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The Powerful Allure of Palm Beach. Interview with Les Standiford

Miami
The story of how Henry Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil, facilitated the creation of Palm Beach as a hotel destination, building The Royal Poinciana and The Breakers, and its transformation into a residential area from Whitehall to Mar-a-Lago, shaping South Florida’s architecture

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Miami is a city that continues to grow culturally and consequently we have the opportunity to receive the visit of writers from many countries and listen to them in various languages. But not everyone in Miami knows that we have among us a really valuable writer, Les Standiford, who lives here, writes, and works to train more writers.

Lester Standiford was born in Cambridge, Ohio, in “the Appalachian outpost,” per his description. Attended the Air Force Academy and the Columbia University School of Law, and holds a B.A. in Psychology from Muskingum College y Ohio, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. Also, he is a former screenwriting fellow and graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He is Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami and was appointed holder of the Peter Meinke Chair in Creative Writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg for the spring of 2016.

Although he has written over twenty-three books, between his popular mystery novels and thrillers, and historical narrative, the latter has brought him great critical acclaim and many awards and recognitions, a list too long to include in this short introduction. His last volume, Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus, was published in 2021 and presented at the Miami Book Fair last November. Also, it obtained Gold Medal, Non-Fiction, at the 2021 Florida Book Awards.

The range of historical subjects and personalities Standiford refers to in his non-fiction books is very eclectic. Still, this interview for Letra Urbana is about the history of how Florida’s development, on the east coast of the state became what today is. And about Henry Flagler, the fundamental figure to that achievement. Standiford wrote two successful, very acclaimed books that examine this subject,  Last Train to Paradise y Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago and the rise of America’s Xanadu. Here we talk about the northern leg of the story, from St. Augustine down to Palm Beach:
It is impossible to talk about the history of Florida’s development, particularly the East coast, without talking about Henry Flagler. 
Flagler came to Northeastern Ohio looking to improve his fortunes. He went to work at the mercantile store of a relative. He worked hard, people liked him, he was industrious, and he finally became the person who bought the farmers’ crop. He sold them to grocery stores and other outlets, and one of them was owned by a bright merchant from Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller. He bought the corn that Flagler bought from the farmers, and although much of that corn was used to make whisky, and they knew where the corn went, they got not involved in the distillery business. So Flagler and Rockefeller became friends.

Then Flagler, looking for big and better things, got the money he had made in the business, saved and invested, went to northern Michigan at the beginning of the Civil War. There he bought a salt mine. He thought he would make a fortune selling salt to the Union Army to preserve and keep food fresh while the Army traveled around. Well, he did not know anything about the salt business and soon went bankrupt.

He returned to Ohio and asked for money from their friends and family and lost that money. Then he went to Cleveland, to John D. Rockefeller, and asked him for a job. Rockefeller said yes, but he was going out of the corn business and into a new thing, oil. At the time, oil was not used as fuel or gasoline. It was used primarily as a fuel in lamps, in oil lamps, replacing whale oil, which was harder and harder to get. Before long, they had formed the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, then the one in New Jersey, then of every place else, and became dominant in the oil business and wealthy beyond anyone imagined.

Flagler retired from Standard Oil, and instead of doing what Rockefeller did to become one of the richest men on earth, he threw himself into building hotels. First, in St. Augustine and Palm Beach. Then, he brought the railroad from Jacksonville to provide access to that hotel and did the same down the coast to Miami. What led him to do this?


What were the reasons for a man with immense wealth who undertook such an extraordinary enterprise after creating the largest corporation in America?
Flagler eventually moved with his family to New York City. He had a child, and they were living in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. He’d grown up in the country, so he thought that that was not a good place to raise a child, and he bought a large estate out in the north shore of Long Island Sound, called Satan’s Toe. It was a huge sprawling house in front of the ocean and a marvelous kind of house. Flagler thought he had returned to his youth, only a more magnificent version of his youth. It was a big turning point for him, psychologically.
And this gets me to the core of your question: Shortly afterward, his wife, Mary Harkness Flagler, fell ill with tuberculosis. Her doctor told him to take her to Florida for the weather. So he took her to St. Augustine, and as she seemed to improve, they planned to come back the following year, but she fell very ill and died.
Flagler ended up marrying one of the women who took care of his wife, Ida Alice. They proposed to go back to St. Augustine for their honeymoon. They went there and liked it, but the hotel was a bit shabby, so he bought it, tore it down, and built the Ponce de Leon Hotel, still standing today as part of the Flagler College.

