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The Art of the Donald: The Trumpster Stages the Comeback of a Lifetime

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Donald Trump attends Trump International Grand Opening on May 19, 1997 in New York City. Ron Galella / Getty Images

This article was originally published in the May 1997 issue of Playboy.

Stately, plump Donald J. Trump drapes his right arm over the back of a wicker sofa, balancing his breakfast at arm’s length on a white plate. Stacked on the plate are a dozen strips of fried bacon. Just bacon. It’s part of this diet. The greatest diet. All protein. The best. He reaches with his left hand across his body to the plate, picks off a stiff piece with two famously stubby fingers, steers it to his famously curled lips and chomps off the end.

In a sense this is the anti-Marla diet, in that Donald’s famously young and flamboyantly blonde second wife disdains red meat and has been known to drop sprout-like foods on his plate (which he promptly passes to whomever sits nearby—"What the fuck is this? Want it?“). The Trumpster has lost 20 pounds on his diet, by his own large reckoning.

He is still pudgy. His brown belt bites gently into soft flesh under a white polo shirt and white pants. His square pink face is widening bottomward like a baobab, slackening from chin to sternum, easing into Churchillian jowls. Blond eyebrows spray up on the famous low brow, over small pale-blue eyes. The famous world-by-a-string smirking playboy face has gained gravitas. Last June, the Donald turned 50. Wunderkind no more.

Still, there is much to celebrate. Six years back Trump was a black hole of collapsed speculation, by his own estimate $900 million in debt. It was, befitting his obsession with being biggest and best, a downfall worthy of cosmological metaphor, positively Saganesque. Trump was the symbol of the free-borrowing Reagan era left for tabloid feed, beset by harpy bankers, divorcing and mired in gossip, a bloated carcass on the shoulder of America’s celebrity interstate.

That was then. Check again. Forbes recently low-balled his worth at $450 million. While he is not yet the colossus of Manhattan he seemed to be in his heyday, he is certainly no longer "the poorest guy in the world,” which is how he described himself six years ago. It takes, one casino analyst estimates, about $1 million a month to support his lifestyle. He can afford it. He takes in about $1.2 billion a year from his casinos alone. Donald insists he’s doing better today than he ever has, which is what he always says. Except now there’s hard evidence. He was insulted by the Forbes estimate, which placed him near the bottom of that magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, behind Robert Petersen, publisher of Hot Rod magazine. Phoning from a red-velvet seat in his black Boeing 727, he defiantly highballed back a net worth of $2 billion, complaining, “I’ve got $450 million in stock market assets alone!”

He suffers skeptics. Few have ever been able to see the same Trump in full raiment that he sees in the mirror. He’s back building in New York and throwing his weight around Atlantic City. He has casinos, beauty pageants, office towers, condos, country clubs, mansions. He’s building the world’s biggest yacht to replace the one he had to sell. He’s exploring markets in Moscow. Even in his tin cup days, Trump never slipped from the lap of Manhattan luxury, and his Barnumesque sense of showmanship (and humor) is intact. His public image is still a cartoon, with his inveterate boasting, kamikaze candor and defiant ostentation—"People say the Eighties are dead, all the luxury, the extravagance. I say ‘What?’ Am I supposed to change my taste because it’s a new decade? That’s bullshit.“

Still, the decade has altered him. Maybe it was the near bankruptcy, the loss of several close friends in a helicopter crash or the years of brutal press. Maybe it is his marriage to Marla, or the sobering landmark of 50 years. But Trump has changed. His bombast now comes with a growl. He knows he can fail, but he also knows it won’t kill him, which emboldens a man. His trials have encouraged a sad, sometimes morbid, strain. "When I was 38, it was all going to last forever,” he says wistfully.

On the occasion of that big, round birthday number, that midlife passage, Maria threw a party at Trump Tower, a large party with 400 very close friends. There were strawberries and champagne for everyone, and there was a statue of Trump fashioned out of sugar, showing him dressed like Superman (with a dollar sign on his chest). Eartha Kitt sang Happy Birthday as 600 golden balloons descended. Golden-locked two-year-old Tiffany Trump attempted a song and dance, cute as cute can be. It was swell. The power years. At 50 the man still has the will and damn sure knows the way. A little sunny and a little sad. Full bloom of life…

“I hate being 50. It’s really a fucking disaster.”

“How do you mean?”

