Golden Boy


At the height of his fame, Donald Trump was the caped hero—or was it the villain?—of the national comic book The Eighties. In a time of instant wealth and instant gratification, he was the man with the most toys—skyscrapers, yachts, helicopters, mansions, babes, cover stories, casinos, sports franchises, babes. Gwenda Blair opens her new biography of Trump in 1989, when Trump was, she claims, “the most famous man in America, if not the world.” (How about the Pope?) She opens the curtain on a mob scene in which Trump is gleefully signing copies of Trump: The Game, a Monopoly-type board game in which the lowest denomination of money was $10 million and Donald’s face appeared on every bill.That was Donald, all right: the brazen hero of a new Gilded Age.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by David Levine

Then, of course, he fell. Trump had bought too many toys, and, like the age itself, collapsed—the human equivalent of imperial overstretch. In the Trump literature of the early Nine-ties, when Trump was in the midst of what bankers euphemistically call a “workout” to repay his debt, the all-conquering tycoon is seen to have finally been brought low by his own folly. The subtitle of Wayne Barrett’s 1992 biography (from which Blair has plainly borrowed heavily) is “The Deals and The Downfall.”1 Those who had deplored the age took reassurance from the demise of its leading symbol. You can’t keep behaving like a selfish jerk forever and get away with it.

Well, not so fast. The Eighties are back, albeit in a new form, and so is the Donald. After a brief interval, the market went back to minting millionaires, and the worship of the market that began with the Reagan administration is now, if anything, more widespread than ever before. Consumption is perhaps a bit less conspicuous—but so is the Donald. As Blair explains, Trump: The Game disappeared from the stores when the real estate market plunged in the late Eighties; but Trump, shorn of many of his properties, emerged with the value of his name undiminished. He’s back on the Forbes 400 list, even if only number 368. He’s not going to go away. We might as well accept the fact that Donald Trump is the price you pay for living in a marketplace culture.

Trump is an almost sickeningly familiar figure to much of the reading public. Why bother to revisit him? Gwenda Blair, a writer of celebrity biographies (her last book was a biography of the newscaster Jessica Savitch, who was killed in a car crash), has tried to solve this problem by turning Trump’s life into the final stage of a multigenerational saga. This is not necessarily a bad strategy. Real estate has been a family business in New York since the time of the Astors and the Goelets in the late eighteenth century. Among the first families of the industry—the Rudins, the Tishmans, the Urises, the Zeckendorfs—fortunes have risen and fallen as father has given way to son. A very useful book, Tom Shachtman’s Skyscraper Dreams, has in fact been written about this tight little world of dynasts, though few, if any, of his subjects’ families would merit a book of their own.2 Neither would the Trumps, were it not for Donald. But Blair would like to make the case that there is something exemplary about the descent from Friedrich, an immigrant and pioneer, to Fred, an outer-borough real estate magnate, to “the short-fingered vulgarian,” as Spy magazine used to call Donald Trump. Collectively, Blair claims, they make up “a singular history of American capitalism itself.”

One obvious problem with this ambitious approach is that very little is known of Friedrich, who emigrated from Germany to New York in 1885, aged sixteen. Blair has done a prodigious amount of research about the Germany of that time and the New York of that time, but much of the initial section of The Trumps is conducted in the hypothetical past imperative mood, as Blair vividly describes what Friedrich “must have” seen or felt. Friedrich’s very sketchiness allows him to stand for an idea, or rather for a stage of capitalism: the immigrant’s rugged individualism, and the late-nineteenth-century striving after fortune. (“Jim Fisk and Friedrich Trump never met, of course,” Blair writes.) Friedrich was a trained barber who, once in the New World, forsook his old trade, headed out to what was then the frontier town of Seattle, and opened a restaurant. Then he followed the gold rush up to the Klondike, made some money keeping the miners provisioned with food, drink, and whores, and ultimately settled in Queens, where he bought a house, thus permitting Blair to trace the Trump family’s New York real estate fortune back an extra generation.

