Authors: Mary L. Trump;
Every Saturday, if we weren't in Sunnyside with Dad, Fritz and I rode our bikes down Highland Avenue and along the back streets of Jamaica Estates to the House to hang out with our cousin Davidâor rather, Fritz and David hung out and I followed them around, trying to keep up.
Gam sat with Maryanne and Elizabeth whenever they visited at a small sky blue Formica table with stainless steel edging that looked as though it came straight out of a 1950s malt shop. Just past it, there was a dark pantry the size of a walk-in closet with a little desk where Gam kept her shopping lists, receipts, and bills. Marie, the long-suffering housekeeper, often hid there, listening to her portable radio, and on rainy or cold days when David, Fritz, and I were confined to the House, we drove her crazy. On the other side of the pantry, a swinging door led to the dining room. We used the loop that ran from the back door hallway past the kitchen, through the foyer, around to the dining room, through the pantry, and back to the kitchen as our personal racetrack,
chasing one another, wiping out, screaming, gaining speed, one of us invariably banging into a piece of furniture. Between the refrigerator and the pantry doorway, Gam generally gave us free rein, but when she was in the kitchen, she would lose her patience and yell at us to stop. She threatened us with the wooden spoon if we ignored herâthe sound of the drawer opening was enough to give us pause. But if we were stupid enough to keep running around her and making a racket, the spoon came out, and whoever was closest at hand got whacked. Liz did her part to slow us down by grabbing our hair as we passed by.
After that Fritz, David, and I usually ran to the basementâadults passed through only on their way to the laundry room or the garage, so we were free to be loud and to kick around the soccer ball or take turns riding up and down on (or fighting over) Gam's electric stair lift. We spent most of our time in the open space at the far end with all the lights on. With the exception of my grandfather's life-sized wooden Indian chief statues that were lined up against the far wall like sarcophagi, it was a pretty typical basement: drop ceiling with fluorescent lighting, white-and-black linoleum tile, and an old upright piano that stood largely ignored because it was so badly out of tune it wasn't even worth playing. Donald's marching hat with the huge plume that he had worn during color guard at NYMA sat on top of it. Sometimes I put it on, though it slid down to the bridge of my nose, and fastened the strap beneath my chin.
When I was down there by myself, the basementâhalf illuminated, the wooden Indians standing sentinel in the shadowsâbecame a weirdly exotic space. Across from the stairs, a huge mahogany bar, fully stocked with barstools, dusty glasses, and a working sink but no alcohol, had been built in the cornerâan anomaly in a house built by a man who didn't drink. A large oil painting of a black singer with beautiful, full lips and generous, swaying hips hung on the wall behind it. Wearing a curve-hugging gold-and-yellow dress with ruffles, she stood at the microphone, mouth open, hand extended. A jazz band made up entirely of black men dressed in white dinner jackets and black bow
ties played behind her. The brasses glowed, the woodwinds glistened. The clarinetist, a sparkle in his eyes, looked straight out at me. I would stand behind the bar, towel slung over my shoulder, whipping up drinks for my imaginary customers. Or I would sit on one of the barstools, the only patron, dreaming myself inside that painting.
Our uncle Rob, who wasn't that much older than we were and seemed more like a sibling than an uncle, played soccer with us in the backyard whenever he came out from the city. We played hard and on hot days made frequent trips to the kitchen for a can of Coke or a grape juice. Rob would often grab a block of Philadelphia cream cheese; leaning against the refrigerator, he'd peel back the foil and eat the cream cheese as if it were a candy bar, then wash it down with soda.
Rob was a very good soccer player, and I tried to keep up with the boys, but it sometimes felt as though he used me for target practice.
When Donald was at the House, we mostly threw a baseball or football around. He had played baseball at New York Military Academy and was even less likely to pull his punches than Rob; he saw no reason to throw the ball any more gently just because his niece and nephews were six or nine or eleven. When I did manage to catch the ball he threw at me, the report of it against my leather glove reverberated off the brick retaining wall like a shot. Even with little kids, Donald had to be the winner.
