Act II, Scene I: Manhattan Unbound
“Life, how and what is it?” the poet wrote.
Donald was young, rich… and most of all free. What’s more, all of New York was at his feet.
And what a time it was. The city was bristling with energy in the early ’70s, coming alive after a decade of decline.
Donald was digging it all. He was a denizen of New York’s fast-paced night life, rubbing shoulders with the rich, powerful and famous.
There was Warhol, Mick and Bianca, Cher, Elton, Bowie, John and Yoko, George Harrison, Jack Nicolson… the list went on.
It was a decadent decade, post birth control pill and pre-AIDS. It was a golden age of excess; almost anything went, including wild hedonism. And the tales were lurid.
Roman Polanski was on the run after having sex with a 13-year-old at Nicholson’s Hollywood home. Mamas and Papas star John Phillips was having incestuous sex with daughter Mackenzie.
Donald was hanging with a fast crowd that included financier and later convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein and his sometime girlfriend and procurer Ghislaine Maxwell. What do you think he was doing?
Did he have forced sex with a 13-year-old at Epstein’s posh Manhattan penthouse, as one lawsuit claimed? Who’s to say, given the tenor of the times.
Later, Donald would joke with Howard Stern that dodging venereal disease was his Vietnam.
Nothing blunted his business career. In 1973, Donald launch his own company, The Trump Organization, with his eye squarely on Manhattan.
His father staked him with a $14 million loan.
The same year, he met Roy Cohn, who would become his consiglieri.
Cohn, synonymous with the rise of McCarthyism and its dark political arts in the 1950s, knew how to work the corridors of power.
They were a perfect fit; a wily, menacing lawyer, who adversaries called pure evil.
“Cohn, with his bravado, reckless opportunism, legal pyrotechnics, and serial fabrication, became a fitting mentor for the young real-estate scion,” according to a Vanity Fair profile.
Cohn had handled the government’s discrimination lawsuit against Trump Management, and oversaw its scorched-earth legal tactics.
Trump lost his moral compass when he fell under Cohn’s influence, author Sam Roberts told the magazine.
Fred made sure he’d never be out of a work, out of a job, or out of money. Cohn made sure Donald stayed out of legal trouble.
Donald was set, except for one thing.
He was a rich nobody. Nothing could be worse for a narcissist in a sea of narcissism that was 1970s New York.
Donald was hell bent on building something far bigger, far more important than apartment buildings–his myth.
And, it would be epic.
Fred had lived a nondescript life, building nondescript housing projects. But Donald wanted something “grander, more glamorous, and more exciting,” according to his book “Art of the Deal.”
“I had loftier dreams and visions, and there was no way to implement them building housing in the outer boroughs.”
He tapped the same zeal his father had used to elbow his way into the real estate business, and focused on a signature project–himself.
In 1978, the family made its first foray into Manhattan real estate–the renovation of the derelict Commodore Hotel, adjacent to Grand Central Terminal.
Fred made it happen. He arranged a $400 million city property-tax abatement, the largest in state history.
But judging from the tabloids, it was all Donald, the rising real estate mogul with the golden touch.
Donald was finally getting publicity.
He played the tabloids, perfectly. Before long, he was on a first-name basis with Cindy Adams, the queen of New York City gossip columnists.
She loved him! He was always good for a quote. Donald was in the room, and he could dish!
The old Commodore had opened with great fanfare, rechristened as the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
But his next project truly announced his arrival–Trump Tower on storied Fifth Avenue, home to New York’s old money elite.
Trump got off on the wrong foot right off the bat. To clear the block for construction, he destroyed historically important friezes on the Art Deco Bonwit Teller building.
The New York Times condemned Trump’s actions as “esthetic vandalism.”
Vilified in the headlines—and by New York’s chattering class—Trump’s response, according to Vanity Fair, was pure Cohn–and pure Trump. He was crass and unrepentant.
“Who cares?” he said. “Let’s say that I had given that junk to the Met. They would have just put them in their basement.”
To build the project, Cohn set him up with mobbed-up concrete firms controlled by mafia chieftains Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and Paul Castellano.
Concrete was more expensive in New York City than anywhere else in the the country, which raised construction costs. But Cohn convinced him it was good business to do business with the mob.
