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Golden Boy

1.

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.

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.

2.

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.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

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

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