LIZ SMITH: I Think I Invented the Trumps, Part I
Back in the year 2000 I included a chapter titled “The Towering Trumps” in my memoir “Natural Blonde.” I want to repeat this here for the delectation, interest and history of all things Trump.
I didn’t give myself the best of it in rating this little “history” and was much criticized for accepting Trump invites. But I believed then and that now access to the subject is the best way for a columnist to get the real story.
So I have not edited the chapter to make myself look like an authentic journalist — just a gossip columnist. And it also involves the way editors, publishers, and producers treat gossip.
This will run for three days and whatever its shortcomings, it is kind of early examination of how Donald Trump began his record rise that is piquing so much interest today.
THE TOWERING TRUMPS
Everyone remembers exactly where he or she was when President Kennedy was shot. But I, typical gossip columnist that I am, remember exactly where I was when I first heard the word Trump. My friend and literacy ally Parker Ladd and I were in a car heading up Park Avenue. As we neared the statue of old Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt that forces New York drivers to turn right and then left at what used to be the Pan Am Building and still is Grand Central Station, Parker said, “Have you ever met Ivana and Donald Trump?” I said I hadn’t. He explained that Donald was a building tycoon and she a Czech ski champ, a blonde who talked a mile a minute with a deep accent. She had just bought some couture dresses from our mutual friend Arnold Scaasi.
I was always interested in Arnold’s clients ever since he had made those outrageous see-through-the-back pajamas that Barbra Streisand had worn when she went up to get her Funny Girl Oscar in 1968. The cute little guy from Canada had made fashion history by changing his name from Isaacs to (backwards) Scaasi, and he charged the ladies of Manhattan and points west thousands for a dress.
(He had once pinned a piece of glittering material at my shoulders, nipped it in on the sides and said, “This is how it will look.” It looked divine and I asked what it would cost me. “Well, I could make it for you at cost, but if you were someone like Carroll Petrie or Edna Morris, it would be $8,000.” I screamed, “It took you ten minutes.” Arnold smiled. “Well, it took me years to be able to do it in ten minutes.”)
Anyway, Parker gave me chapter and verse on the Trumps and the wide swath they were beginning to cut in New York: how certain uppity types didn’t approve of them because it was all nouveau riche money and yet, they were attractive and had three divine little children and, he added, “Mrs. Trump — Ivana — is really a very sweet, dear person. I think she’s getting a bad rap.”
A bad rap! I sat up, being a sucker for anybody who is being pushed around by the Establishment. I immediately decided I liked Ivana Trump from afar and was curious. Before long, I met Mrs. Trump, and then I met her tall blond husband. I found them both refreshing, if a bit presumptuous and naïve socially, and I began to note their comings and goings. Little did I dream that their eventual “going” would be something of my “coming” to the fore in newsprint and other media. The Trumps were to have a profound effect on my career.
But before that, I became involved with the entire Trump family. I liked them — the daddy, Fred, who had slugged his way to the top in the Queens building business; his other mild-mannered son, Robert, and his adorable charity-minded wife, Blaine; Mary, the matriarch mother, a truly divine lady; the two sisters — Maryanne Barry, a New Jersey judge, and the other, Elizabeth Grau, a banker. I began going to many of the overachieving Trump family’s anniversaries, weddings and birthdays.
Donald became bigger and bigger. He was the king of hyperbole and he had just the requisite touch of Elvis vulgarity to endear him to the common man. Whenever he emerged from his chauffeured car on Fifth Avenue to go into his new Trump Tower, or to the recently bought Plaza Hotel, or turned up at the fights or at his new casino in Atlantic City, he would be mobbed by the public. They adored him. Because of Donald, I’d find myself sitting at dinner next to Mike Tyson or Don King, or Adnan Khashoggi, or Mike Douglas or Don Johnson.