Trump Tower would become the first pre-stressed concrete skyscraper in Manhattan, built without steel girders. Trump Plaza followed.
(When Salerno was eventually charged with racketeering, he hired Cohn as his lawyer.)
During construction, he underpaid or ripped off sub-contractors and became ensnarled in some of the 4,000 legal actions that would tally up against his company.
Trump Tower was tall at 58 stories, it was gaudy and it was out of character with the Avenue’s historic architecture. It was all black glass and brass, and critics hated it.
New York magazine said at the time Trump Tower had “legitimized a pushy kid nobody took seriously.”
Trump Tower was a signature property. He couldn’t be ignored. More importantly, it was a statement.
Trump had arrived–on Fifth Avenue no less.
Barbara Res, a longtime executive in Trump’s real estate company, watched as Trump shrouded his life in more lies, exaggerations and secrecy.
He surrounded himself with yes-men, blamed others for his own failures, never took responsibility and always stole credit, she recalled in her book.
Trump lied “so naturally” that “if you didn’t know the actual facts, he could slip something past you.”
In 1982, he cajoled his way onto Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. He claimed a $200 million fortune (equal to half a billion in today’s dollars). It was mostly his father’s money. Donald’ share was about $5 million.
While Trump Tower symbolized the myth, another project was more reflective of the ruinous businessman Trump would become.
In 1988, Trump bought the Plaza Hotel, an iconic symbol of old-money New York. He borrowed $425 million and refurbished it into a condo/hotel.
The project went into bankruptcy two years later. Trump reorganized. But within five years, he was out of the project.
He lost the property, but not before off-loading $300 million in debt on Citibank and investors from Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
It was a pattern Donald, the man, would repeat over and over again, most spectacularly in Atlantic City.
The seaside resort had legalized gambling in 1977. It was a shit show from the beginning, infiltrated by the mafia and ripe for someone like Donald.
His casinos marked the high–and the low–point of his real estate empire.
To break into the market, he sold long-depressed seaside resort a fantasy. To get city tax abatements, he pledged to build scores of low and moderate income houses to replace the city’s slums. It was even written into the deal.
He was taking huge risks on the flagging city. But he was Donald Trump.
His first project, Harrah’s at Trump Plaza hotel and casino, was a distressed property when he bought it in 1984.
So was Trump Castle. He picked up the unfinished building from the Hilton Corp. for $320 million.
He had no qualms about doing business with mobsters in New York, and he courted the New Jersey mob as well to smooth the way for his Atlantic City properties.
They were part of a retinue of labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained to head his personal helicopter service, according to journalist Wayne Barrett, who wrote the seminal Trump biography, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.”
Casinos, by their nature, are huge cash machines. Trump milked his to fund a monumental spending spree.
He bought, Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, in 1985.
In a five-year span, he bought an airline, Trump Shuttle, a superyacht, the Trump Princess, a knock-off football team, The New Jersey Generals, “The Miss Universe” pageant and set up Trump Model Management.
But his third casino proved to be his undoing. He’d bought the Trump Taj Mahal in 1988.
The deal was leveraged to the hilt with $675 million in junk bonds. Trump spent profligately to finish it.
Construction topped out at $1.1 billion.
By then, his casinos, zapped of cashflow by his profligate spending, were throwing off huge losses. Trump started stiffing his lenders.
In an effort to bail out his son, Fred Trump walked into a casino one night and bought $3.5 million in chips just to help him meet a debt payment. It wasn’t enough.
The project was in bankruptcy a year later.
In all, his over-leveraged hotel and casino businesses filed bankruptcy six times between 1991 and 2009.
The financial collapse stripped away his casino properties and many of his other holdings. But his banks had deemed him too big to fail.
He not only escaped personal bankruptcy, but he also collected a $450,000 monthly fee to help unravel the mess he’d made.
His bond holders, subcontractors and other investors weren’t so lucky. They were on the hook for billions of dollars in debt. The myth had sold them out.
Of course, none of the promised housing projects were ever built.
During the ’80s, Trump had borrowed an estimated $4 billion from 70 U.S. banks. After the casino fiasco, not one would touch him.
Trump, the man, was ruined.
But miraculously, he’d salvaged Trump, the myth.
And, the myth was about to salvage him.