That began the process of his investments in Florida. First, Flagler retired from Standard Oil and walked away from the company. Then, instead of doing what John D. Rockefeller did, reinvest his money in Standard Oil and become one of the wealthiest man on Earth, Flagler took those gains made in oil and began this process of building hotels down the eastern seaboard of Florida. He also brought the railroad from Jacksonville to St. Augustine, making it easy to get to that hotel. He then did the same all the way down the State, passing Daytona, Palm Beach, and then Miami, building these grand hotels, and bringing the railroad all the way. Finally, to answer your question: What made him do this? He was fifty-two years old when he bought that first hotel in St. Augustine. I think he was acting upon that impulse he had first felt when he purchased that large estate in Long Island Sound: There is more to life than simply accumulating money. What was this money good for if not to make something enjoyable and important with it?

he brought the railroad to what we know now as West Palm Beach, and that was the next outpost in the Flagler Empire. People loved his hotels. He built two hotels, The Royal Poinciana on the western side of the island, and then the hotel that still is there today, The Breakers.

And he ended up creating Florida, which at that time was practically nothing when he came here for the first time. If you drew a line from Jacksonville across the panhandle, south of that line, there was nothing. On the maps, it was labeled Terra Incognita. And Flagler was the man who opened up that line south of that line, on the eastern seaboard and practically creating the State. I thought of calling the book The Man Who Invented Florida because I think that is what he did. Much else goes into the story, but that is his magnificent accomplishment in a nutshell. And I think in some ways it was sheer luck that he discovered the pleasure he came to call Florida “my domain.” Flagler took great joy in the fact that he had created a place to live and a magnificent one where there was nothing before. The first half of his business life, he was a kind of exploiter of the Earth, and he spent the last half of his life as a creator.

It was the beginning of Flagler’s many enterprises in Florida and the awakening of interest in these new lands in the real estate market.   

Of course! The State Legislature of Florida gave Flagler an amount of land for every mile of track that he laid going south from city after city because they knew that they didn’t know how to build a railroad. Still, they figured that if Flagler brought the railroad to a community or an area, people would settle there, grow crops and ship them in the railroad. Then people could get to these places that they couldn’t before. When Flagler first got there, you could not get from Jacksonville down to what was then Miami. There were no roads; the only way was by boat. Nobody wanted to go anyway because hardly a hundred souls were living in the mangrove thickets of the Miami River at the time. So that’s what Flagler with the railroad did. He is responsible for Miami, this metropolis that we have here today.

 

 

In 1892 Flagler visited Palm Beach incognito. It was an undeveloped barrier island with a name that had to do with the shipwreck of the Spanish Providencia in the 1870s.
The ship was carrying a lot of coconuts and wrecked in the reefs nearby. The island, about 18 miles long and 3 miles wide, did not have a name. Nobody was living there, so it didn’t need a name. There were squatters, a few people hiding out and trying to scratch a living. This ship Providencia carried a cargo of coconuts and palms for food and ran aground in the area. The locals gathered them and made a living from the coconuts they sold across the mainland.

But a lot of these were tossed aside, washed up in the mangroves, and, as we know here in Miami, coconuts are seeds, so the palms sprout overnight practically and grow into palms in a short time. That barrier island suddenly became a veritable palm tree forest from these discarded palm trees. So it was natural to call it Palm Beach, and the name stuck. They were to call it Palm City initially, but there was another place with that name up north, so they called it Palm Beach.

Before the development of Palm Beach and its incorporation in 1911, I would like you to tell us about the first white settlers, Europeans after the natives were barred from the area.
Well, it was a tough life. As we said, there was not much out there in the area. There were all mangroves and terrible land. The good farmland was in the mainland, a mile or so across the lagoon, but not in Palm Beach. An industrialist from Chicago, interested in raising tropical plants, stumbled across it about the mid-XIX Century. He established his home in a sort of cultural enterprise on the island. But he was an unusual person, and he was just down there because he liked it.

