friend of presidents, bestselling author — and the third husband of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the woman who built Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach the 1920s.

Interest in the estate spiked after Trump, who bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985, became president. In 2017, an article in the Smithsonian magazine offered this description of what Post and her second husband, E. F. Hutton, finished building in 1927:

“Even by Palm Beach standards, Mar-a-Lago was grandiose: 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms with gold-plated fixtures (easier to clean, Post believed), an 1,800-square-foot living room with 42-foot ceilings. Its 110,000 square feet glinted with gold leaf, Spanish tiles, Italian marble and Venetian silks. All told, Post spent $7 million — somewhere north of $90 million today.”

Post and Davies met in 1935, in Palm Beach, fittingly enough. By then, Davies had left Wisconsin, but according to a 1916 article in the Stevens Point Journal — by which time Davies was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission — it never left him:

“There is one thing that is certain. Joseph E. Davies loves his home state, and he has an abiding affection for his educational alma mater. He attended the public schools of Watertown, Wis., graduated from the high school in 1894 with a class of which he was valedictorian. He at once entered the University of Wisconsin and was chosen president of the freshman class. On graduation he was both class day and commencement orator. While attending the university he was made athletic instructor. He was one of the winning team in the Illinois-Wisconsin intercollegiate debate. He graduated in law in 1901, and in the year following he was made temporary chairman of the Democratic state convention.”

Davies met Marjorie Merriweather Post in February 1935 at a Palm Beach dinner party hosted by mutual friends. Davies at that time was “a handsome Washington attorney … at the peak of his career in corporate and international law. He was also a friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. To Marjorie, Davies resonated charm and authority, and he had a magnetism that she could not easily forget,” According to author Nancy Rubin, who wrote a biography of Post called “American Empress.”

Davies was smitten, as well. According to Rubin, Davies’ eldest daughter recalled “it seemed to the family as if Joe had actually been struck by lightning.” She added, “The guests were having cocktails in the garden and Marjorie came down the stairs and that was it.”

They married in December 1935, but with one thing and another — including Davies’ serving as United States ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936-1938 — the couple didn’t spend much time at Mar-a-Lago until the winter of 1939-40.

“Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and Mrs. Davies gave a dinner last night at Mar-a-Lago. They will leave today for Washington, but will return to Palm Beach from time to time throughout the season,” the Palm Beach Post reported in January 1940.

In February 1940, Davies invited a Post reporter out to Mar-a-Lago for an interview. “Mrs. Davies and I are delighted to be in Palm Beach,” Davies said, “which we consider the most beautiful spot in the world, and hope to be able to spend more and more time here, taking a real part in community life.”

With the United States at war in 1944, Mar-a-Lago found a less ostentatious reason for being. The Miami News reported Mar-a-Lago was being “used as an occupational therapy center for convalescent soldiers.” The article noted the “generosity [of the Davies] has made the rehabilitation project possible.”

Davies and Marjorie Merriweather Post divorced in 1955. Three years later, Davies died at 81 years old. The Wisconsin State Journal carried the news on page one, highlighting his years in the city and the state and noting that Davies was “a charter member of and a contributor to the University of Wisconsin Foundation, established to set up funds for campus expansion.”

And Mar-a-Lago? Post, who died in 1973, willed the property to the U. S. government, but the government returned it in 1981, claiming it cost too much to maintain.

Trump turned it into a private club when he purchased Mar-a-Lago. There was another change, according to Town and Country magazine, “He commandeered a coat of arms that British authorities in 1939 had granted to Joseph Edward Davies, Post’s third husband.”

It was what Trump did with the coat of arms emblem that enraged the Davies family. “There are members of the family who wanted to sue him,” Davies’ grandson, former U.S. Senator Joseph Tydings, told the New York Times.

According to Town and Country, Trump, on the emblem, had “replaced ‘Integritas,’ the Latin word for integrity, with ‘Trump.’”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"