Only the most dedicated optimist could have lived in Sunnyside Towers without losing hope. There was no doorman, and the plastic plants and flowers that filled the two large planters on either side of the plexiglass front door were perpetually coated in a thin film of dust. Our sixth-floor hallway reeked of stale cigarette smoke. The dank carpet was a soulless shade of seal grey. The indifferent overhead lighting hid nothing.
The height of my father's lifestyle had been when he and my mom had lived in their one-bedroom near Sutton Place right after they were married. During that year, they had spent their evenings going to the
Copacabana with friends and flying to Bimini on weekends. It had been all downhill from there, a trajectory that mirrored that of Donald, whose own lifestyle became more extravagant as the years passed. Donald had already been living in Manhattan when he married Ivana. After the wedding, they lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue, then in an eight-bedroom apartment also on Fifth Avenue. Within five years they were living in the $10 million penthouse triplex in Trump Tower, all while Donald was still effectively on my grandfather's payroll.
My grandfather created Midland Associates in the 1960s to benefit his children, each of whom was given 15 percent ownership in eight buildings, one of which was Sunnyside Towers. The express purpose of this apparently quasi-legal, if not outright fraudulent, transfer of wealth was to avoid paying the lion's share of the gift taxes that would have been assessed if it had been an aboveboard transaction. I don't know if Dad knew that he owned part of the building he now lived in, but in 1973 his share of it would have been worth about $380,000, or $2.2 million in today's dollars. He seemed to have no apparent access to any of the moneyâhis boats and planes were gone; his Mustang and Jaguar were gone. He still had his FCT vanity plates, but now they were attached to a beat-up Ford LTD. Whatever wealth my father had was by then entirely theoretical. Either his access to his trust funds had been blocked, or he had stopped thinking he had any right to his own money. Thwarted one way or the other, he was at his father's mercy.
Dad and I were watching a Mets game on television when the intercom buzzed. Dad looked surprised and went to answer. I didn't hear who was calling from the lobby, but I heard my father say “Shit” under his breath. We'd been having a laid-back afternoon, but Dad seemed tense now. “Donald's coming up for a couple of minutes,” he told me.
“No idea.” He seemed annoyed, which was unusual for him.
Dad tucked his shirt in and opened the door as soon as the bell
rang. He took a couple of steps back to let his brother pass. Donald was wearing a three-piece suit and shiny shoes and carrying a thick manila envelope wrapped with several wide rubber bands. He walked into the living room. “Hi, Honeybunch,” he said when he saw me.
I waved at him.
Donald turned back to my dad and said, “Jesus, Freddy,” as he looked around disdainfully. My father let it slide. Donald tossed the envelope onto the coffee table and said, “Dad needs you to sign these and then bring them to Brooklyn.”
“Yeah. Why? You busy?”
“You take it to him.”
“I can't. I'm on my way to the city to look at some properties that are in foreclosure. It's a fantastic time to take advantage of losers who bought at the height of the market.”
Freddy never would have dared develop his own projects outside of Brooklyn. A few years earlier on a weekend trip to the Poconos, as he and Linda had driven past row after row of condemned buildings on either side of the Cross Bronx Expressway, she'd pointed out that he could start his own business and renovate buildings in the Bronx.
“No way I could go against Dad,” Freddy had said. “It's all about Brooklyn for him. He'd never go for it.”
Now Donald looked out the window and said, “Dad's going to need somebody in Brooklyn. You should go back.”
“And do what, exactly?” Dad scoffed.
“I don't know. Whatever you used to do.”
“I had your job.”
In the uncomfortable silence, Donald looked at his watch. “My driver's waiting downstairs. Get this to Dad by four o'clock, okay?”
After Donald left, Dad sat on the couch next to me and lit a cigarette. “So, kiddo,” he said, “want to take a ride to Brooklyn?”
When we visited the office, Dad made the rounds on his way to Amy Luerssen, my grandfather's secretary and gatekeeper (and also
my godmother), whose desk stood right outside of her boss's door. Aunt Amy clearly adored the man she called “my Freddy.”
