Senecal, the butler

April 11, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

"The Apprentice" could never top "The Mayor of Martinsburg."

One is a reality show. The other was a wild ride.

The thread is billionaire Donald Trump.

Surfing atop television's reality show wave, Trump seems to have re-established himself as America's favorite tycoon. The winner of his self-promotional show will become president of one of his companies for a year. The finale is Thursday.

Tony Senecal, a one-time power broker of sorts as the mayor of Martinsburg, has been watching the hit show from an inside perspective. He's "The Butler."


For 11 years, Senecal has been Trump's personal butler at Trump's palatial Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

Senecal, 72, also had a bit part on the April 1 episode of "The Apprentice," escorting two contestants and their relatives on a tour of Mar-a-Lago.

In real life, Senecal has a pat line for anyone puzzled by his transition from governing a city to, say, serving mimosas: "Once you've been a public servant, you can be a private one."

In the news

While mayor from 1990 to 1992, Senecal put Martinsburg in the public eye and on the news pages in unusual ways.

He tried to force panhandlers to get licenses.

He had heart surgery, then ordered a pizza while recovering at his nephew's home two weeks after he got out of the hospital. The delivery person was robbed.

He filed for bankruptcy. He floated his own name as a candidate for governor. He took unpopular stands.

"Once you met him, you'd never forget him ..." George Karos, the current mayor, said about Senecal last week. Karos was a city councilman while Senecal was mayor. "There was never a dull moment with Tony around."

Inside Mar-a-Lago, Senecal plays a lead role in pampering Trump.

"I take care of him and all his needs and all his guests' needs," Senecal said during a recent telephone interview.

Senecal, who also is considered Mar-a-Lago's historian, said Trump turned it into a private club in 1995.

Until then, the staff worked during the week to keep the mansion in fine order, then catered to Trump during his weekend visits.

Now, Trump still stays on weekends, but many of the club's 455 members fill Mar-a-Lago throughout the week.

Senecal said there are about 120 rooms, a spa, tennis courts and more to keep up, as well as more than 20 acres.

Members pay a $150,000 initiation fee, plus about $9,200 per year for maintenance, Senecal said.

That's assuming they win Trump's favor and are allowed to join.

"He's the last word," Senecal said.

Making his point

As mayor, Senecal always had a colorful word ready, but not necessarily the last word.

Nothing he said reverberated more than his offbeat proposal to make panhandlers pay $50 per year for a license.

Senecal - who owned the Olde Berkeley Tobaccos smoke and news shop near City Hall while he was mayor - said he saw beggars intimidate people with their aggressive pitches.

His idea ricocheted across the country, landing him on national talk shows. Ultimately, though, the City Council rejected the proposal.

Senecal said he remembers putting the issue last on the agenda when it came up for a vote. This prevented a television news reporter from covering the story before deadline. To help, Senecal filmed both a pleased reaction and a disappointed reaction, then told the reporter by phone after the meeting to run the clip of him acting disappointed.

Although the license proposal failed, Senecal argues that he, in one way, succeeded.

"I had made my point and made people aware of the situation," he said.

On the other hand, in an Associated Press story as he left office in 1992, Senecal said, "The issue was never the important thing. The important thing was Martinsburg, West Virginia. It was on the map before and now people know how to get to that point on the map. ...

"It doesn't matter if someone likes you or not or agrees with you. It's still a feather in the cap of the community to be on national television and on the front page of The Washington Post."

Although Senecal frequently made news with his stands - supporting a quarry, insisting that Martinsburg be the first customer of a controversial landfill - Karos said the turbulence of those times wasn't solely Senecal's doing.

"We had 12 council members with 12 personalities," said Karos, who occasionally keeps in touch with Senecal. "He was number 13."

Stress takes its toll

Shortly after Senecal became mayor, Martinsburg's city manager resigned. Senecal held both positions for 16 months while the city looked for a replacement.

Senecal suspects the stress got to him. He had laser heart surgery and an angioplasty in August 1990, then double bypass surgery two months later.

Last week, he remembered playing golf with a friend shortly before his angioplasty and using two clubs as crutches at the end of the round. He was that sick, but he insisted on playing the last holes.

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