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Smoke & Mirrors: Sixteen Views of Trump’s Glittering Fifth Avenue Dream

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It’s spring, 1983. My Californian family is on a trip “back East,” a place still exotic to us. During a few days in New York — my first trip here — we visit the United Nations, Windows on the World, the Met. And we visit the partly opened Trump Tower, where we pay homage, as so many tourists did that year, to the sixty-foot waterfall, the marble atrium (described, over the years, as salmon, rose, or peach, but never pink), the brass TRUMP TOWER over the door (I’m sure I thought it was gold), and to Donald J. Trump himself.

We weren’t alone — “Tourists flock to 68 stories of elegance,” the Los Angeles Times, our hometown paper, reported later that year (breathlessly, and incorrectly: While Trump has always maintained the building has a 68-story height, it has only 58 floors). It seems astonishing that my parents, for whom “gauche” and “gaudy” were favorite disapprobations; who lived surrounded, but unimpressed, by wealth in Los Angeles; whose travel with us was usually geared toward exposing us to American history, would want to see such a place.

Clearly, to them, it was a piece of history. But of what kind? Were we marveling in the court of the Sun King, or gawking at his bad taste? I’m not sure it mattered to him. He had learned how to command our attention — with hyperbole, excess, gloss and shine (“we demolished a mountain of marble,” his wife, at the time, said) — and he never lost it. “My projects now sort of self-promote,” he told Graydon Carter, in an encounter better remembered for Carter’s light demolishment of his small hands. In the end Trump, diminutive hands and all, “self-promoted” his way to the presidency.

Like many megalomaniacs, he saw himself as an artist, with real estate as his medium. The power was nothing, he said in a 60 Minutes profile in 1985. It was the “creative process” he loved. In the twelve-hour documentary Trump: Made by America that will one day be crafted, the building of Trump Tower will be a pivot, like O.J. Simpson’s time at the University of Southern California.

With Trump Tower, Donald Trump realized what he could be, what people would let him be, what people wanted him to be. It is astonishing how many times he — a brash young developer with a few buildings to his name and the sulky mien of a teenager — was asked, in those years, whether he thought about running for president.

Is it uniquely American to believe that if one excels — or manages to convince people he excels — in one area, he is graced with the genius to excel in every other? By the fall of 1984, with Trump Tower open only a year, Trump was announcing to the Washington Post his desire to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms:

“‘Some people have an ability to negotiate,’ he says. ‘It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t….It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate.’”

Or doesn’t this, from the New York Times in 1983, sound like his presidency, with all its unfilled positions? “At Trump headquarters on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower astride Fifth Avenue, he opened the door of a room furnished with a vast table. ‘This was supposed to be a board room but what was the sense when there’s only one member,’ said Donald Trump. ‘We changed it to a conference room.’”

Twenty years later, when it came time to film The Apprentice, a boardroom set — a facsimile — was built in Trump Tower.

Trump Tower should have dispatched his father complex, his hunger not just to impress, but to outdo, his old man. (“Everything he touches seems to turn to gold,” the Trump Organization website modestly quotes Fred Trump saying about his son, a hilariously literal, and possibly tongue-in-cheek, statement.) But such complexes are never dispatched. Trump’s hunger — for approval, for celebrity, for public embrace — has no end.

Trump didn’t make Manhattan safe for the wealthy — they were already there — but he made it hospitable for the crass: the kleptocrats and oligarchs and criminals who eventually found their way to Trump Tower and buildings like it. From the start, Trump sold his Tower as a residence for a new generation of Astors and Whitneys. The reality, as the Voice’s Wayne Barrett wrote, was that Trump Tower’s first residents were as likely to be Medicaid cheats and mobsters. He anticipated so much of what Manhattan would become: the ostentation and phallic reach, concentrated along 57th Street; the leveraging of public money for private gain; the barely occupied pieds-à-terre and tax havens for wealthy foreigners.

The 1980s, when Trump built his Tower, planted his flag in Atlantic City, and bought the Plaza, turned out to be the apex of his career as a developer: Peak Trump. The milestones of his subsequent real estate career were golf courses and bankruptcies. Not only did I never visit Trump Tower during close to twenty years of living in New York, I never once thought about it, not even when I walked by.

None of that mattered. The myth was impermeable by then, the long con well under way. The dazzle of Trump Tower — the dazzle of publicity around Trump Tower — obscured everything afterward.

I met Trump once, although “met” may not be the correct word. It was the summer of 2001, six weeks before the September attacks. I was at a party in Jane Rosenthal’s apartment in the Dakota (I was there as a reporter, I should say, not a guest). The penthouse was packed with the famous and wealthy — Oscar de la Renta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Weinstein — who had come to hear former president Bill Clinton speak about the International AIDS Trust. Donald Trump was there too, and he and Clinton greeted each other like the friends they were then. Trump invited Clinton to come golf at one of his courses, and Trump turned to me, whom he took for Clinton’s lackey, to take down his phone number.

It’s a reminder how cozy Trump once was with the Manhattan liberal elite. It was his celebrity — the myth cemented by Trump Tower — that had granted him access.

Looking back, it’s not the relationship between Clinton and Trump that interests me, but the relationship between the Dakota and Trump Tower. The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, sits diagonally across the park from Trump Tower, and is its antithesis. Built a full century earlier, it bespeaks class, elegance, exclusivity. It’s a National Historic Landmark whose architects also designed the Plaza Hotel, which Trump so coveted. The Dakota to Trump Tower is East Egg to West Egg, old money to new. Trump Tower is Gatsby’s mansion: “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of ivy, and a marble swimming pool….”

The Manhattan represented by the Dakota would never have been open to him, just as East Egg was closed to Gatsby. The Dakota is a co-op, where someone like Trump would run a high risk of rejection, if he would even agree to open his finances to what he once called “the scrutiny of a bunch of prying strangers.” (We taxpayers, asking for his tax returns: We also are a bunch of prying strangers.)

Trump had to create his own world — a building tall enough to look across the park and down on the Dakota, one whose lavishness would make up for its lack of history. Amid the financial euphoria of the 1980s instead of the 1920s, this is what he did. Most residents of the Dakota would likely never want to live amongst his marble and gold in the “Louis XIV style,” but bigger and more expensive was all he had.

The only thing that separated Gatsby from his mansion was death. Only the presidency extracted Trump from his Tower. In the weeks after his victory, it was almost as if he didn’t want to leave.

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