Donald Trump plays king in his own castle

From far left: Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room. Below: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.PHOTOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES
From far left: Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room. Below: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
(Above) Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room.PHOTOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES
From far left: Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room. Below: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, (above) the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room.PHOTOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES
From far left: Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room. Below: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and (above) the card room. PHOTOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES
From far left: Mr Donald Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal, the Mar-a-Lago estate and the card room. Below: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. The living room of Mr Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
Above: a portrait of Mr Trump in the bar. PHOTOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Take a stroll through the property mogul and Republican presidential hopeful's Mar-a-Lago estate

FLORIDA • Everything seemed to sparkle at the Mar-a-Lago estate here on a recent afternoon.

The sun glinted off the pool and the black Secret Service SUVs in the circular driveway.

Palm trees rustled in a warm breeze, croquet balls clicked and a security guard stood at the entrance to Mr Donald Trump's private living quarters.

"You can always tell when the king is here," Mr Trump's long-time butler Anthony Senecal said of the master of the house and Republican presidential hopeful.

The king was returning that day to his Versailles, a snowbird's paradise that will become a winter White House if he is elected president.

Mar-a-Lago is where Mr Trump comes to escape, entertain and luxuriate in a Mediterranean-style mansion, built 90 years ago by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

The king was returning that day to his Versailles, a snowbird's paradise that will become a winter White House if he is elected president.

Few people here can anticipate his demands and desires better than Mr Senecal, 74, who has worked at the property for almost 60 years, and for Mr Trump for almost 30 of them.

He understands his sleeping patterns and how he likes his steak ("It would rock on the plate, it was so well done") and how he insists - despite the hair salon on the premises - on doing his own hair.

Mr Senecal knows how to stroke his ego and lift his spirits, like the time when he received a warning from Mr Trump's soon-to-land plane that the mogul was in a sour mood.

The butler quickly hired a bugler to play Hail To The Chief as his boss stepped out of his limousine to enter Mar-a-Lago.

Most days, though, he greeted Mr Trump with little fanfare, taking the suit he arrived in to be pressed in the full-service laundry in the basement.

The next morning, before dawn and after about four hours' sleep, Mr Trump would meet him at the arched entrance of his private quarters to receive a bundle of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post and the Palm Beach papers.

Mr Trump would emerge hours later, in khakis, a white golf shirt and a baseball cap. If the cap was white, the boss was in a good mood. If it was red, it was best to stay away.

On Sundays, he would drive to his nearby golf course - alternating each year between a black Bentley and a white one.

Mr Senecal tried to retire in 2009, but Mr Trump decided he was irreplaceable, so while Mr Senecal was officially relieved of his butler duties, he has been kept around as an unofficial historian at Mar-a-Lago.

"Tony, to retire is to expire," Mr Trump told him. "I'll see you next season."

Like Mr Trump, he is at ease among the celebrities who visit the estate.

These days, he encounters Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey lounging on a couch under the living room's 6m-high gold-leafed ceiling or chatting with Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as he exits the luxurious Spanish Room.

The butler's up-close observations of Mr Trump over the years have revealed not only the mogul's quirks - Mr Trump rarely appears in bathing trunks, for example, and does not like to swim - but also his habitual, self-soothing exaggerations.

In the early years, when Mr Trump's daughter, Ivanka, slept in the children's suite, he liked to tell guests that the nursery rhyme-themed tiles in the room were made by a young Walt Disney.

"You don't like that, do you?" he would say when he caught his butler rolling his eyes.

The house historian would protest that it was not true. "Who cares?" Mr Trump would respond with a laugh.

Still, Mr Senecal said Mr Trump could be generous when the mood struck him, sometimes peeling US$100 (S$138) bills from a wad in his pocket to give to the groundskeepers, whom Mr Senecal described as appreciative.

According to Mar-a-Lago lore, Ms Post, once the wealthiest woman in the United States, scoped out the property that would become the estate in the 1920s by crawling through the jungle-like brush between Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean.

She imported stone from Genoa, Italy, and 16th-century Flemish tapestries that she protected by drawing the drapes during the brightest hours.

When she died in 1973, she left the house to the United States government with the intent that it would become a presidential retreat.

However, the upkeep proved too expensive and ownership was transferred back to her daughters, who unloaded it to Mr Trump for less than US$10 million in 1985. He turned it into a private club a decade later.

These days, what seems to bug Mr Trump is the sound of planes over the property from a nearby airport.

The continual roar of engines "drives him nuts", Mr Senecal said. Mr Trump would often shout: "Tony, call the tower."

The tycoon is suing the county-run airport. He has also sued the town in a dispute over the size of his estate's flagpole; the size of the banquet hall he added to the property; and the size of the club, which, to frighten the local gentry, he once threatened to sell to followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Mr Senecal also remembers Mr Trump's young sons running through the library, panelled with centuries-old British oak and filled with rare first-edition books that no one in the family ever read.

When the library became a bar, Mr Trump put up a portrait of himself, posing in tennis whites.

"I've been in other homes in Palm Beach - same exact painting," Mr Senecal confided archly. "Just a different head."

Years later, Trump decided to put his own imprint on Mar-a-Lago by building the 1,860 sq m Donald J. Trump Ballroom, which debuted when he married Melania in 2005.

Mr Senecal's admiration for his boss seems to know few limits.

On March 6, as Mr Trump made his way through the living room on his way to the golf course, Mr Senecal called out to the club members and staff to rise, and they did.

Mr Trump was wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap.

It was white, not red. He seemed in a good mood.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Donald Trump plays king in his own castle'. Print Edition | Subscribe