At the time, the railroad stopped in Ormond Beach, about forty miles south of St. Augustine. By the way, it was there that Rockefeller had purchased a hotel, although it was not one of the grand hotels like the Ponce de Leon or The Breakers. It was and remained a modest establishment. Flagler, as you said before, had heard about Palm Beach. Somebody told him, “You should visit this place. There is nobody there, only this eccentric businessman, but I think it has possibilities.” So Flagler decided to go down there, without fanfare, and visit the place. He did not want people to know he was thinking of investing there because the land prices would skyrocket. So he went and looked around. And this is a testament to Flagler’s vision, that he could look at about fifty square miles of basic scrubland, all bushes and mangroves, and nothing but a lot of mosquitos, and say: “This place could be something.” Imagine today, while driving Ocean Drive in Palm Beach, looking at these magnificent homes and the beach and seeing what a gorgeous and attractive place it is now. Try to imagine a guy standing in that wasteland and being able to say, “I think this place could be magical.” It’s quite a story.

So not only did he build all these things but before the construction itself. What marks him out of many other developers is his vision and ability to imagine.

When Flagler visited Palm Beach, he decided to build «the largest hotel in the world,» The Royal Poinciana Hotel, completed in 1894. It was built on time, and Flagler soon planned another hotel, The Breakers.

So he built the hotel, brought the railroad to what we know now as West Palm Beach, and that was the next outpost in the Flagler Empire. People loved his hotels. He built two hotels, The Royal Poinciana on the western side of the island, and then the hotel that still is there today, The Breakers. It was a more modest place on the coast, and people liked it very much because it was on the beach. Guests began to refer to it as the breakers, «I want a place on the one at the breakers.» Ultimately the place came to be known as The Breakers. The hotels were very popular. No traffic was allowed in there. No automobiles. People were ferried around in three-wheel bicycles. There was a railroad bridge that would spur from the station on West Palm Beach took people across by rail from the mainland. But once there, you had to walk down or take one of those hotel bicycles that African Americans usually propelled. That was the way it was for about ten years.


It was a trendy hotel destination. The only people living on the island were those who worked at both hotels, Poinciana and The Breakers. Most of them lived on the mainland and commuted to work. But there were no grand houses there, just workman houses and cottages. There was a casino built by a man named Bradley for the amusement of the guests. Flagler disapproved of gambling, but he was willing to admit that people needed diversions and allowed Bradley his small concession.


In early 1900 Flagler commissioned the design of a marble palace, Whitehall, which he gave as a present to his third wife. Today, the mansion is a museum open to visitors.

At the time, Flagler’s second wife lost her mind and committed to an institution. He lobbied the Florida Legislature to pass a law to allow for divorce on the grounds of insanity. Only adultery was. During the two years she was locked up in a mental institution, he couldn’t prove that she had been adulterous. So in the two-year window that new law remained on the books, he divorced Ida Alice Shourds. Then he married Mary Lily Kenan, the daughter of a very prominent North Carolina oil family.

He knew that Mary Lily expected to live a somewhat luxurious life. He asked her what she would like for a wedding gift, and she answered, «Well, dear, I always thought I might want a marble palace.» So he built her a palace on the shores of Lake Worth, a mile or so from the Breakers Hotel, on the opposite side of the island, where it remains today. It was called Whitehall and is a magnificent marble palace.

When they started spending the winter seasons there, they would throw parties for their friends. Most of them were staying at the hotels, from January to late March. When these wealthy people came and saw this magnificent home and sampled their lifestyle, they thought, well, we have money; we can build houses in Palm Beach. And come down and enjoy the same lifestyle the Flagler’s do. So they constructed the first one, then another, and so on. Although Flagler did not develop much, he was never a land developer. He liked this idea and encouraged others to do it. In that process, which began around 1910, and in the hundred and twelve years since one remarkable place after another was built in the island. Although very few rival Whitehall. Perhaps only Mar-a-Lago, which became the centerpiece of the second book that I wrote about Flagler and his accomplishments.

Whitehall is open to visitors every day with guided tours. There is a pavilion in the back end of the property. You get to see the original personal Pullman car Flagler used to travel, meticulously restored. Found and discovered on a farm in Virginia. It was a wreck; it had been used as a dorm for migrant farmworkers. It was brought after determining it was strong enough to be moved on the rails—quite the experience.