My grandfather's private office was a square room with low lighting, its walls covered with plaques and framed certificates, a lot of wooden busts of Indian chiefs in full headdress scattered about. I sat behind his desk and chose from what seemed an endless supply of blue Flair markers and the same thick pads of cheap scratch paper he had at the House, writing notes and drawing until it was time to go to lunch. When I was left alone, I spun wildly in his chair.
My grandfather always took us to eat at Gargiulo's, a formal restaurant with crisp cloth napkins and tablecloths where he went almost every day. The deferential waiters knew him, always called him “Mr. Trump,” pulled out his chair, and generally fussed over him throughout the meal. It was better when Aunt Amy or somebody else from the office joined us because it took the pressure off Dad; he and my grandfather had little left to say to each other. It didn't happen often that Donald was at the office at the same time we were, but it was much worse when we crossed paths. He acted as though he owned the place, which my grandfather seemed not only to encourage but to enjoy. My grandfather was transformed in Donald's presence.
In 1973, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sued Donald and my grandfather for violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to
, as my grandfather put it. It was one of the largest federal housing discrimination suits ever brought, and the notorious attorney Roy Cohn offered to help. Donald and Cohn had crossed paths at Le Club, a swanky members-only restaurant and disco on East 55th Street that was frequented by Vanderbilts and Kennedys, an array of international celebrities, and minor royalty. Cohn was more than a decade removed from his disastrous involvement in Joseph McCarthy's failed anti-Communist crusade. He'd been forced to resign from his position as the senator's chief counsel, but not until
he'd wrecked the lives and careers of dozens of men because of their alleged homosexuality and/or ties to communism.
Like many men of his vicious temperament and with his influential connections, Cohn was subject to no rules. Embraced by a certain segment of the New York elite and hired by a diverse pool of clients such as Rupert Murdoch, John Gotti, Alan Dershowitz, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Cohn entered private practice back in New York City, where he'd grown up. Over the ensuing years, he became very rich, very successful, and very powerful.
Though Cohn was flashy where Fred was conservative and loud where Fred was taciturn, the differences between them were really of degree, not kind. Cohn's cruelty and hypocrisy were more public, but Fred had, in the intimate context of his family, also mastered those arts. Fred had also primed Donald to be drawn to men such as Cohn, as he would later be drawn to authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un or anyone else, really, with a willingness to flatter and the power to enrich him.
Cohn recommended that Trump Management file a countersuit against the Justice Department for $100 million over what he alleged were the government's false and misleading statements about his clients. The maneuver was simultaneously absurd, flashy, and effective, at least in terms of the publicity it garnered; it was the first time that Donald, at twenty-seven, had landed on a newspaper's front page. And although the countersuit would be tossed out of court, Trump Management settled the case. There was no admission of wrongdoing, but they did have to change their rental practices to avoid discrimination. Even so, both Cohn and Donald considered it a win because of all the press coverage.
When Donald hitched his fortunes to the likes of Roy Cohn, the only things he had going for him were Fred's largesse and a carefully cultivated but delusional belief in his own brilliance and superiority. Ironically, the defenses he had developed as a young child to protect
himself against the indifference, fear, and neglect that had defined his early years, along with his being forced to watch the abuse of Freddy, primed him to develop what his older brother clearly lacked: the ability to be the “killer” and proxy his father required.
There's no way to know precisely when Fred started to notice Donald, but I suspect it was after he shipped his son off to military school. Donald seemed amenable to his father's exhortations to be tough, a “killer,” and he proved his worth by bragging about the random beatings he received from the upperclassmen or pretending not to care about his exile from home. Fred's growing confidence in Donald created a bond between them and an unshakable self-confidence in Donald. After all, the most important person in the family, the only one whose opinion mattered, was finally showing him favor. And unlike Freddy, the attention Donald received from his father was positive.
After college, when Donald was finally out in the world using his father's connections to make more connections and using his father's money to create his image as a burgeoning Master of the Universe, Fred knew that anything his son got credit for would redound to his own benefit. After all, if Donald was embraced as an up-and-coming dealmaker, that was entirely to the credit of Fred Trumpâeven if Fred was the only person who knew it.