With Fred Trump, we leave mythology for history, though not exactly the kind of history that you can imagine reading to your children. A stern and rather ponderous person, Fred expressed his version of the pioneering spirit by filling the blank spaces of Brooklyn and Queens with houses and six-story apartment buildings. He became one of the largest residential builders in the country; when Fred died last year, he left behind a fortune which Blair estimates at $250 to $300 million. Fred was a plain man who lived by straightforward principles. He avoided whatever he didn’t understand, including Manhattan, whose stratospheric prices made him dizzy. He earned his money dollar by dollar. His strength, as Blair writes, “was his ability to figure out where the extra profits lay and how to get them—what regulations could be safely skirted, where the give was in financial arrangements, which politicians and officials to approach and what to say, how to minimize the friction along the way.”

Donald was the most eager pupil among the Trump children; and as some dads teach their boys how to string a line or throw a spiral, Fred taught the boy how to size up a building, how to negotiate with contractors, how to tell when a wall was out of plumb. Many of the lessons must have been almost subliminal; despite his lack of personal flair, for example, Fred understood how to add a little pizazz to his middle-class projects, employing Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, to design the lobbies of several of his buildings. Possibly the most important thing Fred taught Donald was how to lubricate the political machine, and then how to manipulate friendly pols. Blair describes an epic battle in the late Fifties in which Fred Trump and Abe Kazan, an idealistic builder who championed the practice of constructing cooperative apartments for working-class tenants, squared off over a sixty-one-acre plot in Coney Island. Trump first blocked Kazan’s plans, and then used his influence with the Brooklyn borough president and with Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. to sway the vote on the Board of Estimate, which decided on land-use issues. In the end, Trump got the better part of the site, and Kazan had to settle for the lesser. The lesson of this episode, and perhaps an implicit theme of Fred’s hard-nosed instruction, was: He who trusts to the merits of the case will live to rue his naiveté. This was probably a lesson that the son needed very little encouragement to grasp.

Fred was a ruthless character, but he lived in an era in which ruthlessness was not celebrated, as it is today. The great German-Jewish real estate families set a standard of respectability which the goyim observed with equal care. And Fred was rigidly conventional in all outward matters. He gave to the right charities, including the right Jewish charities, and joined the right boards. He fought hard against any hint of scandal in his professional life, and made sure there was none in his personal life. As the tale of Fred gives way to the saga of Donald, we see in the father both the source of the son’s tough-minded calculations and a standard of normalcy against which to measure the exoticism, the sheer weirdness, of the son’s personality. Donald is Fred in wildly baroque form.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a prominent real estate broker in New York when the subject of Donald Trump came up. The broker had just come from the US Open, where Trump had been sitting in a box with his blonde du jour. In between points, someone had hollered, “Hey Donald, who’s the broad?” And Trump had smiled and waved. It was, the broker said, mortifying to realize that when people thought real estate, they thought “Donald.” Being famous is not generally considered helpful in a profession that consists mostly of striking quiet deals. And the wish for respectability dictates that one avoids acts of naked self-aggrandizement. Developers do not, for example, put their names on buildings. According to Skyscraper Dreams, the Rockefellers tried to keep their name off Rockefeller Center, while the ultra-respectable Tishmans were quietly horrified when the elderly David Tishman insisted on putting the family name on 666 Fifth Avenue. One can currently find, in New York City alone, Trump Tower, Trump World Tower, Trump International Hotel and Tower, Trump Plaza, Trump Palace, Trump Parc, and the General Motors Building at Trump International Plaza, formerly known as the General Motors Building.

For all we know of his forbears, it’s not easy to keep in mind that Donald Trump is a second-generation, or third-generation, real estate millionaire. He resembles one of those characters in literature, like Sammy Glick or Maupassant’s Bel Ami, who rise like a helium balloon, propelled by an intuitive understanding of their world’s desires as well as the bottomless gall needed to exploit them. Perhaps it was precisely because he grew up rich that he never absorbed his father’s respect for the proprieties. More likely, it was just a matter of being Donald Trump. The person that Blair describes always knew what he could get away with, always played to win, always despised weakness. At age eighteen, he went with his father to the opening ceremonies for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where he saw the venerable architect, Othmar Hermann Ammann, standing alone and ignored. Rather than being moved to pity, young Donald, as he later said, realized that “if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool.” He was made of hard stuff, was Donald.