The 22nd child of sewing-machine titan Isaac Singer, Paris Singer, became another legendary developer of Palm Beach after Flagler. He teamed with Addison Mizner with his Mediterranean designs, and they transformed the place by building villas. 

The number of houses or buildings that Mizner designed or that people built according to his design on the island is a little uncertain. Sometimes he would build without even writing a contract. Mizner was quite a character himself. A big guy, 6-2″ tall, he used to stroll about town with a pet monkey on his shoulder. As there is no cemetery in Palm Beach, the only gravestone on the island belongs to Mizner’s monkey; it is a celebrity. Anyone who shops on Worth Avenue, one of the premier shopping areas of Palm Beach, finds beautiful shops that you walk in through an arcade called Via Mizner. It is where he had his offices and his apartment for a while. So anybody can walk around and get a first-hand taste of Mizner’s style.

Flagler invented Florida as a place to live, and Addison Mizner is responsible for South Florida’s architecture as we know it: The neo-Mediterranean architecture with the red tiles, the arch openings, and the windows that we have here. I call it «Ali Baba comes to Florida.» It combines many Spanish, Italian, and other Mediterranean influences melded together in Mizner’s imagination. He is the one that created it. People loved it because it was different from the northeastern style bungalows or the very cold, austere Normand, or Georgian architecture that we were used to seeing in the wealthy’s houses up to that point. And it seemed appropriate for the sunny climate and the tropical greenery. It melded perfectly. That was Mizner’s doing. And if he didn’t build that place that you are looking at when you drive up and down in Palm Beach, he influenced its build.


As well as in other areas of South Florida…

Oh, yes, in Boca Raton, Miami, and everywhere on the west coast. Many have spacious courtyards in the middle of the construction, ideally suited to air circulation before the air conditioner. The Breakers did not operate all year round until the late 1960s. It was close in the summers; they did not have air conditioners.


At the end of WWI, they also built the Everglades Club for Convalescent soldiers. 

The club was intended to be a convalescent center for WWI vets, but it never worked out. No one ever came, so they tried to decide what to do with it, and they decided to make a social club. They had already put there a golf course intended for the veterans, so they just repurposed it as a private club for the island’s residents. And it was a smashing success. People loved it, and today it is one of the prominent private clubs on the island.

 

Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton, a notable millionaire, commissioned architect Marion Wyeth to design and build Mar a Lago, the city’s most prominent structure. But she found it too conservative. Hence, she contracted Joseph Urban, a Viennese designer. 

Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of the richest women in the world. She was the sole heir to the Post Cereal fortune after her father committed suicide. And she had a first marriage that was a «practice» marriage, we can call it. He was a privileged young man from a Connecticut well-to-do family. There were no sparks or even any romance. They had vacationed in Palm Beach from time to time, and Marjorie liked it there.

After they divorced, she went to Palm Beach. She attended a party where she met this dashing, handsome stockbroker whose wife had passed away from a serious disease. The sparks flew, and soon and they were married. They were two of the most desirable bachelors in the world. It was a sensation, the stuff of all the tabloid newspapers. So, of course, they began to spend the winter seasons in Palm Beach, and they needed a house that shouldn’t be too small as they had two daughters. Soon they started looking for a site for a home they thought was proper for their station in life. They found a seventeen acres track that stretched all the way from the ocean to Lake Worth. That’s the name Mar-a-Lago, which means from sea to the lake.

They commissioned Wyeth to design a home there. Marjorie, who had all the money in the word, finally thought his design was too stodgy. She was on a yacht with Florenz Ziegfeld, who was the impresario of the Ziegfeld Follies. This popular show still runs today. He advised her to talk to Joseph Urban, the set designer for the Follies. He said, «You should see his decorations on stage! And he is an architect that also builds houses.»

So they let Wyeth go, although he wasn’t too happy about it. They hired Urban, and he set about to design in an architectural style that was not an architectural style but a mishmash. If his predecessor had been somewhat eclectic, this fellow was wild. The critics at the time bashed the design because it did not conform to a consistent style. But today, people understand that it is not essential. You can look at Mar-a-Lago. It is stunning, and even though there are disparate elements, it seems absolutely fine. It is vast, the size of Whitehall, and sprawls over these magnificent grounds. At one point, Marjorie Post thought of having two or three golf courses installed, as she loved to play golf.

