When Donald Trump wakes up before dawn at Mar-a-Lago, if he indeed ever gets there, a stack of newspapers will likely be waiting for him, including one printed on paper that will not smudge. That’s where the Palm Beach Daily News got its nickname: the Shiny Sheet. During the week, the paper often is only four pages long despite its $2 price. It might seem a royal rip-off, but Palm Beachers gladly pay to look at the photos of partygoers and read the column by society editor Shannon Donnelly.
Besides Trump, Donnelly is arguably the most powerful person on the island, and there’s almost no important social event that she doesn’t attend. Traditionally, society reporters have been fallen daughters of the upper-class, fully conversant with the elite they cover, but Donnelly is the daughter of a police officer, and she views the social scene like an old time beat cop, perfectly willing to mete out a few taps with his bully club to keep order intact. No one wants to cross her since a few words in her column can make or break socially ambitious residents of the island.
Given her background, one might presume that Donnelly would be sympathetic toward the New Money arriving on the island. Instead, it’s the opposite. “New Money thinks that the way to act is to be nasty,” she once told me. “They think it makes them look more important to be not nice.” This held true with the king of new money, of course. Soon after the flamboyant, studiously vulgar Trump arrived in the 80s, Donnelly treated him like Genghis Khan come to destroy everything of grace and honor on the island. The columnist wrote about him with unrelieved savagery and ridicule. Her frequent assaults gave great pleasure to the scions of the old Palm Beach, who despised Trump and everything for which he stood.
After Trump threw a massive bachelor party full of hundreds of models on the same evening as the International Red Cross Ball, in January 1993, Donnelly was outraged. She fumed over the mere suggestion that anyone of substance would possibly choose Trump’s bacchanal over the most prestigious charity event of the season. “And those—if, in fact, there are any—who abandoned previously made plans for a last-minute invitation to Mar-a-Lago are neither polite nor society,” she wrote at the time.
That October, Marla Maples gave birth to Tiffany Trump at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach, its every moment chronicled in The National Enquirer. Donnelly would clearly have preferred not to write about such a scandal. But what could she do when the story was all over the place? The Shiny Sheet had no choice but to give the birth front page coverage. But the paper protected its readers. Nowhere did the daily mention the unseemly business—and readers who are particularly sensitive should turn away right now—that Donald and Marla were not married.
Donnelly, however, was not going to let this ugly business rest there. The following month she wrote a column handicapping ten candidates to be the next social queen of Palm Beach society. Maples was happy mothering the new born Tiffany, and had absolutely no interest in leading society. But Donnelly nevertheless made her the least likely candidate. In her column, she wrote, “Marla Maples: Miss America looks and Mar-a-Lago, too. Still, mistress to a married, then divorced man and mother to his love child. A T-bone in a kennel has a better chance. ODDS:1,000,000–1.“
It was one thing to attack Trump’s mistress, but it got serious when Donnelly struck out against the mogul’s business interests. When Trump was negotiating unsuccessfully to build a casino in association with the Seminole Indians, in 1996, Donnelly asked in her column “whether Florida’s Native Americans will forgive or forget his past indiscretions—such as his reported references to Connecticut’s dark-skinned Pequots as the ‘Michael Jordan Indians’ and his observation that ‘organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservation.’” Trump, then as now, had a way of knowing what would hurt a person most and then went there as hard as he could. In a town obsessed with thinness, Donnelly was overweight. It was a subject that everyone who came in contact with the society editor at social events studiously avoided. Not Trump. “Let’s make a deal,” he wrote in a letter he sent to her as well as to the top executives at the Palm Beach Daily News and Cox Enterprises, the parent company. “If you promise not to get ‘personal’ with me, I will promise not to show you as the crude, fat and obnoxious slob which everyone knows you are.”
The fight could have escalated into a massive confrontation, but curiously enough, Trump’s letter was the last shot in this conflict. Donnelly and Trump were both in the business of monetizing social life, and they needed each other. When Donnelly began writing about Trump like a benevolent monarch showering his subjects on the island with largess and wisdom, Trump took notice and had no more mean words to speak about her. When Donnelly married for a second time in 2002, she told me that Trump offered her a free wedding at the Mar-a-Lago but she refused. Two years later, when Trump’s 20,000 square foot $40 million golden ballroom opened, Donnelly found herself at Mar-a-Lago several times a week. One evening, as Trump happily greeted her at the club, he called her “the best writer in Palm Beach,” a category that did not have many candidates.
When I was writing my 2009 book about Palm Beach, Madness Under the Royal Palms, I got to know Donnelly. I had dinner at her modest apartment and did a number of recorded interviews with her about her life in Palm Beach. Under her watch, the Shiny Sheet has changed from a good small-town newspaper with local columnists, ample news and local advertisers into a narrow shill for real estate and the charity machine. Friends of mine returned to their Palm Beach home one evening in November 2016 to find burglars had broken their safe out of the wall and carried it off with about $1.5 million in jewelry. This was one of several major robberies in recent months and none of them appeared in the Shiny Sheet, where they likely would have challenged the bucolic image of the island so crucial to selling upscale real estate. Naturally, Donnelly sees it differently. “People buy the Shiny Sheet to see the pictures,” Donnelly once told me. “And if we’re not having that in the paper, they’re not going to buy it.” Some Palm Beachers pay thousands of dollars to publicists to get their pictures in a paper that in 2015 had a circulation of 4,916—and an audience of 1. (I wrote about Donnelly in Madness in what I thought was an empathetic way, but she did not get it. Nor did the editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. At an editorial meeting, according to two reporters there, the staff was told they were never to write about me again or mention my name. And since then for a decade my name has never appeared in the paper.)
This is the first holiday season since Trump moved into Mar-a-Lago in 1985 that Trump had not spent those days in Palm Beach. It is the place in the world where he feels most secure, and he doubtlessly will be back to spend many more winter weekends in Florida. He needs people constantly around him touting his greatness, and members who funnel around him like courtiers around a king. Part of that security is the Palm Beach Daily News. Trump considers the Shiny Sheet “a sort of bible” for Palm Beach. It is practically the only paper in America that treats him precisely the way he feels he deserves to be treated.