“A disaster. Guy calls me. Haven’t seen him for years. He stops by my office. This is a guy, this guy, he had the women lined up. I mean, lined up. Nobody had women like this guy. I haven’t seen him in about 20 years. He shows up in my office and he’s this big, fat, bald guy. I didn’t say this to him, but I’m thinking, Holy shit, what the fuck happened to you? You know? Then it occurs to me. He’s looking across the desk at me, probably thinking the same damn thing.”

Another chomp of bacon. Donald is putting on a show, a command performance in his weekend whites with a blue Trump Tower cap pulled down low on his forehead. He’s enjoying himself. The wicker sofa is on the great curving back patio of Mar-a-Lago, his Italianate castle in Palm Beach. Moorish-patterned tile stretches up 20 feet behind him. He’s looking out over a patio, lush gardens, muscular art deco sculpture, the pool, a nine-hole chipping golf course, acres of swaying palms ($300 each, an unbelievable deal!) and, in the distance, the choppy purple waters of Lake Worth. From the house’s central tower one can look out over the orange Spanish-die roof east across the front yard to the Atlantic, and west to the lake. Hence the name Mar-a-Lago, or “Sea-to-Lake.” Donald and Maria and Tiffany stay in one wing; the rest is now a high-priced club and spa. He is directing dozens of renovations at once, big and small. His estate manager is here, along with several other members of the Florida staff, this writer and Maria, the drape lady. This morning Donald is choosing ballroom drapes. Maria has lots of samples at her feet and on her lap. Twenty-one flavors of gold. She knows she’s in the ballpark and she’s looking for a little guidance here—Trump is notoriously fussy—but he isn’t being too helpful.

“They released the Valujet tape,” he says. “Did you hear it? The cockpit tape? You don’t want to hear it. Is that a fucking nightmare, or what? Smoke filled the cockpit so bad the pilots had to get out. Can you imagine being a passenger on that plane? You’re out of control, and you look up and the pilots come running out of the cockpit. No fucking hope. You got about 30 seconds before you hit.”

Maria the drape lady has gone pale.

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Trump poses in his Trump Tower office on a giant letter ’T’ on May 1996 Timothy A. Clary / Getty Images

“And you’re going down in the Everglades, in the swamp, so if the crash doesn’t kill you—I got these Seminole Indian guys, friends of mine, great guys, you should meet these guys, the plane went down just a few miles from their reservation. They tell me they’ve got the world’s fucking hungriest gators in this swamp—so if you’re lucky enough to be alive after you hit, the fucking gators are coming after you. And if the gators miss you, the moccas—that’s what they call water moccasins; you guys ain’t from New York, we got our own machas up there—will get you. And these fucking things are vicious. They bite you and in two minutes you’re completely paralyzed and in three minutes you’re dead. Can you fucking imagine this?”

Donald takes another chomp of bacon. Maria and the others are stuck in awful reverie, the smoke, the dropping plane, the crash, the water, the mud, the gators, the moccas.

“But, on a more pleasant topic,” says Donald, not missing a beat, “the ballroom. Maria,” He gestures to the men around him. “This woman, she’s the best, the best! Does all my drapes. All of them. She’s a genius.” Maria blushes.

“I want it really rich, Maria. Rich, rich, elegant, incredible.”

He’s up now, moving again, plate in hand. The men rise. Maria is still seated plaintively with her samples.

“Really rich,” Donald says, looking back over his shoulder. “Don’t disappoint me, Maria.”

Performance is all with Trump. Fantasy is his business, no less than it was with Walt Disney, and he expects his hired help to deliver. The drapes must be incredible. His is a magic kingdom of perfect luxury, a life without stain, without wear and tear, without malfunction, mistake or delay. Perfect ease surrounded by brilliant people and beautiful things, a life without failure, distraction or care. Trump’s own life sets the standard and is meant to be seen. Being seen is key. This is more than mere showing off. Like Disney’s, Trump’s is an inclusive fantasy. It’s what endears him to his public, despite his excesses. When he bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985, he noticed that Marjorie Merriweather Post, who built the house to host fabulous flapper-era parties, had constructed a berm out where the front yard abuts Route A1A. That way, the view from the house looked right over the busy highway. One saw only ocean and sand. Donald ordered the berm lowered. If the road could not be seen from the house, then the house could not be seen from the road. Trump does not buy one of the most fabulous houses in North America to have people drive past without noticing it. Exhibitionism is part of the fantasy. He wants others to watch, to dream and to spend, from the little old ladies who yank his slot machines and scream when he walks across the casino floor to the Palm Beach climbers who shell out $100,000 to join Mar-a-Lago and stand in line at receptions to shake Donald’s hand.