The Trump style was already fully in place at the time of his first big deal, the purchase of the old West Side railroad yards from the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad in 1974. According to Trump’s Trump: The Art of the Deal, he had always dreamed of owning those hundred acres along the Hudson River. At the time, he was a twenty-eight-year-old kid whose experience in the field consisted of having managed and sold a run-down apartment complex in Cincinnati. But, again according to his own story (Blair’s is slightly less stirring), he wangled an introduction to a rather formidable character whom Penn Central had hired to dispose of its real assets, and told him that he was affiliated with “the Trump Organization.” “Somehow,” Trump writes, “the word ‘organization’ made it sound much bigger.” He may have learned from his father how to manipulate people. But the gift for manipulating language, and reality itself, was his very own.

At the time, Trump was quartered in his father’s office on Avenue Z, in the deepest recesses of Brooklyn. No matter. Trump overwhelmed Penn Central officials with his enthusiasm; nobody could have possibly wanted anything more than he wanted the railroad yards. And then there were his political contacts—or rather his father’s. Trump writes that Mayor Abe Beame, a friend of the Trumps from Brooklyn days, “almost went out of his way to avoid the appearance that he was doing us any favors.” Blair (following Barrett) writes that in fact Trump had the relevant Penn Central official ushered into the mayor’s presence, and that the diminutive Beame put one arm around the elder Trump and the other around the younger, and said, “Whatever my friends Fred and Donald want in this town, they get.”

Trump received options to buy the West Side land for $62 million; but after years of fighting with the local community over his plan to build Fred-style middle-class housing, he gave up and allowed the options to lapse. At the same time, however, he also received an option from Penn Central to buy the crumbling old Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central Station. This required the kind of nervy acrobatics that would have terrified any reasonable person, for Trump had to find a hotel chain to take over the place, the financing to buy it, and a huge tax abatement from the city to make the deal work—and he had to do it all virtually at the same time, since each element depended on the others. Trump writes that he knew nothing about hotels, had hardly even stayed in one, but of course nobody else knew that. And by issuing a stream of threats in the press—another talent he had come by on his own—Trump was able to bully a very reluctant Mayor Ed Koch into granting him the huge tax abatement that he sought.

Then Trump added what would become his signature touch: he covered the Commodore’s old-fashioned brick façade with a blindingly reflective glass skin. The Grand Hyatt (the Hyatt people, who had agreed to run the hotel, wouldn’t let Trump use his own name) was hardly the first black glass building in New York; but Trump’s gaudily wrapped hotel was adjacent to the elegant Beaux-Arts stonework of Grand Central and across the street from the finely tooled Art Deco façades of the Chrysler Building and the Chanin Building. For Trump, the Commodore, and perhaps also Grand Central and the Chrysler Building, was part of a played-out past; New York City was languishing in a deep recession, and all those bricks and stones and entablature signified exhaustion. They were the old; he—the man and his buildings—were the new. And in fact the Grand Hyatt was a popular success; occupancy rates soared, and its glittery lobby was almost always filled with people. Trump had produced the kind of shiny artifact that tourists like, though at the same time he had damaged forever the texture of East 42nd Street. Trump has the populist contempt for critical opinion, but he adds to this the belief that critical opinion itself ultimately bows down before commercial success. In The Art of the Deal, he writes, “Many of the same critics and preservationists who hated the original concept of my building now love it.” Maybe; the American Institute of Architects’ guide to New York buildings refers to the façade as an “utter and inexcusable outrage.”