Donald would always gather me up under his arm and say to whoever might be near, “She’s the greatest! Isn’t she the greatest?” This was silly and embarrassing and he did it with everybody else as well. Although he was phobic about germs, he was a natural-born toucher and hugger. I enjoyed talking to him, arguing uselessly that he should build low-income housing to help New York’s less well heeled, or turn floors of his buildings into rooms for the poor. He laughed at me and I never believed a word he said about how rich he was, how he’d bested the competition and what he intended to do next. It was his singular and special brand of conversation, overlaid with hype. As for Ivana, I liked her, too, but never knew what she was saying. She talked in a machine-gun patter that was mostly incomprehensible, but then some of it was very funny, as when she referred to her husband as “The Donald.”
The Trumps were always inviting me to go somewhere on their jet plane. I flew with them to San Diego; to a big party Barbara Walters and Merv Adelson were tossing just before that marriage came apart. I flew down to Palm Beach after the refurbishing of Mar-a-Lago and spent an all-girls weekend there with Ivana’s mother, her girlfriends and ladies such as Helen Gurley Brown, Georgette Mosbacher, Shirley Lord, Barbara, et. al.
Ivana and I went in the Trump helicopter to Atlantic City and we bounced around in a terrifying fog that made me wish I’d never heard of the Trumps. If I was going to be punished for the sin of accepting free trips from rich people, now seemed to be a perfect time for it. But we landed and I went on to interview Ivana for WNBC’s Live at Five. She was seen on TV as a top executive in the Trump organization, while Donald stood on the side beaming and nodding. He also offered her up to me as running everything at the Plaza Hotel. It all seemed harmless. The Daily News and WNBC-TV were more than happy to lap up every word on the ubiquitous Trumps and as my so-called “expense accounts” from both companies combined wouldn’t have bought me a month’s worth of hamburgers, they didn’t question my ethics.
I didn’t question my ethics, either. So far as the philosophy goes, I have always felt that the chief thing for a columnist to have is access. Then after you get it, you can weigh how far you want to go, whether you need to blow the connection by telling “the truth — the whole truth — and nothing but,” or whether you can straddle a true middle course in reporting. I put my tongue firmly in cheek in everything I wrote about the Trumps.
I would poke gentle fun at them because they weren’t, after all, popular with their betters — New York’s movers and shakers. (These threatened people looked down on any new money that wasn’t their own.) And when push came to shove, I found my bosses at the News and WNBC didn’t really want to be confronted with the question about how I got where I was going. They weren’t as rigid as the paragons running ABC, NBC, and CBS, nor like The New York Times and Washington Post, where they have hard rules about not accepting anything from a subject. No, tabloid heaven’s motto was “Go for broke,” so long as we didn’t have to pay for it. (This is the real and absolute “don’t ask, don’t tell” dogma of minor media. It’s about not even bringing up the subject of taking favors that might rebound to a story, good or bad.)
When New York magazine selected its twenty “Most Important” New Yorkers in April 1988, editor Ed Kosner said that the list was a fantasy. But he invited me to describe the greatest fantasist of all, Donald Trump. The magazine defended naming him, along with such paragons as Brooke Astor, “Because his buildings and his book and his ego are so much bigger than life.”
In my article, I spoke of Donald’s rabid detractors and his love-hate relationship with the hoity-toity and the adoration of hoi polloi. I said if he smoked, he’d have his cigarettes monogrammed like so — $ — with Ayn Rand’s dollar sign. But I added that jealousy and spite played some part in making him the city’s biggest target. Yes, he bragged and blew hard, but in my book he wasn’t a real phony or a fake. I found him incapable of dissembling or doing the hypocritical things a lot of other rich New Yorkers do — such as blathering on about “giving back to the community.” Donald had never gone hog-wild giving money away to charity in order to pander to the public. No, it just wasn’t his thing. Likening him to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he might do to be saved? I noted that Donald wasn’t ready to be “saved.” (Jesus said, “Sell all your goods and give them to the poor” — and the young ruler went away sorrowing for he was very rich.)
To read part II and III, head over to the New York Social Diary.