For a while the fantasy fell apart. The clock tolled midnight on the Eighties and—poof!—Trump’s carriage and horses turned into pumpkin and mice. His wealth, his marriage and his image crumbled. He has his own version of what happened and why down pat. It was his fault:

“I got a little too complacent. I definitely blame myself for it. I came out of Wharton and it was, like, boom! Fifteen years of unbroken success. One thing after another. And I got to thinking, This is easy. I got complacent. I just didn’t work like I used to work.”

And it wasn’t:

“I relied too much on guys who were supposed to be experts. You can have a guy with degrees from Harvard and Wharton, who’s amazingly knowledgeable and smart, who knocks your socks off with credentials, know what I mean? And if he doesn’t have touch, you’re screwed. I was turning over too much of my business to guys like that. I figured, Why should I do everything? Let those guys handle it. But you have to have touch. It’s like Jack Nicklaus and putting. It’s something you’re born with. I’m convinced of that.”

The real story is more complex. It was partly Trump’s fault, partly not. He may have been the loudest, but he certainly wasn’t the only builder and real estate speculator leveraged out the eyeballs in the Eighties. His string of early successes intoxicated bankers. He signed his name and money poured his way—$400 million for the Plaza Hotel, $365 million to buy Eastern Airline’s troubled Northeast shuttle service, $63 million for the Atlantis casino. His name was magic. Trump never intended to repay all this money by the formal terms of the loans. The game was to refinance strategically, keep dozens of balls in the air at once. Trump turned borrowing from Peter to pay Paul into an art form—the art of the deal. He took the sturdy station wagon of a fortune his father, Fred, gave him and drove it off like a fancy sports car, selling bankers and politicians on his dreams. From the start it was about fantasy, about bathrooms with marble walls and gold fixtures, about glass towers the color of gold, having the largest living room in the world, the coolest helicopter, the biggest yacht. People loved it. They paid more for Trump’s condos and hotel rooms, and they flocked to his casinos. Trump’s empire wasn’t built on sand, it was built on fantasy.

Trump wasn’t out on a ledge alone. His bankers were handcuffed to the legend they helped create.

Then the rules changed. Donald blames a lot of things for the collapse. There was “the stupid 1986 tax act,” which limited depreciation. Real estate losses could no longer be offset to the same extent by increased earnings, which drove investors away and popped the inflated Manhattan real estate market like a balloon. Liquidity dried up. Anyone heavily leveraged was doomed. Trump says the act “destroyed the economy, destroyed the banks.” Matters worsened in the wake of the savings and loan scandal, when the feds tightened lending practices. Then the junk bond market, one of Trump’s favorite sources of cash, collapsed. “Boom! The curtain came down,” Trump says. “I don’t care how great you are, when you’re bucking a three-year depression, you’re going to have a tough time.”

Behind the scenes in 1990, bankers were clamoring for interest payments Donald could no longer afford. Out front, he was still the great and powerful Oz, still boasting of his deal-making genius and continuing triumphs. His second book was a best-seller, he was planning to build the world’s biggest yacht and the world’s tallest building and was about to open the world’s biggest gaming palace. But the curtain was pulled back when The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Atlantic City reporter, David Johnston, got hold of confidential financial statements Trump had filed with Atlantic City’s Casino Control Commission in 1990. According to news reports, the financial analysis showed that Trump’s holdings were worth only half of what he said, which meant, given all the money he owed, he was on a high ledge.

“Actually, it was worse than that,” says Stephen Bollenbach, the graybearded wizard of corporate salvage who boarded the sinking USS Trump in 1990 at the insistence of Donald’s lenders. “Donald was broke. He was worse than broke. He was losing money every day, and he was already hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The truth was, he had been only a kind of paper millionaire to begin with. He owed lots more than he had, and he was getting poorer every day.”

Trump was on a ledge, but he wasn’t out there alone. Bollenbach’s key insight was that Trump’s bankers and investors were handcuffed to the legend they had helped create.

