Les Standiford writes a compelling history of the very rich in South Florida, in his 2019 book Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago and the Rise of America’s Xanadu. Picking up a book like this is pretty out of character for me. But I lived in Palm Beach County for eight years back in the 80s and 90s. So the topic intrigued me. Thankfully, there’s relatively little about Mar-a-Lago’s current owner.
Standiford delves into Florida history from C.W. and Marjorie Merriweather Post to Henry Flagler and Addison Mizner. He explains how Flagler came to love Florida, which was mostly swamp when he first arrived in St. Augustine. But let’s be clear, it was the business opportunities that intrigued him. And he made the most of it, building railroads, destination hotels, and promoting Florida spots as playgrounds for the rich and famous.
The story of the Post family happens around the same time, but has a different trajectory. C.W. Post—of Post Cereal and General Foods acclaim—was a Midwestern guy who became a tycoon. But he also struggled with both physical and mental health. And it was in pursuit of the mild climate’s health benefits that he came to Florida. As was his practice, C.W. brought his daughter Marjorie along.
By the time she’d been twice married, the Roaring Twenties were dancing along. And Marjorie was a fixture in Palm Beach life, despite her various residences and business interests. She commissioned architects Marion Sims Wyeth and Joseph Urban to build Mar-a-Lago. It’s eclectic style is now an iconic symbol of Florida architecture, wealth, and Palm Beach itself.
Standiford combines one part gossipy reveries with two parts history, and stirs it with some present day real estate dealings. The emphasis is on the former two ingredients, rather than current day status of either Palm Beach or Mar-a-Lago.
In between discussing Flagler’s homes and Marjorie Merriweather Post, Standiford adds details about topography, other wealthy couples, and even a little about the various Native American tribes displaced by white settlers. So, as much as this is about “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” it’s firmly grounded in regional history.
As it turns out, I listened to the audiobook rather than reading my digital ARC. (Although I discovered the book has a few pictures, which round out the stories nicely.) Standiford’s writing kept me involved, even when I wasn’t out walking my neighborhood. I baked cookies and cleaned house to this book—because it was that captivating.
Standiford is a prolific writer, with regional history titles, true crime and a mystery series in his catalog. All of those elements make “Xanadu” an enjoyable adventure in the history of 19th and 20th century Florida.
Pair with something from a similar time period, but set in England among the not wealthy—The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Or try a book of Florida-based mystery short stories—Just After Sunset by Stephen King.
Thanks to NetGalley, Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press, and the author for the opportunity to read a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.