Trump understood that the aesthetic of understatement had lost its hold, and that the suddenly new rich of the 1980s were eager to put their wealth on display. Trump was one of them, after all; he had left Queens behind for the towers of the Upper East Side. Trump’s own idea of style seems to have come from Playboy circa 1960. As a young man about Manhattan, he wore crimson suits, and he drove a white Cadillac back and forth to Avenue Z. And he joined—virtually crashed by his own account—Le Club, a café society hangout. It was there that he met Roy Cohn, the legendary fixer who was to do a great deal of fixing for Trump himself, as well as the blond arm candy for which Trump would later become famous. In a sense, Trump put up buildings for himself. In the late Seventies, that meant places like the Grand Hyatt, which looks as if it belongs in Dallas or Phoenix. But as he gained a wider sense of the world, he began building for the class that shuttles from one capital to another—the Armani crowd. When he designed Trump Tower, his grandiose apartment complex on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he was thinking, he writes, “about the wealthy Italian with the beautiful wife and the red Ferrari.”

What Trump succeeded in doing in the 1980s was to create a style associated with his own image, and then to market his properties as emanations of that style. That’s why Trump could legitimately claim that he named his buildings after himself not to satisfy his ego but to exploit the brand name that was himself. And it worked. Apartments in Trump Tower were offered at astronomical prices, but they outsold the significantly less expensive apartments in the Museum Tower adjoining MOMA, around the corner. Trump brags, apparently with justice, that his name adds about 15 percent to the value of an apartment. This a source of genuine mystification to many people who care about matters of taste. Why would anyone spend several hundred thousand dollars extra to live in a building that has “Trump” spelled out in two-foot-high gold letters on the front? I don’t know, and neither does Blair. Perhaps they feel as if they’re joining Le Club, or sharing the aura of that fabulous Italian couple. Above all, they are sharing in the aura that is Trump himself.

Here we arrive at the man’s special genius. In a way that must have seemed stupefying to his father, and was in any case appalling to the grandees of the industry, Trump turned his own life into a public object, a version of the glitzy, champagne world that he was beckoning potential clients to join. The yacht, the Palm Beach mansion, the prize fights, the parties, even the marriage—it was all, as Blair writes, a colossal marketing device. Trump didn’t so much have a life as a life-style, something that existed to be read about. The fifty-three-room triplex that he built for himself and his first wife, Ivana, atop Trump Tower was the very apotheosis of the aesthetic of deracinated luxury which he promoted. Here John Fairchild, the then publisher of W, is describing the Trump living room (in Skyscraper Dreams):

The room, including the floor, is all marble and alabaster, and there are gold-filigreed, fluted marble columns. Above, painted cupids fly through a painted sky. On the left of the room, against the wall, is a fountain large enough for a small square in Paris. Trump goes to a back panel, pushes four buttons, and water spurts into the fountain from all directions, falling into its marble basin.

Trump himself appears to have been every bit as indifferent to luxury as his father was. In one of her more telling passages, Blair tells us that Ivana was foolish enough, and human enough, to mistake these elaborate, opulent stage sets for real places, to be inhabited and cherished. She never understood that she was as dispensable as any of the other properties. Trump was not a man to stop with wife number one. He complained that Ivana was flat-chested, so she had plastic surgery; then he complained that he couldn’t stand her fake breasts. And then he dumped her for Marla Maples, who had real ones. Blair gives the impression that sex with Marla was one of the few experiences Trump ever really enjoyed.

By the late Eighties, Trump seems to have become convinced that he was exempt from the laws of gravity. Using borrowed money, he bought virtually everything that caught his fancy: the Taj casino in Atlantic City ($237 million), the Plaza Hotel ($407.5 million), the Eastern Shuttle ($365 million), Adnan Khashoggi’s yacht, and a condo development called Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches. Blair says that he had begun taking “an amphetaminelike substance”—shades of Richard Nixon—that may explain behavior she describes as “manic.” And then, in the spring of 1990, the house of cards collapsed; Trump turned out to have racked up $2 billion in bank debt and $800 million in personal liability. He fell into the hands of his bankers, who began selling off his properties and, most famously, put him on an allowance (of $450,000 a month).