“Ironically, the fact that he was so overextended worked to his benefit when the real estate market collapsed,” says Bollenbach. “He already had his financing. They were stuck with him.”

The break in Trump’s free fall came when he started calling his creditors’ bluffs. Bollenbach remembers an $800,000 quarterly insurance premium for the Trump Princess. Trump was personally indebted $115 million to a Boston bank for the yacht. He assumed if he failed to make the insurance payment, the bank would seize the boat. Bollenbach argued that the yacht was worth a lot more to the bank as the Trump Princess than as just another 282-foot yacht with its own laser-lit disco and 13-nozzle shower carved in onyx. Who besides Trump would want or could afford such a thing? Since the bank effectively owned most of the yacht anyway, who would get hurt worse if it sank?

Bollenbach sent the bank a note “as a courtesy,” he says, explaining that Trump, as a cost-cutting measure, would not be making the insurance payment. When he got the bank’s response, Bollenbach strode down the hall to Donald’s 26th-floor Trump Tower office and announced, “They made the payment.”

“I can’t believe it!” said Donald.

Here was the principle that would save Trump. The anchor of debt around his neck was heavy enough to sink a few banks if he went down. The banks knew it, and now Donald did, too. He still had many hard decisions to make. Bollenbach would corner him in his office with ultimatums.

Once you have enough to eat and live, money is about ego.

Donald Trump

“It was like, 'You can have A, B or C. You pick,”’ he recalls. “Even months after I arrived, I think Donald believed he might be able to keep everything, that the world would get better if he only had more time. But after a couple of months of my beating on him, he realized the game was over. It got so bad that one day, when we were all boarding his helicopter for a trip to Atlantic City, the airlift facility refused to fuel the helicopter. One of the guys took out his own Mobil card and charged $2000 worth of gas.”

Donald has said, “Once you have enough to eat and live, money is about ego.” To survive, he had to let others manage his affairs, which was humbling enough. Harder still was giving up the fantasy, having to lose his public trophies. The toughest decision, Bollenbach says, was giving up the Plaza Hotel, a symbol of Manhattan luxury. Donald could see it fronting on Central Park from the window of his Fifth Avenue office. He would point to it from behind his desk when showing off for visitors. Part of him would always be the kid from Queens making good in Manhattan, and the Plaza was a tangible reminder of his success. It had to go.

The strategy was to dismantle the empire built on fantasy and rebuild it on sand, specifically Atlantic City sand. Methodically he sold off costly assets—the Trump Shuttle, the Plaza, his Connecticut mansion, the Trump Princess, the Grand Hyatt (his first big success)—in return for equity in the casinos, the Trump Castle, Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal. Donald and Bollenbach (who left Trump in 1992) were betting that Atlantic City would save him. And they were right.

If there was a precise moment when Trump’s comeback was complete, it was on September 30, 1996, when stockholders of his publicly traded company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, agreed to buy the Castle—the laggard of his three Atlantic City holdings—for $485.7 million. That meant stockholders assumed a $354.8 million debt and directly paid Trump $130 million in stock and $885,000 in cash. He remains chairman of the company and owns 25 percent of its stock. He had successfully shucked the last vestige of his crushing debt. He was back.

Now even his most stubborn critics had to admit the Trumpster had done it.

“He was able to persuade bondholders to let him off the hook,” says Marvin Roffman, a casino analyst who was fired (under pressure from Trump) from Janney Montgomery Scott in 1990 for refusing to apologize for a report critical of Trump. “His turnabout is a classic. It ought to go, if it isn’t there already, into a Harvard Business School textbook. It is the biggest comeback I’ve ever seen. Donald Trump, financially speaking, has come back from the dead.”

Donald says, “It was a good experience for me. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, but I wouldn’t want to live through it again. The success I’m having now is more satisfying because I have more respect for success. Before, it was like everything just happened. I never missed. Now I realize it’s not that easy.”

Satisfaction oozes from Donald these days. This fortune is solid. You can measure it daily by checking the value of his stocks. He has proved he’s no fluke. Having survived one turn of fortune’s wheel, Donald has a more tempered view of his wealth. “Money makes life easier, but it doesn’t make you happy,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy. I’d say I’m content.”

Money makes life easier, but it doesn’t make you happy. I wouldn’t say I’m happy.