Well, I think that there is no other house like it. I suppose that’s why Donald Trump bought it. He had never seen anything like it and realized he could own it.

Marjorie Post became the center of social activities in Palm Beach and reigned in the local society for fifty years. Her marriage lasted another ten or twelve years after moving to that house. Her husband was a serial philanderer, and finally, she caught him in a way that made her say enough of it. She kept the house and all her connections, and she built a pavilion on the grounds, where she indulged her newfound passion, square dancing. Every weekend during the winter season would be a big square dancing party. Imagine all these lofty socialites coming in jeans and checkered shirts to dance. She loved it, and her guests were happy.

Finally, the place was too costly to keep up. It took a hundred people to keep it going. What really killed the maintenance of a state of this size or the Vanderbilt state in North Carolina was the rise of wages from the 1920s to the 50s. Wages went up 20, 30, 50 times in all the trades. When Mar-a-Lago went up, the wages were 1 to 2 dollars a day. Suddenly, with labor rises, as I mentioned, that made the real difference. It became challenging for her to maintain her lifestyle even with her money. So the writing was on the wall. She felt that no individual would be able to afford the place and made plans before her death to give it away; to donate the property to the Government to use it as a retreat or hostel for visiting dignitaries in winter. It was far more opulent than Camp David.

But the Government was not interested in the use that Marjorie had envisioned. So when Jimmy Carter became president, they gave the property back. And it languished in the market for a long time. Many a deal felt through before Donald Trump came around and bought it around 1984. They turned back his first offer because they thought it was low. They took somebody else offer, and that fell trough. They realized that they should have taken Trump’s offer so they went back for the eighteen million dollars he offered, when they were asking for thirty millions. Trump was still interested, but now offered seven million. They needed to get rid of it, so for seven million dollars Trump got to buy Mar-a-Lago. Trump had made many deals, but I think that this purchase is the wisest and greatest success in his life.

Even he realized that it would be too expensive to keep this up. So he had the idea to turn it into a private club. That was in the 1990s, and it remains a private club and his residence up to this day, somewhat separate from the guests, as it is a vast place.

Once Trump lived there, he would want to do just anything to keep on living there because, as I said, there is no place like it. It casts a spell on you when you enter it.

After your thorough investigative job on South Florida’s history, do you plan to write another book?
Well, I didn’t think that could possibly be another book about Florida that could be as rich and interesting as these two books I wrote. Still, I just finished another book called Battle for the Big Top. It is the history of the American Circus: James Bailey versus P.T. Barnum, and then Bailey and Barnum versus John Ringling. Finally, Ringling has owned the circus for 40 or 50 years. He settled his year-round residence en Sarasota in a big house called Castle of John and is part of the Ringling Museum complex, managed by Florida State University on Sarasota Bay. The house was restored as beautifully as Whitehall or Mar-a-Lago. The Ringling Circus Museum on the ground, and then the Ringling Museum of Art, constitutes one of the most impressive originally private collections of Renaissance art of the world. So, much of that book has to do with another kind of Florida contribution from another era. Battle for the Big Top is another magnificent type of enterprise on the west coast of Florida. It was published last summer and is coming in trade paperback this summer.

What is your next literary project?
I am working on a memoir And it is a memoir of my life with dogs. There are many books about how to train a dog. This book is about how my dogs taught me and helped me go through life. So it is a very personal kind of book. I hope to finish it by the end of the year.  Seven Dogs to Enlighten Me. And it is a memoir of my life with dogs. There are many books about how to train a dog. This book is about how my dogs taught me and helped me go through life. So it is a very personal kind of book. I hope to finish it by the end of the year.

And I have another non-fiction book about Allan Pinkerton and the pursuit of the outlaw Jesse James during the Gilded Age. It is something a bit different, but more on the line of the non-fiction narrative

Estoy trabajando en una memoria llamada

And it is a memoir of my life with dogs. There are many books about how to train a dog. This book is about how my dogs taught me and helped me go through life. So it is a very personal kind of book. I hope to finish it by the end of the year.

And I have another non-fiction book about Allan Pinkerton and the pursuit of the outlaw Jesse James during the Gilded Age. It is something a bit different, but more on the line of the non-fiction narrative.

Seven Dogs to Enlighten Me.

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