And yet Trump did not go under, as so many real estate barons had before. In his moment of failure, he displayed, according to Blair, an almost heroic sangfroid, outfacing his critics, joking with reporters, and bragging, all the while, that he was going to come out stronger than ever. It wasn’t just bluff: Trump understood that the banks could not afford to simply liquidate his assets; the return would be too small. They had to make a deal with him. In the end, Trump retained control of his casinos—which generated much of his cash flow—as well as partial interests in the Grand Hyatt and the Plaza and in the West Side rail yards, which he had finally succeeded in purchasing. He emerged with fewer holdings, but scarcely chastened, and still very rich—a man who had cheated destiny.

Within a few years, a new Donald Trump took shape. He was forced to scale back his Ozymandian fantasy of building, in the West Side railyards, a giant city-within-a-city, constructed around a 150-story tower. Then he had to sell the property altogether. However, the Chinese developers who purchased the entire project retained him to market the more modest residential buildings they planned, which he promptly renamed Trump Place. He reached a similar agreement at the upscale former Mayfair Hotel on East 65th Street. Trump had become, in Blair’s phrase, “a human logo.” He had left behind the dross of bricks and mortar; now he would enhance the value of buildings simply by associating his name with them. Just as once he had been “a virtual billionaire,” Blair writes, now he would be “a virtual developer”—a new, very Nineties identity. It was as if the marketing construct known as “Trump” had finally detached itself from the biographical figure of Trump like a rocket separating from its booster, and hurtled off into space.


What Donald Trump will leave behind for New Yorkers yet unborn are not the photo spreads in People magazine but half a dozen or so enormously tall buildings sheathed in reflective glass. What is one to say of his legacy, at least so far (bearing in mind that, at fifty-four, he may have plenty of buildings still in him)? One afternoon I took a Trump tour in the company of Joel Sanders, an architect who is also chairman of the department of architecture at Parsons School of Design. We began at Trump Tower, a black monolith designed by the architect Der Scutt. Trump Tower is Trump’s most widely respected building, and Sanders pointed out that it is one of the few skyscrapers in the city which addresses the fact that it occupies a corner, by virtue of a ziggurat-like shape which rises from the sidewalk at its southwestern edge. Standing outside the building Sanders saw nothing to snicker at, though once inside he was dizzied by the acres of glossy marble and gold trim in the building’s atrium. Trump has, in fact, boasted that he exhausted the world’s supply of breccia perniche, the intensely figured, salmon-colored marble that covers the atrium’s walls and floors. Virtually every surface used in the interior is shiny, thus making the entire atrium feel like a fragmented hall of mirrors.

We next parked ourselves in front of Trump Plaza, a generically Modernist apartment tower on Third Avenue which sits atop a cushion-shaped base. “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Sanders murmured, “but it’s really not bad.” He waved at a postmodern brick structure a few blocks away, and said, “I certainly prefer it to that.” That, I informed him, was the Robert Stern building that Upper East Siders had been clamoring to buy their way into. “Stern” had the same power for that crowd as “Trump” does for arrivistes.

We then went to stare up at the Trump World Tower at the United Nations Plaza, a ninety-story black glass box on First Avenue and 48th Street which will be, when finished, “the tallest residential building anywhere in the world,” according to a sign on the construction site. The building looms up to a staggering height, sheer and smooth. “It’s kind of minimalist,” said Sanders, now thoroughly defeated by his inability to despise the Trump oeuvre. “It’s almost shocking that he would do something so restrained.” Then another thought occurred to him. “Every building we’ve seen has been completely reflective. The modernist ideal dictated that buildings be transparent, that their surface should speak of their core. Buildings were supposed to be held to a spiritual truth. With these buildings, you have no idea what lies inside; there’s a complete denial of interiority.” They offered, in short, a perfect image of their maker.

The Trump buildings are not, by and large, uglier than their neighbors, though they may be colder and more forbidding. They cannot be regarded as excrescences on the urban landscape, if only because the landscape is littered with such excrescences. The questions that they raise have as much to do with the art of the deal as with the art of the building. The Trump World Tower is a perfect example of the dynamic of real estate in New York. You are not supposed to be able to build a ninety-story apartment building on the Upper East Side. But the city’s zoning code permits builders to purchase “air rights” from buildings that do not build up to their maximum allotment, and then use those rights themselves, much as factories now purchase “pollution rights.”