Donald Trump

Newly returned from the dead, the Donald is haunted by images of falling planes. The idea of a plunge into a carnivorous Everglades is especially harrowing to a man who spends so much time in the air. On a recent trip to Moscow, where gambling has become even more of a national pastime—"Moscow is going to be huge, take it from the Trumpster!“—he and Maria and entourage were reduced to flying on commercial airlines.

"We had to wait about an hour in London for a flight, right out there with all the other passengers,” says Marla, making a face. “Well, you can imagine how that went over with Donald.”

Convenience is the big reason Donald keeps his own jet fueled and ready, as is ego (there is that giant T painted on the tail). But he also does it out of an obsessive concern for safety. This is a man who hates to shake hands for fear of contracting a virus (though he can hardly avoid it and manfully endures dozens of handshakes every day, leaning forward with his fingers held together stiffly and pointing slightly downward, as if to spear the offending hand).

The night before at La Guardia Airport he had thrust his hand to guests aboard his 727 for the flight south. To board the jet is to step into the fantasy. Its spotless interior has plush carpets and two groupings of four big bucket chairs with beige leather upholstery around exotic-wood coffee tables buffed to a high gloss. The golden clasps of its seat belts shine like new money. Beyond the second table is a bedroom with a double bed, and past that is the red-velvet furniture arrangement, sofa and chairs, that is the Trumps’ flying living room.

Marla and Tiffany follow Donald up the plane’s back stairs. Marla is reedthin, her frame that of a tall teenage boy, and wearing a short gray wool skirt over black tights. She’s carrying a big Gap bag and another with carryout food for everyone. Little Tiffany’s bright blonde locks fall halfway down the back of her plaid jumper. She runs and chatters happily, at home.

Donald announces he’s too tired for an interview. “I hate them anyway,” he says. So Donald opens a cabinet with dozens of selections, and after some deliberation picks Pulp Fiction. He presses a button that lowers a screen at midplane, then he loosens his tie and settles in for the two-hour flight. Marla is annoyed. She had forcefully urged a tape more suitable for Tiffany, something in the Muppets vein. At the sound of the first “motherfucker” in the opening scene, Marla moves to the front of the plane, where she sits with Tiffany on a couch and opens a big picture book.

Trump sits only for the first half hour—"Great writing. This is great writing, isn’t it?“ he asks—and then drifts up to sit with Marla and Tiffany, and to chat with pilot Mike Donovan and his crew in the cockpit. When dance music starts up in the film, he boogies down the aisle and briefly resumes his seat, admiring Uma Thurman, whose face fills the screen—"In real life she’s got to be amazing, this chick. You can tell. Amazing.” As the plane begins its descent into Palm Beach, Trump holds forth on the art of the perfect landing:

“You get these guys, these fucking idiots, who drop the plane halfway down the runway and then run the engines in reverse to slow the plane. Tears the hell out of an airplane. I go to American Airlines and I ask, 'Who’s your best pilot?’ They tell me, 'You’re not going to want to pay this guy. He makes a lot of money.’ I ask, 'How much money?’ They say, ’$125,000.’ Oh, wow. I offer him $160,000. I pay lawyers five times that much, and all they do is protect me from lawsuits. I’m trusting this guy with my fucking life. He puts the engine down on the front of the runway so you can glide on in, not this reversing-the-engines shit.”

In real life she’s got to be amazing, this chick. You can tell. Amazing.

Donald Trump, referring to actress Uma Thurman

Never mind that air-traffic controllers have more say than pilots about where planes touch down on runways at busy airports, or that pilots don’t reverse the engines to help slow the plane; they merely reverse the airflow, thereby reducing their reliance on the brakes, which can tear the hell out of a plane.

Much was made of Trump’s iron whim, his sometimes ill-informed don’t-bother-me-with-the-details management style, by Jack O'Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza who left Trump’s employ in 1990 and then trashed him in a book (Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise & Spectacular Fall). The book is a classic midlevel manager’s lament over an employer who wants results, not excuses. He does catch Trump at his petulant worst, demanding that employees be fired for problems beyond their control, issuing contradictory commands, insisting on the impossible. O'Donnell neglects to explain, however, how Trump’s seemingly hopeless leadership somehow manages to succeed. Bollenbach says he found Donald’s famously short attention span and penchant for storytelling annoying at first. There were times he wanted to shake him by the shoulders, make him focus. But he discovered that beneath Donald’s distracted exterior is a hard business mind—"I realized that when he didn’t want to discuss something, it was because he’d already made up his mind.“ Donald is not one to talk something through, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking. Even his worst critics admit that his casinos are consistent moneymakers, that his towers rent space well over the rate of comparable properties, that Mar-a-Lago’s renovation is a triumph and … damn it, his pilot does guide the big black bird down through treacherous crosswinds and sets it on the runway with barely a bump.

"Nobody has had worse things written about them than me,” Trump says. “And here I am. The stuff O'Donnell wrote about me is probably true. The guy’s a fucking loser. A fucking loser. I brought the guy in to work for me; it turns out he didn’t know that much about what he was doing. I think I met the guy two or three times total. And this guy goes off and writes a book about me, like he knows me! I understand it. He needs the money, so he uses my name to sell some books. But it must have been a lousy book because it didn’t sell any copies.”

Donald has discovered what all celebrities eventually find. If you’re doing well, there’s nothing written about you that can hurt you. And if you’re doing poorly, there’s nothing written about you that can help.

He has often identified his special gift as deal making, but his real talent is something else. If you watch him in action, what you see is a man willing a fantasy into being. He wants to live on a mountaintop of perfection, where everything around him is miraculously neat, clean, new and in its place—he was voted “most tidy” by his military school classmates.

Trump polices the fantasy rigorously. Whether in his Manhattan office, in Atlantic City or, this weekend, in Palm Beach, he remains in constant motion, throwing his frenetic energy in ten, 15, 20 different directions, keeping an amazing number of balls in the air. He wants the shields in the towering foyer regilded, the rug on the north wing’s back stairs replaced, the bright-red-leaved plants in the patio’s lush gardens removed—"I don’t like them"—and the new golden rug in the men’s locker-room at the spa replaced (“What kind of fucking idiot puts a living room rug in a locker room with showers and saunas going all the time?”). He notices that the brass panel on the kitchen door is smudged: “Polish this, Tony. Today.” When the lord of the manor is home, Mar-a-Lago’s staff scurry like they expect, at any moment, to be slapped on the back of the head.

Whether in his Manhattan office, in Atlantic City or in Palm Beach, he remains in constant motion, throwing his frenetic energy in ten, 15, 20 different directions.

The Donald had his tile man—a genius! the best!—come out just a few weeks ago to lay smooth, rust-colored slate on the platforms between the burgundy clay tennis courts. It looks a lot nicer than plain concrete. Handsome stone water coolers stand at one end of the platforms, and there’s enough room under a yellow-striped umbrella for four chairs and a small table. Except, today, smack in the middle of each platform there’s this … this thing … this little metal box about two feet high and a foot wide with wires and tubes sticking out of it, right where the table is supposed to go. Inspecting the courts with his tennis pro, Anthony Boulle, Donald probes the ugly box first with his foot.

“What’s this?” he asks, like a man with a turd on his dinner plate.

Boulle explains that it’s the chiller for the water cooler, that he tried to tell the plumber that Mr. Trump wasn’t going to be happy, but the guy said…

Donald kicks the thing. It doesn’t budge so he bends over, pissed royally now, and gives the thing a hard shove. It flops over. Water from the ruptured main begins to spout two, three, four feet high, rapidly soaking and then puddling on the carefully combed courts. The Donald, muttering angrily, skips out of the spray and strides off, stepping around the widening pool.

When giving tours of Mar-a-Lago, which is what one mostly does with a mansion that has 118 rooms and dazzling curiosities in almost every one, it’s not enough to say that this is one of the most opulent homes in North America. Donald must gild even gold leaf. He’ll point to the whimsical cartoon castle spun into the rug in the sunny bedroom originally designed for Post’s daughter Dina Merrill (now, on infrequent visits, it serves teenage Ivanka Trump) and tell guests that the rug was designed by Walt Disney when he was just 18 years old and that the castle eventually became the prototype for the Magic Kingdom itself. Never mind that Disney was 26 years old and already running a successful animation studio in Los Angeles when Mar-a-Lago was built. The tower bedroom is where “Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie decided to get married,” except, according to the staff, the “lovebirds” stayed at opposite ends of the estate.

Even the spectacular is not good enough for Trump. He wants what he asked for from Maria the drape lady. He wants incredible. The downside of demanding perfection, of course, is living with constant disappointment. It explains Donald’s restless soul.