Trump, who understands this byzantine system as well as anyone, was thus able to erect a building so tall that it will dwarf the UN Secretariat Building across the street and four blocks to the south. The Trump World Tower expresses the same scorn for its neighborhood that the Grand Hyatt does. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan protested, as did a group of local residents, led by Walter Cronkite, who live in a fancy high-rise which Trump will cast in shadow; but they never had a chance. What could be a more potent symbol of the supremacy of the deal than Donald Trump’s mighty black needle towering over a building which stands for the idea of world community, and which is, as well, one of the three or four most widely admired International Style buildings in the city? In The Seduction of Place, his recent book on urban architecture, Joseph Rykwert refers to Trump World Tower as “the ultimate grotesque.”

Another peculiarity of the system is hidden in Trump Tower. If you take the escalators up to the fifth floor of the atrium, you will find two “public gardens”; one of them is barely a balcony, but the other is large and spacious and attractive on a sunny day. Of course, few New Yorkers have ever even seen these remote spaces. They exist because the zoning code also allows builders to add floors in exchange for such public amenities as plazas or gardens, usually, but not necessarily, on the ground floor. According to a recent article in City Journal by William Stern, a former city official, this quid pro quo was incorporated in the zoning code when it was reformed in 1961 in order to encourage the construction of skyscrapers surrounded by open space—what Le Corbusier called “the tower in the park.” This has since come to be seen as the anti-urban vision that it was; what’s more, public gardens on the fifth floor cannot be called public space.

Stern argues that the zoning code is so restrictive that developers just won’t build, and that those who do must spend virtually all their energy cultivating City Hall. Simplifying the rules would encourage the creation of much-needed housing, and eliminating some of the absurdities would prevent the construction of more Trump World Towers. On the other hand, it wouldn’t prevent Donald Trump, or the rest of the city’s developers, from erecting undistinguished or ugly buildings. That’s the fault of clients who don’t care or don’t know any better, and of the marketplace itself. Such are the intense cost pressures of Manhattan that developers will do whatever they can to maximize the number of square feet they can build, and the money they can make per square foot. The same developers who amass impressive art collections put up meaningless buildings. In Skyscraper Dreams, Richard Uris Jr., a developer who had been trained as an architect, recalls rhapsodizing over the Seagram Building to his uncle Percy, the founder of the family’s real estate fortune. Percy retorted, “The only beautiful building is the one that’s fully rented.” At least one can say of Trump that he invests his buildings with his own style.

Incredible though it seems, New York has contributed essentially nothing to the world’s stock of important buildings over the last forty years. Ask an architect or an architecture critic for a list of distinguished buildings in New York City, and the list is likely to include nothing more recent than the International Style structures of the Fifties—the Seagram Building, Lever House, the Secretariat. In this respect, New York seems almost incapable of creating beauty. What the city has contributed to architecture is, of course, the idea of the skyscraper. From the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s, the tallest building in the world, whether the Singer Building or the Woolworth Building or the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, was always located in New York City. This was, as Joseph Rykwert observes, the one architectural competition that really mattered in New York. Donald Trump, who wanted to build a 150-story tower, and ultimately settled for putting up the world’s tallest residential structure, is squarely in the New York tradition of profiteering visionaries and megalomaniacs. The results are often appalling, and sometimes laughable, but they are bound up with the city’s own elemental energies. Perhaps we should consider dropping our critical defenses and join with the architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, who, in his brilliant polemic Delirious New York, celebrates Manhattan’s “culture of congestion.” Koolhaas sounds very much as if he’s thinking of our own Donald Trump when he writes that “Manhattan has generated a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self-hatred.”

But if we must embrace the shamelessness of our brazen city, can’t we protect at least some of it from the Trumps of the world?

  1. 1

    Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (HarperCollins, 1992). 

  2. 2

    Skyscraper Dreams: The Great Real Estate Dynasties (Little Brown, 1991).