One of the things he can’t police, and that most frustrates him, is his image. He’s tired of being seen as a lightweight, a man of vulgar tastes with a big wallet and a big mouth, a gold-plated con artist. He sees himself as a creative man with an unerring, innate sense of style, a trait he feels has been overlooked.

“You know what the thing is that really bugs me?” he says, retreating to the grand chamber of Mar-a-Lago’s dining room. “I get all this credit for being a great promoter and not enough credit for being a great builder. Look at the Trump Tower, all the attention that’s been given to that building.” (Indeed, Trump posted the raves of architecture critics on the wall in the lobby, the way theaters do off-Broadway.) “Or look at 40 Wall Street, one of the most beautiful buildings in New York. I took the middle out of that place and rebuilt it and made it gorgeous. People are always saying that my success comes from being a great promoter, but I’m a lousy promoter. I don’t like doing interviews like this. I hate them. The success of my buildings has nothing to do with promotion. They succeed because they are great buildings. The reason I get more per square foot in my buildings is because I build better buildings. You can’t fool people. You can make them come and see, but you can’t make them stay and buy. I’m dealing with intelligent people who can afford to pay $5 million, $6 million for a condo.”

For all his love of beautiful things and his creative soul, money is Donald’s bottom line.

“Hey, come over here,” he says, pointing to an impressionist painting. This is a Renoir, one of a series the French master did in the 1880s of young women reading. These are some of the most treasured of Renoir’s works. This one shows two lovely young girls, one wearing a black dress and clutching a red corsage, the other with a long pony-tail tied with a ribbon, her back to the viewer.

Donald doesn’t call his guest over to point out the luminous brush strokes and surprising use of color. He points to the signature in the lower right corner.

“Check this out,” he says, and notes the painting’s market value, which is about $10 million.

Luxury has always been about subtly advertising you have money. With Trump there is no subtlety. It’s just literal. It’s about money.

Thomas Hine

The kind of painter he can appreciate, one who truly sees Trump the way he sees himself in the mirror, is West Palm Beach artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, whose Sun God portrait of Donald hangs in the library at Mar-a-Lago. Cowan’s portrait depicts a wide-shouldered, thin-hipped Donald, his youthful face eclipsing the sun itself, his skin glowing like the top floors of Trump Tower at sunset, the color of warm bullion.

“Luxury has always been about subtly advertising you have money,” says Thomas Hine, the author of two books of design criticism, Populuxe and The Total Package. “With Trump there is no subtlety. It’s just literal. It’s about money. His buildings, with all the polished brass and gold reflective glass, actually look like money.”

Or banks. Nothing better defines the Trump look than marble. He buys it by the quarry. In another century, the scarcity of marble and the fact that it could be used only in thick blocks made it a symbol of wealth and permanence. That’s why marble was long the favored material for temples and banks. But in recent years stonecutting technology has enabled marble to be cut in sheets just inches thick. So a marble surface now costs a fraction of what it once did. It still delivers the same emotional message of solidity and permanence, but it’s just a veneer. Because air pollution and acid rain eat away at it, marble is too vulnerable to cover large exteriors, which is why it now is used primarily indoors. Many consider it the perfect symbol for Donald Trump—a rich surface only inches thick and deceptively fragile.

This is what we thought we had discovered about Donald, anyway. The millions were just numbers. The genius was all con. The marriage with Ivana was for show. But this remade Trump has a sturdier weight and feel. This new fortune is solid. It took real business acumen to come back this far. And the new marriage? Well, despite its tabloid start, this union with Marla has some of the scratchy texture of truth.

“I like her with a little more meat on her bones than this,” he says, slipping an arm around his young wife’s slender hips. “She plumped up a little when she had Tiffany. That was nice.”

“I felt sloppy,” Marla says. “I couldn’t wait to get rid of those pounds. I didn’t feel like me.”

“You looked better.”

“You just like girls to look like the ones in Playboy. Why don’t you buy it?”

Donald looks at her quizzically.

“Well, you bought the Miss Universe pageant. Playboy would be right up your alley.”

There is a hint of reproach in her tone that Donald ignores. But when Marla starts talking about how terrified she was waiting to appear onstage the night she debuted in The Will Rogers Follies, he beams with pride. He says, “Being in that show, stepping out on that stage with every critic in New York watching, hoping and waiting for her to fail … I mean, that took balls.”

Marla says she works at her relationship with Donald’s three children by Ivana—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric. Fourteen-year-old Ivanka has a busy modeling career, and Donny, 19, is in college. Eric, 13, sometimes visits Mar-a-Lago with his friends. He likes to race his four-wheeler around the estate. Marla copes creatively with the stresses of managing a combined family. When she wanted an oil portrait of Ivana and the children removed from the library, Donald balked. So she secretly hired Cowan to prepare an idealized portrait of the four smiling Trump children, with Ivanka holding baby Tiffany, and presented it to Donald on his 50th birthday. The old painting was replaced.

Trump is not a religious man, not in the traditional sense nor in Marla’s New Age manner. Still, she pesters him to go with her to church on Sundays.

“I don’t want to go to that hillbilly church you go to,” he tells her. “If I’m going, I want to go to a church where somebody knows me.”

What purpose if one is not seen to worship?

“Tony,” he asks his butler, “what’s that church?”

“St. Andrew’s, sir.”

“Who does Donald know at St. Andrew’s?” Marla asks.

“God,” says Tony.

And the Donald laughs all the way up the stairs.

“We have to work at our relationship just like anyone else,” says Marla. At the age of 33 she says she feels the first nudges of midlife pressures. Enough, anyway, to identify with her husband’s ambivalence about turning 50.

“Donald is doing well with it,” she says. “This comeback was a really great thing for him. It feeds his ego, which is important. Otherwise you start feeling your best years are behind you. Now when I pick up the paper and I read about all these buildings he’s buying, and listen to him talking about his plans for more and more, it’s exciting.”

Late Sunday afternoon, after hours of patroling his estate, asking questions, demanding changes, Donald wanders up to Marla on the patio by the pool. He puts his arm around her waist and she rests her head on his shoulder.

Trump has been up and down, and now he’s up again. He has seen his strong father addled with Alzheimer’s. He wonders out loud about the apparent senselessness of life. But he is content.

“Turning 50 does make you think about mortality, or immortality, or whatever,” he says. “It does hit you. It’s definitely the big turn in the race, more than the halfway point. It stinks. I hate being 50. But when you look at it another way, it’s a great age to be. You’re still healthy. You still have your energy and vitality, and you have all this experience. For business it’s like the best age because of that. I’d rather have innate ability than experience any day, but at 50 you can have both.”

Still, despite the changes in Donald, his basic nature is intact. The truth about a man is always reflected in his tennis game. Until a few years ago, Trump played the game the way you would expect: He tried to hit winners every time. Two or three points out of ten, he looked terrific, screaming forehand passing shots, blistering backhand crosscourts. But against a consistent opponent he didn’t have a prayer.

“Last year I got him to change his game,” says Boulle, his tennis pro. “We host some pro-am tournaments, and Donald wanted to play at a higher level, so he listened and wised up, and he started playing a whole lot better. He learned to back off his strokes and play for more consistency. He became a good tennis player.” Then he gave it up.

“I don’t have the patience for it,” he says. “When I changed my game, I lost interest. I like trying to hit winners all the time. I liked it better that way.”

He’s back on his plane, on the way back to New York from Palm Beach, talking about a lot of things. He likes Bill Clinton, another precocious 50-year-old. Trump, a Republican, identifies with the way the president has coped with “personal issues.” He says that he was never serious, “even for a minute,” about running for president himself. He wonders if his celebrity today is as big as it was back when people talked about that.

“Do you think?” he asks.

He loves watching Michael Jordan play basketball—another example of true genius. He was really spooked by the movie Ransom. And, at the end of a long weekend, he is feeling a little sheepish about having kicked over the chiller and flooding his tennis courts.

“That’s gonna look great in your article,” he says. “But can you believe how stupid that is? The stupidity of some people. It’s important for me to make a show. I could just stand there and say, 'You know, I don’t like the way this looks. We ought to do this another way.’ Maybe that’s what I should do. But I’m not sure anything would get done that way. This way, everybody gets the message.”

He plows through a foot-tall stack of paperwork he has put off over the weekend, signing his name big in a tall, thin vertical script with a black marker, then dumping the pages he’s finished into a heap on the rug. He lets Tiffany climb up on his lap.

“How much do you love Daddy?” he asks. She opens her baby arms wide.

“Only that much?”

Tiffany strains to open her arms wider than they reach.

The Donald folds himself around her and laughs.

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